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On Transitioning from Fixed Book to Reflowable E-book Formats

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

By Robin Birtle, Sakkam Press

TOKYO: Executive coaches no doubt counsel against embracing the wisdom of tarnished sports stars, but Mike Tyson was onto something when he said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Our metaphorical blow came with realization that the Japanese e-book market would likely enter 2013 without a single major vendor supporting fixed layout books. With a digital inventory heavy with content in a fixed layout format, we needed some alternatives and duly headed down the alphabet in search of a plans B and C.

Maintaining an attractive design on e-ink screens was tricky for heavily illustrated titles. (Image: Sakkam and Mikaya Press)

Japan has long had digital support for manga comics on mobile phones but little to offer publishers of picture books or illustrated books. This digital vacuum will be filled by Amazon, Apple and Rakuten/Kobo but as we pondered the question of fixed layout support the former two had yet to launch local services and Kobo’s Japanese service only supported reflowable content.

An obvious Plan B was to simply sell direct. Our books look gorgeous on the iPad, and iBooks is far ahead of any other reader in terms of EPUB compliant support for fixed layout. Apple’s support for JavaScript is also a plus in that it is easy to add our own custom controls for actions such as starting and stopping “read aloud” playback. Perhaps most importantly, users can add e-books simply by clicking on web links and choosing to open the downloaded file in iBooks.

Attractive though it was, Plan B had a couple of problems. Firstly, bypassing major retailers is not an attractive proposition in e-book markets such as Japan’s, that are pre-mainstream and in desperate need of the credibility conferred by an online giant. Secondly, an iBooks only product ignores too much of the market by excluding all non-Apple phones and tablets. Arguably, even the iPhone would be excluded since fixed layout content optimized for an iPad rarely works well on the much smaller phone display.

And so to Plan C, which came into being as we deliberated on selling through the new Japanese Kobo store that launched in July with support for reflowable format books only. We ruled out picture books straightaway but one particular series of illustrated books gave us pause for thought. These books look stunning both in a large, square print format and (through a painstaking redesign for digital) as fixed layout e-books. However, the more we looked, the more we had to admit that the text clearly took precedence and was augmented by the illustrations, not the other way around. This series would be our test case.

A full-color page that offers Japanese and English language text; illustrations, fortunately, need no translation (Image: Sakkam and Mikaya Press)

In addition to facilitating an attractive design, the layout of a printed book or a fixed layout e-book indicates to the reader the relationship between different content elements. Our task was to replace these visual clues with alternatives that were available in the reflowable format. There were three main layout devices to replace,

  1. Use of text positioning to separate captions from body text.
  2. Use of page breaks and white space to alert readers to a potential change of topic. This is such a powerful device that some shorter illustrated books, including the series we decided to work on, forgo named chapters and a table of contents.
  3. Use of page numbering to provide reference points for attribution.

Firstly, the demarcation of captions and discourse. This was a straightforward replacement through consistently positioning captions after illustrations, using a distinct font and adding a horizontal line between caption text and body text.

The page breaks posed a slightly larger problem. The only way to reliably force a page break in a reflowable book is to start a new chapter. Not only would a chapter per page look silly it would not honor the intent of the original layout. Instead, we decided to divide each book into logical chapters and to name these chapters such that the automatically generated table of contents would support easy navigation rather than being just a list of chapter numbers.

Page numbering was simpler than we expected since the only attribution required was to certain photographs. In the credits section, we simply provided a thumbnail of the image in question rather than a page number.

We were originally wary of how the final books would look. We are acutely aware that creators who attempt to impose their own aesthetic on the look of a reflowable e-book often end up feeling like latter day King Canutes*. Any given reader app or device supports only a subset of the e-book formatting standards and will implement that subset in its own particular (and sometimes peculiar) way. Font support varies greatly and, of course, reader displays range from basic grey scale through to high definition color. Many customers will choose to change fonts, alter text size and some may prefer night time reading mode with white text on a black background. The enormous variety in reader software and hardware makes it necessary to check how a book looks on each target device, but savvy publishers will use this as an opportunity to tune font selection and text justification so that the default “out-of-the-box” look is an attractive one.

In fact, we are delighted with how our illustrated books look in a reflowable format. Although optimized for the Japanese Kobo Touch, the same EPUB files work without modification on Apple devices. Apple’s iBooks allows users to tap on an image and enter full screen mode, which goes a long way to bringing back the visual impact of the original fixed layout design. Undoubtedly, though, the biggest upside is that these books work fantastically well on the iPhone and other smart phones. This dramatically increases our addressable audience and enables a different reading behavior — most of our readers always have their mobile phone to hand, which is not the case for the tablet devices that they own.

Our Plan C was concocted as a purely tactical move as the Japanese e-book market matured. Having now been through the process, though, we see ramifications for illustrated book publishers of all stripes. Some of them may find that not all of their content is quite as fixed as they thought.

DISCUSS: In Corporate Publishing, Are E-books PDF 2.0?

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