April Dinner Meeting Report: eBooks and the In-house Editor, with Sarah Hazelton

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The issue of ebooks is obviously one of great interest among Editors Victoria members, as 118 people came to hear Sarah Hazelton's very informative talk in April. She spoke with extensive knowledge and great confidence as she focussed on the practicalities of editing ebooks, rather than the pros and cons of the form itself.


Sarah began by outlining the 'Three Pillars of eBook Knowledge' she believes editors need to know:

  • Know your device
  • Know your formats
  • Know your reader

There is already a very wide range of devices on the market, from the Kindle to the iPad, and each has its own characteristics. Sarah suggested that if you don't have one of your own, it's worth borrowing one to understand how they work - once you have used one, it will be easier to make editing decisions.

The most significant difference between the printed book and the ebook from an editor's perspective is that the ebook page is treated differently. In a re-flowable ebook, the reader can resize pages and change the typeface and font size. More importantly, the editor needs to 'let go of the idea of the page', as ebook 'pages', which do not need the blank spaces that feature in printed books, should be considered as one long piece of text rather than a traditional page.

Sarah recommended keeping an open mind about different forms of ebook device and not to rely solely on one format. The ebook market is still very young and best practice is still being established. It's also crucial, argued Sarah, to know the target audience of the ebook, who have different expectations from those of a print audience. The user of an ebook device selects a file from a menu, not a book from a bookshelf; an ebook can't be flicked through as a print one can, which necessitates a different approach, and thereby a different mind-set, from the process of reading.

After explaining her Three Pillars, Sarah discussed how ebooks are produced. Currently, ebooks are normally created after the print book, although some publishers are moving towards parallel production. Sarah believes the process can be improved by keeping ebooks in mind from the beginning of the production process, in order to minimise the cost of converting a print book to an ebook. Another issue of converting to ebooks is that of special characters, which may not be accepted by some devices, so it's important to know in advance whether the device can handle macrons and other diacritical characters.

Other elements common to print need to be reconsidered for ebooks: since the user can change the display font, different fonts can't be used to distinguish between different characters' voices, as can be done in a print book; footnotes work better as end notes in an ebook; and illustrations or photos need to be placed carefully. Sarah demonstrated the last point with a cookbook which translated terribly to ebook: the photos weren't on the same page as the text referring to them. Stating that problems such as these may be resolved in the future, Sarah then discussed another book that made a bad transition to ebook. In the ebook, the preliminary matter took about 10 minutes to get through, and included two title pages, a chapter extract and an interview with the author. While including all of this at the beginning of a print book would be fine as the reader could easily skip it, in an ebook it needs to be paged through in its entirety before the beginning of the actual book could be reached. For an ebook, said Sarah, most of this could be put at the back of the book so the reader wouldn't have to churn through it just to start reading.

Simple changes such as these are vital if ebooks are going to have the same quality and readability as print books. An editor needs to ensure the text is converted properly from the PDF and that it flows correctly in a wide range of different readers. Items such as quotation marks and small caps can change during the conversion process, and editors also need to check that images re-size correctly when font sizes are changed. Sarah concluded her talk by encouraging everyone to take what she called her 'Rick Astley Editorial Pledge': 'Never gonna give you up' (quality), 'Never gonna let you down' (authors and readers).

Editors of ebooks will find not only the usual challenges of tackling the text, but also a need to understand the various formats of ebooks and the needs of their readers. Sarah Hazelton, with her knowledge, enthusiasm and experience, offered a very good guide to this digital world and its challenges and benefits.
Peter Symons