The Difference Between Professional E-Book Development and Auto-Conversion

As e-book sales continue to grow, an integral role has formed in the book-production process—the e-book converter/developer. I spoke with Linh Thoi, one of Girl Friday’s developers and an all-around e-book expert, about the importance of her role in creating flawless, beautiful, and reader-friendly e-books.

Paul: What does a professional e-book converter actually do?

Linh: People in general (even in the book-publishing industry) assume that making e-books is either a simple process or one that’s too difficult to comprehend. The process really falls in the middle. It’s a combination of coding, design, and editing. Basically, an e-book converter or developer takes the completed print book and tries to create a digital version that retains its design while being easy to read on any digital device. Usually digital editions are created in two file formats. One is MOBI, Kindle’s proprietary file format, and the other is EPUB, which works on all other types of e-reading devices.

My process begins with taking completed InDesign files and anchoring images and sidebars to body text, aggregating styles, hyperlinking page references, and basically simplifying the print design for digital ingestion. This part of the process takes the longest. I then use InDesign to output an e-book file that is pretty good aesthetically, but far from perfect. Next, I dig into the files, making manual changes like cropping images, changing cross-references, and so on. Once the file is clean, I run a validation process that makes sure the various specific e-reading devices the file will be read on don’t produce any errors.

Paul: There are a number of auto-conversion software solutions out there—how are those programs different from what you’re doing?

Linh: These types of software are very attractive to self-publishers and small publishers who can’t afford to outsource the conversions to a professional or who don’t recognize the value in doing so. Unfortunately, the e-books created by auto-conversion software aren’t perfect and still need to be reviewed and edited. So much judgment is involved in the conversion process, and auto-conversion software skips over all of that. An individual is able to assess whether or not something looks awkward and needs to be changed, like the spacing between lines or justification of the body text, or whether an image is too large or too small for the viewing screen. Catching these kinds of errors is part of a developer’s responsibility. These are things conversion software cannot do—in the same way that Microsoft Word’s spell-check function is no substitute for a human editor. Just because the end product is digital does not mean it can easily be created with digital tools.

Paul: What is the biggest challenge you face in manually converting and developing e-books?

Linh: The limitations of how much or how little individual devices render is always the biggest challenge. Not being able to embed a font because a reader does not render it (or because of rights issues) is a problem e-book developers have had to accept and just move past. How to display complex content like large tables, maps, quizzes, and other fill-ins is another big challenge.

The technical issues of creating e-books aside, people’s expectations of what they are or should be is often a big hurdle. The reality is that e-readers behave according to their individual programming, so it’s difficult to accept that what is so easy to control in the print book is out of our hands in the digital version.

Paul: Tell me more about the challenges of preparing files for multiple devices.

Linh: I create a single EPUB file to work on all devices and a MOBI file specifically for the Kindle. Creating one file that works on all devices is difficult—especially when the devices are constantly changing.

As a developer, I am aware of how each e-reader renders the same EPUB or MOBI file. This knowledge allows me to decide how to make universal edits and decisions so that the file is not rejected by vendors like Apple and Barnes & Noble. For example, the Kindle doesn’t like background colors and won’t actually render sans serif text. So I tend to stay away from these things in my e-books as a rule.

Paul: Where do you see e-books going in the next year, five years, ten years? How do you see the role of the e-book developer changing?

Linh: Right now, e-books are very much limited by the technology of e-readers and other devices. Developers are capable of creating lovely, elaborate titles with interactive features, but so many devices cannot render these features. That said, the majority of e-books bought are not super complex or image-heavy. The public, I believe, prefers—and will continue to prefer—text-only e-books such as novels. These titles are easily digestible in digital format, and many can be packed into a single device.

As for the role of the e-book developer, I believe he or she will become a more important individual in the book’s creation process from the beginning. The people involved in the print production process and the digital conversion process will work together to decide what is OK to leave out (like filler illustrations), how to treat sidebars and images, and so on. Once the e-book has been converted, prior to the print version being released, the editor will review the file and make suggestions for changes. This type of collaboration makes the editorial and design staff more aware of what the developer needs, and it helps the e-book process run more smoothly. With digital book sales steadily increasing in relation to print sales, it makes sense that digital editions will be prioritized more and more in the production process.