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February 4, 2013 / Siobhan Argent

Pinning down the oily fish: ebooks, publishing, and content management


 Published November 2012 on the Killings blog (a Kill Your Darlings initiative)

This article is a summary of discussions covered in my minor thesis, which analyses ebooks and how they affect editorial processes at an Australian educational publisher.

The only editors who haven’t heard about the rise of the ebook must be those who live and work on tiny islands. Specifically, islands that have no access to the internet, libraries, media, messages in bottles or telepathic individuals. The rise of the ebook has been, after all, quite hard to miss. Two major publishers (Penguin and Random House) have become merger casualties, a result heavily influenced by rising ebook popularity. Big technology companies are also paying attention to consumer demand. Microsoft predicts that it will take until 2017 to grab a 51 per cent market share in the US ebook market, and only then because of technological issues. In terms of digital devices, Apple’s iPad has given some considerable boost to the consumers’ familiarity with digitised reading, while Amazon claims to have 950,000 ebook titles in their catalogue.

But what is an ebook, exactly? An ebook is, by its own definition, a taciturn, confusing beast, which means that researching what to do about accommodating ebooks becomes a matter of constantly trying to reach shifting goalposts. But in terms of a simple definition, ebooks can, for example, be used on a range of devices (iPad, Kobo, Kindle), within a range of formats (such as mobi, epub, and Kindle-friendly files), and display the gamut of book types.

Given the increasing popularity of ebooks, it’s important that publishers adjust their processes to ensure optimal production of book ebooks and print books. This area of the discussion centres around a publisher’s content management system, or CMS. Transitioning a publisher from a book-centric CMS to an ebook-friendly one has several steps involved in the process. The challenge in modern-day publishing is to find a CMS that can produce content for a project, digital or print, in a manner that makes the content easily adaptable and available for use within the parameters of almost any other format.

Still, there are risks inherent in change, which is perhaps why the publishing industry, particularly the commercial element, has been so slow to act on improving production processes that may benefit both print and electronic elements of publishing. The negatives are clear: failing to get a system flexible enough to withstand ongoing technological development could mean gaping, long-term production inefficiencies and ultimately, wasted expenditure compounded by a failure to maximise profit. It’s a process complex enough to justify the government establishing a Book Industry Strategy Group, tasked with developing viable strategies for publishers transitioning to an ebook-friendly production model. But this process takes time, allowing technology to drift ahead of a publisher’s technological capabilities before it has even been able to efficiently exploit what was commonly available for consumer use several years ago.

But what do these changes mean for people central to the publishing process? To be an editor of an ‘ebook’, for example, is to be master of several different content-display systems, all of which have their own inherent quirks and layout challenges. The fundamental role of an editor won’t change, but this is still a simplified example of a larger, more fundamental change at the heart of what an editor does; that editors may no longer be editing ‘books’ but simply ‘content’. While some books might try and resemble the ‘look’ of a book (such as those produced for iPad), print and electronic books are about as similar as an en and em dash. Both serve a similar communicative function, but the content within them is manipulated in significantly different ways.

For starters, ebook devices make it incredibly difficult to avoid instances where one word is left ‘hanging’ on its own line at the start or end of a paragraph. How, for example, can you reliably eradicate these in an ebook when the user can customise font size, and thereby re-flow the layout of the text themselves? Checking that an ebook works in both landscape and portrait mode can stretch an editor’s checking time, as can checking for poorly-interpreted fonts, dud or missing links and, in the case of an adaptation, checking that all the text from the original print book has been correctly translated to an onscreen, usable format. This, on top of the regular ‘book’ editing that applies to both print and electronic products.

Whatever happens, it will be fascinating to watch how the publishing industry in Australia develops and implements convergence-friendly CMS. For editors, the challenges appear to be wide-ranging but ultimately fascinating. Ebooks, in whatever format they take, will allow editors to literally test the boundaries of what is possible in this field. Even then, the boundaries will continue moving outwards as technology develops new and better ways to present content on electronic devices.

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