Digital publishing should put design above file conversion

Joshua Tallent says it's time for ebook design to get the same attention as print design.

Digital publishing formats and processes seem to change daily, and keeping up with the times can be a logistical nightmare for publishers and ebook staffs. What are the best design tools? Which formats should be used? How do you meet current digital demand while building for the future?

Joshua Tallent (@ebookarchitects), owner of eBook Architects and a speaker at TOC 2011, makes sense of the confusion and frustration surrounding digital publishing.

Our interview follows.

How do you see digital book conversion changing in the near future?

Joshua TallentJoshua Tallent: To me, the big deal is that the conversion process is going to morph from conversion to design. We’ve been stuck on this idea that we have to get books developed and out in the market right now. We’re trying to get thousands of backlist titles produced, and the quality has suffered.

What’s happening, at least on a small level, is that conversion companies and publishers are starting to see that it’s not the conversion that matters, it’s the design. Ebook design requires the same quality and care that you see in print book design. I hope that’s the direction we’re headed.

How will a focus on ebook development affect different types of publishers?

Joshua Tallent: I see the cost of development, and even some of the requirements for development, going up. That’s something that a larger publisher could probably absorb better than a smaller company.

When it comes to independent authors, many think they can take a Word document and turn it into an ebook. That’s fine if you want a very basic book, and you can probably do it yourself. But things are getting more intense, and we have more functionality. If you want to include audio and video, you have to get into the code and know what you’re doing. That creates a higher barrier to entry. As that barrier goes up, self-published authors will have a harder time competing with the big publishers.

Across the board, we’re going to need more qualified developers. That’s where the big questions emerge: Who do you hire? Do you convert your book design staff into ebook developers? Do you find web developers who can be trained to create ebooks?

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Do you see the use of proprietary file formats increasing or decreasing?

Joshua Tallent: I see it becoming more solidified. Businesses look out for themselves before looking out for the community.

Let’s take a backwards view and ask what would have happened if Sony, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo and all of the other major retailers — except for Amazon — had worked out a single and usable system for DRM, for formatting, and for ebook layout. If they had done that, Amazon would be number three or four in the industry right now.

I firmly believe that a consistent EPUB system would be beneficial to consumers, and consumers would see that. The problem is publishers and booksellers haven’t done that. Barnes & Noble has their own flavor of the Adobe DRM. Adobe has updated the DRM and said anybody can use it, but Sony didn’t do that. The Sony version of the DRM doesn’t interoperate correctly with the Nook. So, you can now buy an EPUB file from the Barnes & Noble store and not necessarily be able to read that on your Sony device. These companies aren’t going to let that go. They don’t want Adobe getting their hands into the mix and taking $0.20 per book download or something along those lines. They want to control that DRM themselves.

I would be surprised if more than a couple of big retailers are actually working on an interoperable business plan. Google has done that a little bit with Google eBookstore. They say you can take all of their books and put them on any of these different devices, including the Nook and the Sony Reader — and that’s good. But, then again, I’m not convinced that Google is going to be as successful in the ebook retailing world as some people project. I think customers are more likely to go to Amazon.

Is there a “best” software choice for developing digital book files?

Joshua Tallent: It really depends on your workflow. If you’re using Quark and your goal is to outsource to a third-party company and have them do the work, send them a PDF, and keep using Quark. If it’s going to take a lot of extra money and training for you to get your people switched over to InDesign, and you don’t intend to create your own EPUB files in-house, then there’s no real value in going to InDesign. However, if your plan in the next year is to produce your own EPUBs with an XML-based workflow, then you should make the switch to InDesign.

As far as developing a foundational EPUB file, InDesign is a better tool. Quark doesn’t seem to be moving toward an EPUB output. But even InDesign is not that good when it comes to EPUB: the InDesign EPUB export is really just the Dreamweaver HTML export packaged up as an EPUB file. It’s got some glaring issues.

Specifically, I would love to see InDesign’s EPUB export rewritten from the ground up so that the InDesign Markup Language (IDML) would convert to the XHTML used in EPUB, instead of relying on their current HTML output system.

What are the biggest conversion frustrations publishers currently face?

Joshua Tallent: Quality is the biggest issue I’ve seen. A lot of publishers are starting to see that the mass conversion route isn’t the best approach. In response, publishers are hiring people who can proof their ebooks, look through the converted files, make change lists, and then send those back to the conversion houses for corrections. That’s a good step for publishers who are using outside resources.

A constantly changing and morphing market is another frustration for publishers. Companies that have been doing things consistently for 100 years are suddenly forced to deal with digital development and design components that change every month. Now, they have to set up workflows that work both in the present and down the road. That’s a whole different model than what they’re used to.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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