Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Retrofiting Print Books Into E-books

We owned a computer testing company about fifteen years ago that specialized in giving Federal Aviation Administration tests and other commercial tests. Customers took the computer exams under our supervision using secure computers linked to a test database.

The test database was provided by a nationally known education company who built their reputation on after school tutoring and test preparation. They had taken their pencil and paper knowledge and slapped it into some software programming. The end product proved to be a cumbersome and frustrating system for test administrators, as well as test takers, to use.

One day a “from the ground up” testing software company approached us about using their test database. Once we learned about their program, we jumped at the chance to use their software to provide computer tests for our customers. The software was designed to provide digital tests, not to provide pencil and paper tests digitally.

Say That Again
Let’s look at that last sentence again. This company provided software written for digital testing. The old company had taken paper tests and slapped them into the computer. It may seem as if there was no real difference between slapping the old way of testing into a software program versus designing software for giving digital tests, but there was. 

But wait. How does this have anything to do with print and electronic book publishing? 

I often see a similar disconnect between a print book and its e-book counterpart because there appears to be a lack of understanding about the difference between print and e-books. Page after page, it is obvious the publisher–be it major traditional publishers or small traditional publishers or an independent publisher–hasn’t bothered to learn about e-book publishing, 

Still not sure what I mean? Let’s look at traditional publishing versus EPUB publishing.

Traditional versus EPUB
In traditional paper publishing, the font is locked in place. You can turn the hardback book in any direction, the print never moves. It’s fixed. If you want to read the text, you have to align yourself with the text. This is not true of an EPUB. This type of electronic publication is designed to flow the text to match the device the reader is using. Or even the direction of the device. You can turn your e-reader every which way and the text will change and flow into a readable format. There is no need for you to stand on your head to read your e-book even if you turn your tablet upside down.

Those Pesky Hyphens
Due to this difference, there are some elements in print that do not transfer well to EPUB. One print element I see all too often in poorly executed e-books is hyphenation. Print books use hyphens to help fit words on a fixed page. As I mentioned, no matter what way you turn that print book, once the words are printed, they are not going to move (unless, of course, you’re trying to read while imbibing lots of alcohol). 

Obviously, hyphens perform an important function in print books. That said, hyphens have no place in an EPUB because a hyphenated word can land anywhere on a page. The digital format precludes the need for hyphens. The words are going to wrap and flow. If a hyphenated word is not removed from the electronic version of a print book, it show  up anywhere on the page. Let’s look at an example.

Print version:

George grew up fascinated by insects which led him into a lifelong career as an en-                       

(Okay, the hyphen example looks great in "Compose" but when I hit "Publish," the computer puts entomologist on one line with the hyphen! So imagine the tomologist part as starting at the margin on the next line.)

Tablet version:

George grew up fascinated by insects which led 
him into a lifelong career as an en-tomologist.

Not good.

A good proofreader would know this and remove all the hyphens–a simple task with find and delete. Yet I see dangling hyphens all the time in e-books that were first published in print.

Scene Breaks
Another issue with shoving a print book into an EPUB is the correct placement of scene breaks. In an EPUB book I recently read, the publisher chose to format all the paragraphs with single spacing. To differentiate the paragraphs, the publisher chose to double space between them. So far, so good. 

This worked for separating the paragraphs, but no allowances were made for the scene breaks. Every paragraph was set apart with a double space. Nothing warned the reader of a scene break or change of point of view. No asterisk or cutesy symbol, i.e. a fleuron. 

What does this mean for the reader? Confusion. Jarring jumps from one scene to another. Unexpected change to the point of view character. It means being thrown out of the story and backtracking to figure out who is now controlling the story or where the characters are located. 

Connecting the Dots
How does all this connect to my opening anecdote about that first computer test company? I think too many publishers are still trying to shove a print book into the electronic format rather than learning how to create an e-book in its own right. Granted, a traditionally published author may have no control over the process of how his or her print books become e-books. 

But the indie published author has no such excuse. 

My suggestion for the indie publisher: Capitalize on the strengths of e-book format rather than slapping a print version into a poorly planned e-book.


  1. How do you feel about soft hyphens? (Table stakes: dictionary based, no fewer than (say) four letters before the first soft hyphen or after the last.)

    1. Thank you for your question, Paul. To be honest it sent me hustling to the Internet for a definition of soft hyphens! Since I'm a Mac user and therefore devoted to only learning what I need to learn to use various software programs, I will admit I'm not a computer tech person.

      If what I read is correct, the soft hyphen appears to be a type of HTML that can be inserted into web text to divide words as needed on web pages.

      My blog discussed the fixed hyphen that is carried over from a print version of a book. This one will appear at random places in the e-book, seldom at the end of a line of text but rather in the middle. I'm not sure why one would need a soft hyphen in a flowable e-book format since the text will conform to the device.

      Frankly, I would err on the side of letting the software (Storyist in my case) take the clean version of the book and convert it into the format. But I'm not trying to create an e-book from scratch, mainly because I'm not an HTML expert. Again, if you read my earlier blogs you will discover I learned enough to get the task done.

      I guess it would depend on what you're planning to put into an e-book as to how you would do it. As for using soft hyphens, that's way above my pay grade!

      Again, thank you for adding to my knowledge bank!