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.
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.)
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.
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.