March 11, 2014 Last Updated 2:07 pm

From digital to print: converting an eBook for print shows why ‘enhanced’ eBooks often fail

Many publishers who produce print books look down at the new interactive eBooks being produced, often seeing them as forced conversions that do not add anything to the reading experience. For the most part, they are right: simply adding some video or galleries to a book conceived and produced for print does little to create a compelling new digital book.

But when one goes from digital to print, the opposite way most books are published, one sees where the publisher can go wrong.

TD-iPad-Zeff

Even simple pages from the iBooks version contain interactive elements

TNM’s own eBook, Talking Digital, was conceived solely as an eBook. Produced using material that, for the most part, had published here at TNM, the book could have simply been the usual text-heavy eBook, with a photo or two sprinkled in to make things interesting.

But, when possible, TNM likes to include galleries, animated GIFs, and occasionally video in its stories of apps, or in features on publishers. So when the eBook was created, there was more material available than might have been expected.

Since the book was to be created using iBooks Author, with the fixed layout in landscape to be the main design orientation, there was immediately a different look that would result – no long, scrolling as on the web, now pages were fixed as in print. The Kindle-like text orientation in iBooks Author, at least until Apple introduced new portrait-only templates, was portrait (the new portrait templates feature fixed layouts). So in an interactive eBook, when in portrait, all the artwork is placed as small thumbnails along the left edge; when in landscape the layouts are fixed, with graphic elements being part of the design.

The result was an eBook that was uniquely digital – not at all influenced by the print platform (the original text came from the web, and the artwork was either designed for the web, or was exclusive to the eBook).

But as Talking Digital was conceived simply as an experiment in digital publishing, it made sense to use the work to experiment in going in the other direction – to print. But it was apparent right from the beginning that there would be problems.

For instance, in the very first chapter of the eBook there is a video from Bonnier R&D. That video is mentioned in the text and did not have to be included in the eBook. But I felt the video was an historic document: it shows what the design teams were thinking about digital magazines months before the iPad had even been introduced. During the course of creating the book I had reached out to Mag+, Nomad Editions, the Wonderfactory, the TRVL/PRSS team and The Boston Globe about including videos that they had produced. The Wonderfactory, who produced an equally important video for Sports Illustrated, never answered my inquiries, while The Boston Globe actually put obstacles in my way that prevented me from using their video. The other companies were very accommodating and their video content are a part of the eBook version of Talking Digital.

Now all that content was gone anyways. So what should be included? The answer I came up with was “nothing” – get rid of it all. And so for the print edition the starting point was dumping everything but the text.

If iBooks Author was the only publishing solution considered for the iBooks Store version, there were plenty of possible solutions for creating the print book. In the end, the one that should have been used was probably InDesign or QuarkXpress. But the goal was the simplest possible conversion, so Word was chosen (not a program I am particularly fond of).

TD-CD-Cover-2

The print cover file for Talking Digital

To publish through CreateSpace, Amazon’s easy to use, print-on-demand solution, the publisher uploads a document to Amazon that is either converted to a PDF, or already is one. An online proofing mechanism is built in to CreateSpace, but the nice feature is the ability to buy proof copies of the print book for closer examination.

Little time was spend formatting the print version of Talking Digital for publishing – that seemed like a waste of time. The goal was simply to go through the process, set up the Amazon account, etc.

Near the end of the process, it became apparent that the book really needed at least a minimum of photographs. The problem is that while the photos in the iBooks version of Talking Digital look great, they were not going to look good in print. Amazon offered a variety of paper and book size options, but for most books printing in black & white makes the most sense. That means the photos, for best reproduction, needed to be converted to B&W and have their levels adjusted. When the first proof copy came back it was apparent that quality would be an issue. As a result, the decision was made to place the photographs on left-hand side pages, usually at the beginning of the chapter.

The takeaway, though, has nothing to do with production values and publishing production issues. It is that when creating a book for digital media from the beginning the options for storytelling are unique to the platform. Suddenly the book becomes a more visual experience.

Some publishers believe that readers want an immersive experience with eBooks that replicate print. I believe this is true, but mostly for fiction. By limiting their thinking to what fiction readers want they believe that all eBooks need to duplicate the print experience. I believe that most publishers would change their thinking for non-fiction projects if they would conceive of them as digital-first projects – ones where the reader says show me rather than tell me.

Talking Digital was the third book published during this time of experimentation. A fourth is planned that is a novel. TNM will keep you posted.


Talking Digital is now available at Amazon.com and is already being discounted (thanks a lot, guys). A Kindle edition will be released within the next two weeks (and that is a whole other story to tell).