Electric Book Works Publishing reinvented for the digital age

A beginner publisher’s guide to digital production

Publishers have to make difficult decisions about what to spend in setting up an ebook publishing programme. They have to think about their contractual obligations to authors (often defined in pre-Internet contracts); a myriad companies offering complex arrays of digital services; countless stories of the wonders and horrors of digital publishing; an apparent dearth of staff with both publishing and web-technical skills; financial pressure to cut costs, not start new departments with new staff; and the demands of their day jobs.

For creating and distributing ebooks a publisher’s biggest costs can be in the time and effort its staff take to become familiar with the options available and their technicalities. A publisher can try to buy in this expertise by outsourcing the whole thing, but then they run the risk of spending a lot of money on something they don’t really need, just because their supplier has convinced them of a particular route. I don’t envy publishers having to navigate these waters.

Here’s an ABCs-only introduction to one of these areas: choices about ebook formats (and a note on ‘just do it’ ebook distribution).

Ebook creation

Many publishers outsource ebook creation to companies in India and elsewhere (e.g. Amnet, SuntecIndia, InfogridPacific, Macmillan Publishing Services), which seems to be the cheapest way to convert backlist titles (and sometimes frontlist titles too) to ebook formats. Quality control can be a challenge: not because the suppliers aren’t good, but because there are many ways to make an ebook, and someone in the publishing house has to be able to brief and monitor what their suppliers are doing. This requires some investment in developing skills, training, and research.

Granularising and XML

A second issue that affects cost is the depth to which publishers want to go in ‘granularising’ their content. Some publishers invest a lot to set up XML-workflows that keep content in XML through some or all of its life through the editorial and distribution process. (XML is a way to store data only; content in XML must be processed by other software for humans to read it.) This allows a very high level of granularised control over content, allowing for all kinds of potential repurposing of content, but it is very expensive.

Setting up an XML workflow can’t be easily costed in currency: it is mostly a matter of investing staff time and training time for editors and authors, and it requires a high level of technical understanding from senior management. (O’Reilly have done well in this regard, but as a technology publisher they are ideally suited to it.)

Easy ebooks

On the other extreme, some take the cheapest, easiest way to distribute ebooks, and simply use PDFs (often low-res to reduce file size), sometimes with a little value added (e.g. clickable table of contents, internal and external links etc). PDF is perfect for layout-intensive books that cannot be easily reflowed. PDF will always pose problems for small screens (despite software reflowing PDFs for small screens, the way a PDF was originally created will always affect how effective automatic reflowing can be).

So for a publisher, a little investment of time getting a PDF-ebook workflow added to the production process (and the admin of setting up and monitoring an agreement with a distributor), can provide a very low-cost way to distribute ebooks. Once the training and admin time has been put in, there are no further costs, and no significant changes to workflow are necessary.

HTML and epub: a good compromise

Between the two extremes of XML and PDF, many publishers choose HTML-based formats like epub (in our view the only format worth backing for the long term). They offer a degree of flexibility without the investment of full XML or the awkwardness of PDF.


Most distributors (we work with Ingram, and could choose to work with Overdrive and others) let publishers add content to their systems for free, and make their money off a cut of sales (often 5–10%; the retailer takes 40–60%). The publisher’s costs are then really incurred in marketing. There’s an insane amount of competition for consumers’ attention, and only the luckiest, most heavily promoted, and best ebooks will sell in large quantities (by large quantities I mean in the hundreds or thousands; again a reason why publishers, in my view, should not be spending a lot of money creating and distributing ebooks if they expect a return on investment on most of their books).

20 February 2009
This information is more than two years old, and may no longer be accurate.