Before E-book Experimentation, How About A Little Back to Basics?

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By Kassia Krozser

Kassia Krozser

In an earlier piece for Publishing Perspectives, “‘E’ is for Experimentation,” Guy Le Charles Gonzalez makes the point that industry fetishists tend to salivate over bright and shiny things — and honestly, who among us hasn’t ascribed magical properties to the Apple Unicorn, due to be announced this week? Gonzalez thinks 2010 will be a year of experimentation, and I do, too…with reservations. My hope is that experimentation plays second fiddle to getting the basics right.

Guy pointed out that the print book is a pretty efficient format. You won’t get an argument from me, but I have no interest in improving the print experience. I’m looking to improve the reading experience, which to me going forward means getting digital books right.

As an early adopter of e-books, I have invested in the publishing learning curve, but the general sloppiness of the product being released by major publishers devalues the content. Publishers rushing to “enhance” e-books, convinced this will entice readers to fork over more money, would do better if they put more effort into basic quality control and consideration of how the book will be consumed. It is nearly impossible to argue for pricing an e-book on par with the print version when it’s obvious the e-book is a lower quality product.

I don’t hear a lot of readers clamoring for “enhancements,” a concept that seems to be on par with DVD extras. I do hear a lot of frustration about just plain bad e-books. Not the writing, not the editing, the actual books themselves.

It won’t come as a surprise to see that most of the basics noted below relate to production and workflow. The digital version is as “real” as the print version, meaning it needs to be factored into workflow as the book moves from editorial to finished product. This ensures that every version of the book, from the super-duper enhanced version to the plain vanilla digital book to the print edition is optimized for its format and intended audience. It may be time for publishers to introduce “graceful degradation” into their thinking — a concept borrowed from programming, where the book displays properly as it moves from complex to simpler formats.

So what are some basics that need more attention? Here’s a short list :

  • Consider the Medium: It’s digital, not print. Endless “pages” of breathless quotes about previous books are annoying and pointless. I’ve already bought the book; I want to start reading. Dump page number — they make no sense and highlight the lack of thought going into the digital edition. There are more logical ways to create these references. Teaser content and additional text such as excerpts from upcoming novels need labeling, so they don’t seem like random information dropped into the file.
  • Better Image/Text Flow: The current practice of treating images (and their captions) as random elements kills the reading experience. Images and their captions frequently seem as if they’re completely disconnected from the associated text. Treatment of images is not easy, especially given the level of user control over the reading experience, which is often limited to merely making text bigger or switching from portrait to landscape reading! Utilizing standard HTML and giving consideration to how images impact the reading experience will help maintain continuity in the work. This will be a critical concept as books are enhanced.
  • Cover Art/Cover Content: At a bare minimum, include it. It’s part of the experience. Seriously. Make it a quality image. Publishers invest time and money into creating cover images, but then include fuzzy renderings of scanned images in their e-book files when e-ink can render images with excellent clarity. And it should go without saying that high quality color covers will be a requirement for devices like the Unicorn.
  • Quality Checks, Test All Reading Systems: The technology to do quality assurance exists. Use it. Check the details. Does the file open at the proper place? Did you accidentally set “start” on the page after the introductory quote carefully chosen by the author? Did the lovely graphic elements used to indicate the beginning of a new chapter make it to the digital version of the book, or is the final product confusing? Is there weird stray code in the file that causes font sizes to change without warning? I admit it: I’m assuming publishers have Quality Assurance staff on their payroll. If not, it’s time to start asking better questions about the Q&A process of your vendors. Going forward, quality assurance will become part of the job description for the 21st century copyeditor.
  • Bring The Book Up-to-Date: I bought a classic title from a favorite author, and was stunned by the publisher’s lack of attention to information that could be updated (it’s one thing to change the text, it’s another to update types of metadata). Obviously, someone decided to do a scan and dump. The publisher’s URL was not current. The author’s title list was over a decade out of date. The e-book felt like the digital version of a cheap pulp paperback.
  • Improve Navigation and Usability: Since digital books don’t contain the basic visual clues of print books, better navigation and usability is required. I have a couple of cookbooks on my Kindle. I admit this is not the best medium for a cookbook, what with the lack of color pictures and all, though some of the issues I note above would certainly help the experience. As new devices come into the marketplace, navigation and usability will be base expectations on the part of readers. One particular cookbook I own (or “rent” as the case may be, since it’s on the Kindle) is the poster child for bad user experience. The publisher took an existing book, scanned and converted it, and tossed it into the Kindle Store. It’s a horrible rendition of what I suspect is a very nice print book. Finding recipes requires, at my current font size, flipping through 21 screens of the table of contents. If the recipe I choose from the table of contents isn’t right for me, yep, it’s back to the 21 screens to start again. This book would benefit from better consideration of the medium and how people use the information — while the table of contents is annoying but linked, the actual index, an alphabetical approach, doesn’t have links at all. It’s nearly impossible to navigate from one particular recipe to another, much less between the sections of the book.

These are basics, and they’re not being done well by most publishers. I purposely skipped metadata in my list because it’s worth an article of its own. Metadata is key to the next decade of search and discovery, the creation of digital libraries. Bad metadata=no discovery.

Upcoming display technology like Pixel Qi and new devices like the Unicorn have the potential to transform the digital reading experience. Color. Multimedia. Improved web-based reading functionality. Of course, we already have the web, waiting for traditional publishing to take full advantage of what it offers. The basics I note above are what the web is all about.

Sexy technology won’t hide sloppy formatting and poor usability — if anything, it will highlight the problems. Imagine the Unicorn owner, someone whose device is all about web technologies, puzzling over page number references and wondering where the appropriate links are hidden. The basics of e-book production are the foundation for improving the reading experience.

Books like the cookbook noted above can be test subjects for publishers as they seriously consider enhancements. Usability, navigation, using the right medium, introduction of multimedia, and graceful degradation — or the opposite, progressive enhancement — can be practiced and perfected with minimal investment. The book is written, it’s digitized, and all the elements are in place.

Experiment, yes. Fail big, succeed even bigger. But get the basics right. That’s what readers really want.

Kassia Krozser has seen the future and it is good: more people are reading, writing, and publishing than ever before. Kassia consults with publishers about digital publishing opportunities at Oxford Media Works (, and writes about current digital publishing trends at

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.