Monday, April 8, 2013

It's time for E-publications to E-volve

Okay, this is part rant and partly a reminder to the next generation of indie (and traditional) publishers that epublications will not and should not continue to be print publications put online.

So, what got me in this ranting mood? Well, I subscribe to two magazines I download from online. One, in particular, I downloaded today. It's a new one
published by a group I belong to. The other is a magazine about history and archeology.

Both publications look exactly like their print counterparts. So, what's wrong with that. Well, their print counterparts are about 10x12 inches. My iPad is about 7 X 9. Most ereaders are about 5X7. And most smart phones are about 3 X 5. Do you see the problem? Print and epub are different media and should be treated differently.

About 30 years ago, I took a TV production class. One of our projects was to produce a commercial. The instructor said something that stuck with me throughout my advertising career. "If your commercial would work just as well as a radio ad or the text for a newspaper ad, then you are not using TV to it's potential."

That is what is happening to epublishing. Take that PDF magazine I just got. It looks beautiful, but if I want to actually read an article, I have to increase the size of the page, which means part of the page falls off the screen, the fonts increase, but get a bit fuzzy and nothing resizes or reformats for the different proportions for different devices. Basically, all they did was take the PDF they sent to the printers and put it online.

They do have a text only option, but nobody tested it. When you open it, apostrophes and other punctuation are just boxes on the screen. Undoubtedly, they simply copy and pasted from the PDF or MS-Word file without checking to see if the import worked. People wanted an online publication. So, a print editor created one.

There is more to creating online publications including books, magazines and new multimedia literature than simply taking something created for print and putting it online.

It's easy to criticize, but you ask, what can we do?  Well, there are a lot of things, but let's look at a few.

1. Don't assume print rules apply to epublications. Find out what the research and the experts say are best practices for ereading. The material is out there. Read it and absorb it.

2. Spend time with ereaders, tablets and smartphones yourself. If your only experience reading online is on a desktop or laptop computer, then you only know a portion of the ereading spectrum.

3. Use liquid layouts. Now, I don't have enough space to go into detail about this.  Here is a fairly decent article about it from Adobe. Of course, it discusses the concept in the context of their own software, but the workflow gives you an idea of what is needed.

If you are publishing .mobi or .epub files, you will have a liquid layout whether you like it or not. People will be able to change the size, style, spacing and margins of your text. That's one of the advantages of having an ereader. Don't assume that what you see on your screen when you are doing your layout is what they will see.

4. KISS. Yes, our old friend Keep It Simple, Stupid is back with us. Don't try to get fancy or force a certain page design on your end user. Don't try to flow text around pictures or create sidebars. Think about how this page would look in both portrait and landscape layouts.

5. Stick with one column layouts. Your typical ereader, smartphone and many tablets have a tall thin format, If someone increases the font size you don't want one column only showing partially and make the reader slide back and forth just to read the article.

6. If using a fixed layout design in PDF, provide a readable, scalable text-only alternative. I subscribed to an online version of Smithsonian for awhile. It had great print only options which worked much better in the ereader than the full pages. I'd use the fixed layout to zoom in on the pictures, but would read the articles in the text only version.

7. Think about the future now. Marshal McLuhan noted that every medium begins by borrowing from the previous media. The first TV shows were a mix of movies, stage plays and video versions of radio dramas. Slowly, the medium created it's own unique product.

Ereading is in it's infancy, but we can begin to ask ourselves, what can we do in an ebook we can't do in print. Some things obviously come to mind like creating hyperlinks to online content. Embedding video and audio files are a possibility. Using branching technologies where a reader can choose certain options and that determines where they continue reading has some value both in interactive fiction and for training and education. An interactive textbook could give a student a pre-test and then only display the chapters the student needs to learn without boring him/her with material they already mastered.

8. Don't let your epublication be a second thought. Many publishers today are still thinking in terms of print as the only legitimate form of publication, but they figure they "should" also have an e-version. That's what is happening with some of the downloadable magazines. They are not true epublications, but print publications put on line. Imagine a true ereader based magazine. You could have an article followed by a link that embeds a video interview or a clickable map that can be enlarged with clickable areas that bring up information about those areas.

Even if those are not things you are prepared to do, even if you want to stay mostly text based (which I have no problem with) you still need to design your epublication from the ground up and not just toss off an epublication as an afterthought.

These are just a few thoughts. Do you have any of your own? Why not share them below?

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