Editing: the missing part of EPUBs

Many publishers omit a crucial step when they make EPUBs and so are damaging their business through ignorance. Selling EPUBs that are riddled with errors tells your customers and authors that you don't care. So how do we get our EPUBs right?

The whole publishing industry seems to be obsessed by EPUBs because it is powering the rise of ebooks – which in some genres now exceeds 70% of the total books bought. (Amazon uses their own Kindle format, but everything below applies equally to Kindle files.)

Customers like ebooks because they are flexible and convenient, letting people read on ereaders, tablets, laptops or phones. And, in many types of publishing, they’re effectively identical to the print content but cheaper.

Here, though, we hit a problem. Publishers invest heavily in ensuring that their print books are of appropriate quality, but most have invested rather less in their ebooks – even to the extent of not including editors in the process of checking and approving EPUBs files before they’re sold.

This wrong-headed error is, I think, rooted in the idea that converting an InDesign file to an EPUB is ‘just’ a format change and therefore trivial. But this is a big mistake, and one that is causing material damage to the publishing industry on a daily basis as readers and authors alike get the impression that publishers simply aren’t doing a good job – so why should customers come to us, or authors publish with us?

If you’re a publisher who is checking their EPUBs, please read on and share your experiences. For the rest of us, here are some thoughts about how to make things better.

Yes, I mean editing

As I’ve said previously, editors are all about quality control. So, making sure that EPUBs are of acceptable quality ought to mean that editors are involved in the process. Too often, though, the business perception is that ‘EPUB is just a format change’ and so editors are excluded and the conversion is handled either by automatic tools or by outsourced teams where costs are as low as possible.

Asking for more work in already-stretched teams might seem daft but this is still your product that’s being damaged. More than that, you need to understand all the ways your books are published so that you can work with it as the industry continues to change.

This really is editing. Plenty of pure proofing problems get through to the ebookstores – missing characters, spelling mistakes etc. – but there are more-fundamental structural issues that need to be checked in an EPUB.

  • Is there a cover image in the file?
  • Is the book title correct in the metadata?
  • Is the author’s name correct in the metadata?
  • Is the table of contents correct and useful?
  • Are the chapter names in the ToC meaningful?
  • Are chapter breaks included properly throughout the book?
  • Are the sections within a chapter properly separated?
  • Are all the image assets present and correct?
  • etc.

Checking all these things means that you need to do more than just read the text on screen. You need to check the structure of the file – just as you would for a print book, ensuring that the chapter names and page numbers are the same in the text and on the contents page, and that the imprint page has the right metadata on it.

An ebook in ADE

The table of contents for Adobe’s guide to ADE, as shown in ADE itself. Does what’s shown in this sidebar match your section titles? Do the links go to the right places?

The plus side is that this checking doesn’t, in fact, take too much time once you’ve got into the rhythm of it. But, rest assured, you are likely to find lots of errors. And, sadly, you can’t assume that the suppliers will make the changes you’ve requested – some will even claim that they can’t make changes because their tools are automated! (Needless to say, it’s best not to work with a supplier who’s unable to make necessary corrections to a file.)

Do you need to know HTML?

An EPUB file is, at root, mostly a collection of HTML files like those for web pages, combined into a package. But there’s no need to understand HTML to check an ebook.

All of the above issues and many more can be checked by installing the EPUB file you’ve been sent into an ereader and checking it there. You could choose software for your work PC (like Readium in your browser or Calibre or Adobe Digital Editions on your desktop) or your tablet (free apps like like Aldiko, Bluefire [for either Android or iOS] or iBooks). Or you could use a dedicated ereader device from Kobo, Sony or Barnes & Noble.

The problem that all of these have is that there’s no standard way to mark up the EPUB file. Rather than the concise markup we’ve developed over the years for print books, EPUBs will require fairly tedious explanations of exactly where the error is and what needs to be done to correct it.

Proofreading tools

At its most basic, you can use a spreadsheet or even a word processor to record a list of your changes. Just be careful – you can’t use page or line numbers to identify the location in an EPUB file (because changing the font size would cause the text to reflow). Instead, you’ll need to use chapter, section and paragraph numbers, and quote the section of text with the error.

Screenshots can also be a useful way to identify the places with corrections, if you’re using a PC, tablet or phone. You can’t usually take screenshots on an ereader but your smartphone may be the solution here – just snap a shot of the screen and email it to yourself.

One of the key rules of editing is always to look at what your customer will see. In the world of ebooks, this means checking how the ebook looks on the devices you expect your customers to use. Your company may thus have to buy several ereaders to share across the editorial team – a couple of Kobo devices, a few Kindles, perhaps a nook etc.

Managers may balk at the expense but these things only cost around £100 these days, often less. Compared with the cost of having to replace a bad EPUB or the poor publicity of having bad EPUBs on sale, this is a tiny amount. And you need to check every file on all the main devices, because each manufacturer does different things with the file and you may find strange errors.

The more technically minded would be well advised to get the free Sigil tool (download here, introduction here). This lets you open, check, validate and even edit an EPUB file without having to decompress and recompress it (a process that can itself have unexpected consequences). In particular, Sigil lets you change the text, rebuild broken tables of contents or put chapter breaks in more sensible places without having to go back to your supplier. Unfortunately, Sigil is no longer being developed. One alternative is the editor within Calibre, which is developing fast, but Sigil still has useful features Calibre lacks.

Overall, though, any editor should be able to check an EPUB file with no more worry than they would have checking any other digital content (website, animation etc.). And just like those other assets, editors should be included in the process. It may be more work in the short run, but it’s invaluable in the long run.

Posted on 17 Feb 2014
Written by John Pettigrew

Hat wearer, recovering editor and now CEO & Founder of We Are Futureproofs, John Pettigrew has 20 years of experience in educational, illustrated and academic publishing, and a history of successful print and digital product development.