Poetry: eBooks vs Print Books
Can poetry be adequately rendered in eBook formats? Are print books inherently better for preserving the poetic layout of a poem’s lines and spacing? Certainly, we all have our preferences and opinions about this. Equally certain is the fact that both print and eBook formats are here to stay. As a publisher, my approach to print vs eBook is to do the best job with both that I can do. The question is how do eBooks measure up to print books? Are they the same or are there differences when a book becomes an eBook?
Designing print books is an age old process. Designing eBooks is new. Designing poetry eBooks is even newer. Print and eBook design are two different but related processes. Both design for the reader’s eye and experience. Over the years of reading books, my eye developed a sense of what is good, what I like, and what is not good, what I don’t like, in a book. That sense guided me in designing Nina Serrano’s Heart Suite trilogy of poetry books, both print and digital.
The process of creating an eBook started with creating the print book. In print books, you design by the page. Each page has a layout. Each layout has elements you must prescribe. Fonts, font sizes, margins, spacing, paragraph styles, page numbers, illustrations, photos etc. You establish the sequence of pages, the relationships of chapters or sections, the order of appearance of images. The cover design expresses the result of the entire process. In order to see what it looks like you have to have a copy of it in your hands. Then you can revise and move to the final form. Receiving the proof copy is perhaps the most exciting moment in the design process, when it reveals what your design actually is, as opposed to what you thought it was. Whatever your intentions, the proof copy shows you how all the pieces fit together. How the book is greater than the sum of its parts.
The first time I created a book was in 1986 when I published Critical Focus, the Black and White Photographs of Harvey Wilson Richards. The process involved book designers. Luckily for me, and for anyone reading the book, Rene Castro and Deborah Netsky did the design. I edited the book and wrote the introductions to each section that described the subjects that my father had photographed. Alice’s sister, Katie Peake, financed it. I still have boxes of those books. The design process was thrilling and left me with a desire to return to it if circumstances permitted.
I got back to it in 2011 with Heart Suite, starting with Heart Songs, Nina Serrano’s first book containing poetry she wrote from 1969-1979. I had the original book published by Editorial Pocho Che in 1980 to use as a visual guide to create the eBook. Being familiar with Adobe Pagemaker and InDesign software, I used it to make the first eBook. As it turned out, it was a frustrating and expensive process. And the result was problematical due to the mess of coding complications that Adobe builds into its products. At the time, I thought it was the only software option. So I pushed and plodded through to the end. My friend Rob McBride helped me over the rough spots. I learned later that there are much better software alternatives.
The biggest challenge in designing a poetry eBook is to preserve the visual layout of a poem in the face of the fluidity of the digital page where readers can change fonts and page size. If a poem has lines that are a certain length, the computer will word wrap the line when the reader increases the font size or reduces the page size. This changes the look of the poem on the screen and defeats the poets intentions in creating the lines of the poem. Some favor a solution that uses fixed page layouts which prevent readers from changing things. The trouble is that such layouts may not working well on all devices. Each device has its own format requirements. You end up designing for a particular device which may not even exist in a few months when the company making it folds up. Or you have to make multiple designs, one for each device then on the market. Much more work with very uncertain results.
I opted for a solution that involves getting the cooperation of the reader. If the reader wants to see what the poet had in mind, and why else read poetry?, then all they have to do is reduce the print size until the word wrapping stops. It takes some doing, but most people who have eReaders, or tablets, have learned how to do this. And for those who do not know, it is not difficult to learn how. Interactive media is what it is all about, after all. A sentence in the introduction is all it takes to solicit such cooperation.
Designing pages for eBooks is easier than print pages because considerations about the length of the book are no longer controlling. Where placing a short poem alone on a page might make the book excessively long, now in eBooks, a page is a click of the mouse or a touch of the finger. So it is easy to make each page, or screen shot, a single poem or a single illustration. Longer poems can flow onto subsequent pages with no page breaks inside the poem. Shorter poems have page breaks at the end. The sequence of poems creates a dialog where subjects unfold according to the poet’s intentions. Once I created the epub file, I converted it to Amazon’s proprietary format, mobi, and put it up on Amazon. That was 2011.
Putting it up on Amazon was a significant part of the learning curve in the design process itself. Because once the internet gets hold of your design, it changes it. Further design changes occur as readers change fonts and size of fonts and put it on different readers, computers, tablets, phones, etc. So just learning what happens with a digital design takes a lot of time in itself. I put Heart Songs on Amazon’s Kindle Books and breathed a sigh of relief. One step, the first step, was completed.
