My interest in digital publishing started around the year 2016, when I took a two day workshop organized by the Italian company Pubcoder. In 2017, I decided to make a research on the relatively new industry sector and made a series of interviews with six Italian publishers and publishing experts which I then published on my blog Electronic Literature Review.
At that time, I couldn’t even imagine that I myself would become a digital publisher and a PhD research student in digital publishing. However, this series became the foundation of my new career. The interviews reveal important aspects of the history, the development and the technical characteristics of digital publishing.
In 2019, I presented a summarized version of this series at the https://eliterature.org/news/conference/ with the title “Amore di plastica”. It is the title of an Italian song released in 1996 that deals with a difficult relationship – hence “a love of plastic” – and is to be understood as an allusion to how print book lovers look at e-books.
I think it is appropriate to publish this paper on this blog, too.
During the last ten years, the digital publishing industry has gone through an important development in terms of the creation and adoption of new software. E-books that are widely known and used in PDF format can now be entirely designed with new software and enriched with multimedia and multimodal features.
This paper is a summary of a series of interviews published on the Electronic Literature Review (http://electronicliteraturereview.org/category/elrpub/) in 2018 in which basic concepts of digital publishing are discussed. The interviewees are Paolo Albert, co-founder of Pubcoder (2013), Francesco Leonetti, co-founder of ePubEditor (2013), Fabrizio Venerandi, co-founder of Quintadicopertina (2010), Michela Di Stefano, founder of Studio 361° (2007), Antonio Tombolini, founder of Streetlib (2006), and Gino Roncaglia, co-founder of Liber Liber and Progetto Manuzio (1993).
During the ten years from 2007-2017, the publishers mentioned above have been faced with many challenges and obstacles for which they have created specific solutions. This period of time coincides with the creation and the development of the EPUB format, which was released for the first time in 2007 and aligned with the standards of the World Wide Web Consortium with the third release in 2017. Nevertheless, the EPUB format is practically unknown to a large public and not completely understood by professionals of the fields of publishing and web development.
Di Stefano points out some of the causes of the slow development. The history of digital publishing was blocked because “the technology is seen as too complex and expensive due to the lack of culture on the subject; the tools and the rules that underlie the digital publishing market are unknown by the companies; the market is managed by precise rules that the distribution stores dictate to all those who wish to distribute on their channels; on one hand, this market is certainly effective, but, on the other hand, it is in continuous evolution; companies are not able to manage this important step independently, but they think that they can somehow arrange themselves in a way, to say the least, “homemade””.
The companies have tried to overcome these and many more difficulties by coming up with different solutions. The topics discussed in the interviews can be summarized in five points:
As far as the creation of e-books in EPUB format is concerned, companies like Streetlib, Quintadicopertina, Studio361, and Pubcoder offer courses and online tutorials in designing and building e-books as well as courses in marketing and promotion of e-books.
According to Tombolini, “those who want to devote themselves to the profession of pager today can’t help but study the EPUB format, which is essential, (…) Those who instead write books don’t need it at all. We offer a free online application, StreetLib Write with which you can write your book or import your existing book in Word format and the like, to automatically get an EPUB, Kindle and PDF format validated and ready for distribution.”
Also Pubcoder conceived a “tool that would reduce costs and be easy to use: even without writing code. The idea was to give those who were not programmers the opportunity to develop an interactive project in all its phases: from the draft to the publication” as Paolo Albert states.
Authors of e-books almost always need to publish the same content on different platforms. They are therefore forced to know all the formats and the many rules of the stores. To facilitate the management of e-books, Pubcoder and Streetlib have created their own distribution platforms. Pubcoder Shelf is an app library totally customizable by the customer, from the graphic template to the navigation structure, which allows direct sales on the App Store and Google Play Store. The distribution platform of Streetlib called Publish, allows even small publishers and self-publishers to reach with their book all the shelves of all e-book stores in the world, from the largest and most global to the smallest and most local. Moreover, as Tombolini stresses out, “this publishing strategy facilitates the administrative work as it is no longer necessary to negotiate with the growing number of stores.”
Another important challenge that digital publishing has to deal with is the preservation of the works. To date the most common strategies for the preservation of digital works there are migration, duplication, emulation or use of metadata. To cope with this problem the companies have developed different strategies. Streetlib stores the files of works in cloud servers with replicas in various areas of the world. PubCoder is an authoring software and allows you to export a file that is totally in the hands of its author. There are metadata fields to help distributors (especially of e-books). Quintadicopertina uses open formats, removes DRM and creates copies of the works.
