Why Can’t an E-book Be More Like a Book?

E-book design is becoming the elephant in the room, the subject nobody in publishing wants to discuss. Can it be improved?
March 17, 2011 - PRLog -- To preserve the atmospheric quality of this illustration from Sensual Massage Made Simple, Gordon Inkeles reports, “We balanced contrast and exposure levels one photo at a time.”

by Gordon Inkeles

The e-book has transformed publishing for publishers, authors, and readers. Fifteen years ago, as the author of a popular line of books on massage technique, I felt overwhelmed by intermediaries—agents, packagers, publishers, lawyers, buyers—all of whom managed to extract a fee for inserting themselves between my reader and me. Now, as the publisher of Arcata Arts, I realize that there is no reason to cut the pie in so many pieces.

As a publisher, I appreciate the simplicity of the e-book publication process, which eliminates a different group of costly intermediaries. Apart from Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, Sony, and the other e-book retailers, no shippers, fulfillment houses, wholesalers, or consolidators come between our customers and us. And the e-book is perfectible: if I find an error, I don’t have to hope a new printing will be justified so I can correct it.

As a reader, I’m attracted to the e-book’s ease of use, portability, and lower cost.

But e-books have shortcomings, too. A large part of the love readers feel for paper books comes from the way a book looks. In the mad rush to move every conceivable title into e-book formats, publishers are blithely trampling on one of the essential qualities that that makes owning a book worthwhile: The book itself should be beautiful.

Yes, electronic publishing dispenses with shipping, fulfillment, warehousing, and other traditional publishing jobs. But it requires a new kind of book designer, one who is comfortable with platform-specific design and able to keep up with a field that can change radically in a matter of weeks.

Make No Monstrosities

E-book design is becoming the elephant in the room, the subject nobody discusses. In the rush to market, illustrated books that were painstakingly designed page by page are mass scanned and, without  editorial review of any kind, simply called good and published. Yes, all the text is there—somewhere—but what about the weird hyphenation and sudden text breaks that litter the screen, and the strange typos that abound? Art and photos are rendered in tiny smudged images or as gigantic, illegible blobs. Essential diagrams are uncoupled from the text they illustrate or simply shoveled into an incoherent pile at the end of the book.

The first cars were powered by sputtering, kerosene-burning steam engines that teetered on the edge of a violent explosion. Mass-scanned e-books are the steam cars of our time. Every one of these monstrosities will need to be rebuilt page by page to survive.

Publishers must find a way for the visual art of the book to survive e-book technology. We simply can’t afford to destroy a book’s design for the sake of portability. That means taking more time with each title, especially if illustrations, photos, or diagrams are involved; and it also means that an e-book–savvy designer is essential, since the same variable font capabilities that bring the author and reader closer make the page an obsolete concept.

The transition to e-books for the Arcata Arts line of illustrated massage books has required a lot of innovation, learning, and hard work to protect what we see as essential formatting features.

How We Handle E-Design

Our first e-book, The Art of Sensual Massage, was an older title with a two-column, photo-heavy layout that we’ve updated several times. It’s a beginner’s guide to massage and owes much of its success to an easy-to-use format.

The first question became: What happens to this friendly format in an e-book? The Art of Sensual Massage couldn’t suddenly become hard to use.

So we went through it page by page and photo by photo, tying text to relevant photos and making certain each photo displayed properly. Amazon.com provides an invaluable service that the other e-book retailers don’t: a page-by-page preview that shows exactly what readers will see on any Kindle-enabled screen. By the time we got to The New Sensual Massage, a more complex book, we were ready for the challenge of a three-column layout with captioned graphics—some in color—and sidebars. Happily, the Apple iBookstore gave us a way to display full-color photos for iPad, iPhone, and computer readers.

To maintain the integrity of our e-books, we decided to associate blocks of text with appropriate illustrations, a time-consuming and expensive process, but essential. Our books are not mass scanned. We set the page breaks and control hyphenation.

To prevent our large, beautiful photos from being difficult to see on an e-book screen, we enhanced each one so it would expand, sometimes to fill the whole screen, just as it fills a page in our paper edition.

We further controlled many essential page breaks to associate photos and text. And we hand-checked all scanned text from our older, film-based books to eliminate typos.

Finally, we created separate files for Amazon.com and for booksellers using the ePub format with Digital Rights Management (DRM) copy protection, which includes Sony, Barnesandnoble.com, Borders, Google, and Apple. We explain all this to our prospective customers and hope that they will see it as added value.

Obviously, all this is extra work, but we feel that we owe our readers the best possible aesthetic experience when they bring up one of our titles on a screen. And I believe attention to e-book design may offer an unexpected opportunity for small publishers. Houses with thousands of titles will mass scan to “keep costs down”; publishers with small lists can take the time to do it right and will be able to offer much higher quality e-books.

Eying the E-Future

As the e-book market continues to expand, two developments could burst the bubble.

First, as Joe Esposito suggested in “Our Platform Wars Problem” (July 2010), publishers could be casualties in a price war among mammoth companies that marks books down in order to sell e-readers. Eventually, e-readers themselves could drop in price the way calculators did, making the software—books—more valuable than the hardware—readers.

Arcata Arts decided to hold retail pricing at $9.95, about 50 percent of our retail price for traditional books and a sort of rough standard among various e-book sites. We’ve chosen the smallest of Amazon.com’s royalty rates, 35 percent, which permits us, and not Amazon, to set the list price of our books, the price on which our royalties are calculated.

The bubble might also burst if DRM protection were to fail as catastrophically as it did in the music business. Enforcement is up to Amazon.com and the DRM-protected ePub retailers, and they certainly have the clout—and motivation—to shut down piracy. I note with cautious optimism that even Apple, which broke the dam on DRM-free music, offers publishers DRM-protected e-books.

At this point, we clearly haven’t begun to see where the e-book will take the book, or the publishing industry. But we’re putting our money on a quality product, even if it takes more time and energy to produce. We love paper books, and we want to be able to love our e-books too.

Gordon Inkeles wrote and photographed books for Rolling Stone, G.P. Putnam, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, Bantam, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins. In 1998, as publisher of Arcata Arts in Bayside, CA, he moved from labor to management. The ensuing 12 years as publisher have been the most rewarding in his writing career. Contact him at arcata@me.com.

This article was originally published in the March 2011 IBPA INDEPENDENT (http://www.ibpa-online.org/membersarea/shownews.aspx?id=3087)

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Publishers of the million-seller The Art of Sensual Massage, the world's best selling massage book. Our line of massage books and videos featuring easy-to-learn techniques make the perfect romantic gifts. Learn to give pleasure with your hands!
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