BNGO Books

Print design and ebook development

Who's Afraid of Bells and Whistles?

BNGO BooksComment

There has been lots of discussion recently in the ebook-making world about bells and whistles and EPUB3. Folks don't want to make EPUB3 files because, who needs Javascript anyway? Kindles certainly don't. How many books in their right minds need video? Very few.

Ding Ding Ding

No one wants these features if they aren't going to work everywhere. Scripting, MathML, audio and video: There's no denying that support is spotty and even nonexistent.

Talking about bells and whistles and how they're not supported is a great way to keep the conversation limited to ebook developers and out of reach — or interest — of people in publishing. You know, our clients.

That's why I'd like to banish that phrase and instead talk about real-life book features that authors, editors, and designers can get excited about. Features that are already in books and that can be boosted in the ebook edition.

It's All About Books

Let's talk about the ordinary, everyday book: a novel, a memoir, a bit of history or politics. In other words, a book that's mostly text, with a few images, a bibliography and maybe a glossary, perhaps a few tables.

Those aren't bells and whistles.

They are parts of a book.

The same with tables of contents. Not every print book has one, but many do. So when included in an ebook, they don't ring any kind of bell. They just live there, naturally.

When we organize a book, we use simple, straightforward hierarchies: what's a chapter title (h1 in ebook-speak)? First-level subhead (h2)? No bells and whistles here, just book stuff.

If we include a glossary, we prepare the manuscript so that glossary terms and their definitions each have the correct tags. No pealing bells here.

When we add a table of illustrations to go along with the table of contents, we're not proposing anything unusual. We're just making the book more accessible and easier to use for everyone.

Why Resist?

I've wondered about the cause of the resistance, and I think I have an idea. Quite a while ago a client wished for a one-click solution to ebook making. Well, it's available. It is possible to export a valid EPUB from InDesign and just put it up for sale.

I sympathize with this attitude. If sales aren't there to support a few hours of an ebook developer's time, then I see why a publisher would shy away from doing further development. But: chicken, egg? Spend the time, plan to add simple book features — features you wish you had room to fit into print — and your readers will notice and buy your next book.

It's Not Technical

One stumbling block for a lot of editors, designers, and even ebook developers is that it all seems so technical. Non-book-world verbiage, indecipherable version numbers, unfamiliar interface, no feel of paper or smell of ink.

But all you need to keep in mind is that EPUB3 lets a book be more like the books you cherish on your bookshelves. More text, more features that don't fit in the page count, better structure that will survive future reading systems and thrive there.

It's Also About the Future

Future reading systems? Yes, new and different reading systems will come along. Work is ongoing to improve e-reading software. So an author or editor who is interested in having her ebook as readable in that future state as her paperback version of Moby Dick that's sitting on her bookshelf, the best idea is to make good, practical, EPUB3 files now.

We Are All Book People Here

A book is a book, in whatever format. So, as a designer, if I take care with the print edition, nudging design elements, making sure styles are consistent, establishing clear hierarchy through typography, then I'm going to want to do the same thing to the ebook edition. I'll add tables of contents that are as complete as possible, make hierarchy clear through proper tagging, and ensure elements are marked up consistently. Like I said, an EPUB3 is just like a print book, only moreso.

More Thoughts

On epubsecrets.com, Laura Brady mused about the slow adoption of EPUB3, and countered several common arguments. Click here to read her take On the Slow Adoption of EPUB3.

Also on epubsecrets.com, Dave Cramer, cochair of the W3C's EPUB3 Community Group, wrote about versioning, the differences between EPUB and the Web, and how we can create ebooks that utilize existing technology, old technology, and technology yet to come. Read "Good Enough: A Meditation on the Past, Present and Future of EPUB" here.

In the January edition of InDesign Magazine, I wrote the cover article on creating accessible EPUB3 files right out of InDesign. It can be done with minimal change in the workflow. Click here to access the article