The Digitizers: Joshua Tallent, the Kindle e-book designer to beat all Kindle e-book designers
February 23, 2009 | 8:03 am
By Kat Meyer
With the right e-book designer, your Kindle books can stand out from typical homebrewed jobs. Joshua Tallent, with eBook Architects and KindleFormatting.com, excels at making this happen. Kat Meyer interviewed him recently for her Digitizers series for TeleRead. Josh works not just with self-published writers but also with some major players in e-publishing such as LibreDigital. – D.R.
KM: As a self-professed geek and a technophile, what about the Kindle and formatting ebooks for it do you most dig?
JT: I love that the Kindle has the e-book buying experience wrapped up. Wireless book downloads and an easy-to-navigate store are two of the key features that have made the Kindle such a big success. The device does not require a degree in computer science to use, and even the most non-techie person can successfully get the content they want in just a couple of clicks, even without owning a computer.
The format does leave a bit to be desired—there are some pretty glaring options missing. However, I have always liked a challenge, and making books look amazing on the Kindle is definitely that.
KM: Given that Amazon and the Kindle have been very successful at taking e-books mainstream, do you find that most of your clients are looking to publish for the Kindle specifically, or are they open to all e-book formats/devices? (In other words, what motivates your typical client to publish to Kindle as opposed to other formats, and are they also publishing print versions of their books? if so, how?)
JT: Most of my clients have heard about the Kindle but not about other e-book devices or formats. As a matter of fact, some have never seen a Kindle—they just know they need to put their content on it. The majority have tried to publish on Amazon’s Digital Text Platform (DTP) themselves and run into issues, or saw the difficulties others were having formatting books and just decided to sidestep those problems by coming to me.
When I talk to my clients about other formats like ePub, the biggest deterrent for them is not being able to easily sell the books. They either have to set up a website or try to get the book on a retailer’s site, but the former option is beyond the scope of a lot of authors, and the latter option has proven to be a difficult to impossible proposition. As soon as someone makes a publishing process for ePub that is as easy to use as the DTP and ties into all of the other retailers, I am sure all my clients will be on board in an instant.
A large number of my clients have already published their books in print or are in the process of doing so. I work with some small publishers, and there are times when I have to format an e-book quickly to make it available for release at the same time as the print version. Most of the self-publishing authors I work with are using a publishing services company or are using a service like CreateSpace or Lulu. Some are writing the book only for e-book sales, but I think most of those people are not interested in the hassle of getting a book printed.
KM: Interesting. Have you noticed a specific genre or type of book/author more prominent among those books you are formatting for Kindle?
JT: The split between non-fiction and fiction is about 60/40. About a quarter of the non-fiction books I have done are business books, a quarter are science and health, a quarter are memoirs, and the rest are a mix of other subjects. The fiction books are a pretty varied bunch, too. I have formatted some romance titles, some SciFi, and some regular fiction. I’ve even done a few kids books (which my daughters were really happy about, since they got to “beta test” them).
KM: Design/formatting is of great importance to you. Do you find that your clients (and for that matter, the e-reading public) appreciate great e-book design and functionality? What kinds of cool things have you been able to do in terms of design and format (links, embeds, searchability, etc.)?
JT: I do think that the design of an e-book is very important. Print book designers spend many hours making their books look great, but, unfortunately, that attention to detail has not carried over to the majority of the e-book world. Most mass-produced e-books I look at are horribly designed. Either they have no formatting at all or they are inconsistent and unimaginative. Tables and graphs are unreadable, images are fuzzy, and even whole sections of text are turned into an image. I do my best to make the books I work on look great on the Kindle. I have researched the best formatting and have found all of the little tweaks that make the biggest differences.
One of the coolest projects I worked on this past year was the Rand McNally Road Atlas project. Rand McNally brought me in as a consultant, and I was able to help their designers come up with a great design that works very well on the Kindle. I have also been able to help some clients with very image-heavy books, including a 600-lesson chess book that includes an image for each lesson, and some books about genetics with a large number of graphs and charts. As far as I know, I am the only e-book developer who actually links the page numbers in an index back into the text of the book. Most other developers just ignore that part of the book and assume that the ability to search the book will be enough, but I know that scanning an index can be a fruitful way to see what the book contains or find that one bit of information that you need.
KM: Along those same lines, do you have any advice or insight for would-be Kindle authors/publishers about what features Kindle e-books can offer that they might not have been aware of, or thought to utilize in their e-book production? Are there any caveats you’d like to let authors/publishers know about before they begin the process of Kindleizing their content (what is ideal file format, etc.)?
