Twelve Ways to Update Print Production Habits

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

print digital ebook production workflows publishingI was reading a novel today on a Kindle Paperwhite—or “dogfooding” as some would like this habit to be called. Despite the engaging content, I kept getting jarred out of the ebook by its low production quality. The formatting wasn’t even so horrible, but small mistakes kept punching me out of my immersive experience.

The problem originated, I am almost certain, from typesetting for print, followed by poor ebook QA after the conversion was made. It’s an issue that’s stubbornly pervasive in the industry, and there are a handful of straightforward ways to avoid it.

In my most recent case, the ebook was set not to hyphenate at all but was force-justified, which meant big, wide holes in the text. The editorial breaks that were so important to the story were frequently lost altogether, leaving the reader to figure out the switch in tone or character from the context, instead of from the typesetting. Section breaks were marked by small caps, which I imagine were designed to be the entire first line in the print edition but ended up as a line-and-a-half on the screen on which I was reading—a length that neither was attractive nor made any sense.

The style sheet for the paragraph after the editorial space was locally applied or overridden, so that spacing disappeared throughout the text. A forced line break in the middle of the paragraph got carried through to the ebook, creating a line-ending in the digital product that was nonsense in that environment.

One of my crusading themes as an ebook developer and trainer is how to keep content—formerly known as print assets—agile and clean for future output purposes.

And the key to agile assets is cleanly formatted print files. The idea here is to typeset from print but to keep the assets flexible and elastic. The focus of any set of assets should never be just print, as all content is destined for a print afterlife; laying out pages for the print page only renders that content dangerous or even useless for an ebook, for chunking, for marketing—for any kind of use beyond print.

As my recent sub-par e-reading experience shows, undoing print habits is proving to be a big burden for many publishers. Here are some basics for ebook developers to keep content agile:

  1. Format the print product with an eye to the same needs as digital—that is, with clear structure and a well-formed hierarchy.
  2. Don’t use empty white-space items like paragraph returns, tabs and spaces to typeset.
  3. All formatting should come from cleanly applied paragraph and character style sheets that aren’t overridden at the local level.
  4. Format footnotes and any other cross-references with baked-in layout software tools.
  5. Never input hard hyphens to force-hyphenate a word. If you absolutely can’t avoid it, create a unique character style sheet alerting the conversion coordinator of its presence. (In this excellent article, Tina Henderson counsels the use of a “DANGER” stylesheet.)
  6. Avoid spaces, accents or other @#$%& special characters in the names of links.
  7. If embedded fonts are going to be a part of the content’s digital afterlife, plan for that from the earliest stages in production by choosing fonts that are licensed and embeddable.
  8. Set tables using the table function of layout software, taking full advantage of all the customizable elements, and use table, cell and object styles whenever possible.
  9. Order the text and anchor all text elements in a way that make sense both for the print product and other iterations of the content.
  10. Be mindful of the potential future needs of the content by doing things like keeping the color versions of supporting artwork and saving elements from the editing room floor that might enrich the digital content later, even if they’re not being used in the version you’re developing.
  11. Keep marginalia like running heads and folios in the page’s background, not in the live flow where it will interfere with digital output.
  12. The one white space feature of layout software like InDesign that doesn’t export to EPUB at all is tracking. Use that to space and control the layout of your pages instead of applying characters like soft-hyphens or soft line-returns, which will go pear-shaped in the digital product.

The hybrid book market isn’t likely to shift dramatically in either direction anytime soon. If anything, slowed-down ebook growth now gives the industry a period of relative calm, which we’d do well to take advantage of by fine-tuning our production processes in ways that better balance print and digital outputs.

Typesetting for print is still a primary skill-set publishers need to maintain, but doing so means preparing for more flexible use of those files by maintaining a clean workflow with some basic hygienic productions habits. The improved agility will come in handy now as well as later.

