In my post on e-textbooks recently, I highlighted the fact that ebooks are fast becoming something that ELT publishers simply have to be able to deliver in a world that’s lurching towards the paperless classroom. However, moving from print to ebooks is much easier said than done, especially if you’re adapting an existing (and possibly old) print book, and there a number of hurdles which might not be immediately obvious. Here’s my starter for 10. Each of these is a whole topic in itself, and I’ve raised more questions than answers, so let’s consider this just a starting point! I was going to title this post “Why ebooks are a minefield”, but thought that sounded unnecessarily negative when discussing an area so rich with possibilities and opportunities. Read on to see if you think I was right to change the title.

1. Which formats should I go for?

download (2)App or ebook file? If an ebook file, which format? ePub? Kindle? Or maybe go for an all-in-one proprietary platform, such as YUDU? Do schools and universities even know what they need or want? Are students going to be using iPads, Android tablets, Windows tablets? Which formats will work on those? And will the same format of ebook look the same or work the same across all of those devices? If you go down the app route, the world’s your oyster in terms of features and functionality, but you’re potentially limiting the devices your content will work on and you’re definitely limiting where you can sell them. Ebook formats generally produce less slick and feature-rich products but, in theory, are more widely supported (and maybe cheaper to produce, but even that’s not a certainty).

2. What’s the file size going to be?

One of the main benefits of ebooks over print is the variety of media that can be included: audio, video, animation. However, especially once video is involved, you may find your ebook’s file size has ballooned to such an extent that some people will struggle to even download it, and others won’t have space on their tablet to accommodate it. Asking people with 16GB iPads to download a 2GB ebook isn’t very friendly. Get ready to compromise.

3. Should I go for fixed layout or re-flowable?

You do know that there’s a big distinction between fixed layout and re-flowable, yes? If not, go and find out about this before doing anything ebook-related.

OK, all clear on that? Now, do you want complete control over how each page looks, pixel-perfect design, and page numbers that match the print book? And do you want teachers and students to able to re-size the text or change the font? Unfortunately, these two things are mutually exclusive.

If you go for a re-flowable ebook, you’re accepting that content will appear in a single column, with all sorts of possibilities for weird text wrapping, pictures and text not appearing together, exercise instructions not on the same page as the actual exercise.

If you choose fixed layout, you know how your book will look (more or less), and you can specify the page layout. But you’re denying your readers the ability to do basic things like re-size text. And in some formats (iBook format for iPad, for example), some features don’t work – yet – with fixed layout books – text highlighting and annotation, for example.

4. Keep the book design or go for a new design?

How important is ‘page fidelity’? Do you want an ebook to look like a) its print equivalent, or b) something completely different and optimised for the tablet screen? The easy and practical answer is a), of course. But the correct answer for the long term is b), of course. At the very least, you’re not just going to cram an entire A4 book page onto an 8” iPad Mini screen and expect people to be able to read it without zooming in, are you? And how are you going to cope with providing one book that’ll work well on both a 7” tablet and a full-size one?

5. Where do I need to be able to sell it?

Where do you want people to be able to buy and download your ebook? The options are numerous and bewildering. Apple’s iBookstore? OK, but make sure your ebook is in iBook format, and you’re not worried about the fact that, in most of the world, institutions can’t bulk-purchase on behalf of their students. What about services like CourseSmart and VitalSource Bookshelf? They solve some problems while adding others – again, we’re looking at format restrictions, some features added, others taken away. And then there’s Amazon’s Kindle store, of course. Different format again.

And, if you’re a publisher, what about existing distributors – where do they fit in?

6. Can I use the same artwork and photos as in the print version?

Many  books only have permission to use their artwork and photos in print form. How about re-clearing all of these permissions for digital use, and paying all over again? Or having to replace them? Nice.


7. Can I use the same fonts?

Does your ebook use fonts? Are you allowed the use the same fonts as in the print equivalent? Maybe not. You might need to change all of the fonts. Gulp.

8. Do my contracts cover ebooks?

Lots of the contracts underpinning a book (including author contracts) are specifically for print. Others may mention ebooks, but in vague or unsatisfactory ways. That’ll need sorting out, then.

9. Do I need to bundle my ebook with other products?

Want to sell an ebook bundled with something else (a print book, an online course etc) ? How exactly will that work if you’re selling the ebook in lots of different places? Complicated.

10. Have I got a plan to cope with software updates?

Could you imagine a situation where Apple release a software update which instantly renders all of your ebooks broken? If you’ve ever worked in digital publishing, then the answer is of course “Yes!”. I still have painful memories of what the release of Windows Vista did to a swathe of CD-ROMs for which I was responsible a few years ago. This could happen with any platform through which people buy and use your ebooks. Chances are, you’ll get no advance warning, so you just have to be on the look-out and, if the worst happens, be able to drop everything and get a fix done before your business is toast. Fun times.

11. Can I match user expectations? (I said 10 questions – this is a bonus!)

This is the big one. Can you keep up when people are increasingly accustomed to very sophisticated design and functionality in very cheap apps? We’re moving into an era in ELT where demands are higher in terms of design and overall user experience. ELT publishing is far more than a content industry these days.


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