Constellation’s Aaron Hobbs and the Future of the E-Book

By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGreenGrass

What are some of the most exciting developments and thorniest challenges in e-book production today?

To find out, we sat down with Aaron Hobbs, a manager for digital operations at e-book service provider Boulder, Colo.-based Constellation, a unit of New York-based Perseus Books Group.

Hobbs, 40, joined Constellation in June 2008, several months before the company’s September launch. Since then, he has worked through many changes in e-book technology, formatting and convention and watched Constellation grow from a six-person shoe-string operation to roughly 30 people servicing over 230 clients and partners.

As a manager of digital operations at Constellation, a position he was promoted to in June of this year, Hobbs is the technical contact for many of Constellation’s clients and helps shepherd digital book files through various processes on the way to becoming e-books. Hobbs also works with Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and others to place e-books in stores.


Jeremy Greenfield: What’s the biggest issue you’re facing right now in e-book production?

Aaron Hobbs: It used to be just one PDF and you could get one file that could go anywhere. When Constellation started off, we would take a PDF convert it to EPUB and the Amazon proprietary format. Now, with the differentiation of all the different devices, starting with the iPad, you may you want to handle the conversion a little differently to have it render really well. You have to do some additional work to have the characters render as they should. All devices aren’t created equal – just a little different.

The iPad has a reading engine that is really sophisticated. With the Adobe digital editions devices, you might have to embed fonts and there’s other special characters that you find in books that potentially have to be handled a little differently so they’re recognized on all the various devices.

We started seeing that a year ago: We realized that a standard EPUB was going to render great on the iPad but needed a little help to render on the Nook.


JG: What are some interesting things publishers are doing right now?

AH: We’re seeing publishers do some pretty cool enhanced e-books, primarily for the iPad but also for the Kindle. And there’s going to be some really interesting stuff coming out for Nook Kids.


JG: Children’s books are a really interesting area right now.

AH: The central challenge for children’s books is that typically the text is part of the image. So when you convert it as an e-book, the text won’t reflow. Nook Kids allows you to create an e-book out of the children’s book that will look exactly as it does on the printed page. That’s something that wasn’t possible a year ago. You can do a fixed layout on the iPad, which is essentially the same, so all the design elements will be exactly what they were in the original book.

For a standard EPUB, the text will get extracted and it reflows. When you give that control over to the reader, you also lose control over the design elements. The new formats are incorporating the ability to maintain the design.


JG: You mention the iPad gives you the ability to do some new and interesting things.

AH: Talking about Apple specifically, we’ve got some publishers that are doing fixed layout EPUBs, so for a cookbook or a children’s book, it will look exactly like it does in the book. Some are also tying in audio and video enhancements. Moby Destroyed is a really good example of something like that for one of our clients. Moby has put out an art-book with some of his photography and poetic explanations of the images. It incorporates some videos. It’s a fixed layout so it looks really cool on the iPad. With the Kindle Fire just about to come out, there’s going to be a lot more of it which is pretty exciting and pretty fun to work on.


JG: Let’s talk about some less exciting stuff. Quality metadata is important for a book’s discoverability – it’s the digital version of your book-jacket, back-matter and all the other things used to identify and sell a book. Are your customers on top of their metadata programs?

AH: That’s a good way of putting it. Metadata has been a mantra that we’ve been pushing since we’ve started.

It used to be that publishers would just supply the bare minimum, just the required fields. As they get more sophisticated with their digital strategy, they’ve figured out they can add things, like BISAC codes, which is a category for the book that makes it easier for people searching on a wider range of things to find it. Publishers are starting to add more metadata so people find their ebooks.


JG: One thing I’ve noticed as an issue in the e-book production world is digital talent. A survey recently came out that suggested that publishers are not confident that they can recruit and retain the digital talent they need. Are you seeing digital talent acquisition as a problem?

AH: Great question – I don’t know that I can answer it.

I’m down in the weeds a little bit on the operational side. We’re working with clients, moving files, working with our partners to get better reporting. As far as development talent, we’ve actually recently brought in an xml content manager, and her role is two-fold: to allow us to have more sophisticated ability to edit, correct and fix things in epubs; and in research and development to experiment with formats, audio and video. She has brought in a little team of freelancers who are pretty talented programmers who have typically worked with websites, and that team is really just working on EPUBs.


JG: What’s the future like for Constellation?

AH: It’s pretty exciting. We started off with zero clients and four partners and now we have well over 200 clients and 30 partners and we’ve just gone international. There are English-reading people all over the world and there’s no reason not to try to get e-books available to them. It’s as simple as that.

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