For a publisher wanting to produce a book for e-readers, the production challenges are considerably more complex than for print. A familiar landscape easily navigated by experienced staff has become an unstable terrain guarded by new gatekeepers, and nobody has a reliable map. (Part 2 of Ebook (un)availability.)

Print production standards

Consider the print book: it comes in many sizes (and sometimes shapes), on a variety of papers, with monochrome or colour ink, bound in cloth, paper, papercase, and so on. Generally these physical factors are chosen to suit the content and the market (the readers), and the publisher’s budget, and are also influenced by physical constraints: what papers are available, what size book the printing and binding machines can cope with, and so on. In traditional publishing, many production decisions are made in consultation with the printer, including the specifications of the digital file. To produce a book that can be sold and used around the world, a publisher only has to produce a single PDF that meets the standard set by the local printer. Printers’ requirements do vary, and while there are industry standards such as the use of crop marks in offset printing, actual standards such as the size of the offset varies. In general, the production decisions are made once (or maybe again on reprint or re-issue), and are generally independent of where the book will be sold and used. Bookshops and libraries take all sorts of print books; a book isn’t rejected because the paper is only 80 gsm not 90 gsm, or it’s a fraction wider than most of the other books in the shop.

Lack of standards, of course, is why there is such wonderful variety in print books; it also allows printers to accommodate unusual production requirements to gain a publisher’s business. A printer commissioned to print 20,000 copies of a book does not care if the book sells out or is pulped; the production side is completely separate from the sales and distribution side of the print book business.

Ebook standards

By contrast, a publisher must know in advance where an ebook is likely to be distributed, which digital format(s) are needed, and to which standard(s). The biggest change, perhaps, is that many of the production requirements are now being set by the distributors: Amazon, Apple, Ingram Digital,, and so on. Whether the distributors are wholesale (eg Ingram Digital) or retail (eg Amazon), they have a vested interest in the technical quality of the digital book and its suitability for their platform. That means that they can and do reject publishers’ files.

So it is not enough any more to produce a single digital file that a single printer is happy with. Even if the publisher has moved to a print-on-demand model, the file must meet the print-on-demand specifications. Now a publisher needs to produce multiple digital files, one for each and every ebook distributor, or risk losing the ability to sell through these new channels. Unfortunately there are still different standards even for the two main formats, PDF and ePub. A casual read through any of the ebook production forums online shows that the technical and production communities at the forefront of ebooks are still struggling with validation, standards, testing and so on. Moreover, some distributors are not interested in common standards.

Implications for production processes – and people

The implications of this new world for publishers, and their production teams, are significant. There are two main challenges: digitising the publishing “backlist” (books already published) and changing production processes to produce the “forward list” (books yet to be published).

Backlist digitisation

Many publishers have been working on backlist digitisation for years. However, most concentrated on converting to PDF ebooks, being the format the main ebook distributors were demanding. The conversion was generally set up as a side project and often outsourced to the vast ebook conversion industry that has sprung up over the last 10 years. As a result, most books now exist as PDFs, even if they are only sitting in publishers’ archives.

Very few publishers digitised the backlist as XML; the ePub revolution currently taking place has taken many by surprise. Of course, the ebook conversion industry will now convert PDF to ePub for publishers, but it will take time for this to happen, assuming publishers are willing (and able) to meet this extra expense. Most publishers are even less ready for the newer trend to produce a book as a stand-alone software “app”.

Frontlist digitisation

At some point, publishers must decide to stop producing books using their traditional processes, and begin producing the forward list in the new formats. This will involve a combination of:

  • re-engineering production processes;
  • re-training staff in new production methods;
  • laying off some production staff;
  • hiring new staff, particularly from IT rather than publishing backgrounds;
  • outsourcing some or all book production;
  • changes in organisational culture;
  • capital investment or additional software leases; and
  • changes in business models and revenue projections.

These processes are not easy, painless or quick. Some publishers are simply not equipped for these challenges, in the obvious areas of knowledge, capital, business structure and so on, but also emotionally. Like all businesses, publishing is made up of people, but unlike other businesses, it is made up of “book people” who are in the industry for the love of books, the love of information, the love of spreading knowledge, stories and culture. (Librarians and booksellers are similarly motivated and have more in common with publishing people than they care to admit.) Very few are in it for money or a stellar corporate career; yes, publishing companies want profits, and everyone wants a best-seller, but few publishing people are actually motivated by greed. While support staff in big publishing companies – accountants, human resources, marketing & sales, and IT – may be professionals who move among industries, generally the people involved in book selection and production – publishers, editors, designers – are “book people” through and through. Small publishers tend to just be book people, doing the support roles themselves or with contractors. That means that sometimes publishers are not good business decision-makers (beyond which books to publish). Some will not want to sack their entire book production team and hire techies instead, preferring to slowly re-train the staff they know and trust. Some will continue to put the print production process first and retrofit the digital books as an afterthought, if at all. Some will embrace the digital world enthusiastically, but will lack the resources or expertise to manage the change effectively.

Eventually the industry will settle again, and ebook production will be integral to all book publishing, possibly in ways we haven’t even thought of yet. For the publishers who are the casualties in this process, it will be up to Google Books, Project Gutenberg, and other digitisation projects to bring their books to readers.

All this will take time; it will be many years before you can count on any particular book being readily available as an ebook. But it will happen.

© 2010 Linda Kythe Nix. All rights reserved.

A version of this article appeared in the March 2011 issue of the IBPA Independent magazine (member only access).