eBooks or APPS; the publishing choice

Image for eBooks or APPS; the publishing choice
Image for eBooks or APPS; the publishing choice
Image for eBooks or APPS; the publishing choice

Publishers are under increasing pressure to develop workflows that enable their assets to be published to mobile platforms such as the iPad and the Kindle. Many book publishers are already using a variety of methods to create eBooks and where these equivalent print products are very text heavy (such as trade fiction) then this is very appropriate. But under what circumstances would it be better to create an 'app' rather than an eBook?


Currently the Kindle (Amazon) seems to have the market lead, in terms of sales of eBooks, although the iPad (Apple) does offer some more interesting opportunities for adding enhancements, since it is, essentially, a ‘multimedia’ device.

Where publishers need to produce electronic publications for portable devices (such as the iPad), that are very heavily reliant on illustrations (such as school or college text books, or travel or cookery books), then the standard format adopted for eBooks (the ePUB standard), may not provide sufficiently compelling techniques for the transfer of existing print products to the mobile (interactive) platforms. In order to build ‘interactive or enhanced eBooks’, publishers must look to the process of ‘APP’ development. Several magazine and newspaper publishers are already doing this, but the software techniques are often too expensive for book publishers.

The Publisher's Choice

Hitherto, production techniques for print publishing involve (largely), page layout tools. Since the invention of ‘desktop publishing’ in the mid 1980’s design departments have used ‘drag and drop’ to create ‘wysiwyg’ designs - fine for delivery to the print shop. Unfortunately, much of this method bypasses the essential consideration of ‘document structure and flow’ which is required for eBook and APP development. In fact, designers who have a knowledge of web markup and styling (HTML and CSS) are already aware of these issues and may well be better placed to ‘take on’ eBook and app development, or, at the very least be involved in the process.

Fix or Flow

A print publication is fixed. Of course! But, when the equivilant is delivered for the screen, then there is a potential for this content to be 're-flowed' to the size of the target platform. Indeed, on 'ereader' devices, the user can control the font size (an even the font), and so, the text will need to re-flow to fit the screen.

This relationship between print and screen can be demonstrated clearly if you download a public domain text from the Gutenberg Project. What you will most often find is that the text is provided as a facsimile of the original book; each line of text will have a 'hard return' at the end, thus representing the text on the printed page. These paragraph breaks will need to be removed (see this screencast) if the text is to reflow for the screen.

Designing for reflowable output is more difficult than for fixed, simply because the designer loses some of the control over the appearance. This is particlarly true for content that is a mixture of text and images and it may not always be possible keep an image exactly positioned relative to the text. The ePUB format uses a flavour of HTML (actaully XHTML) to deliver the pages, and so, you might think in terms of web browsers and users' screen resolutions - rather than fixed sizes. Having said that, eBooks delivered to the iPad can utilise a 'fixed layout' method, to solve this problem. There are several examples of childrens illustrated books and cookery books that use this technique.

When would a book publisher/designer build an app rather than an eBook?

If the layout of print book looks a little like a magazine or a newspaper, then it may be worth considering this an an option. Let me elaborate; if the book is more than one column with images that span part of those columns, or if the text wraps around 'pull-quotes' or tables or diagrams, then a fixed layout will be required and, therefore, developing an app may be best.

The problems with eBooks as 'apps' and why you might avoid.

Even though, the designer may want to see the same layout on the screen as is in the print version, there are significant disadvantages with the fixed layout 'apps', and it may be better to find a compromise and pursue the ePUB format.

The frameworks that drive the fixed layout apps do not currently provide for user selection of fonts or font size. Nor do they include search features or automatically generated tables of contents. eBook 'apps' are generally page by page systems. Navigational features can be included, but they are non-standard, and will depend on the framework being used.

The Apple app store may reject apps that are really books, unless they contain significant interactivity or multimedia, since they are trying to encourage the use of the iBooks (ePUB format) store as a means to deliver eBooks.

Posted on 26 Aug around 5pm


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