September 24, 2014 Last Updated 1:52 pm

Wednesday column: Lessons learned while publishing our Guide to Digital Publishing Platforms as an eBook

The role of the book cover completely changes when launching an eBook as many publishers, including Apple, opt for simple text-only covers

The chance to publish the second edition of our Guide to Digital Publishing Platforms was a great opportunity to rethink many of the basic concepts of book publishing such as the role of the cover, and the need for using as many digital bookstores as possible.

Apple-bookstore-coversIt is common wisdom that when publishing a book, the cover design is one of the most important elements that will influence a book’s sales success. Much money is spent employing book design experts to make sure a book cover is attractive and lures the reader in.

But print book covers can be hit and miss when seen in a digital bookstore, with some just fine, while others feature titles that are too small to be read by a prospective reader looking for a new book via a smartphone, tablet or eReader. (Wired interviewed Peter Mendelsund about book cover design recently. See here.)

When designed the eBook edition of the Guide, the cover design sort of created itself. When building the book – there was very little that needed to be written – the book would get previewed either on my Mac or iPad. There, inside iBooks, one would briefly see the cover. At first, that cover was simply a placeholder created by Apple when they built the template that was the original source of the design (more on that later).

That placeholder looked bad, so I immediately created a temporary cover, one that I planned to replace later. At first, following Apple’s own lead, I simply placed some text into the properly sized document. Then, I threw in a background texture – a skeuomorphic look that really has no place in a digital-only book project. I simply could not help myself.

All efforts were made to limit the final size of the eBook, which would end up containing 39 videos, though most were housed in widgets. So when the time came to design the intro media for the eBook I chose to simply drop in that background texture on to a page and animated the text found on the cover. It worked, and added very few bits to the file size.

But it looked stupid. Here again was a skeuomorphic design that pretended the eBook as really a print book – it had to go. Besides, inside I had chosen to use black & white images for the chapter lead-in pages, so the color of the intro media was out of place.

GuideSecondEdition1A-featureOut went the background texture and in came some artwork featuring digital magazines on a iMac and iPad. Better.

But the cover stayed. Why?

Well, one reason is that I simply like the way it looked on my iPad inside iBooks and thought it would look good inside the iBooks Store. But the other reason is that it was a mistake.

The great thing about publishing projects tied to Talking New Media is that each project can be a sort of laboratory where one can experiment, make mistakes, and even occasionally leave those mistakes in the final project just to talk about them. When given a choice of creating a cover more native to digital, or leaving the old skeuomorphic design in place, I chose to intentionally leave in the old cover. (It will probably be replaced at the time of the first update.)

When creating a new eBook project using iBooks Author, the designer chooses a template from the few offered by Apple or other developers and gets to work. For talented publishers such as the designers behind The Mozart Project or the book Presentations, the next step is to completely redesign the template.

Guide-samplepage-iPadiBooks Author is a bit limiting when it comes to structure, but the design of the chapters and individual pages can be altered enough to make the final project look as if its origins were not from a template anyone else could use.

Here again I decided to not go too far and instead only slightly tweaked the original template.

As one can see from this sample page, the basics of the template used are still very visible. The shaded sidebar is straight out of the original template, with only the background color altered. The fonts were all changed, with only two fonts chosen: Proxima Nova and Adelle (that decision was the only one that involved consultation with an outside designer, Konstantinos Antonopoulos who worked as the designer on our Tablet Publishing magazine app).

The second edition of the Guide is most likely the last of TNM’s experiments. My expectations for sales are very low (please prove me wrong!), and the universe of publishers is incredibly small compared to other areas that might appeal to a larger audience. But the goal was to produce a product that might prove useful for digital publishers, while at the same time attempting to make the actual production of the product less difficult. By doing so, I think I was able to show myself, if not others, that producing a new line of interactive eBooks is something an existing staff could accomplish. It also reinforced my own findings regarding the length of time a project should be given, deadlines, etc.

Of the four previous eBook projects, three of the titles eventually appeared in print form, too. One was published for the NOOK. Unlike many book projects, the Guide was created first as an interactive eBook, and so moving in the other direction would be exceptionally difficult.

My own book, Talking Digital, started life as an interactive eBook designed for landscape reading, then became a print book, and finally a Kindle and NOOK edition. Sales have been… interesting.

In the U.S., the iBooks edition is outselling all other formats by a wide margin. In fact, almost all the print book sales have come from one place: the U.K. NOOK sales are nonexistent.

Like digital magazine publishers, a book publisher looking to create an interactive edition is pretty much limited to publishing to the Apple ecosystem. But Apple’s iBooks Store is highly limiting. Inside the iBooks Store only a few, major titles are promoted. Inside its little subsection called Made for iBooks, only 70 titles are to be found – promoted by the Apple team.

Could one imaging walking into a bookstore and only finding 70 titles? (Thanks to some duplication, there are actually less than that actually displayed.)

Inside the section there is no way to search for additional titles that may have been designed for iBooks. If having one’s digital magazine found within the Apple Newsstand is difficult, having one’s eBook found is that much harder. Those self-publishers who thought Apple was creating an easy way to publisher their own books are finding that publishing is easy, selling is next to impossible.

This is the major issue digital publishers are encountering: low sales, poor discoverability, and the always present issue of cross-platform publishing.

I have been asked whether the Guide will appear in other digital bookstores? My answer has been that since publishers generally use Macs, and generally own iPads, that the main audience is served by the iBooks Store.

But I could just as easily answer that if Google, Amazon or Barnes & Noble would invest in a solution for easy creation of interactive eBooks I would gladly publish to their bookstores. Until then, those interesting in creating interactive books are forced to think Apple first, everyone else… maybe.

  • Nick Martin 3 years ago

    Perhaps Apple wants to make creation of iBooks and discoverability easier/better with their acquisition of prss. I for one am very curious to see how that turns out or if they decide to go for their own magazine publishing platform…

    As always great article with good insights into the process of creating your guide.

  • Robert Fletcher 3 years ago

    It is relatively easy and inexpensive to get a company to give you a full suite of formats so you can hit every platform in the world. Maybe iBooks is good enough for you, but I believe you are missing at least double your audience on a global basis.

    • D.B. Hebbard 3 years ago

      If you have downloaded and examined the book, and have still come to this conclusion, then I would love to see what solutions you can offer. But I remain skeptical.

      Besides, as I stated above, since most digital magazine publishers use Macs, using iBooks guarantees reaching the majority of the Guide’s intended audience.

      • Stephen Walker 3 years ago

        I am in South Africa and have just tried to purchase this book from iBooks. Unfortunately it isn’t available to South Africa.
        So there’s part of your market gone as I’m sure we aren’t the only country where it isn’t available.
        I’m all in favour of the iBooks publishing route – but it is quite disappointing when some items aren’t available outside of the larger markets.
        My loss I guess. Pity.

        • D.B. Hebbard 3 years ago

          Stephen, you are right. There are no paid books available through the iBooks Store for South Africa.

          There are 51 countries where one can buy through the iBooks Store, but the following countries have no paid books available: China, Croatia, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine