The process is the thing

A few words on not using the standard publishing industry processes for making digital work.

(This is a follow-up to my earlier blog post Von be don: A few notes on a recent digital publishing project in Iceland)

You can find more information on the book in Icelandic on the Von be don site and you can read the webbook, in Icelandic, anywhere you like.

I’m attending ebookcraft this week. This is always a mixed experience. Not because of the people (who are fantastic) or the event (which is great) but because every part of it is a reminder of how dysfunctional digital publishing is as an industry.

The technological brokenness of ebooks as a platform is well documented. They’re HTML but not really. They use CSS but only kinda-sorta. They support JavaScript but only sometimes and in some ways. And every app and platform does that kinda-sorta-sometimes thing each in its own weird and incompatible way. You get something working in one place and it breaks in another.

But that isn’t the extent of the industry’s dysfunction: the process itself is broken for many publishers:

  • The overt mandate for most producers is to replicate the print version but also work on every device, which is simply impossible.
  • Ebook producers generally have no agency; decisions to adapt and adjust the content has to be passed up the chain and a lot of the time the answer will simply be ‘no’.
  • Ebook producers have no authorship. A good designer or typesetter will often get credited in the book, if not in the acknowledgements then very often on the copyright page. And the design is the designer’s work; it is recognised in the process as a creative endeavour in its own right. Ebook producers are usually treated (and paid) as if they were data entry staff. There is no recognition of the fact that designing and implementing a digital work (which is de facto what every single ebook producer does) is an act of creation.
  • There is no collaboration. In a design-heavy book the author, editor, and designer will often discuss and work together. Even when the author is excluded (which happens too often) the designer and editor will work as a team, with the editor being the primary source of feedback on the design.
  • The digital version isn’t allowed to be its own thing. There’s no leeway in the process for adjusting and reworking the book to work better in digital.

With Von be don: Magnús og Malaika leysa málið we wanted to try to avoid these issues. Partly because we don’t hate ourselves and don’t want to actively make ourselves miserable. But mostly because the goals of our project—making a digital version of Von be don and make it as widely available as possible—are not the same as the goals of most ebook production jobs. And because replicating print and supporting a wide variety of devices are mutually incompatible goals, I worked with the illustrator and author (my sister and my mom, incidentally 😀) to figure out how best to rework and adapt the book to a digital medium.

An illustration from the book that is marked up with a series of boxes for crop and cutting options

Instead of re-using publishing industry processes we reused digital media design processes:

  • We printed out the pages and sketched on them to figure out how best to adjust and cut pages apart to tell the story better on both smaller and bigger screens (e.g. mobile phones and TVs).
  • The illustrator marked up the pages with possible options for cropping the image and breaking it up.
  • Based on the feedback we made a series of quick, exploratory storyboards that very roughly laid out the entire book.
  • Prototypes: quick versions of the webbook that they could test in their browsers. Upon testing we found that many of our ideas really didn’t function well or failed utterly in many browsers (e.g. laying the book out horizontally as well as any attempt at paginating the text-heavy portions of the book).
  • Early in the process we opened a mailing list for those who were interested in being the first to read the webbook.

Once we had a prototype that we liked we sent an email to our ‘early readers’ list giving them an opportunity to read, test, and give us feedback on it before we rolled it out to a wider audience.

Then, after we had fixed some of the bugs and wrinkles revealed by early testing we announced it to the world.

Best of all we are still adjusting and fixing the webbook and because it is a website, every fix is instantly distributed to most readers. (Readers who are using the offline features obviously only get the updates once they get back online.)

So much of ebook production is inseparable from the technology it uses. Even more than just being tied to the ePub ecosystem and never venturing into the web. That’s bad enough. But the publishing industry is largely tied to the products and platforms of a handful of vendors who manifestly don’t care about books.

Adobe and Amazon are the Scylla and Charybdis of publishing. They are uncaring forces of nature that just as likely to destroy or make your life hell as they are to help you or improve your work.

As I’ve said several times before, the publishing industry as a whole has outsourced their entire workflow and production pipeline to a single vendor—Adobe. It’d be like if the web industry as a whole had decided that websites could only be made with Dreamweaver and only served from a Windows Server. In effect they have outsourced the management and organisation of all of their digital publishing—pre-fabricated and flat-packed executive decisions that are unpacked and assembled by underpaid and overqualified idealists who are never given an avenue to express their skills and creativity.

Some publishers, generally the smaller and newer ones, have gone and done their own thing. For smaller outfits, avoiding the goblin that is Adobe is actually cheaper and more effective. And if your goal is reach and distribution instead of unit sales, avoiding the Adobe pipeline is essential.