Unpacking ePub


Who better to unlock the mysterious realm of eBooks than a book designer? StoryArts Festival 2015 invited Tony Palmer to give an introduction to ePub.

Tony has a long and illustrious career as a book designer for various Australian publishers. He teaches typography at Victoria University, and is completing a master’s degree in the aesthetics of typography in Mandarin. Tony has written three books, the most recent a gorgeous picture book called The Soldier’s Gift.

ePub Unpacked

Tony’s workshop highlighted the things he wished he’d been told before he began learning the art of digital publishing.

Here are the must-know fundamentals:

  1. A digital book is at its most basic a file with this type of label: book_title.epub
  2. There are two categories: fixed layout and reflowable.
    • Fixed layout is, in Tony’s opinion, “ridiculous and a waste of time.” It’s equivalent to a PDF.
    • Reflowable layout is the format that allows all of the flexible goodness of ebooks, such as adjustable typography, which allows the reader to choose a favoured font and page colour.
  3. Each platform has its own layout specifications. For example, Kindle can’t do landscape layouts. Ratios differ between Kindle, Kobo, and iPad.

Tony went on to show how to convert a standard Word document to an ePub document using software tools such as Indesign and Sigil (used by publishers). Converting is the first part, and it’s pretty straightforward.

Under the bonnet of  an eBook using Adobe DreamWeaver. Coding to design the pages.

Next is the editing stage, which happens via software suites such as Calibre, Dreamweaver and Sigil. This is where things get complicated, but it’s also where the magic happens. Editing an epub document isn’t about fixing spelling and punctuation; it’s line-by-line editing to set page breaks, lock images to a point in the text, adjusting spacing between characters, and more.

Tony’s “under the bonnet” sample page made it clear that a familiarity with coding languages such as HTML and CSS is crucial.

Big Burning Questions

Tony’s presentation moved on to explore the philosophy of eBooks, including the big questions about the future of digital publishing. Will ePub go the way of books on CD-ROM (remember those?) or is it around for good?

Publishers aren’t making money on digital books. They account for something like 5- 10 per cent of the revenue of Australian publishers, while in the American market it’s around 25 per cent. Many publishers outsource the work of creating eBooks to the Philippines.

ePub Pros & Cons

Tony pointed out that the most popular digital platforms, smart phones and tablets, are rife with distractions, making uninterrupted book reading a real challenge.

And then there’s the problem of aesthetics. Tony said, “eBooks are usually very, very ugly.” Contributing to the ugliness issue is the fact that embedding copyrighted fonts is a huge legal issue, particularly for major publishers.

Tony was quick to point out that while often eBook aesthetics isn’t prioritised, they can look great if the creator has a good eye and some training. (I suspect patience and a healthy dose of perfectionism should be added to his list).

There’s no denying that ePub affords the author/designer autonomy that isn’t available when the author has to leave the layout to someone else. Any writer who’s big on aesthetics, for example who will feel disappointed by a copyright page that spills messily across two pages, may benefit from learning the back-end of e-publishing.

My Conclusion

I was happy to learn a bit about how this ePub thing works. One look under the bonnet made me realise that mastering the required skill set would seriously cut into my writing time. This little glimpse has made me appreciate even more the dream of having a team of professionals to bring my book-baby into the world.

I think I’ll focus on the writing, and let book designers like Tony Palmer and others, who have excellent taste and a strong aesthetic sensibility, work their magic on my behalf.

Want to Know More?

Tony’s new book, The Soldier’s Gift, can be purchased here.

Curious about what book designers do? Check this out.

Header Image Source: CC0 via Pixabay

4 Thoughts

  1. Hi Alison, Very educational article. I’ve often thought I might like to learn digital formatting. But EEK sounds SO complicated and I would expect it to take a while to master. Meanwhile I’ll stick to my writing … Karen Tyrrell 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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