Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Everything Embellished: The Making of an Enhanced eBook Series

It was late January and I was getting ready to leave for Paris. The bags were packed, the iPad charged, and before departing I intended to download an enhanced eBook to learn a few simple French phrases during the long flight. After searching several online booksellers I managed to find a number of choices but each was either poorly formatted or the enhancements just didn't contribute much to the reading experience. Needless to say, what was available (even for free) was of no use and I ended up downloading an app instead.

This experience resonated with me and upon returning from the City of Light I eagerly started working at F+W Media as Director of Digital Content to produce exactly the type of product I was hoping to find (or the kind even my friend Evan Schnittman might appreciate!). And so I proposed our first project be the relaunch of eight eBooks, enhanced with audio clips, that would make learning a foreign language easy and enjoyable. And so we immediately began development on The Everything Learning Language Series.

Since these were backlist titles, the first thing we did was extensively review the original ePub files. The print editions were published with CDs and to our dismay the digital versions referenced audio tracks from those accompanying discs. Yikes!! So all the tiny CD icons and sentences instructing readers to listen to this or that track had to be replaced and rewritten. Another aspect that required similar attention was the various tables populating each chapter. Tables, mathematical formulas, or symbols can be pretty challenging to replicate in digital format. However, the tables were essential to include and we wanted to get 'em right. We discussed at length how best to present these key components in a way that was both practical and aesthetically pleasing while closely replicating the formatting established in the physical editions. That's the fine balance with utilitarian books like these. They're typically meant to deliver useful information with little concern for the design. That said, I wanted us to aim high and focus on making them clean and inviting.

I shared this perspective with my colleagues Colleen Cunningham (aka BookDesignGirl), Matt Leblanc, and Lisa Laing, the terrific Production/Editorial team at Adams Media, and waxed philosophically about end user experience, etc., etc. And after much discussion (mostly of them explaining to me why half my zany ideas would never work!) they rolled up their sleeves and dove deep into the files to achieve what I like to refer to as an "elegant simplicity." But attempting to make something look the way it "should" is never easy and in this case required rounds and rounds of production notes and several months of experimentation. If there's one thing I've learned with these types of projects it's that they always take much longer to create than anyone first anticipates. Fortunately, I'm lucky enough to interact with knowledgable pros and together we learned a tremendous amount while embarking on this concerted effort.

But here's the thing (and why I personally have a love/hate relationship with eBooks). These enhanced versions of the Everything Learning Language books do look great, especially when the font is set to an average size. Make that font larger or smaller and all hell can break loose! If only we publishers could be present at those very moments to say to readers, "Stop, please, don't do that, can't you see it was perfect just the way you had it?!?" But alas, we cannot. However, thoughtful planning (and lots of programming) can go a long way to prevent most breakdowns in formatting...within reason. In the end, it's the reader who controls the text size, font style, line spacing, and background color with options such as sepia, black, or in some cases lavender depending on what device they're using. Unfortunately, there's just not much we publishers can do except try to predict the unpredictable. This is the reason while working on projects like this I'm often reminded of the Voltaire-ism: Perfect is the enemy of good enough.

Here's an example of what I mean: Each of the Everything Learning Language titles contains a number of writing activities designed to help the reader fully comprehend the lessons sprinkled throughout each chapter. But these are enhanced eBooks, not apps, so there weren't many options to make this kind of functionality possible. Yes, we could've spent the programming time to include a JavaScript pop-up that would allow for some kind of entry field, but at what cost? And for which device? What might work well on an iPad will most likely not do so on a Nook Color or even Kindle for iPad. So instead we decided to take a very different approach and begin each with a "How-To" section explaining the need for pen and paper while using these eBooks. We also recommend the user allow sufficient time for the eBook to load due to the amount of audio and images it contains. It's a simple solution we believe readers will appreciate.

After all is said and done, I'm pleased to report the entire series is currently being promoted in the iBookstore and we're working hard on getting them formatted for Nook Color and Kindle for iPad as soon as we can. Personally, I'm looking forward to the day when the Everything Learning Language Enhanced Series will also be available through Google eBooks, Blio, and Sony's upcoming tablets.

Naturally, we're hopeful all this effort and support pays off and "translates" into sales ;-)

NOTE: Special thanks to India Amos, our latest addition to the F+W Media family, eBook Architects, and Ugly Dog Digital, for their assistance in the production of this eBook series.