Practical Matters: Digital Publishing Tools for Art Book Publishers

With the increasing popularity of ebooks and the proliferation of ereaders and tablets, it has become routine to say that the past few years have been disruptive to the publishing industry. Though many publishers have been hesitant to jump into “the digital space,” art book publishers and museum publication departments have been among the slowest to embrace ebooks and digital publications.

Many digital formats cannot meet the high design and production standards for which art books are known. The most common forms of digital books are reflowable epub (viewable on Nook, iBooks, Sony, Kobo, and others) and Kindle format (mobi/KF8). Usually viewed on small, sometimes grayscale, screens, these formats do not allow the designer much control over basic specifications such as font choice, text size, and layout. In addition, images must often be scaled down due to file size limitations and the restricted screen sizes.

On the other hand, epub and Kindle formats have undeniable benefits for both publishers and consumers. They are relatively inexpensive to produce and distribute, and readers appreciate that they can search, highlight, and comment on the text, as well as adjust the text size to their individual specifications. Epub has gained wide acceptance by publishers and distributors, and Kindle format is the only digital format that can be viewed on Amazon’s highly popular Kindle.

An epub viewed on the iPad (top) and Nook Color (bottom center) and, after conversion to mobi, on Kindle Fire (left) and Kindle Keyboard (right).

Despite the many benefits of epub/Kindle, art book publishers are understandably reluctant to relinquish so much control over the design and layout of their publications. So, what are some other options for creating digital publications?

One option is fixed layout (fixed-layout epub or KF8 fixed layout). This print replica format benefits the publisher by providing greater control over layout, and the ability to define fonts and precisely position text. The text is live and can be magnified in a pop-up in the KF8 format. The downsides are that the text generally cannot be resized by the reader and, since these ebooks are typically viewed on small screens, they often require excessive zooming in order to read the text. Fixed layout production can be difficult, and requires hand-coding and taking precise measurements to position text. This format seems best suited for comics, children’s books, or photo books, in which each screen contains more image than text.

Another option is the book app. Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite (DPS), Aquafadas, Mag+, and other systems allow designers to repurpose InDesign print layouts, add a great deal of interactivity, and produce apps for the iPad (and in some cases, iPhone, Android tablets and phones, and Kindle Fire). The advantages of the app include complete control over the layout, the ability to use same fonts and art as with print, and the option to produce both horizontal and vertical layouts. The downsides include discoverability problems in the app store, text that usually cannot be searched or resized by the reader, and incompatibility with ereaders (Kindle, Nook, etc.). Perhaps the biggest negative is that Apple has been known to reject apps that contain no more functionality than an epub (which can contain audio and video, though not all ereaders will play them). It’s sobering to consider how much time and money could go into the creation of an app that may eventually have to be discarded. (See Greg Albers’ “Sitting in Pictures of Chairs” for more on Adobe’s DPS.)

Screenshots from a DPS app that uses both horizontal and vertical orientation.

A third option, something of a hybrid between the reflowable epub and the book app, is the Multi-Touch iBooks format created with iBooks Author. iBooks Author is a free WYSIWYG layout tool based on Apple’s Pages software. Originally created for the production of textbooks, it has also been used to produce digital cookbooks, travel books, and occasionally art books. Multi-Touch iBooks can only be sold and viewed via the iBooks app on the iPad. However, if an iBook is offered for free, it can also be distributed from a website. (Here is one example available directly from the publisher.) While only being available on the iPad limits the distribution of the publication, the retina display on the newest iPads provides a resolution superiority that cannot be matched by ereaders.

iBooks Author is clearly in its infancy. The software is sluggish and does not provide the amount of control that InDesign allows (for example, hyphenation can be turned on or off, but there are no other hyphenation controls). The interface is clunky and all elements are pre-styled, though adjustable. InDesign layouts cannot be repurposed for Multi-Touch iBooks, and font choice is limited to those that are available on the iPad. However, these iBooks have one key advantage over other digital formats: the automatically created portrait orientation, which is ideal for intensive reading.

