Summary Report – eBooks: The Revolution Will Be Digitized

This report was prepared for the Shenzhen-UNESCO International Conference on “Digital Books and Future Technology” (November 29-30, 2014 in Shenzhen, China) by A.D. Hitchens.

From the Introduction:

The digital revolution continues to modernize, disrupt, and fundamentally change the way in which we engage with our surroundings. The resulting increase in interconnectedness is continuing to catalyze the human thirst for immediate access to information and content.

Amidst all of the changes, there are many questions that should be asked and explored: Are we able to draw any conclusions about how eBooks will fare by looking at other digital content industries? How will the economic interests of publishers and rights owners influence the spread and use of eBooks? Will the globalized media corporate landscape impose a “developed-country” first approach or is there room for developing and emerging countries to adapt their own strategy? Can traditional print continue to coexist with the explosive growth of its digital form? How can governments aid in the development of this industry?

KindleHitchens argues that exactly because eBook technology is the last piece of the content industries’ assimilation into a globally interconnected world, its development and promulgation will trigger major changes in the publishing industry and in our ways of consuming books.


eBook Choices: Fixed Layout or Flowable

Modern eBooks come in two general forms: Fixed Layout and Flowable. Each format has its pros and cons, but a good general rule is that for long form reading such as a novel you want a flowable text book while for academic or graphically oriented materials like text books and manuals you would want to use a fixed layout format.

The Book Industry Study Group, Inc. (BISG) has released a Field Guide to Fixed Layout for E-Books that can help publishers select the best format for their book. It also helps book producers understand potential drawbacks and limitations that may result from a book being used on various platforms.

Core to understanding this topic is in the Field Guide’s first section: When to Use Fixed Layout:

When Is Fixed Layout Most Appropriate?

A fixed layout that exactly replicates the print design is almost always best for Children’s picture books, Manga, Comics and Graphic novels. These books have art created at a particular aspect ratio, and almost always need the entire page to bleed. Retailers have shown that there has been a growing consumer acceptance of these genres in eBook form.

Sometimes using a fixed layout, but not fully replicating the print layout, may be a viable solution. The eBook text can use a bigger font, and the design can be engineered to avoid pinching and zooming, even on the smallest screens. This fixed-but-different approach can work well for cookbooks, gift books, and art books.

Keep in mind that a fixed layout should not be the automatic default for the conversion of all of these product types. Often, because we are so familiar with (and attached to) the print format, we cling to fixed layout when a reflowable digital product might be more appropriate.

When Is Fixed Layout Not As Appropriate?

While editors and designers may be most comfortable producing an exact page replica of a print book, this isn’t always the best solution for the content, and it can limit the book’s distribution potential.

Here are a few considerations to keep in mind before deciding to go with fixed layout:

  • A text-heavy fixed-layout title can generate an unfriendly user experience because the customer continually has to pinch/zoom/pan the pages on the tablet in order to view the content. There can be a loss of some of the features available in reflowable e-books–for example, text-search functionality can be lost if the text is flattened as part of an image file. Additionally, a customer who expects a reflowable experience but encounters instead the print replica may experience confusion and disappointment.
  • From a production standpoint, fixed layout is labor-intensive and expensive. Fixed layout needs to accommodate the conversion and oversight of multiple formats–Amazon, Apple, B&N, and Kobo all support fixed-layout e-book files but use different formats, although widespread adoption of EPUB3 will help re-duce this fragmentation. Each format must be individually reviewed by the publisher for quality assurance, usually multiple times, thereby creating additional work and cost for content-management departments.
  • Fixed layout can also affect tight production schedules. Because the format relies heavily on the print layout, conversion efforts typically begin once the print file is finalized, even though the digital product often has to come out either at the same time, shortly thereafter, or even, in some cases, before the print edition. There is, therefore, a high risk of missing on-sale dates, which reduces the ability to capitalize on publicity and marketing.

For long term planning, remember that a reliance on fixed layout can hinder a publisher’s ability to innovate at a time when experimentation may be a critical part of digital migration. While fixed layout does not, in fact, prevent the inclusion of advanced features, a focus on replicating print, coupled with the complication of creating multiple versions for multiple platforms, often inhibits the inclusion of the very features that truly distinguish digital from print publications.

Download the Field Guide


When and Why Should You Digitize?

What do we mean by document digitization? In business, the term is simply a catch-all way refer to the complete set of processes needed to convert physical resources into a digital form that can be used in the same way as the original source materials, and also shared and enhanced in ways that a simple piece or paper or a book cannot.

Paper Work

These newly digitized materials — whether they are internal memos, old contracts, or entire books — can be used across a worldwide organization through digital devices, databases, and networks.

These new digital objects can be viewed as a collection — a shared digital pool of information — that can be quickly accessed by members of the organization and provide continuity for departments and teams over time.

When is Digitization the Answer?

It is important to approach digitization as a series of choices where a variety of factors come into play.

When selecting material for digitization, your organization should answer three simple questions about the material under consideration:

  • Does it need to be converted?
  • Who would benefit from the conversion?
  • Can it be successfully converted in a useful way?

Answering these questions will help your organization when it is time to look at technical feasibility, usability issues, and prioritizing materials to be converted.

Why are you Digitizing?

If your organization is new to digitization you should examine your reasoning along two lines so you have a firm goal in mind before you begin. Is your primary goal to enhance access to the selected materials or are you simply working to preserve long term access to legacy materials that your organization has accumulated over time?

For the first purpose, increased access, one key point to examine is the exact benefits to be gained by providing increased access to materials for your staff. It is quite smart to focus on specific needs and to target a specific group of workers. Having specific people in mind will help in planning as you evaluate options based on concrete needs and work-flows.

For the second purpose, preservation, you may be dealing with source materials that are bulky or damaged, or just inconvienient to store. In this case you want to create accurate reproductions of these originals on a long-lasting medium and focus on long term solutions that can be expanded over time rather than on the selection of materials based to demand. These preserved reproductions need to satisfy both users of today and future potential users, and must therefore both high quality and based on format and structure that can be sustained over a long period time.


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