Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
I 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:
- Format the print product with an eye to the same needs as digital—that is, with clear structure and a well-formed hierarchy.
- Don’t use empty white-space items like paragraph returns, tabs and spaces to typeset.
- All formatting should come from cleanly applied paragraph and character style sheets that aren’t overridden at the local level.
- Format footnotes and any other cross-references with baked-in layout software tools.
- 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.)
- Avoid spaces, accents or other @#$%& special characters in the names of links.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Keep marginalia like running heads and folios in the page’s background, not in the live flow where it will interfere with digital output.
- 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.