Ebooks and Editing

Ebooks, content management and editing processes

The only editors who haven't heard about the rise of the ebook must be those who live and work on tiny islands. Specifically, islands that have no access to the internet, libraries, media, telepathic individuals or messages in bottles. The rise of the ebook has been, after all, quite hard to miss, and big technology companies are paying attention to consumer demand. Microsoft predicts that it will take until 2017 to grab a 51 per cent market share in the US ebook market, and only then because of technological issues. In terms of digital devices, Apple's iPad has given a considerable boost to the consumers' familiarity with digitised reading, while Amazon claims to have 950,000 ebook titles in its catalogue.


The ebook is thus a topic of major interest to anyone interested in keeping ahead of the publishing curve. Many (including me) have embarked on further study to improve their own understanding of ebooks, ebook editors and the editorial process. As a foolhardy individual who decided to undertake a minor thesis while employed full time, there are several things I learnt about the publishing industry's attempts to accommodate what will likely be, at some point, ebook dominance over the printed book.

For starters, publishers define the term 'ebooks' quite loosely, in part because ebooks themselves are so varied. They can, for example, be used on a range of devices, within a range of formats (such as mobi, epub, and Kindle-friendly files), and display the gamut of book types. One 'ebook' might be a media-friendly, full-colour student textbook best suited to the flashy display of the iPad's 'iBook' format. Yet another ebook might be a novella or a novel that is best showcased by the text-dominant, long-form-reading display of e-readers such as the Kindle and the Kobo (in a format such as 'epub' or 'mobi').

Thus, defining an ebook, in publishing terms, is like trying to pin down a fish with an oily rag. The discord originates with both the ambiguity of an ebook's parameters and the print-book-friendly production systems in which the average publisher currently produces ebooks and print books. Neither the ebook nor the publisher comes out of the encounter with a particularly good result because they have not been optimised to work together effectively. Because of this, the phrase 'content management system' (CMS) has become very familiar to the modern-day publishing industry analyst. Indeed, it seems to be a term well known to any publisher progressing towards a more ebook-friendly publishing system.

The CMS of many publishers catered to the printed book as the primary product. But this was before the rise of the ebook, which has quickly dated the old CMS system in a publishing environment where most publishers now produce an enormous variety of both print and digital media. The new CMS du jour would, for example, enable content produced for a specific project to be easily adapted and used within the parameters of almost any format, electronic or print. Not only that (and this is particularly important in an age where customers expect more material than ever from their media suppliers), publishers need to optimise their CMS to better accommodate 'convergence' (the efficient blending of print and electronic items into one production workflow). It not only allows for easy adaptation, but also for easy re-use, which reduces production time and therefore cost.

The aim of a new CMS should be, in the most ideal terms, to meet convergence demands in the current environment, while accommodating the likelihood of ebook market dominance in future. Yet publishers are, quite sensibly, very cautious about how these company-wide changes are to be implemented. Discussions with various publishing professionals throughout my research highlighted that there are non-fiction publishers in Australia who have spent more than three years and a significant amount of money developing CMS that best suit the needs of their range of products. Failing to get a system flexible enough to withstand ongoing technological development could mean gaping, long-term production inefficiencies and, ultimately, wasted expenditure compounded by a failure to maximise profit. It's the old adage made true for publishing processes: if you're going to do something, it's best to do it right. But such a process takes time, allowing technology to possibly drift ahead of a publisher's technological capabilities before it has even been able to efficiently exploit what was commonly available for consumer use several years ago.

For editors, the rise of the ebook is already leading to significant changes in what their role may be in the future. In short, to be an editor of an 'ebook' is to be master of several different content-display systems (all of which have their own inherent quirks and layout challenges), as well as a new system for producing content.

In order to comply with a convergence-friendly CMS, for example, editors will most likely edit 'chunks', or blocks of text, rather than books, in the future. The length of a 'chunk' is, as yet, difficult to determine and relies partly on the type of content a publisher produces. But in non-fiction terms, this may mean, for example, that the nature of something like structural editing may change. It will no longer be so easy to edit a block of text within the context of a single, stable form such as a book, because the text is likely to be reused or reformatted within the parameters of a project. Editing in 'block' rather than 'book' form allows content to be more easily adapted for use in, for example, a fact sheet and a chapter of a book, with minimal changes to the core content. This, of course, is a simplified example of a larger, more fundamental change at the heart of what an editor does: that editors may no longer be editing 'books' but simply 'content'.

The more practical elements of editing ebooks relate more to the 'quirks' of an ebook format. While some books might try to resemble the 'look' of a book (such as those produced for iPad), print and electronic books are about as similar as an en and em dash. Both serve a similar function, though why and where they are used is significantly different.

For starters, ebook devices make it incredibly difficult to avoid widows. How, for example, can you reliably eradicate widows in an ebook when the user can customise font size? Checking ebook layout in both landscape and portrait mode can stretch an editor's checking time, as can checking for poorly interpreted fonts, dud or missing links and, in the case of an adaptation, checking that all the text from the original print book has been correctly translated to an onscreen, usable format. This, as well as the regular 'book' editing that applies to both print and electronic products.

Whatever happens, it will be fascinating to watch how the publishing industry in Australia develops and implements convergence-friendly CMS. For editors, the challenges appear to be wide-ranging but ultimately fascinating. Ebooks will allow editors to literally test the boundaries of what is possible in this field. Even then, the boundaries will continue to move outwards as technology develops new and better ways to present content via electronic devices.

Lastly, there are two valuable things an editor can learn from editing ebook content, whatever device is in use. The first is that if your tablet isn't working, try turning it off and on again. The second is that you should never, under any circumstances, use your tablet as a chopping board. Things will end badly.

Siobhan Argent