“Why print?” was the topic of the first of the Small Publishing Network’s roadshow events, held at Berkelouw Books, Paddington, in Sydney last night. As someone with extensive experience in print and digital production, and as a new publisher starting out in the digital age, I was invited to participate on the panel. The other panellists were Sophia Whitfield of children’s book publisher New Frontiers and Alice Grundy of Seizure magazine and book publisher Giramondo. The following are my own thoughts on the topic, prepared in advance of the event and augmented in the light of some of the issues raised.

There are four very good reasons for continuing to produce books in print in the digital age: production quality; the supply chain; perceptions; and accessibility.

Production quality and the reader experience

For many types of content, print can deliver an experience that is unmatched by digital formats. Children’s books, coffee table books, beautifully produced cookbooks such as Christine Manfield’s award-winning Taste of India all present visual, aesthetic and tactile experiences that can’t be replicated digitally. But replication should not be the aim: production quality in digital content must still be held to high standards and should offer something that print does not. Digital content should be produced in ways that make it accessible and a better experience, not a worse one.

The technology: EPUBs, PDFs, apps

There was some discussion last night around “the technology” not being good enough yet for children’s books, that fixed layout EPUBs are too expensive and time-consuming to produce when there is so little support for the format. I am not sure of the point of fixed-layout EPUBs; I think it is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. A format that presents a fixed “page” layout, in which you can embed multimedia (video, audio) and interactivity, that can be read in special readers/apps or browser plug-ins on desktops, laptops, smartphones and tablets … isn’t that a PDF? Or, more to the point, isn’t that HTML 5? (EPUBs are really just packaged HTML files anyway.)

As Sophia pointed out, the alternative format for a children’s print book isn’t an ebook, it’s an app. I would argue the same goes for textbooks and travel books, that is, for any content that engages readers in non-linear, non-immersive ways. Some of these issues are eloquently explored in Nellie McKesson’s article Print is still “better”. Producing a quality app is expensive, not to mention raising all sorts of other issues (see my article Books as apps for an explanation of these).

Stability, functionality and platform variation

The issue of cost is critical to deciding whether to produce books in print or ebook or both, but not in the way that you might think. When you produce a print book, you can be confident that it will look and function much the same no matter where it is sold. To produce a PDF of that print book involves minimal extra cost, even if you produce an enhanced version with multimedia (the creation of the multimedia components will be an additional cost) and again you can be sure that the finished product will function as intended. Print is a proven technology with most design issues resolved long ago.

The same cannot be said for digital books, even produced to EPUB standard, and that is because ebook platform implementation of the standard is not uniform. Producing an EPUB involves testing the file against multiple platforms – assuming this is even possible – and if you really care about the quality of your work, producing multiple versions of that EPUB.

Let us leave aside questions of complexity, and focus on very simple books that are almost exclusively text. Even the simplest of text-only books will have some basic design elements: the use of serif and sans-serif fonts to distinguish different types of text such as headings; use of italics and bold for different types of emphasis; use of spacing and alignment. In an EPUB, as for web pages, these aspects are controlled through the stylesheet (CSS). Apple’s iBooks applies the CSS perfectly, including allowing for page-break-before properties. Few other EPUB platforms do: most ignore font embedding and other HTML 5 features, many also ignore alignment and spacing, while some even ignore serif/sans-serif distinctions and relative font-sizing (so there go your headings) and font styles such as italics. It may not be a big deal for novels, but for text that relies on layout for meaning, like poetry, it can be an issue (see the screenshots at the end of this article).

It is impossible to produce one EPUB file that works satisfactorily, let alone beautifully, on all platforms, and equally impractible, if not impossible, to test your EPUB versions on every current and future platform. In practice, the publisher that cares about production quality can produce maybe 1 or 2 EPUB versions of content: a well-designed version for iBooks and a bare-bones version for all other platforms. (Publishers that don’t care outsource conversion of PDFs instead of XML or InDesign source files. Publishers that don’t care at all don’t even check the quality of the conversion.)

Caring about quality

In short, while production quality matters, print provides better results – in the main. Print does not guarantee quality:  there are print books with spines that break, pages that tear easily or fall out, font sizes too small to read, gutters too narrow, ink that fades and lack of navigation such as no index or an inadequate index. It may be a good thing if cheap and nasty design only happens digitally and paper and ink are no longer wasted on poorly produced books.

