Lessons in the Basics of E-publishing

This past weekend, Beth and I attended a workshop put on by the Editors' Association of Canada entitled “E-publishing Essentials for Editors.” We were hoping to brush up on our ebook knowledge and get ready for what’s on the horizon. Sure enough, the seminar gave us a great run-down of the e-publishing basics. And, while much of what we learned seemed to fit with our existing knowledge of the publishing process, there were definitely a few surprises — a handful of which I will summarize for your reading pleasure.

Ebooks offer a way around many of the problems with traditional printing. (No dead trees! No decisions about print runs! Correct errors instantly instead of waiting for the next edition!) On the other hand, they bring a whole new set of pitfalls to the table … or tablet!
Consider this obvious-yet-mind-blowing fact: an ebook has no page numbers. This is because there is no “page size” for an ebook; it’s all customizable. You can make the text as huge as you like. This changes the number of pages, meaning there’s no fixed page count — meaning no numbers to plug into a traditional index as we understand it.
You might think that an index would be an even better tool in an ebook, where you can jump somewhere with the click of a button or a tap of a finger rather than flipping clumsily through the pages. Not so, apparently. The process of constructing all of those precise links is so time-consuming for indexers that almost no one is willing to pay to have an ebook index made.
Design for print books is a careful process. The same goes for ebooks, of course, but a whole lot of things we used to agonize over are completely irrelevant in this field. As above, the text size is customizable, thus there is no point in fixing it or arranging lines or looking for stacks or rivers or knots in the words — since text placement is always going to change. And yet, despite that level of mutability, there are staggering limitations … for example: there is only one typeface.
Only one. If, like me, you have strong opinions about fonts … well, I guess you’re out of luck for the moment. (On the plus side, for the foreseeable future, no aspiring author will ever be able to set their entire book in Papyrus.)
One of the biggest things that editors have to learn about ebooks has to do with styling. Have you ever tried to change the format of your text in Microsoft Word only to have the program resist you, making constant odd adjustments with seemingly no reason? This is the underlying style at work. When working on ebooks, editors are tasked with tweaking these style codes to make sure everything is consistent, because these details can affect the way that the book will eventually be displayed on an ereader.
The interesting thing about ebook creation is that it seems to nudge editorial and production tasks ever-so-slightly closer together. In turn, the production of books is becoming a lot more feasible for laypeople to grasp — and this means, strange as it may seem, that having a formal publisher for your book is becoming increasingly optional. This, too, has its benefits and drawbacks.
If you’re ever tempted by the thought of putting out your own ebook, just remember that it’s always important to have an editor — self-published or not!
Are you looking to improve your own editing knowledge and skills? The Editors’ Association of Canada is constantly holding seminars on a host of relevant topics. Check out its website for upcoming offerings!