Lara Smith gave a captivating and hugely informative presentation about ebooks at Wednesday’s EAC-BC meeting. Having gone to Greg Ioannou’s conference talk about e-publishing, I wondered if there’d be a lot of overlap in the content of the two talks. There wasn’t—and after the meeting BC Branch Chair Peter Moskos suggested to me that Lara probably had enough material to fill a full seminar.

Ebooks are often thought to be electronic versions of print books, Lara began, but many titles today are just born digital. Ebooks come in two main formats: PDF and EPUB. The ebook PDFs aren’t just your regular PDFs—they’re Universal PDFs, which are optimized for screen viewing. Chapters are bookmarked, the table of contents is linked, URLs are live, and the files include some metadata.

In the early days of ebooks, there were many different ebook formats; every e-reader developer wanted to create a device with a proprietary format, which led to a very fractured market. The International Digital Publishing Forum set out a standard known as EPUB—a set of rules that everyone could follow to build an ebook. All devices now have the capacity to read EPUB files. We’re not sure what the future will be for EPUB, though, because device manufacturers still like to add on proprietary bells and whistles to their EPUB files.

EPUBs can have fixed layouts or be flowable. Fixed-layout EPUBs look a bit like PDFs, but they have a lot more capability behind the scenes (e.g., accessibility features like text to speech). They’re much more complicated to create. EPUBs are good for visual books, such as coffee-table books or cookbooks, but they’re really meant to be read on a tablet device. Lara demonstrated how impractical it is to read a fixed-layout EPUB on a smartphone.

By contrast, flowable EPUBs can be read on a phone—not to mention e-readers and browsers—since the type can be enlarged as needed. Flowable EPUBs make up the bulk of the ebooks out there.

An EPUB, Lara explained, is really just a ZIP file. Change the epub extension to zip, and you can decompress the folder to see what’s inside. There may be a folder for images, and the text is broken up into chapters, each an HTML file. There’s a style sheet that controls how the tagged text looks to the human reader. She’s found the best strategy to ensure that the ebook looks good on all devices is to keep styling to a minimum. “We’re not trying to replicate the print book,” she said. “We really have to reconceptulaize it. We can’t control type in the same way.”

Lara works mostly with books that are destined for both print and digital, so she exports from InDesign. But she notes that you can build an EPUB from scratch in a text editor, and there’s conversion software that will transform Word files into EPUBs (although they don’t look very good). The simpler your original files, she said, the better it will look. (For example, never justify your text; on many devices, the text will look hideous and gappy.)

When publishers convert books to EPUBs, they have the option of using a conversion service, which is inexpensive and may be appropriate for converting large numbers of files (e.g., the publisher’s backlist), but the results can look pretty rough. Another option is in-house conversion, which allows for more control over quality, style, and timelines but requires an investment into a dedicated individual or team of people who must learn how to use the software and prepare the files for the market. Editors working with individual authors to create single ebooks may be able to dedicate more resources to fine-tune the EPUBs themselves to specific devices and take full advantage of enhancements like audio and video.

Lara also mentioned vendor conversion tools, including iBooks Author, Kindle Direct Publishing, and Kobo Writing Life, which are free tools to use but restrict you to selling within those particular streams, and DIY options (what she referred to as “device-agnostic options”), such as Smashwords, PressBooks by WordPress, and Vook, which charge for creating the ebooks, whether through an upfront fee or through royalties. She noted that all of these options have a learning curve and a real cost.

Once you’ve got your ebook made, you then have to sell it. How are people going to find it? The answer is metadata—information attached to your book including title, author, publisher, ISBN, price, description, author bio, reviews, etc.—that will populate distributors’ and retailers’ databases. Metadata is key to discoverability.

Lara then moved on to the contentious issue of digital rights management (DRM), which puts a lock on EPUBs file and prevents copying, editing, and reselling but also limits legitimate sharing of books and device switching. It pits readers’ freedoms against authors’ and publishers’ right to profit. The debate seems to be heading in two directions: digital media may be licensed to readers (where they can read but don’t actually own the book), or publishers may decide not to use DRM at all. (O’Reilly Media, in fact, has declared that it won’t be using DRM on any of its books.)

Another issue facing publishers is that EPUBs have the capability to incorporate a variety of assistive technologies, such as text to speech, alternative text, phonetic text, media overlays, dyslexic reading aids, conversion to braille, etc., and international accessibility organizations are pushing publishers to include all of these features. Of course, for the publisher, doing so means a lot more investment into editorial and production resources.

Lara was careful to note the distinction between apps and ebooks. Apps are self-contained applications, and they can be interactive and include all sorts of multimedia features. There are book apps—kids’ books work really well as apps, because they don’t have a lot of content but can support a lot of interactivity. Apps take more development than an ebook, and you need to involve a programmer.

So what are the editorial concerns surrounding e-publishing? First, the publisher must have the digital rights—including for the images that are to appear in the book. Next, the publisher should look at the content and figure out the best way to present the book (fixed or flowable) and decide whether to add enhancements.

Challenges for ebook publishers are elements like sidebars, which you want to place at section or chapter breaks so that they don’t interrupt the flow of the text. Lara noted that ebooks are read in a linear way; it becomes tedious to have to skip over what could turn into pages of sidebar content to get back to the main text, especially if you’re reading on a small screen. Footnotes are also a problem, because the foot of a page is no longer well defined. Indexes are similarly challenging. (See my summary of Jan Wright’s discussion of ebook indexes from this past spring’s ISC conference.)

On the flip side are the many advantages that ebooks offer. For example, endnotes can be linked, as can in-text references. Photo sections can go anywhere within the book, not necessarily just between printed signatures. You can make URLs in the book (and the references, especially) live, and you can add audio or video enhancements. Finally, there are no page limits, and you can really play around with the concept of what a book is. Lara warns, however, that the more fun stuff you put in, the greater the risk that something will break, and broken links or videos, for example, can frustrate readers.

Lara’s talk was phenomenal. I learned a huge amount, though I will probably eventually have to resign myself to the fact that she knows more about e-publishing than I ever will.

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