Bits from the Digital Editor: Adventures in eBook Construction

by Jessica Mifsud

Published at 2013-05-13


If you were anything like me as a child, then you too dreamed of having adventures when you grew up. Maybe future-you would be digging up dinosaur bones in the desert. Maybe you would be a code breaker, routing the forces of evil by figuring out their secret messages just in time. Maybe you dreamt your future was up in space, and you would help discover other planets. And maybe, by the time you found yourself grown up, adventure had come to mean something very different, and you do most of your adventuring at work.


The publishing landscape has been (and still is) changing very quickly for the past few years. Every other street-corner naysayer is fretting about how eBooks are going to kill the publishing industry, as well as print books as we know them. But they’re looking at it the wrong way. Nobody thought the world was ending when Columbus discovered the new world, and similarly, the publishing world isn’t going to stop just because it’s changing. Selling eBooks is just the next step in a long line of changes, and like any other adventure, getting ready to go (that is, creating your eBook) can often be an adventure in itself.


Luckily, since I’ve got plenty of this kind of adventuring experience, I’m happy to be your guide as we look at the process (and dangers) of creating an eBook.


Bring Supplies!


The first and most important step is the same thing any craftsperson does when beginning a project: taking an inventory. I make sure that I have all the parts of whatever book I’m creating, and then some. The basics are making sure I have all the things the reader will see: whatever chapters of text, files of illustrations, and cover art I need to assemble the book itself. But that’s just like making sure you have enough food before you set out on a hike: essential.


Sometimes I also need things the reader will never see, like extra information about publishing year, illustrator, woodcut artist, etc., to compose the book’s metadata (which is all the information the eBook file gives your eReader and the website where you purchase it, so you can search for the book by subject or author or publisher). This is an important first step because while it’s easy for an explorer to buy a snake-bite kit in town, it’s a little more complex to do once you’re out in the woods and staring at the snake.


Tracking down an author once a project has started, for example, especially if you’re working to a tight deadline, can be exactly the kind of distraction you don’t need. Having all the components of the project together in one place before I start construction makes everything flow more smoothly later on and, like a snake-bite kit, even the bits a buyer doesn’t think about are important for keeping the adventure moving forward.


Don’t Forget the Map!


The next step is layout. If your book is just text, this is an easy step where the text of your manuscript is fed into InDesign.  But assuming the book is not just full of text, this step is where the illustrations, tables, or diagrams are added into the mix. This can be as easy as pressing a button and adding a picture to a certain page, or it might be as complicated as creating the code to build a table of precisely structured information.


The key for this part of the eBook adventure is to have a map (or several maps) handy at all times. Whenever possible, I get the author or publisher to provide me with folders of the images they want me to use in jpg format. If they’ve been pre-sized to the dimensions of the eReader page the author intends to convert to, that’s even better. (While an ePub file will open up nicely on any reader, it is possible to customize a file to fit the dimensions of a Sony Reader, or a Kobo, or even a wide two-page spread made to fit an iPad.) This is important because, while I can easily resize images myself, they occasionally skew in ways the authors aren’t happy with. To avoid any messy back-and-forth of this-is-too-squat, that-is-stretched-out, I provide authors with ideal dimensions, and hope to proceed from there.


Raiding the Temple!


Now that all the pieces are in place, it’s time to face the final challenge of this adventure. The actual conversion of the file is the next step, even if a minor one. This is akin to arriving at the “X” marked on your map and sizing up the location for the next part of the adventure: solving all the little puzzles that will eventually lead to a finished eBook. In this step, I split the file into pieces, rearrange items, add metadata and a table of contents or two, perform quality analysis about seven hundred times, and jump across a pit full of lava in order to make the eBook as perfect as it can be.


In my adventuring days, I’ve seen all kinds of strange things pop up when doing quality checks of ePub files. Tables that previously looked fine are too wide or too long; images that seemed fine are shrunken, or worse, corrupted; cover pages mysteriously disappear, or appear twice, for no apparent reason. But I have struggled and persevered to fix all these things, because that’s what helps to find the real treasure: an eBook that looks good, navigates smoothly, and reads easily.


It should be noted here that this discussion has been about ePub files, but Mobi files for the Kindle are made in much the same way. The difference is that once you think you have the treasure in hand, you realize you’re not holding the real Sivalinga stone, but a clever fake, and more work is required to get at the real treasure. In this case, yet another conversion into Mobi format, and more quality control checks are needed, but the final Mobi file will look much the same as the ePub that we have just endeavoured to create.



Onwards to Further Adventures!


In October of 2011, the IDPF (being the International Digital Publishing Forum) approved a new standard for ePub files: EPUB3. This is meant to help publishers create more advanced versions of their ePub files. EPUB3 will allow eBooks a number of abilities they currently can’t do, such as displaying texts that are not read from left to right (like Hebrew or Japanese), adding video inside the file, or displaying mathematical formulas. But although the guys in charge think this is a great idea, none of the software or hardware currently being used to work with ePub files is compatible with these new functions, yet. That will be the next great ePub adventure.