New Ebook Production Tools Heighten Focus on Quality

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Changes in ebook production and conversion technologies are opening up new opportunities when it comes to digital content. But that expansion is also creating a handful of challenges for those who use such tools, and quality assurance methods will need to adapt to keep pace.

On its face, the ebook management app Calibre’s recent upgrade doesn’t appear to concern traditional ebook developers directly. Calibre originated as a personal library manager and conversion tool, allowing readers to convert their titles from one format to another. Some users have also used it in conjunction with additional software and plug-ins in order to remove DRM from their titles.

Calibre is now an ebook editing platform, too. The 2.0 version released earlier this month adds Android and OS X compatibility and now includes a comparison feature letting users track the results of their edits.

Now that the ebook editor Sigil has been discontinued, Calibre is aiming to offer small publishers and self-published authors a comprehensive ebook editing toolkit. For that reason one analyst called the upgrade a “major milestone.” Others are less sure of its long-term impact. An ebook developer for a Big Five publisher I spoke with recently said she “can’t imagine this making a real ripple for professionals or consumers.”

Still, Calibre 2.0 does put consumers of digital content into the content-creator seat, offering tools for both authors and readers to determine the platforms for accessing their ebooks and how they render on them. Those decisions have traditionally been the preserve of ebook developers. A more democratic approach is in many ways a thing to be celebrated, as long as it’s accompanied by methods for ensuring high-quality outputs.

In most cases, that means understanding what goes on under the hood–in other words, coding. As Matt LeBlanc, Director of Digital Publishing at F+W, which owns and operates Digital Book World, explained, “In general, any software tool I’ve investigated that claims to automate coding and create a pushbutton development experience, without the need to understand coding, has shown to have a lot of junk code and produce poor ebooks.”

Iris Febres, Solution Architect and Manager at Aptara, agreed. She added, though, that there’s “potential” in “the fact that you have quick access to not only the actual markup but the ebook file structure.” The app could help introduce less experienced users to higher-level coding challenges.

None of that will obviate the need for quality assurance practices, though. Febres points out that ebook QA is the one component Calibre–which does now offer a spell-check feature–largely leaves out of the picture. And that need will only grow more acute as production technology develops further.

Experienced professionals working in much more popular systems aren’t exempt, either. As Laura Brady, Principal at Brady Type, emphasized in a recent presentation on the new fixed-layout export for Adobe InDesign, testing remains critical. The feature will let print designers and ebook developers alike create more sophisticated fixed-layout ebooks more quickly and cheaply, she said. But as with any new tool, vigilantly monitoring its outputs is an essential precondition.

A recent study found that publishers are increasingly concerned about ebook quality as production, conversion and formatting processes change and widen. It’s a reasonable concern, and the complexity of today’s ebook production field makes it a difficult one to address. Still, it’s up to all stakeholders in the ereading universe to take part.

Related: Ensuring High-Quality Ebooks With QED | Digital Book Awards Recognize Ebook Quality and Innovation

Clarification: An earlier version of this post stated that Calibre is, among other things, a tool used for removing DRM. It has been popularly used that way in a process involving additional software, but DRM removal is not among Calibre’s officially prescribed functions. The article has been amended.

8 thoughts on “New Ebook Production Tools Heighten Focus on Quality

  1. Krittika Goyal

    I would like to point out that calibre does not allow DRM removal. It is an open source software and has no control over 3rd party plugins but DRM removal has never been included as a part of calibre. Our help forums do NOT assist with DRM removal. I would appreciate you clarifying this point.

    We think that DRM is useless and an inconvenience to legitimate users only but we fight it only by legal means. We do our best to inform our users about the inconveniences of DRM and promote authors and publishers of DRM-free ebooks.

  2. Michael W. Perry

    Dave Bricker is right, “The best tools won’t help if eReaders won’t adhere to standards.” We’re still in the Wild West stage of epublishing, must like web standards were a mess in the mid-nineties due to competing browsers.

    The bad news is that market-dominating Amazon has its own proprietary standards, so it’s not assisting the drive for consistency. In the long run, Amazon will pay for being the odd man much like Microsoft did with Internet Explorer.

    That may have already begun to happen. The latest InDesign generates very attractive fixed format epub for iBooks and Nooks. It can’t do the same of Amazon’s KF8 format because Amazon refused to help. The result, particularly for publishers who use InDesign for their print editions, may be that Amazon gets an ugly reflowable edition while on other platforms readers get a choice of fixed format edition for tablets and a reflowable for smartphones.

    The good news is that tools such as Calibre and InDesign are likely to drive standards. Developers of ereaders will need to handle the epub each creates and that’ll create a quasi-standard and feature set that will evolve into a real one.

    Others in the market also need to adapt. Smashwords’ primary Word-for-Windows-to-simple-digital-formats process needs to catch up with a world where the authors and publishers want to control how their ebooks look and not just accept whatever Smashwords’ meatgrinder software generates. It needs the ability to pass through whatever digital files that authors create.

    1. Nick

      “Amazon gets an ugly reflowable edition while on other platforms readers get a choice of fixed format edition for tablets and a reflowable for smartphones.”

      Man, this is so wrong. Fixed-layout was never meant for that!

      If a lot of publishers think in your termes, then the InDesign export will do more harm than good… and eventually kill the EPUB standard as it would just be considered a PDF-Replica.

  3. Joshua Tallent

    Quality does matter, and I am very happy to see that becoming more important in the industry. That’s why we created FlightDeck, and why it is not limited to testing the output of only one tool. We wanted to create a QA engine that is able to test any EPUB, regardless of its source, and give solid feedback about how it can be made better. No EPUB creation tool is perfect, and independent QA, both automated and manual, will always be necessary.

  4. Notjohn

    Sigil has not been “discontinued.” It is not being further developed, but it is still IMHO the best tool available for non-technical publishers to create good epubs that convert equally well to mobi/KF8 format for the Kindle platform.



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