Ebook Conversion and Design: Best Practices and Innovations

Feb 20, 2015


The world of ebook conversion is mysterious to most of us. It’s difficult to imagine what goes into designing a file that’s versatile enough for display on many different devices. The standard ebook file format is called ePub, and it’s designed to be responsive and to automatically adjust to the screen size of any e-reader, computer, smartphone or tablet. Unlike a PDF file, which preserves the original design of a given page, ePub is designed to allow text and images to dynamically reflow to suit the device. ePub has evolved to accommodate illustrated books as well: now fixed-layout ePub files will allow the design to remain fixed while still allowing the ebook to be viewed on different kinds of devices.

Since ebook sales are such an important part of an author’s publishing strategy, it makes sense to carefully consider how you would like to have your ebook produced. We sent some questions about ebook conversion to a couple of ebook design specialists whose work we admire: Laura Brady of Brady Type and Kaleeg Hainsworth of Bright Wing Books. We found their answers illuminating, so we thought we’d share them with you:

Page Two: Some people hire conversion specialists to produce their ebooks, while others simply upload their text files to online conversion tools that convert them automatically to the ePub format. What value can an ebook conversion specialist add to the ebook conversion process that an automated conversion tool can’t provide?

    • Laura Brady: “One of the main reasons to hire an ebook developer that often gets lost in the obvious reasons (better design, bespoke, better QA processes) is accessibility. A professional ebook developer will not just press convert on whatever software they are using. They will convert and then edit the code for semantics, clean coding practices, and simplify the CSS [a style sheet language used for describing the look and formatting of a document]. Even without advanced accessibility practices, the basics of a good ebook development create cleaner code which is more accessible. This is incredibly important and shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle.”
    • Kaleeg Hainsworth: “There certainly are a growing number of conversion tools available to authors and publishers. Some of these tools are stand alone applications (such as Calibre, Kindle Kid’s Book Creator, and Adobe’s export to Epub format, to name a few), and some are offered through websites and the ebook distributors themselves. Some of these tools are buggy and some are very good and intuitive to use, however all of them will only get an ebook so far.

For instance, an author can upload their Word file to Kindle or Kobo and it will be converted to a mobi or epub file for them, but it will only be useable by Kindle or Kobo and it will come out in a one-size-fits-all format without any opportunity to customize it. Many of the stand-alone tools present the opposite problem. Calibre will generate an epub or mobi file, and it provides a dizzying array of options to customize the ebook, but there is no guarantee that this book will work on all the devices or be accepted by the stores and distributors.

In both cases, the author has very limited ability in the final look and layout of the book and there is no guarantee that their book will be forward compatible (meaning it may not survive the constantly changing ebook code base). What’s more, the ebook that is generated will contain a lot of extraneous proprietary code and if there is any need to make adjustments to the book, the whole process of conversion needs to be undertaken again, often from scratch. Then there are other questions which need some expertise to answer, such as what to include (and where) in the metadata, cover specifications, and if and where to include a table of contents.

Another challenge which the conversion tools will not be very helpful with is what to do with books which have footnotes, block quotes, typography, and practically every other kind of layout and formatting. If all of this seems enough to make a person go crazy, then believe me that ebook specialists know well the crazy-making experience and are here to help. We have faced every imaginable problem and are still discovering new ones.”

Page Two: Can you tell me about any innovations in ebook design/development that you’re excited about?

    • Kaleeg Hainsworth: “There are some extraordinary developments happening right now. First of all, Adobe InDesign came out last year with a significant export feature which allows just about anyone to export a fixed layout book (such as children books or cookbooks) with just a few clicks. This feature has taken much agony out of the notoriously difficult process of creating fixed layout books and has freed the market up to anyone wishing to produce great content. So far, only iBooks and some Kobo readers can accept these books, but the market will open up greatly as time goes on. I am also excited about the increasing adoption of the Epub 3 specs by the major ebook distributors. This will allow much greater control of how ebooks are designed and will allow for a great many possibilities in what content we can present. It has taken a long time and a lot of negotiations and love songs to get us to the stage that we can offer books in the Epub 3 format, but I think the possibilities will open so wide that it will make the work worth it.”
  • Laura Brady: “I am really happy that I can finally produce EPUB3 in earnest for almost everyone with whom I work. I have never been jazzed about multi-media enhancements (which I think readers, for the most part, don’t want), but I do get excited about really full navigation, using ebook landmarks, and easy to use cross-references. I think that the fuller the navigation baked into an ebook, the easier it is for the reader to use. Clean, fulsome reading experiences are where it’s at!”

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For any book lovers out there who wonder if ebooks inspire as much devotion as their print counterparts, consider this comment from Kaleeg Hainsworth, to whom we give the last word:

“A good ebook developer will know that the author has put their heart and soul into writing their book and he or she will be able to take that book in whatever format the author provides and then lovingly hand-craft an ebook version for them which will honour their work and get it to the devices of readers who will appreciate it too.”