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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Book Printing: What You Lose in Moving from Print Books to E-Books

I’m starting to see firsthand the trade-offs that come from the migration of print books to e-books. A print brokering client of mine recently produced a 9” x 12” print book of his family experience of the Holocaust. It was printed on an HP Indigo: a short run of 65 copies (soft-cover, perfect bound), just for the family and close friends.

The book has been popular outside my client’s family, so the designer has produced an e-book of the text and photos, and I have been helping him, providing both design advice and logistical suggestions.

Transition from the Print Book to the E-Book

First of all, the Holocaust book (about which I have written in prior blog articles) had a rather complex, multi-column design, incorporating multiple photos of different sizes into the overall look of each page spread. The print book contained sidebars, photos of sample documents from World War II, images of military insignias, newspaper articles, quotes, and sample handwritten letters. It was a beautifully designed and crafted book.

The initial test version of the e-book was a PDF. The benefit of this approach was that the format was “fixed.” It could not change. The book would therefore look the same on any e-reader capable of displaying a PDF document. However, to see the entire page on a small screen (like that of an an iPad), the PDF image would need to be reduced in size. (At this point it would be nearly impossible to read.) Or the reader could just scroll around the full-size page.

To be fair, I have an admission to make. I think multi-column books are not well-suited to an e-book presentation. Here are a few reasons:

  1. You lose the two-page format in which the print book had been designed. Think of a two page spread as a canvas on which the graphic art of page design “happens.” The PDF version of this design chopped the double-page presentation into two individual units, removing the balance and flow that had been designed into the double-page spread.
  2. If you need to increase the apparent size of the PDF on the reading device, you lose the integrity of even the single-page design. Instead, you get an up-close view of the text or a photo, or just a portion of each. You don’t get the whole picture, so to speak.

Changing from a PDF to the Mobipocket Format

Because of the complexity of the print book design, and the ensuing problems in transitioning the print book to a PDF book, the designer and my client abandoned the PDF option in favor of a proprietary e-book format. This format is called Mobipocket, and it is readable on the Amazon Kindle Fire as well as on a number of other devices.

The designer reformatted the Holocaust print book InDesign file into a single-column (rather than three-column) publication. And so I could read the Mobipocket file on my IBM computer and help the designer with any graphic issues that arose, I downloaded the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 Previewer software onto my IBM desktop computer.

The book designer created heads, subheads, and introductory text for the e-book. He also anchored photos to specific paragraphs so they would stay with relevant text in the book. The e-book design complemented the print book design. I was impressed. In cases where the photos were too numerous for inclusion within the twelve chapters of the Holocaust book, they were grouped and then uploaded to Flikr, an online, cloud-based repository. The reader of the electronic book would click on highlighted text within the file and be taken to the correct Flikr URL to see photos and captions relating to the highlighted text.

As I watched the designer produce a number of iterations of the book, I noticed a few things:

Even though the designer and I were both using the same version of the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 Previewer software, the book did not look the same on our respective computers. The text was the same, as was the size relationship (as opposed to the specific type point size) between the heads, subheads, and body copy. But the page breaks were often different on his computer and mine.

For instance, a photo might move to a page by itself, and its caption might move to the following page. I was clear that certain “rules” that the designer had specified (within the e-book style sheets) were in effect. These included the number of lines indented for the initial capital letter beginning each chapter. The “rules” also included the relative size of the heads and subheads, although I know that specific fonts could be changed, along with the size of the type. I also knew these font and type size changes would move design elements from page to page. (That was the root of the problem.)

From discussions with the designer, I realized that these changes would be different from e-reader to e-reader, leaving the designer with little control over the final result.

Best Practices: What Worked and What Didn’t

In this case, I’d say that the e-book is really an adjunct to the print book. If you have both, that’s ideal. If you can only afford the less expensive e-book, at least you can read the text, and the change from a multi-column publication to a single-column e-book does make reading easier than it would have been as a multi-column PDF file (i.e., as an exact duplicate of the Holocaust print book).

The designer has begun each chapter with a large, gray chapter number followed by a headline, a quotation in italics, and then the text, starting with a gray initial capital letter. You know what’s important on each page, and even if the type sizes and typefaces change from e-reader to e-reader, you can still understand the reading order on each page (the hierarchy of importance among the various design elements).

I don’t like that the photos move and leave big white spaces within the text. I understand that this is because the software shifts design elements to successive pages when a photo and caption don’t fit on a particular page on a specific e-reading device (due to technical differences between the devices, or differences in type formatting on various devices). However, I also know that e-readers are evolving, and I understand that at this time in the development of e-books, every e-reader may reflect flaws like these.

However, I also know that readability is paramount in book design and production, and that glitches such as these may confuse the reader and will definitely slow down the reading process.

When I think about the 28 or more formats I saw in Wikipedia for e-book readers, I do worry about the overall “look” of the book on the various e-readers, and I wonder what other problems will arise. It seems that the simpler the page design, the more readable the e-book.

I guess I can rest assured that for complex, coffee-table books, custom printing will probably be the design and distribution format of choice for the foreseeable future.

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