Preserving the Ebook Future of Publishers: Integrating In-House Ebook Conversions Into Your Publishing Program
By: Duany Diaz
One wouldn’t think that a medieval British king could provide modern-day publishers with a valuable lesson about ebook production—but it’s possible. King Vortigern, a ruler of the Britons in the fifth century, is infamous for the Saxon Invasion of Britain. Because of his struggles battling against the Picts and the Scots, Vortigern decided to invite Saxon mercenaries to fight them off for him. This strategy was a great success up until the point when the Saxons realized that they “liked the region so much, … they founded a kingdom in Kent, and drove the Britons out of the area” (Heritage History). So how does this story relate to publishers in the area of ebooks? Well, similar to how Vortigern hired outsourced mercenaries to do his fighting for him, many publishers likewise contract outsourced professionals to do their ebook conversions for them. The publishers hiring conversion houses to create their EPUB files for them do so in the hopes of reducing their workload, saving time and money, and freeing up their in-house staff to focus on the development of content. On the surface, conversion houses provide publishers with integrated publishing services and content technology solutions, which is good in the short run, but — returning to the analogy of the Saxon invasion — there’s the issue that publishers may be ceding too much control over this area in publishing in the long run.
Should these conversion houses ever decide that they’d like to transition into the business of ebooks (which wouldn’t be a hard thing for them to do), this could mean an influx of new digital publishers to contend with. But this doesn’t have to happen if publishers take the time to invest in doing their own ebook conversions. There are many excellent programs available today, such as Adobe’s CS6 InDesign, Sigil, and Pressbooks, which have made the process of creating ebooks easier to accomplish in-house. It’s simply a matter of deciding which tool to use, and working past the learning curve. This article intends to make the case that ebook production isn’t as complicated as it might seem, and that investing in keeping ebook conversions in-house is the better alternative to outsourcing.
The State of Ebook Production and Conversions
Prior to explaining the value of keeping conversions in-house, it is beneficial to take a look at the current state of ebook production and the amount of content publishers are converting. The Fourth Annual Ebook Survey of Publishers (put together by Aptara and Publishers Weekly in 2012) reveals that four out of five publishers are now onboard the ebook production bandwagon. However, the survey also revealed that, although 57% of publishers are making more than half of their titles available as ebooks, only 65% of publishers have converted less than half of their backlist (legacy titles) into ebooks.
These two results suggest that while many publishers have embraced ebooks, “more than half of publishers’ content is going to ‘digital waste’” (Eldridge). Why might this be happening? Melody McKinnon supposes that though “the publishing industry is adapting to utilize the eBook format, [it] may fall short in capitalizing on it” and that “as an industry publishing appears hesitant to run with the concept.” This may be the case in general, but it’s important to consider the specific kind of content publishers are letting go to “digital waste”— namely, backlist titles.
It is only natural for publishers to spend their energies on producing ebooks of their frontlist (print) titles, since these are the books they are currently promoting for the season. Plus, since most manuscripts today are originated electronically, it is also easier to directly convert digital files into an EPUB format (as can be done with InDesign CS6). Converting older backlist titles, however, is a slightly different story. If the backup file of a title is a PDF or if there isn’t a digital file in existence at all, this just adds an extra step in the process of creating a working digital file. Thankfully, it isn’t too difficult to work around this issue with the use of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, which “converts your PDF files, scans and other images into searchable documents [and] saves you the time of having to retype text and re-create documents” (Top ten reviews). Teri Tan aptly notes that with access to software like this, publishers are “sitting on a gold mine” with their legacy content, because they “can now convert (read: repurpose) … sneeze-inducing pages — and even archival formats — into digital assets and channel them into different platforms to generate new revenue streams.” So, although converting a backlist title requires a little more elbow grease in the initial stages of its production into an ebook, “with ebooks representing 16% of book purchases in Canada” (BookNet Canada), the growing market demand for these titles will make the extra effort worthwhile.
Costs of Conversion: Outsourced and In-House
Publishers have a choice in how to produce their ebooks: they can either outsource their ebook conversions (be it all of their titles or just some of them), or they can do all their ebook conversions in-house.
It is difficult to provide an exact figure of what conversion houses charge, because the amount is calculated case by case, but the cost basically depends on the conversion house and the type of content being converted. Companies usually calculate an amount on a cost per page basis or a lump sum based on a number of pages per book (MP Publishing). To give you a basic idea of the cost, Martin Taylor offers a good break down:
For small volumes and one-off projects, you’ll probably pay US $0.50 to $1.00 per page or more plus one-off charges for production of a single book. Scanning from hard copy, and a high proportion of complex pages will boost this cost. For higher volume users, there is a wide range of prices and significant difference based on the types of books being converted but expect to pay half or less of the low volume rates.
Because of limited in-house staff and resources, and a lack of expertise in ebook production, it is understandable why some publishers (big or small) opt to pay conversion houses.
