Trends in Publishing E-Books: Impressions from Four LavaCon Sessions

publishing e-booksFour of the sessions I attended at LavaCon 2012 dealt completely or in large part with e-books. These were:

  • eBook Bootcamp, Tom McCluskey, Digital Bindery (Pre-conference workshop)
  • From XML to eBooks, Part I: Overview and From XML to eBooks, Part II: The Devil is in the Details, Richard Hamilton (2 sessions)
  • The Importance of Content Strategy in An Increasingly Mobile World, Ann Rockley (closing presentation)

Tom McCluskey discussed how he and his business partner make e-books at Digital Bindery, a company he started after graduating from a book-publishing master’s program.  He is concerned with the artistic and user-experience aspects of e-books, and clearly focuses on the look and feel of the final product.

Richard Hamilton is the publisher at XML Press. He described some of the processes and issues that arise when creating e-books.

Ann Rockley is a renowned content strategy expert. Her firm, The Rockley Group, provides consulting services to organizations that need to develop and publish content, including e-books.

Of course, nearly every session alluded to e-books at least briefly, and I missed several relevant ones. Because some points were repeated among sessions, I am mostly writing some general impressions, rather than trying to do point-by-point summaries.

History Formats and Systems for E-Books

E-books are not a new, or even recent, phenomenon. I encountered my first e-book no later than 1994 (although it might have been earlier) with Project Gutenberg, which was started by Michael Hart in 1971 when he started typing classic texts into his mainframe computer terminal. But the role of e-books has changed drastically in the past few years, and now more e-books are sold than hardcover books.

Both Tom and Richard discussed the varying formats of e-books, and the reading systems and readers that support reading e-books. Although PDFs are perhaps the easiest type of e-book to create, PDFs are not easy to read on smartphones, as their ability to flow into smaller spaces is somewhat limited. ePub2 is a popular format, but it does not have the capabilities of ePub3. However, e-books created in ePub3 are supposed to degrade gracefully when read on an ePub2 reader. Somewhat to my surprise, Tom suggested that PDF might be the preferred format for something like a programming book with code examples, because you could have the PDF open on one screen while coding in the other screen. I am particularly excited about ePub3, because it has excellent support for MathML, meaning that the production of high-quality mathematical content has become a lot easier. The Kindle uses the .mobi format, which cannot be viewed on other readers.

Digital Rights Management and E-Books

What about digital rights management (DRM)? Tom discussed how easy it is to break this encoding, as well as the many technical problems that arise from DRM usage with e-books. He warns that you can easily alienate your purchasers by using it. Studies have shown that the groups that engage in piracy the most are also those who purchase the most content, so DRM might just be like cutting off your nose to spite your face. A lack of DRM promotes sharing, and so many readers have been introduced to their favorite authors by friends who shared books with them, whether print books or e-books. Cory Doctorow is an extreme example of an author who eschews DRM, and makes all of his content freely available, yet is able to make a comfortable living nonetheless.

Typically you require a separate ISBN code for every format of a print book or e-book. If you are self-publishing, you must make sure to purchase sufficient ISBNs, which become considerably cheaper if you buy them in bulk. For example, if you have softcover and hardcover print books, and your e-book is in .mobi format (for Kindle), PDF, ePub2, and ePub3, you will require 6 ISBN codes.  Although ISBN codes are not strictly required, you cannot distribute your work in numerous channels without them.

I asked about the possibility of a group of authors going in together to get a deal on bulk ISBNs.  Tom pointed out that this is possible if all the authors agree to publish under the same label.

Ann Rockley noted that statistics suggest that e-book reading may be slower than reading a print book. However, she personally finds she finishes e-books very quickly. My impression is that reading e-books may encourage more skimming and less attention, with relative speeds hard to gauge. Ann emphasized the importance of creating content that you can readily make available in multiple formats. Re-creating content separately for each format is just not a sustainable model.


History of Project Gutenberg:

Digital Bindery:

XML Press:

Rockley Group:

Cory Doctorow:

Purchase ISBNs in the United States: