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The next publishing frontier

Designing for e-books can be tricky if you’re not prepared. Multimedia hed: The next publishing frontier dek: designing for e-books can be tricky if you’re not prepared. dek: even if your e-book looks good on your screen, it might not on others. by Joe Farace

The potential for aspiring writers to be published is greater now than it has been at any time since Gutenberg’s day. You can use the World Wide Web, print-on-demand services like Barnes & Noble’s iUniverse , or, increasingly, e-books.

It’s not just technology that’s driving this trend; one of the biggest reasons is the inability of dead-tree publishers to respond to both authors and readers in a timely manner. Unless it’s a book about a current news topic, traditional publishers have shown an inability to produce books quickly. It is not uncommon for some publishers to take nine months to a year to distribute a book after the author has completed it. Technology-related books about computer hardware and software are almost out of date the day they hit the shelves.

Authors are turning to e-books to get their messages out to readers, but also to make more money than with traditional methods. I know of one writer who has made more than $10,000 in four weeks from only modest sales of his e-book-and it’s still selling. What’s more, he doesn’t have to wait for quarterly royalty payments, or for publishers to withhold part of those royalties to cover the possibility of returns. He has the money now.

Initial format decisions

While Microsoft and Adobe would like you to believe that there is only one format–theirs of, course–for e-books, the reality is that authors are successfully producing them in many ways. You don’t need a Pocket PC to read an e-book; any laptop will do. That’s why any commonly used visual format works. If it can be recorded onto CD-ROM or downloaded from a Web site and read on a computer or PDA, that’s all that counts.

You can create an e-book in many different formats, and the decision about which one to use can have a bearing not only on how easy the e-book will be to produce, but also how widespread its distribution will be.

Microsoft PowerPoint is probably one of the easiest formats to use, and computer users can take material originally created for presentations and, by adding just a bit more text, turn it into an e-book. What’s more, you can provide a free player on the disc for Windows users, though Mac OS users need their own a copy of PowerPoint to view your e-book. True, PowerPoint allows you to save the file in the MOV format and the resulting file can be viewed with Apple Computer’s QuickTime Player. But the viewing/reading experience is quite different than using the full-screen Windows player. The inelegantly named ppview97.exe lets you view PowerPoint Show (PPS) files at full screen resolution. Try that with the QuickTime Player and a MOV file created from the same PowerPoint file, and the images and text have much less quality.

The Mac OS and Windows versions of Adobe PageMaker 7 support the cross-platform Tagged PDF (Portable Document Format) files that automatically reflow documents for readability on different kinds of devices, even at different display resolutions. Publication with other PDF-enabled desktop publishing software-such as InDesign or QuarkXPress-will take more time than creating it with PowerPoint, but the potential exists for a more design-rich experience. While it will take more experience to produce, Adobe’s free Acrobat Reader can be either downloaded from Adobe’s Web site or included on the e-book disc, making the format accessible to all platforms in exactly the same way.

By using one of the most accessible formats, HTML, you let every potential reader who can read your e-book use an Internet browser, along with navigational aids, buttons, and hyperlinks. HTML may be more difficult to produce for some potential authors, but there are many ways to use it creatively if you have the knack and experience. One clever option is provided by FlipAlbum software from e-Book Systems. It’s easy to use and creates standalone e-books whose pages turn like those in real books. The down side is that it limits your distribution to Windows computers.

Making the right design choices

One of the first things prospective e-book writers quickly learn is that not only are you now the publisher, but you’re also the book designer. As such, you need to consider things that writers ordinarily wouldn’t have to worry about.

Avoid the temptation to use your favorite font in the e-book. This is seldom a problem with the PDF format that will automatically make the font part of the document, but PowerPoint and some other e-book formats expect that fonts will be found on the hard drive of whomever is running the presentation. If the software running the book can’t find the font, it will substitute a font whose spacing may or may not work on the screen.

Size-wise, images need to be appropriate to the way the book will be viewed. This is required not so much for image quality as for its effect on the resulting file. One of the advantages of using the PowerPoint format is that e-book content can be repurposed into a presentation with the deletion of the detailed text. But the size of the image files, especially photographs, now becomes an important consideration. If used for presentations, the file should be larger than it would be if the image was only going to be viewed on a laptop or even a large desktop monitor.

If you never plan to project the e-book, you can stick to 100dpi JPEG files and save them in whichever size and compression looks good. For presentation use, my rule of thumb is that the image’s longest (as measured by Adobe Photoshop’s Image Size dialog) dimension should be 10 inches, and low compression rates should be used. For laptop and desktop use, you can use a size just slightly larger than how the image appears on a 21-inch monitor with medium compression. Keep in mind that you could produce documents that are unwieldy in size, especially if you ask purchasers to copy them onto their hard disks to make the e-book work faster. You really don’t know how much space readers have available, so you should specify your e-book file size as a system requirement on the disc or CD cover.

You also can’t take it for granted that if the e-book looks perfect on your computer, it will look good and be usable on someone else’s machine. Before shipping the e-book, make several copies that include the same instructions you plan to give to potential buyers. Give them to friends who have various levels of experience and different kinds of computers. Later, ask your guinea pigs about their experiences and integrate changes in the book’s format or your instructions to make sure the e-book not only looks good but also works better. Then it’s a good idea to make another set of discs and send them to an editor before unleashing the e-book on buyers. Unlike when writing a book for a large publisher, you’re also now in charge of customer support.

Real-world e-books

The lack of broad success for e-book fiction such as Stephen King’s “The Plant” shows that the real potential in e-publishing lies in nonfiction-especially books about graphics and imaging that can take advantage of the digital medium with color, animation, video, and the ability to add items such as bonus software. In addition, such publishing projects rarely offer the bestseller potential of the latest Tom Clancy or Clive Cussler thriller, so the lower-production volumes are a good fit. Here are three examples-using three completely different design approaches-that are drawn from the world of digital imaging and photography and show the many paths available for creating effective e-books.

Peter Nova’s “Mastering Nikon Compact Digital Cameras: CoolPix 950 and 990” is published by Graphics Management Press and was produced in Adobe’s PDF (Portable Document Format). A copy of Acrobat Reader 4 is included on the disk, although version-conscious e-bookers might want to download Acrobat Reader 5. Because of the print-centric design of this e-book, you can also print pages from the book; some parts, such as color charts and test images, were created expressly for this purpose. Since e-books are already in disc form, the publisher has bundled software-such as Photoshop Actions, which was created specifically for these Nikon digital cameras, a trial version of Lizard Tech’s Genuine Fractals, and more. Updates and more information can be found at a companion Web site with a section dedicated to e-book buyers.

Rick Sammon’s “The Camera Looks Both Ways” is published by Sammon & Sammon and uses the Microsoft PowerPoint format for Mac OS or Windows computers. This format suits the cozy one-on-one style the author uses to showcase more than 100 of his travel photographs made in Africa, Cuba, Thailand, India, Nepal, Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands. The presentation contains dramatic images that capture the mood of each place as well as its people. You’ll get tips on photographing people from various cultures, as Sammon explains meeting and relating to the people he’s photographed around this planet. The text includes suggestions and examples of how to take great travel photographs, as well as advice about adding digital enhancements with Photoshop that can add an extra dimension to the original image. The presentation’s mood is informal, but you’ll learn how each of the sensitive and sometimes funny images were created. Bonus material includes “Rick’s Travelog,” a Microsoft Word document that includes travel tips on more than 20 specific destinations around the world.

John Stewart’s “How To Buy Your First Digital Camera” is published by ACI Inc. and is written in HTML. Its auto-start mode immediately launches your Internet browser, and you navigate by clicking hyperlinks. One of the e-book’s coolest features is that you can find topics of interest by moving your mouse over a photograph of a digital camera. Want to know about flash? Click on the flash to find out. Clicking on the lens brings up a series of questions you should ask yourself before buying a new digital camera. There is even a buyer’s checklist that you can print and use to make notes when comparing features between different models. The disc contains a Quick Start Guide to help you learn the basics, and a six-chapter tutorial that covers everything from assessing your needs to information about image-editing software. The Other Options section introduces you to inexpensive VGA digicams, as well as how new camera buyers might enjoy multi-use or used digicams. All of this is wrapped up in a clean, easy-to-use interface that’s fun to read and features a down-to-earth perspective.

Copyrights and wrongs: the other side of the coin

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was designed to protect publishers’ and authors’ rights in the electronic arena, but No Starch Press publisher William Pollock believes it fails to preserve copyright law’s historic ability to balance the interests of publishers with those of readers. Pollock thinks readers have fair-use rights that relate to electronic and printed books and should be able to exercise those rights without asking permission. Like most publishers, Pollock is opposed to the illegal copying and sale of books, and thinks the government should spend more time prosecuting the people and companies who make and sell illegal copies of books, not software tool developers such as Dmitry Sklyarov.

No Starch Press does not publish books in proprietary e-book formats because Pollack feels these formats limit the reader’s experience and puts unnecessary restraints on information. He believes the e-book format is flawed because it denies basic rights to readers that they have when buying a printed book. Pollock thinks readers of electronic books should be able to read their electronic books just as they read their printed books-wherever and whenever they please-and they should be able to share their electronic books with others. He further believes that they have the right to read electronic books with a Braille terminal, a text-to-speech device, or read them on more than one computer.

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