The advantage to publishers doing their conversions in-house, however, is that they wouldn’t have to fork over all that money. The cost of in-house conversion is really the amount of time a publisher takes to invest in developing their ebook production, as well as the necessary software needed to generate ebooks (including but not limited to InDesign CS5+, Acrobat Pro, OCR software, and Sigil). The transition to doing conversions in-house may seem daunting at first, but once you’ve gotten over the learning curve, the process becomes easier to do. To reassure you that doing ebook conversions in-house is truly within the realm of possibility, take for example Talonbooks, a small Canadian publisher that employs only one staff and one intern (out of a team of seven staff and two interns) to work on ebook production. Even though it has taken Talonbooks some time to get past the learning curve of creating ebooks themselves, they are now producing ebooks with more ease and have established a system of in-house conversions that works well for their company.
Which Ebook File Format to Choose?
Publishers are faced with the decision of which ebook file format to choose from, because not all ereaders on the market support the same format. Of the three major file formats used to create an ebook—EPUB, MOBI, and PDF— this article recommends the use of the EPUB, because “basically, all e-readers except the Kindle can read ePUB files without fuss” (Arnzen). Though, as Chloë Filson advises, it is important for publishers to consider creating a MOBI file as well, since Amazon’s Kindle has 27% of the total ebook market share (Milliot), and one would not want to neglect the consumers of that market.
Reasons to Convert to EPUB
EPUB, short for electronic publication, is an open standard for digital reflowable publications that is developed and maintained by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF). It is basically a file that contains three specifications: Open Container Format (OCF), Open Publication Structure (OPS), and Open Packaging Format (OPF). For the non-technical people reading this, “in a nutshell, epub is web pages [html and CSS files] packaged in a zip folder” (Electric Book Works).
Other than the fact that EPUB files allow for reflowable text on different screen sizes and allow for broad compatibility with various ereading devices, it is also the format of choice for publishers with backlist content that is mainly text. The advantage of EPUB files is that they are significantly smaller than PDFs, which, more importantly, translates to more room left on people’s ereaders to buy ebooks (Sharp).
Tools and Methods to Create Ebooks
This article has alluded to a few tools (Adobe’s InDesign CS6, Sigil, and Pressbooks) that publishers can use to create EPUB files, and these will now be discussed in more detail.
Adobe InDesign CS6
This latest InDesign version makes it easier to export your InDesign document to the EPUB format. In previous versions of this program, any design styles made in the document had to be manually coded or edited into the CSS file. With CS6, once a book’s design is laid out, the program automatically generates that code for you (so, the attributes for fill colour, margin, padding, border style and width will carry all the way through to CSS). The only thing left to do is to go to the Export to EPUB Dialogue Box under the File menu. The default is set to EPUB 2.0.1, which is the most widely supported format by ereader devices, but you can also export to EPUB 3.0 or EPUB 3.0 with Layout (this version of EPUB supports embedded audio, video, and interactivity). Essentially, CS6 enables you to generate an ebook at the click of your mouse.
For more information on the new features of CS6 for ebook design, you can watch a tutorial by Anne Marie Concepcion.
Sigil is a popular multi-platform EPUB ebook editor that is free and open source. It runs on Windows, Linux and Mac and offers a book view, code view and preview view. The software is user-friendly in that it uses a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editor to shape content, much like a blog. So, if you’re unable to spend US $699 on InDesign, Sigil is a great alternative.
For publishers still intimidated by the prospect of using the above-mentioned programs to create ebooks, Pressbooks is the choice to go with. Pressbooks is an easy and simple way to create ebooks for any device (including the option to convert to Kindle), and because it is built on a WordPress platform, using it is much like blogging. What’s so impressive about Pressbooks is that you can create an ebook in a matter of minutes. Like Sigil, it is free to use.
Publishers must find a way to meet the ever-rising demand for ebooks each year . Outsourcing EPUB conversions is one way to do that, but one could argue that this method is just a Band-Aid solution in the overall scheme of ebook production. While it may be less of a headache to hire someone else to do the job for you, oftentimes, the quality of outsourced conversions isn’t always the best. The job of a conversion house is to produce ebook files, which means the company is not necessarily focused on the quality of the output. Thus, when working with conversion houses, it becomes necessary to comb through the EPUB file you receive from them, because — more often than not — you are bound to find numerous errors. To use the words of Karen Dionne, “a certain amount of errors in … e-books is inevitable but no matter the format, consumers deserve a quality product.” Publishers know their content better than anyone else, so who better to work on ebook production than the publisher? With tools like InDesign, Sigil, and Pressbooks, publishers now have the capability to produce ebooks easily at a lower cost than it would be to outsource, and can assure the quality of their ebooks. If publishers invest in keeping ebook production in-house, not only will they save on costs in the long run, but they will also maintain control of their ebook business. After all, there really is no need for publishers to repeat the mistake that King Vortigern made.
 “OCF is simply a zip-based standard used to encapsulate all of the pieces of a digital publication into a single file. OPS describes the digital publication’s markup or content (words on the page). And OPF provides the navigation, packaging, metadata, and table of contents (how the pages relate to one another)” (Adobe).
 Alex Sharp uses the example of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen to note the difference: the EPUB file is 1389 KB while the PDF file is 11254 KB.
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BookNet Canada. “Print is Still the Dominant Format for Canadians, Says New BookNet Canada Study.” 10 Oct. 2012. [http://www.booknetcanada.ca/press-room/2012/10/10/print-is-still-the-dominant-format-for-canadians-says-new-bo.html]
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