The EPUB format is a novelty in the digital publishing industry. The web technology that enables the creation of audiovisual effects and that adds the multimedia and interactive features puts this kind of e-books in a special position in the field of publishing. The e-books in EPUB format work like a small web page and differ thereby from other formats that are most widely used for e-books like PDF, Kindle and MOBI.
“It should also be borne in mind,” Roncaglia explains, “that e-books are not (and should not be) digital replicas of a printed book. They have additional potential (in terms of interactivity, integration of different communication codes, use of animations and data visualization tools…) that we still have to learn to exploit and manage from a graphic and typographical point of view.”
Leonetti shares the same idea: “The page of an e-book can scroll endlessly, it can show content at various levels, for example, with a click I can open deepening boxes and then make them disappear when I no longer need them, and so on.” The innovations brought by the EPUB format require a mental shift in the designer. “These are features”, Leonetti continues, “that a designer should know and use to design the e-book and its user experience. It is totally meaningless, in short, to apply to the e-book the same criteria and design limits that are adopted on paper, because paper has different limits and functions than digital devices.” To conclude, Leonetti says, “we continue to use the word page, but it is only a metaphor of the paper page.”
Venerandi goes so far as to say that “we have to rethink the aesthetics of the page. We don’t have a page, but at the same time, we have contents inserted in a “page space” that can hybridize depending on who is reading that text and how he or she is doing it. In the most sophisticated texts, we can have content that changes adapting to the choices of the reader, so things that may or may not appear within the page itself. It is a type of designing that is different from both that of the web page and that of the book, even though it has elements that are common to both. I wouldn’t even talk about layout,” Venerandi concludes, “but about ‘instruction’. I don’t lay out content, but I teach it on what it is and how it should behave when it comes to relating to its neighbours.”
The layout is another important distinction in the creation of an e-book. Contrary to a fixed-layout that is suitable and conceived for printing, the EPUB format is based on a fluid layout.
The fixed-layout has the advantage of presenting the page as a kind of stable geographical ‘map’, it allows the author to define the optimal graphic and visual aspect from the very beginning and the author has control of the content pixel by pixel which allows having a precise result at the end. The fluid layout, on the other hand, allows you to select your preferred font and font size and to read the same file on devices of different sizes adapting the page to the screen.
The aesthetics of an e-book poses some very interesting questions to the traditional way of conceiving a book and the reading process. An e-book with a fixed-layout can be “very similar to that of the paper format,” Di Stefano explains, “however, we must remember that these contents must be usable on screens of different sizes, and therefore, it is important to study the layout of the page in order to be readable on the largest number of devices.” Also, there must be a certain balance between the form and the content of an e-book. “The criteria of legibility should prevail over the criteria of aesthetics. If the e-book is not readable, it doesn’t matter how beautiful the layout is. (…) The challenge in this historical moment,” Di Stefano continues, “is to find a format that can be used on the largest number of devices without having to create different layouts. Moreover, some basic reading practices change in the digital format of a book. Still Di Stefano: “Reading a digital text is more difficult than reading a sequential and ordered text in print; digital typography has to be improved, for example by integrating other forms of visual reference into the text to replace those offered by fixed-layouts; certain elements that we cannot use today, such as footnotes, need to be completely rethought;”
Moreover, we have to reconsider the functionality of some graphic elements. Venerandi points out that “the graphic elements inserted in the text assume great importance, because they become anchors of memorization of the contents, especially if these elements are no longer accessories of the text but integrated and interacting with the contents themselves.”
The challenges caused by the market are closely related to the technical and the aesthetic features of an enhanced e-book. The choice of the type of layout has considerable consequences that affect the readership as well as the aesthetics of an e-book. According to Tombolini “the market has been focusing on Kindle for the Amazon world and EPUB for everything else, with residual importance of PDF for free distribution and manuals.” Alike Di Stefano, Tombolini reminds us of the basic concepts of balance and harmony. “This is actually a very delicate field and on which there is much to experiment. The reading software is not all aligned and inserting too many “effects” would risk making the book work on one platform and not on another. Not only that: these “effects” must be measured with great caution because the step from a “well done interactive e-book” to a “badly done videogame” is very short.”
