Monday, March 24, 2014

The E-Book Conversion

I have been an author of print books for most of my adult life. Starting Tuesday I will also be an author of an e-book.

The e-book medium is a frustrating maze of limitations if you are used to the printed page. In print, if you are the author, you can arrange things on the page in any way you can think of that helps you get a point across. In an e-book there are no pages. There is little leeway to arrange anything in a visual sense. The author cannot present anything that relies on shape or position — tables are perhaps possible if they are very small, but things that you take for granted on the printed page, such as diagrams and captions, suddenly become problematic. The only special typographic device that is guaranteed to make the transition to the e-book medium is the list, and in writing my latest book I found that any arrangement of information can be reduced to a list if need be.

I had previously tried to convert some of my print books to e-books, and this is how I discovered how limiting the e-book medium is. The e-books I came up with for my existing books would display more or less as intended in some e-readers, but in others, key information was obliterated: truncated, scrambled, or shrunk to the the point where the meaning was lost. When every reader may have a different view of a book, the design becomes quite a different challenge. I hope someday to make e-books of all my books, but to make things easier, I wanted to start with a new book, one that was written as an e-book from the beginning. That book was Routine SAS SQL, which finally is ready for release.

I wrote the book in the XML markup required for an e-book. When I was done I converted the e-book to a print book layout. That conversion was also surprisingly difficult and required some difficult design compromises. I had to give up hyphenation and justification, for example, and that required a leap of faith. High-quality hyphenation and justification had been the hallmarks of a well-printed book for five centuries. To suddenly say, “I don’t think we need that anymore,” does not come easily to someone raised on print books. But in the end, converting an e-book to the print medium was far easier than converting a print book to the e-book medium.

The e-book-first approach to books makes sense for another reason. For a new book being published in 2014, surely more people will read it in e-book form than in print. For all the advantages of the print medium, there are disadvantages too that for most readers most of the time hold more weight. Weight is the key word. I know I won’t miss carrying 200 cartons of books from the truck to the warehouse. And with costs of energy and security going up, readers in most of the world have been unhappy with the roughly $20 cost of shipping a book from one continent to another. For about the same price as the shipping cost of a print book, you can have the e-book instead — and you can get it the same day instead of waiting for a couple of weeks.

There are still print copies for those who want to pay the price of paper and shipping, and e-book readers are encouraged to imagine that the e-book is based on the print book. The e-book listing, for example, shows the page count of the print edition. It could hardly be otherwise. For most of us pages still provide the easy way to understand the length of a book, even though there are no pages in an e-book. In general, the connection between the e-book and the print book is mainly for the purposes of imagination. Just as most people who buy a music album will never see the CD, most people who buy a book will never see the print edition. But the physical medium serves as a kind of icon that makes the electronic medium seem more real.