Are Good Jobs for Good Ebook Developers Drying up?

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

ebook developers digital production Laura BradyLately there have been rumors within the profession that it’s becoming harder and harder to hire a good ebook developer. Is this true?

In my personal experience, it is.

But I also think there are broader issues at play than just a shortage of talent. A conversation on the subject during a recent #eprdctn hour (hosted weekly on Twitter under that hashtag from 11am to noon EST) pointed to several possible explanations.

For one thing, learning the skills and toolsets required of an ebook developer is neither easy nor cheap. There are college-levels programs and courses (at Emerson College, Simon Fraser University, Ryerson University and via the eBook Ninjas, to name a few) whose ebook development classes are taken by post-grads, sometimes on their own time in the evenings. Others can cobble together self-taught courses at Code Academy and Lynda in order to synthesize an education on their own. Still, all these approaches take considerable investments of time and money.

Second, the skills required of any ebook developer worth her salt are deep and technical. So the wage reward of the average entry-level publishing job just doesn’t usually line up with the knowledge-level required of most qualified candidates.

As ebook production skills are an offshoot of web development skills, it is my sneaking suspicion that many with that skill-set just wouldn’t contemplate a $30,000-a- year salary, as one tweeter pointed out:

Given the opportunities available in other industries, someone with rockstar coding skills probably is not going to like the “pink-collar” pay levels publishing typically offers. (Which isn’t to say that I don’t have many, many outstanding rockstars as colleagues.)

The maturity of both the tools and the subcontractors is also a factor. Very good EPUBs are being turned out of both overseas conversion houses and publishers’ own production departments, through tools like InDesign and CircularFlo. In fact, the outsourcing marketplace is almost certainly shrinking, owing in great part to the increasing sophistication of in-house staff and tools.

Finally, the precarious, shifting-sands nature of ebook development itself is also a factor. My own experience has shown me that it can be a head-bangingly difficult space to work in. I have to compete with overseas developers on price and figure out in near isolation all the formats and devices on which my projects will need to operate.

I also have to work closely with less educated clients, some with little or no experience in ebooks or digital production, who then tend to transfer their dissatisfaction with the format to my company’s work. (That’s my least favorite part, for certain.)

So because this work is contracting, are fewer people now entering the field?

It’s tough to say, but it’s certainly possible that ebooks still aren’t an especially valued part of a publisher’s output and hence suffer from underinvestment in their workflows, especially since growth for the format has flattened out. For production professionals, at any rate, one of the big truths is that ebook development skills, particularly in-house, aren’t going to open many avenues for advancement, as Baldur Bjarnason earlier observed.

I prefer to remain optimistic about ebook development at large, but that may be because I am so invested in the job I do. And I like Iris Febres’s take on the opportunities afforded ebook developers:

One thing I can say for certain is that the troubleshooting and problem-solving skills of your average ebook developer will always be very powerful. And that’s a fine, fine transferrable skill.

7 thoughts on “Are Good Jobs for Good Ebook Developers Drying up?

  1. Leslie

    The jobs that pay the high salaries are for coding or embedded programming of the e reading devices instead of the content that is read on them. Of course, the catch is that they usually want someone with a background in computer science instead of publishing or the humanities.

  2. AJ

    If you don’t mind elaborating, when you talk about the skill-set for eBook development, what exactly are the skills you’re referring to?

    1. Laura Brady

      Hi AJ. Ebook developers need to know: HTML, CSS, scripting, the diverse ereader rendering engines, metadata needs of ebooks, and how to render text as varied as poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and textbook type content. It also helps to understand the vicissitudes of the ebook marketplace.

  3. Kevin Callahan

    To add to the skill-set that AJ asked about, it’s also essential to know book publishing. Independent developers deal with a wide variety of clients whose publishing savvy ranges from sophisticated to nill. Other publishing pros appreciate working with developers who know how books are made (whatever the format), and independent publishers sometimes need a title page explained to them. I guess I’d add patience to the list of skills.

  4. Michael J Fisher

    The practice of coding e-books is antiquated. Why? It’s not scalable. Best practices involve working with automated service providers that can easily integrate with existing workflows. The future of digital production / publishing is all about automation.

  5. Michael J Fisher

    The concept of coding e-books is antiquated. Why? It’s not scalable. Best practices involve working with automated service providers that can easily integrate with existing workflows. The future of digital production / publishing is all about automation.

    1. Laura Brady

      Hi Michael. I think there is a misunderstanding of a well-coded ebook. It is certainly responsive and scalable. Automation is grand but, in my experience, never underestimate the value of a human hands.



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