JT: Many authors don’t realize that the Kindle can use hyperlinks for a variety of purposes, such as making links within the book text to other sections (for instance, “see Chapter 2”), or making all of the page numbers in the index into links. Another important bit of data, which I reveal in my upcoming book, is that the optimum dimensions for images on the Kindle screen is 524 pixels wide by 640 pixels high. Common knowledge to date about those dimensions has suggested using 450px by 550px images.
The Kindle format is basically HTML, so I do suggest that everyone get their book into HTML from whatever source they have, then clean up the code so that it is simple and basic, with no extraneous styles or tags. Those are the biggest issues most people run into: trying to upload a PDF file to the DTP or neglecting to remove all the junk that most auto-generated HTML has in it.
KM: Can you share any insider info about Kindle 2? What it does that Kindle 1 didn’t, and is there any lesser known functionality/features that users might want to check out?
JT: I don’t have any insider info, but the features that look like the best additions to me are the 16-level grayscale screen (a huge improvement over the 4-level Kindle 1 screen) and the joystick for selecting items on the screen. I am really looking forward to playing with the new Kindle and testing out what it can do.
KM: What is your experience in terms of Kindle users and their platform/device preferences? Do you find that once a Kindle user, always a Kindle user—or are Kindle users likely to read on multiple devices and across multiple platforms?
JT: I think the majority of Kindle users are going to stick with the Kindles. Early adopters can be very loyal to the technology they adopt. Additionally, I think most Kindle users are not looking for the hottest new gadget, they are looking for a way to easily read their books. That being said, early adopters can also be a bit critical of flaws in the technology they are adopting, always looking for a better solution. I think the best example of this is Joe Wikert. He started out as a very vocal Kindle advocate and has become disenchanted with the device over time with some very valid criticisms. The Kindle is not for everyone. Some people will be just as happy with their iPhone or their Sony Reader. But I do think that the Kindle will continue to succeed because the majority of users are happy with how it works for them.
KM: How has Amazon’s Kindle team been in terms of cooperating with developers/designers? And, in terms of helping you help authors get set up on Kindle and Amazon?
JT: Honestly, they have been completely silent. I have not been able to get in touch with anyone from Amazon despite my numerous attempts. I would love to get some information about Topaz (their super-secret format that actually allows font embedding and some other great options), and get some help making sure my clients have access to the back-end in the same ways as the big publishing houses.
KM: Do you advise your clients on pricing their Kindle books? If so, what kind of guidelines do you give them?
JT: I do give some advice on pricing and marketing issues when I am asked. Most authors know what they want to sell their books for, and there are only a few who have strayed from the typical pricing scheme for Kindle books. I advise them to stay within the normal range. Kindle owners are less likely to buy a book that is priced too much like the hard copy or not comparable to other books in the store.
KM: How would you like to see Kindle go in the future? Are there functionalities that you’d be excited to see introduced – if so, what?
JT: I was really happy to see the addition of a mono-spaced font in the recent firmware update, and I would love to see that expanded to include a sans-serif font, too. Formatting books only in a serif font is frustrating. I would also like to see full Unicode support. Despite the fact that the device is only available in the US, many of us do read other languages. I would personally like to see Hebrew support. Another big feature, one that I am surprised Amazon missed on the Kindle 2, is a folder structure for content. That is the most oft-requested enhancement, and it is an epic failure that the Kindle 2 does not have it.
KM: Any thoughts about the Kindle e-books for smart phones announcement – and what this means for authors/publishers who have published to/formtted for Kindle?
JT: I think the idea of an Amazon application for the iPhone (and for the G1, which I own) is great, and I would love to see it. I also think that the move toward that goal is another sign that Amazon, while still not getting on board with DRM-less content, is definitely making the business of e-books front and center. And, as I discussed before, this would make it even easier for authors and small publishers to get their content into the hands of readers, regardless of the device.
KM: What book(s) are you reading or have you read recently, and how are you reading it/them?
JT: I like to read fiction when I have the opportunity. However, one of my favorite authors is John Grisham, and his books are not available on the Kindle yet [update: Kindle editions of Grisham are apparently on the way. – D.R.]. I actually had to buy a print copy of one to read on a trip recently. I also like Harry Turtledove’s alternate history books, and I just noticed that those are all available. Other than that, my typical reading includes lots of Jewish-themed and theology books, some of which have Hebrew, so there are not a lot of them on the Kindle yet. Maybe with the next firmware upgrade, I will get to approach some of those authors and publishers with plans to get their books formatted with the Hebrew included.