Digital design and other shiny toys

Why creating ebooks takes time and money

Posted on by Paul

Client: Why will it cost so much to create my ebook?
Me: Actually, the fee is low considering the work involved.
Client: What work?

This is the long version of my answer. It’s not a rant, or one of those sneering ‘OMG my clients are so dumb’ posts. My clients are not stupid. It’s not their job to know about the technicalities of ebook production. Their job is to write. My job is to produce ebook versions of their novels. In that spirit, as a professional, here is my explanation of why creating ebooks involves actual work. Perhaps it will help other people who find themselves having the same conversation.

Scenario 1: Established writer who would like to publish their backlist as ebooks

In this scenario the novels have already been edited, proofed and can be supplied in electronic format. However, for ebook production we prefer the text with a minimum of formatting. All we want is headers, paragraph/section breaks and basic formatting such as bold and italic. Extra formatting must be stripped out, adding to the processing time. If the manuscript is supplied in a format such as RTF, Word or similar it should be straight forward to convert, but even then there are always odd issues. (I’m talking about text-only novels here. Illustrated titles are even harder to deal with.)

Sometimes publishers are reluctant to deliver electronic versions of the manuscript. Perhaps the author is no longer a priority for them, or they’d prefer to do the ebook conversion themselves. Whatever the reason, it can take time to find someone willing to hand over the files. The publisher might charge for this service.

In some cases the manuscript is supplied as a press-ready document such as PDF; in effect a snapshot of the printed book. This will take much longer to convert because we have to remove the useless (to us) formatting. For example, the text may have hard page breaks, page numbers and chapter headings within the body rather than in separate headers/footers, and multiple, redundant levels of styling. Removing this and extracting the basic text is time consuming.

If we’re unlucky there won’t be an electronic version of the manuscript at all. In this case we can either scan the book and use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to convert the resulting images to text, or hand it to a good typist. Either way, this will take a long time, add to the cost and require error checking and correction. Even the best OCR or typist can make mistakes.

Now we can convert the text file into an ebook. I usually do this chapter at a time, building up style rules to handle the ebook design. I’ll also test the ebook on different reader devices and applications as I go along, because there are sometimes odd formatting quirks with devices such as the early Kindle models. Once I have a few chapters in place I’ll send a sample to the client and explain how to test it on their ebook reader. Once the sample is approved I’ll add the rest of the book content and supply a full test version. At this point we’ll correct any typos or formatting issues and add extra information such as the copyright page, author bio etc. (Even though the manuscript has been through the editorial process at the original publisher we often spot errors at this stage.)

Now the ebook is ready, but we probably need a cover because the author doesn’t have rights to re-use the old print ones. Even if they do, these may not be suitable for ebooks as they were designed for a specific size and at print resolution. So, we have to design a cover, which is a job in itself.

Finally, the ebook is ready for submission to online services such as the Amazon Kindle Store, the Apple iBookStore, Barnes & Noble, and others. This can be rather confusing, so I’ll spend time guiding the author through the process.

Scenario 2: New author who would like to self-publish their novel as an ebook

In this case the author can usually supply an electronic version of the manuscript. However, it may not have been edited or proofed, which could mean a lot of work to tidy it up. This ranges from correcting typos to full-blown re-writing, in which case the book has to go to third-party editor.

Once the manuscript is ready I can convert it to ebook format as described above.

Then we need a cover. See above.

Now the ebook can be submitted to online stores. Again, see above.

The bottom line

This article isn’t meant to be flippant or imply that only a chosen few should be allowed to create ebooks. There’s nothing to stop authors from learning how to do it, other than the sensible realisation it’s a tedious bore which will distract them from the task of actually writing.

It’s true that ebook publishing removes the need to print and ship a physical product, but it still requires work. Not back-breaking, working-down-a-coal-mine kind of work, but it involves more than pressing a few keys and clicking the mouse.

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