As Venerandi explains: “Quintadicopertina has always used the reflowable format. In such a small market, it’s a risk to be bound to a single reading dimension.” Venerandi points out that “the pdf is not a format that was created to make e-books but to transport a layout aimed at printing. Over the years it has been enriched with numerous accessibility functions. The EPUB format, on the other hand, has so far had a marginal development.”
As far as the commercial success of digital publishing is concerned there is very little information. Project Gutenberg is one of the best known and most successful projects in the field of digital publishing. It began in 1971 and in 1997 it reached the number 1000 of published books with the e-book #1000 The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/29801/29801-pdf.pdf).
These are important data that demonstrate how the market has actually developed and how many e-books have been sold in the last 20 or 30 years. Interestingly, the interviewees were not able to provide any other data.
As Leonetti explains: “Some statistics are available online. Still, the data of Amazon is not available to the public and every statistic is objectively missing the most important and incisive data.” Paolo Albert, on the other hand, says that: “Amazon was the first engine of e-book development” and the (…) “company sees the book as purely commercial.” It is because of “(…) this pure commercial interest (…) that there is little propensity to innovate the format if it is not supported or justified by purely commercial reasons. Amazon, still today, is the undisputed master of the market, and any discussion of growth and future can only pass through their clutches.”
Roncaglia focuses on the period of time from 2007 onwards. As “despite the expectations, the first devices of the period 1998-2001 were not able to build a numerically significant market. Roncaglia summarizes: “The birth of the e-book market occurs only from 2007, with the launch of the Kindle; and the market grows initially especially in the United States. Amazon promotes the Kindle not only as a reading device for e-books but also as a means of access to its ecosystem for reading. It is the Amazon ecosystem as a whole that wins the first challenge, more than the Kindle as a specific device. And it is above all this ecosystem that brings in a few years the share of digital reading in the United States around 25% of the market. Europe has followed rather slowly, and we are still far from those figures. In recent years, however, the market has remained fairly stable.”
The market in Italy is particularly slow, according to Roncaglia. “This is due to the limitations of reading devices and the very complex management of protections, which prevent the simple passage of an e-book from one device to another. Also for this reason,” he concludes, “publishers have little interest at the moment in stimulating the growth of the digital publishing market, except in sectors with very specific characteristics (such as academic and scientific publishing).”
The market of e-books in EPUB format is a little different. The opportunity to evolve format came with the advent of EPUB3. Pubcoder, for example, started working on new projects. Besides text novels, the company could also create children’s books in fixed-layout, introduce interactivity in the e-books, and publish real “magazines”.
However, the new format has struggled to spread. The market leader is Amazon which uses another format, and therefore the EPUB is discarded by content producers because the perceived relationship cost/opportunity to work that format is too high.
Venerandi gives a more detailed answer: “There is a handbrake inserted by different stakeholders. These are not technical limits, but purely economic and market limits: Some big players such as Amazon and Apple disempower the possibilities of digital reading with a poor or non-existent support to more advanced formats such as EPUB3, trying instead to close the reader in proprietary ecosystems; the specifications for electronic literature are primitive and incoherent, having in mind a paper book “enriched” with digital elements, instead of a native digital text; and then there are DRMs which discourage the creation of killer applications for reading. These and other factors are all interlinked and have in fact slowed down the progress of digital reading.”
There have been at least four milestones in the history of digital publishing. The releases of Amazon Kindle (2007), the EPUB format by the IDPF (2007), and the Apple iPad (2010). An important step forward came when the IDPF was combined into the World Wide Web Consortium (2017).
The development of digital publishing has been strongly determined by big players like Amazon and Apple. These companies hold a strong control over the market and the innovation of technology.
To increase the understanding and the awareness of the new possibilities brought by the EPUB format, publishers who want to promote this format have to overcome technical as well as cultural limitations. Some of the solutions that the interviewees described in this survey are the creation of courses, the creation of distribution platforms along with the various techniques of digital preservation.
Moreover, we are witnessing a paradigmatic shift in the book culture. Concepts of the page, the layout, and the functional use of typography along with the reading practice have to be reconsidered and redefined. It is for these and many more reasons that enhanced e-books should be introduced in the study of electronic literature where effective and functional methods of study and appropriate terminology can be found which enable the understanding and the appreciation of this publishing format.