Supply chain

The book industry, in Australia at least, still thinks in terms of print as the primary format and anything else as secondary (if it’s thought of at all).
Somewhat ironically, last night’s event was held in an independent bookstore which does not sell ebooks despite having an online shop and despite the Booki.sh program making ebook sales easy for indies under their own branding. If a publisher wants a book stocked in a bookshop, it has to be in print. Even print-on-demand books struggle to find their way onto bookshop systems and shelves.

Many book metadata systems – essential for book distribution digitally and phystically – are still set up to reference ebooks as alternative formats, alternative to a pre-existing print book. In an age when publishers are still converting back list books, such systems are essential so that the converted ebooks are not flagged as new releases, but they don’t cope well with digital-first publications and not at all with digital-only publications.

Purely digital publishers often need to bypass the whole industry system and deal exclusively with dedicated ebook platforms. Many are doing just that.

Perceptions

Publishers who want their books to be acknowledged in the cultural record cannot afford to be digital only. Legal deposit covers print only, although ebooks can be deposited on a voluntary basis. Very few reviewers accept ebooks for review. Most literary prizes require (several) print copies of a work. And authors want to see their work in print. Authors do not consider their work published until they are holding it in their hands and show a copy to their loved ones. Since they have lived with digital versions on their computers for some time, it’s quite understandable that it needs to take on another form, and it’s not as gratifying to send a link to Mum and hope she can open it, assuming she has both an email account and an e-reader device.

Accessibility

The digital age has made more content accessible to vision-impaired people and those with reading or learning disabilities, or at least in theory. Generally only publishers with an accessibility mandate (government agencies, public education providers) will produce their content in accessible formats such as tagged PDF and DAISY. Ebooks at least allow font resizing, and some ebook platforms include read-aloud functionality (but what if the publisher hasn’t included good quality alt-text with the images?).

But accessibility is a word that means many things. How accessible are your ebooks when your batteries run down? When you live in a remote area with no, or very poor, internet access? A physical book has a portability and durability that in certain situations makes it much more accessible.

A time of transition or here to stay?

I’ve been a bookworm since I was three years old and I can’t imagine a world without books. My PhD thesis was on book production in the early middle ages, and the interplay between text (the content), format (the materials) and layout (the design). Rather than being a traditionalist, that means I have a long perspective on book technology, and a fluid view on the concept of a book. I’m also a digital enthusiast and a keen embracer of technology. Almost every new book I buy is an ebook (often downloaded late at night from the comfort of my bed), but I also frequently raid my bookshelves to re-read old favourites in print. I can happily acknowledge that the experience of reading the “same” book is different in print and on screen, but I also know it’s about the content regardless of the format.

As a new publisher excited by the possibilities afforded by technology for both production and distribution, I’m committed to producing our authors’ content in digital formats. As a publisher who also wants our books reviewed, stored in libraries and available from bookshops, and who wants to keep our authors happy, I realise that this content must also appear in print.

We are using print-on-demand plus short digital print runs to satisfy immediate print requirements, to stimulate that demand and to create an enduring cultural legacy. Although I think the days of huge print runs that require massive up-front costs are disappearing – the economics are, and always have been, unsustainable, and since so many such books end up pulped, it’s an enormous waste too – print as a format is here to stay.

What I really hope is that all of the reasons for printing, outlined above, disappear so that ebooks are no longer second-class citizens in production quality, in the supply chain and in community perceptions. Eventually, questions of format must come down to intelligent, informed choices for both publishers and readers.

All EPUB platforms are not equal

Below are screenshots of the poetry book Ghost Armies viewed on three different ebook platforms, showing how the same EPUB file is rendered differently.

Two poems are shown on two "pages", with each beginning at the top of a new page.

The poem “Sydney City” displayed on iBooks – landscape view to show page-break-before attribute applied to poem titles (headings). Note also the use of indents on the previous poem “Proving ground”, serif and sans-serif fonts to distinguish poem titles from verse, spacing to indicate stanzas, and italic font styles to indicate voice, all as defined in the EPUB’s stylesheet.

The poems appear as continuous text.

“Sydney City” displayed on a browser-based ebook platform. The attribute page-break-before is ignored so that the poems are continuous. Although the headings are slightly larger in size and bold, the sans-serif instruction has been ignored. Italics and line spacing appear but indents do not.

The same poem

“Sydney City” on a popular ebook app. All formatting has disappeared, so that it’s impossible to distinguish verses and voice. Only the poem titles in bold serif distinguish each poem from the next.

© Copyright Linda Kythe Nix 2013. All rights reserved.