Do publishers think in terms of ebook conversion, or ebook production? The article explains this important distinction and its implications.

A combined version of this article and the related article on ebook conversion was published in IBPA Independent July 2011.

I was writing an article for IBPA Independent on ebook conversion, and was finding that I was struggling with the topic. It’s a subject I know quite a bit about so I was puzzled by my difficulty with it, until I realised that my problem was conceptual rather than informational. That is, I was trying to write about ebook conversion when I would much rather be writing about ebook production. So what’s the difference?

To my mind, ebook conversion takes place when you have an existing, finished book, for which all the development work – on the concept, structure, words, format and styling – is in the past, usually the fairly distant past, and those involved have all moved onto other works. Conversion is thus a process taken for backlist books where it is not feasible (or possible), with the resources available, to go through the development process again for the new formats. In these cases, the resulting ebook is usually a facsimile of the original print book, as almost no effort is put into optimising content, structure or styling for digital delivery.

Ebook production, however, takes place when a book’s ebook formats are being considered at the same time as the print formats – even if the actual formatting occurs post-print production. This distinction is not always easy to grasp: it goes beyond questions of timing and into the very processes used for book production. Ebook production should be an integral part of the publishing process for every book that is yet to be published – at acquisition, editing or even the early stages of production. Whether the publisher’s production is done in-house or outsourced, the production team should be working on the ebook formats simultaneously with print formats, and talking to the editorial or content development team about the impact of digital delivery on aspects like structure and style. If ebook formats are only an afterthought for a publisher’s production team, then that publisher needs to invest in skills training or hire a new team.

When ebook conversion makes sense

Ebook conversion may be an intelligent choice in the following scenarios:

  • Out-of-print titles for which it is no longer cost-effective to order reprints, nor realistic to produce a new edition. Ebook conversion can keep older in-demand titles “in print” at very low cost compared with reprinting. Ideally, this would be combined with a print-on-demand service for those readers who still want a paper version.
  • Older backlist titles still in print that have slow or virtually non-existent print sales. Ebook conversion may breathe new life into such titles, bringing them to new ebook reader markets and providing impetus for new marketing campaigns for the titles. Of course, additional marketing spend on top of conversion will increase costs but could boost sales of both the new ebook version and the print version.
  • If powerful back-end systems are in place for new digital content, it’s a good idea to bring backlist into the scope of those systems through conversion. This could enable leveraging of old titles through collections, anthologies and other kinds of bundling (a topic for another day).
  • As an interim measure while integrating ebook formats into production systems – for example, while sourcing a new production team or while the existing team is undergoing training. In this case, it’s a good idea to ask the conversion service to assess current print production methods too. Even ‘small’ things, such as consistently applying both paragraph and character styles, can minimise the cost of post-production conversion, while instilling best-practice techniques ahead of full ebook production systems.

Given it makes sense in some cases, a brief guide to ebook conversion – what it is and how to select a conversion service – is provided in the article ebook conversion: the basics.

Even for new books, post-production conversion may seem attractive as a quantifiable add-on cost (many service providers charge a fixed per page rate), but it usually means sacrificing both quality and control over the resulting ebook – the last thing a publisher would do for a print book. Why should production values for ebooks be of a lower standard than print books? This approach is a disservice to both the book’s author and its readers, and in the long run is a false economy. The sooner publishers start thinking in terms of ebook production, rather than ebook conversion, the better for everyone.

© Linda Kythe Nix 2011. All rights reserved.