Screenshots showing the landscape (left) and portrait (right) orientations of the Multi-Touch iBook, AFRICAN COSMOS, which is expected to be available for free in the iBookstore by mid-October.

iBooks Author contains editable templates which a designer can use to create a landscape-oriented layout. Text can be dragged in, pasted in, or imported from Word. Images can be dragged onto pages and precisely positioned. Additionally, interactive widgets are available for importing audio, video, slideshows, 3D images, and more. While the designer creates the landscape layout (which will be fixed, like an app), iBooks Author automatically creates a corresponding portrait orientation. This portrait orientation relies on the text styling of the landscape orientation but is a long, scrolling page with figures shown at thumbnail size in the left margin. Tapping a figure brings up a full-screen image that can be viewed with or without overlaying figure number, title, and caption. The reader can adjust the text size, search, highlight, make notes, and use the dictionary or glossary.

The designer has the option to turn off the portrait orientation, and many Multi-Touch iBooks do not take advantage of it, but the dual-layout nature of these iBooks makes the format an interesting option for art books. Apple highlights Multi-Touch iBooks in the iBookstore and appears to be pushing the format. If the iBooks Author software continues to improve and gives designers more control, this digital format could prove to be the best choice for art books, as long as the iPad is the target.

12 thoughts on “Practical Matters: Digital Publishing Tools for Art Book Publishers”

  1. Hi Bart,
    My post was not meant to cover every possible method of digitizing content, but I tried to cover the options that in-house publications department could handle fairly easily. Web apps are not something I usually think about when I consider possibilities for digital art books. Do you think the format is appropriate? Could you point me to a few that you think work well?

    1. Hi Tina,
      I am not very specialized in art books, but looking at the beautiful images of the app in your post, it struck me that this is exactly the formats we are supporting with our system (forgive me the reference to my company, as I think others could do this as well) but think the challenge will not be in the format. The challenge will be if you really absolutely want your book to be in stores which require their own format. I think web apps would be great if you have your own distribution system and/or self-publishing as you will get all income.
      Before reading your article, I hadn’t thought of it before, but this is actually an interesting concept – do you think there are art book publishers looking to publish outside of the big stores?

      1. Hi Bart,
        The DPS app shown above is not an art book. It’s more of a photo book that I put together using my own pictures from Italy, but I’m glad you like it! Art books tend to have a lot of text and that’s why I think iBooks Author can work well for them. And yes, I do believe that art book publishers want to publish outside of the big stores. But the format would still need to suit the content.

  2. Great article Tina. I completely agree with all your assessments. I would only add that we have found iBooks Author very constraining. It’s wonderful if you stick within their templates and rules, but any attempt to add interactivity has inevitably fell short due to the limited features of the iBooks app. Hopefully they expand those boundaries.

    1. Hi Charlie,
      Thanks for your comment. I agree that iBooks Author is constraining and it is easier to work with if you stick to their styles. On the other hand, I’ve seen some good examples of publishers making it work well with interactivity. Have you seen The Shakesperience books from Sourcebooks?

  3. Hi Tina,
    There is obviously a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points in Features also.Digital publishing gives your customers the same intuitive look and feel that they get with your printed publication, but with all of the great features that the web has to offer.

    1. Thanks, Rachel. Yes, there is a lot to learn, and new information daily. I hope to write more blog posts on this topic as things change. Hope you’ll stay tuned.

  4. I think your post describes well some of the issues.

    iBooks Author has potential, but also has some unexpected shortcomings that prevent if from becoming the obvious choice. You can’t, for example, zoom in on an image — you can pinch to zoom, but it goes back to initial size as soon as you let go. Not ideal for photo books.

    Some of its interface animations look cool at first, but quickly become distracting (try pinching in/out a page to see what I mean).

    On the plus side, it does away with the skeuomorphic book interface. Fixed Layout EPUB publications in iBooks are stuck with the page gutter gradient, not ideal for photos over double page spreads.

    1. Yes, Jean-Michel, I agree with all of your points. That’s why I hope Apple is working on improving iBooks Author. It has so much potential. For now, I’m open to using whichever format best suits each individual project. I think iBooks Author worked well for “African Cosmos.” I hope you’ll check it out when it’s available.

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