Preparing eBooks

Anyone who tells you that making an ebook from a print book is “simple” is probably trying to sell you something. This is especially true for nonfiction books like the ones we produce. In working towards our launch of ebooks this week, we have learned a lot and experienced more than a little pain in the learning.

When ebooks moved past the Palm Pilot stage of reading and companies like Sony and Amazon began selling dedicated reading devices, we watched what happened with great interest. A lot of publishers shipped PDF copies of their books, or the pre-press files they had created for printing, to 3rd-party vendors for conversion. Those conversion houses mostly operated from low labor-cost countries and also relied heavily on automated conversion tools.

The results were not good. Early novels-as-ebooks were riddled with errors. Either a PDF file failed to convert perfectly, or typographic marks in the pre-press file showed up as some mixture of weird characters and words run-together or oddly broken. Tables, lists, and other layouts which were not pure text became jumbled messes. It was clear, there was not a “quick-and-cheap” solution.

Preparing Self-Counsel Books

We worked with a U.K. company, EasyPress Technologies, which has people in New York and Toronto, to solve the conversion problems we knew we would face with our books. Our books have lots of tables, bulleted and numbered lists, and other elements in the design which you do not find in a simple work of fiction. Some months were invested in testing and learning. Staff needed to become familiar with the inner workings of ebook files, and to understand how things could go wrong. A dedicated style sheet (to define the kind of page layout we needed) was developed, tested, and adjusted until we were comfortable with it. We found it necessary to test on multiple devices, from iPads to iPods; smaller monochrome readers like the Kobo and Sony; and commonly used desktop applications on Windows and Macintosh OS X. Something that worked well on one of those did not always work well, if at all, on another.

Our editors needed to revisit each book, identifying elements which did not make sense in a digital version. One such example: references to “the enclosed CD-ROM” clearly had to change. Another change had to do with forms: a lot of our printed books use a large page format to allow the display of legal and business forms as examples. We quickly realized there is no simple way to do this in an ebook: I might be reading the book on a large screen like that of the iPad; you might be reading it on your iPhone’s very small screen. The page is obviously also different when you rotate the device from portrait to landscape mode, or change the size of the display font.

We solved the forms and CD-ROM issues, and I will describe how in another post this week.

Another issue was, what exactly should go in the front of the book? Traditional print books often have multiple pages of content between the front cover and the first page of book content: legal and copyright notices, print and edition histories, a long table of contents, and more. In online discussions with other publishers, passionate readers, and experienced book designers last year, I came to agree with the great majority of those people that most of that material is better placed at the end of an ebook. Reader software automatically picks up the table of contents and makes it available via a button no matter where you are in the book. The rest of the material is either of little relevance (print history), or an obstruction to reading the book itself (acknowledgments, for example).

Just converting from print to ebook without dealing with all of the above and more was not realistic.


The ebook business is driven by technology companies: Amazon, Apple, B&N, Kobo, and Sony all market dedicated reading hardware and software. Each is itself a major online retailer. Each would like to achieve some degree of “customer lock-in” by making their devices and software a little bit different. There are currently five different ebook formats in use!

Some years ago, publishers and software developers from around the world got together and hammered out a public “standard” for ebook software, EPUB. The idea was to avoid the “format wars” which erupted in the early years of the digital music business and the web browser business, among others. Sadly, that has not worked as well as it might have.

Amazon had no interest in the EPUB standard. They instead acquired a French company, Mobipocket, and adopted their MOBI format (with a few adjustments) for their Kindle reader. So now there were two “standards.” You cannot read an EPUB book on a Kindle, nor can you directly read a MOBI book on an Apple i-device, a Kobo, a Sony, or a B&N Nook (you can indirectly read a MOBI book on some of those devices, via software from Amazon).

More Formats

In recent months, Amazon has launched a new tablet for ebook shopping and reading and it uses a new, third format, KF8 which is proprietary to Amazon. Apple also launched a new ebook initiative aimed at education in the broad sense of the word. The new Apple initiative introduced a fourth format, unique to Apple.

The EPUB community has been active, too, and after a lengthy consultation period announced the specifications for EPUB3, a format which allows for greater flexibility than the earlier versions of EPUB. Makers of digital reading devices have not fully implemented EPUB3 as I write this, but I expect to see it working on major reading devices within months.

Our Response

For our initial round of ebooks, we are staying with the EPUB2.1 and MOBI formats, because ebooks using these can be read on the widest variety of reading hardware and software. We are learning about EPUB3, KF8 and Apple’s iBook Author software, and will launch ebooks using one or more of these formats when we feel the number of potential consumers is large enough and the format is stable.

Digital Rights Management (DRM)

When ebooks first became mass-market items about 18 months ago, many large publishers followed the (terrible) example of the music business and applied digital rights management to their ebooks. DRM is a suite of software which controls how each book may be read. Typically, it “locks” the book to the reader’s reading device and personal account. Buy the book to read on your Sony Reader and you cannot read it on your iPhone or iPod, for example. Your husband, wife, or child can’t read it unless you give them your reading device and don’t read anything while they are reading the book.

The music business used DRM extensively and I believe that contributed to the rise of the infamous Napster pirate site. Music vendors like Wal-Mart and Microsoft dropped out of the business, stranding many users whose DRM-encumbered music was no longer accessible. When Steve Jobs at Apple finally persuaded the music industry to drop DRM, piracy dropped and sales went up dramatically.

Large, multinational book publishers have been using DRM for the past few years. When my personal Sony Reader died of unknown causes in 2010, I lost access to about 100 books I had purchased, and saw first-hand the problems DRM causes. I could have recovered those books by purchasing another Sony device, but why would I want to pay another $400 or more for a new copy of a device which had expired weeks after its warranty expired? The easier solution was to access the copies of the books which remained on my computer, and break the DRM code. Doing that is pretty trivial for anyone who is reasonably computer literate and looks up the instructions via a Google search.

Our decision is, we will not employ DRM locks on the ebooks we sell. We believe our customers are decent, honest people who purchase the books we produce to solve a problem or learn something they did not know. We think that those who have more than one digital reading device will appreciate the ability to have the book on each device, and not have to wrestle with DRM software, or worry that the DRM software has a hiccup and won’t let them access the book they purchased.

In my next post, I will talk a bit about our launch and the testing we are doing.


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