7 thoughts on “Twelve Ways to Update Print Production Habits

  1. Michael W. Perry

    Good advice, but the article failed to mention one of the best suggestions: place Adobe’s InDesign at the center of your workflow. From one ID document, you can have an attractive print version, a fixed layout epub that looks virtually identical to the print version for tablets, and a reflowable epub for smartphones. And since it’s one document, editorial and proofing changes only need to be done once. You will then have future-ready digital versions for virtually every ebook market you’ll want to use. As digital standards evolve, InDesign will evolve with them.

    As you might guess, the one exception is ‘you must do it our way’ Amazon, with its proprietary formats. But even there, Amazon can convert reflowable epub to its own proprietary reflowable format. Amazon must be feeling the heat from publishers about the bother and expense of creating fixed layout (necessary for textbooks and cookbooks) for Kindle tablets. Amazon is currently using PDF file to create its fixed layout versions and you can certainly send it an InDesign PDF. But that’s such a dreadful kludge, a bit like using the family SUV to carry garbage to the dump, that it can’t last for long. Even Amazon can’t dictate some realities.

    Amazon has gotten itself in a trap. In an effort to make as many ebooks Kindle-only as possible, it has given almost no support to Kindle export from InDesign. The plug-in that did that was poor and is years out of date and his Kindle-only book creation apps are a world unto themselves. My suspicion is that Amazon hoped that publishers would have to spend so much money creating digital versions for market-dominating Kindles, that they’d have no money left over to create digital version for the rest of that market.

    Not so now. Easy epub export from InDesign flipped dynamic that around. Now, having created a print version, publishers can export fixed and reflowable epub versions in under five minutes. It’s the Kindle version that’s moved to the end of the publishing line.

    Amazon needs to wake up to the new reality. It simply must give InDesign Kindle export capabilities as good as that for epub. That wouldn’t be hard. Adobe’s InDesign team has their offices only about a ten-minute drive away from Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. Amazon could delegate a team to work with Adobe to give InDesign world-class Kindle export. As a closely held proprietary format, it is almost impossible for Adobe to do that on their own.

    If Amazon doesn’t do that, it’s going to find many ebooks coming late to Kindles, perhaps not looking as good, and often without a fixed layout version. Most Amazon Kindle ebooks will be second rate in comparison to those on other platforms. I’m sure Amazon does not want that.

    1. Lis Sowerbutts

      @Michael – I’ve been formatting eBook for years for Indies (and myself). The problem with software like inDesign is that it’s focussed on fixed layout. ePubs and Kindle’s formats are HTML – quite simple HTML with a little CSS thrown in. inDesgin makes an absolute dog’s breakfast of exporting to HTML (and by extension to ePub or similar) – because it doesn’t use styles properly.

      My preferred workflow now is to go from simple to complex – export a clean html document to inDesign and then it can do it’s thing as far as print layout is concerned.

      Producing a format for an ebook should NEVER be just a “flick the switch” process based on the print layout. Many eBooks -particularly well-designed non-fiction – need to be completely re-designed. What’s the point of a page-number referenced index – that needs to be hyper links. Why have references at the end of the chapter or book – they should be linked inline as required. Tables often need to be redesigned so they will work on a phone or 6″ screen etc etc

      It seems that many in the trad publishing world still consider digital an add-on – which is one of the many reasons they are struggling with the business paradigm.

  2. David Biddle

    This piece makes such a good set of points for publishers. I hope they’re reading. I am absolutely blown away by how many problems e-books there are from the Big 5 and other prominent publishers. Missing TOCs, formatting problems with tables, graphics, etc. Dead links, typos, and on and on.

    One thing from my end as an indie writer and publisher is that I start with the e-book file and then create a wholly separate print file for the paperbound version. And I’d say I usually go through at least two if not three separate proofs before I publish.

    Lastly, let me say that just this morning in the shower I decided it’s time to bite the bullet and hook up with Adobe InDesign once and for all. So thanks for your comments Michael Perry.

