Surveying Publisher Approaches to Ebook Production

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By Clynton Hunt

If you’re a publisher entering or engaged in the ebook publishing market, what is the best option for getting your ebooks produced? If you go online for guidance, posing the question in an ebook production and publishing discussion group, you will hear about solutions that work, and then how those same solutions don’t work. How some professional conversion tools are a great DIY option, and how no conversion tool can possibly produce sufficient quality. You’ll hear that an ebook that adheres to the layout fidelity of the print edition is a failure as an ebook while others bemoan the loss of the story as ebooks devolve into games. A seemingly innocuous question, “how do I do this,” will be met by a barrage of thinly veiled sales pitches (I’ll hold my hand up there) and often poorly informed opinion by those presenting themselves as “experts.” The result: confusion and many more questions.

There are many options available for producing ebooks. Those include outsourcing to specialist ebook producers or investing in an enterprise publishing platform where ebook production is a component of a comprehensive publishing workflow, often managed by a third-party. Yet another option is integration of conversion and authoring tools into internal workflows. But which of these is best and what approach is currently favored by the publishing industry?

At the recent IDPF Digital Book 2013 conference in New York earlier this summer, a panel of publishers offered to share their experiences and strategies during a session that focused on factors relating to in-sourcing and outsourcing of ebook production. Prior to this session, as the moderator of the panel, I conducted an informal survey of trade publishers to try to provide a little context and data for the discussion. Respondents to the survey included four of the Big Six (now Big Five) publishers as well as publishing arms of big media companies, numerous mid- and small-sized publishers. All respondents had published ebooks. Many had also published ebook apps. The panel itself offered a representative mix, comprising digital strategists and production experts from Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Parragon and Open Road Integrated Media.

The Survey Says…

A review of the survey responses mirrored the evolving ebook production practices of the panelists:

Approximately 41% of the responding publishers primarily outsource their ebook production to skilled services providers. However, with 45% of respondents reporting that that their business had moved from one that fully outsourced ebook production, a major trend in digital production strategies appears to be the move towards greater internal production of ebooks. That echoes the approach currently adopted by Open Road Integrated Media. Said Nicole Passage, Managing Editor of Open Road, “Prior to the past year, we outsourced almost all ebook conversion, but recently we’ve begun to adopt internal solutions, allowing us to increase both efficiency and control over results.”

Obstacles Toward Internal Production

There are a number of significant factors that appear to be inhibiting greater migration towards internal production. Those include cost, quality and technical requirements. Of those publishers stating that their preference is to outsource, 90% indicated that getting required quality at a reasonable price was the main factor. Additionally the perception of 70% of those same publishers was that costs associated with internal production capabilities, including personnel resources and production tools, were too expensive.

Related to this is the concern that the production of ebook requires a skillset that traditionally has not existed within publishing houses. And although many publishers have invested in digital expertise, industry chatter indicates that the majority of publishers are seeking solutions that help manage the complexity of the ebook production process. The fact that 40% of outsourcing publishers stated that they were not aware of production tools that were suitable for their production needs may indicate that available tools are falling short of market requirements.

Internal Solutions Prove More Efficient

On the face of it, these statistics may make some publishers backtrack from any plans to invest in production solutions, until you consider the experiences of those who have already made the investment. Of those respondents who had moved to full or significant production in-house, all previously having outsourced such work, 100% stated that they were able to achieve greater efficiencies and net benefits by producing internally than they had seen from outsourcing, even factoring additional personnel overhead.

Of those internal producers, 71% also reported that they believed that outsourcing required a trade-off in terms of quality and turnaround. From the IDPF panel, Simon and Schuster’s Director of Digital Content Development, Samantha Cohen, explained that her organization had seen those same benefits as it has continued to increase its internal expertise and production capabilities. “Within our organization we are seeing a convergence of digital and print workflows. This integration means that we are ebook conscious throughout the entire process, right from manuscript. While we do have some specialists, and use different tools for different formats, the fact that the company is oriented towards the book, across all formats, means that resources collaborate and are more efficient. This has been achieved without requiring the addition of headcount”.

Almost 50% of respondents identified themselves as taking a balanced, blended approach to production. Of those 91% stated the main reason was that they liked the control, with the ability to produce on-demand themselves, while also being able to schedule work that was beyond internal capacity with skilled vendors.

In line with the trend towards greater internal capabilities, 57% of all respondents anticipated that they would increase such capabilities in the future, placing less reliance on external service providers. This trend may be even greater however various comments indicated some concerns over being able to keep up with a changing landscape of formats, devices and specifications. This uncertainty led some to acknowledge that relying on specialists to deal with the technical challenges, while focusing internal efforts on developing and maintaining expertise in formats that were more established, was a favored option.

Finally, 71% of all respondents recognize an imminent need to be able to integrate production technologies, including conversion tools, into internal workflows designed to manage all phases of a books lifecycle, including both print and digital.

So, while a variety factors are likely to have a significant bearing on the approach individual publishers will take, it is evident that internal production solutions are producing benefits for a wide range of publishers.

Determining which solutions are best for specific needs, rather than questioning whether relevant solutions even exist, is perhaps the most confounding problem.

Clynton Hunt is Vice President of Business Development for ZOO Digital, developer of workflow management and production solutions for the publishing industry, He is also an occasional contributor to Publishing Perspectives. Contact him at

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Guest Contributor

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.