the-magazine-book-volume-I-1Found via a blog post by Adam Tinworth: The publisher of The Magazine ran a Kickstarter project to put together a hardcover book and e-book of the best of The Magazine’s first year. When it came to producing the print book and the PDF, the going was easy.

But they found converting it to EPUB considerably harder, because whereas PDF is concerned about replicating the print format precisely, EPUB must by necessity be more free-form. Which meant effectively having to undo all the fancy formatting they did for the PDF version. Said publisher and his helpers consulted with many experts on the various means of producing an EPUB, but couldn’t find any easy solution. “[They] all have their own zigs and zags.” It ended up taking them weeks of work to produce something halfway decent.

Going by this article, it seems as if the tools for simultaneously publishing PDF and EPUB professionally—at least for people who aren’t part of big publishing houses which presumably have custom-built, specialized tools to help with that—just aren’t “there” yet. Will they ever be? Or are the processes destined to remain just too different for easy cross-compatibility? It’s an intriguing question, and one that I suspect will be with us for a while.


  1. One publisher I buy from regularly tried to render a graphics-heavy book in epub and the results were so terrible that he sent free replacement pdfs to all purchasers. Detailed photographs and design elements just don’t mix with six inch screens. When the visuals are the main point of the document, epub doesn’t make sense. Don’t get me wrong, nothing, not even print on paper, works better for text than epub. Just don’t ask me to peruse a picture book on my six inch Aluratek.

  2. Ah, yes. I understand this all too well.

    The underlying problem is a simple one. Those developing epub got it all wrong. Focused on HTML, they saw their task as creating a reflowable and scrolling format for book length documents that included a lot of multimedia support, but was subject to severe hardware limitations. They should have created a reflowable, page-based format and placed their emphasis on reduplicated what print books do rather than what webpages do. The multimedia could wait a long, long time.

    The reflowable but page-based requirement would have meant building rules into the spec to deal with what layout staff do with printed books: things such as making sure page breaks work with images, headings don’t sit at the bottom of pages, and there are no windows and orphans.

    Those aren’t issues with webpages because users scroll down one long page. They are very serious issues with ebooks because readers page through an ebook and badly done page breaks look hideous. It’d actually be trivial to create an epub ebook reader smart enough to do simple things like wrapping a text early to prevent a heading from appearing at the bottom of a page or preventing widows or orphans. My Kindle, bless it’s stupid heart, once wrapped to a new page the last “ly” in a word at the end of a chapter. How hard is it to create a reader smart enough to just wrap that page break two lines early? And why can’t epub understand a simple “keep with” for text or be smart enough to keep flowing the text but move a picture to the top of the next page? Why this obsession with a rigidly linear flow in a document where page breaks cannot be predicted?

    Epub developers should have also focused on making their format, first and foremost, do the sorts of complex book layouts that print books have been able to handle for about half a millennium. Much of the problem with print-to-epub conversion comes because epub either can’t do what PDF can do or it only does it poorly and with a lot of complex tweaking.

    For now, I’ve reconciled myself to creating print books in InDesign that adapt easily to epub. Each chapter starts on a new page with the title immediately followed by the book’s one and only picture. That eliminates page break issues. I also stick to themes that don’t require complex formatting. That means biographical and novel-like subjects not serious history like my Chesterton on War and Peace. Download a sample of My Nights with Leukemia from Amazon or Apple to see the result.

    I still work hard to make the content look good in the print version, but I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that the epub version will look like it passed through a ‘stupid filter.’ That’s because there’s no evidence that anyone connected with epub has bothered to ask those who layout books what has been learned about making books look good in the last 500 years. The result is a gimmick laden but not that useful format the resembles the follies of HTML in the mid-1990s.

    PDF, while it did have teething issues, didn’t have these issues because, from the start, it was designed of, by and for those understood book layout. You can get some of that history here:

    Epub has been designed of, by and for HTML geeks to please silly industry pundits obsessed with gimmicks like, “Gee, I want to be able to see a video in that ebook.” No sensible person wants to turn a 2 meg ebook worth reading into an enormous 1 gig download by adding a video that, to look merely tolerable, would cost thousands of dollars to create.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

  3. ePub does make sense even for graphic heavy publications. The decision to read such on a 6″ eInk screen may be a problem. But then, the same eBook in PDF on the same 6″ screen is also going to be the same/similar problem.

    Reading this graphics heavy ePub on say an iPad with Marvin where I can zoom in on the graphics or if the graphics are higher resolution then the screen, I can scroll around. So really, it’s not the eBook format that’s at fault, it’s the device used to view the eBook that’s the problem.

  4. JSWolf is correct in pointing out that the problem in viewing graphics-rich content on a small screen obtains for PDF as well as for other formats. In ePub 3, there is fixed layout which is arguably better than PDF (see:
    Beyond ePub 3, Apple’s *.ibooks format is even better. It combines re-flowable text with fixed layout in a very elegant way. You’ll need iOS or MacOS X to see that for yourself.

  5. I’ll leave it to more knowledgeable folks here to discuss the technical aspects of professional design. I’ll just point out that, for folks who are contented with creating PDF files from word processors, Jutoh ebook creation software can create both ePub files and OpenOffice files; the latter can be converted to PDF in a matter of seconds.

    If I wanted to create print-style formatting for a print edition (in either Jutoh or InDesign), I’d create simple formatting first, output the ePub file, then do more sophisticated formatting, and output the PDF file.

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