    Lastly, just let me say that it is bizarre how limited e-book reading apps are now that we’re a decade (or more) into this whole game. It is mind-boggling to me that the industry is being so anachronistic. It’s like they think e-books are supposed to be as ancient a technology as printed books. How about a reading app that tracks your heart rate as you read? How about the ability to create a word lookup log? I’d love a monthly report on all the words I didn’t know.

    Sorry…but thanks for this important piece.

  3. DMcCunney

    I’ve been watching this for a while, and have to draw that line at the notion “put InDesign at the center of your workflow.”

    The current industry workflow is to get manuscripts as Word documents, do line edits, copy editing and proofreading in the word file, then pass a finalized result to DTP who imports it to InDesign for typesetting and markup. the output from InDesign it a PDF the printer can feed to an image setter to make plates from, but as mentioned, it’s oriented toward fixed layouts. Current InDesign versions can output to ePub, but don’t do so all that well. And since Amazon is a substantial portion of the market, you still have the issue of getting the book into the format Amazon uses.

    I see the proper move for the industry to migrate to XML as the underlying storage format. Once you have the content in well formed XML, you can use XSLT transformations to automate a good deal of the conversion efforts need to get the content into different formats. eBooks in ePub or Mobi format, for example, are essentially encapsulated HTML in an archive container. You don’t need InDesign to produce that.

    1. Ryan

      I’d also avoid putting InDesign at the center of workflow largely because it is primarily print (of fixed layout) focussed with some digital publishing functionality bolted on. While it can handle ePub and other eBook formats fairly well, it becomes far more limiting when dealing with enhanced content or content that is likely to be repackaged into apps (or anything outside of an eBook).

      Using an output agnostic format such as XML from an earlier stage in the workflow makes much more sense as it gives far greater flexibility (especially for non-fiction content). InDesign can still be used for print DTP but going from XML to formats such as HTML is far easier.

  4. DMcCunney

    @Michael: \Amazon needs to wake up to the new reality. It simply must give InDesign Kindle export capabilities as good as that for epub.\

    The Mobi format used by Amazon isn’t all that proprietary. It was devised by Mobipocket, an early French outfit targeting the eBook market, and Mobipocket documented it. (The one part they didn’t document was the optional \high compression\ algorithm,, intended for things like electronic dictionaries.) It was essentially an encapsulated subset of HTML4 with limited CSS support, in a compressed archive with a meta data wrapper. The first target for Mobi was Palm OS, and vestiges of that are still in Mobi files, like a 64K record size limit, and archive compression based on the sort of RLE compression used by Palm \doc\ files. (ePub files use zip compatible compression and are rather smaller with the same content.) Amazon bought Mobi in 2005 and used their work as the basis for their offering. It made sense, since Mobi was the closest thing to a standard in the emerging eBook market and ePub did not yet exist. (There is also evidence using Mobi was a Plan B, and Amazon had originally intended to use an electronic publishing system from Adobe which Adobe withdrew from the market.)

    Amazon has been making changes to their format to make it more competitive with ePub, and support things like embedded audio and video, but it appears to be a superset of the earlier format.
    Current files produced by Amazon’s Kindlegen application for upload to are curious: poke around and you discover they contain both a Mobi and an ePub version of the file. With the appropriate utilities, you can extract and discard the one you aren’t interested in. (AFAIK, you can create a file with Kindlegen intended for distribution on Amazon, extract and discard the ePub portion, and the resulting Mobi only file will still be accepted by Amazon.)

    The fact that Kindlegen creates an output file with both makes me wonder if Amazon might choose to go with ePub like everyone else down the road, and this is a step on the path.

  5. Anne-Marie Concepcion

    Putting InDesign at the center of the workflow can definitely work, that’s what most of the publishers I work with do.

    InDesign has been able to export to reflowable EPUB (v2 and v3) for years now. It’s never been focussed specifically on fixed layout, that’s a new feature that’s less than a year old.

    Even if you write and edit in Word (as most people do), you’ll get better and more flexible EPUB output if you flow that Word file into ID, apply styles, map styles to CSS, and optionally include your own CSS file, than if you try to make the Word file into an EPUB. Even if you’re not going to do a print version.



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