Heart’s Journey came next. There was no pre-existing book to use as a design template. I had to create the print book first from scratch. My unhappiness with Adobe products led me to find other software to do the layout. I found Page Plus, a product from a British company called Serif. It was inexpensive, much easier to use, and, in my opinion, better than Adobe. Nina and I decided to include her drawings in the book. Once I scanned the drawings and we organized the poems into sections, the book layout went smoothly. The most amazing part of this process was discovering which drawing went with which poem. We put the poems on the page first and then chose the drawings. The choices were completely obvious once we started looking. The poems and drawings came out of the same time in her life and gave expression to those times.
To obtain a print copy of the book, I used Amazon’s affiliated company, CreateSpace. Their excellent web site and responsive help desk allowed me to prepare the manuscript for publication with relative ease. I sent them a pdf file of the book, generated easily from Page Plus. CreateSpace does a quick mechanical check of formatting and returns the digital version of the book with notes inside their ereader identifying exactly where problems exist. I corrected the problems and resubmitted the file until it passed their inspection. Then CreateSpace did a full review of the file, noting any other issues or problems they found until the file was fully approved. This review produced another version of the book viewable on their ereader as well. At this point I ordered a Proof copy which came in the mail in two days. We revised, proofed and resubmitted until it was ready for publication. This service is completely free, except for the minor cost of the Proof copy itself. I designed a cover out of a collage of Nina’s drawings and the book was complete. Once published, Heart’s Journey became available through Amazon as a print on demand volume. No more boxes to store. I had my template for designing the eBook.
I found a new eBook layout software called Jutoh, another product from Great Britain, which worked as easily as Adobe was difficult. I imported the same text files and image files that I used for the print book into Jutoh, modified in size and resolution for internet viewing as opposed to printing. Importing and formatting digital color images was the most challenging part of it. The goal in creating images for the Internet is to make them as large as you can while still allowing fast downloading and navigation within the eBook. As computer capacities grow, larger and larger image files will be possible.
One striking difference between print layout design and eBook design concerns the way images and text are laid out. Layout for print often involves placing images on pages with text wrapping around the image. Images can be large or small on the page depending on the look you want. Once it’s printed, no one can change it. In eBooks, the images can be integrated in the same way. But, when different devices view such pages, the layout is often unacceptable. So keeping in mind the need to optimize viewing across various devices, I placed each image on a separate page as large as I could so that it would be as large as a device’s page, no matter what size device. I discovered that digital reading devices can reduce the size of images with little loss of quality. But that is not the case when they make images larger. So sizing images as large as practical for the internet works best. This actually makes the drawings more visible in the eBook than in the print book. And since turning a page in an eBook is done with a touch or a swipe of the finger, the number of pages has little meaning. Layout design proceeded rapidly once this formula was determined. Jutoh was able to output (export) the manuscript in formats required by Amazon and others without a problem. The most surprising thing about Jutoh, especially after my experience with Adobe, was being able to find a live voice at their help desk to answer questions.
eBooks will never look like print books because there are no set pages. But to say it has no set pages is somewhat misleading because anytime you look at an eBook on a computer, tablet, phone, etc., you are essentially looking at a page, or a screen shot which is visually the same. The problem for designers is that every device and every reader will change the page view. So the design process for eBooks comes down to creating a digital design with known outcomes on as many devices as you can put it on. This process is new and evolving. It is exciting to be part of it now when everything is in flux and every design is a pathfinder or a dead end. eBook design is a back and forth process of putting your file on various devices and seeing what it looks like; then making changes in your design and repeating the process until you are satisfied. As software and hardware for internet devices and eReaders is constantly changing, designing eBooks today must rely on the formats, such a epub or mobi, that can adapt to this changing environment. It makes the design process more complicated than it would be otherwise. The only thing that is certain is that it will continue to change.
Right now Internet publishing is awash with new formats, new apps and new devices from computer designers all over the globe. It’s enough to make your head spin. Companies have lived and then died trying to find out which new format will work. Rather than gamble on one device or another, or reject eBooks completely as many have, there are good reasons to stay as close to traditional books as possible. My preference is to leave reading to the reader. Let the reader’s mind create their own reality as they read the book. I am not interested in changing that age old process. Within that framework, the digital age offers some new things that can enhance the reading experience, as opposed to substituting for it which happens when you add videos and sound.
Adding hyperlinks offer readers access to the digital world without interrupting their reading. Hyperlinks are words or objects that have been made sensitive to the mouse pointer and which are linked to other pages either in the book or on the Internet. Hyperlinks can offer readers more information on subjects in a book through instant navigation inside a book and outside the book in the vast world of the Internet. For instance, Nina’s poem “On the Assassination” from Heart’s Journey written at the time of the assassination of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone contains a link to internet sources about those events. You can click on them in your eBook, and if you are reading it on a device with an internet connection, it will take you to these sources which may help people, especially young people, understand the poem better. If the reader is not using a device with internet access, the links serve the same function as footnotes.
Hyperlinks enhance the reading experience. They do not substitute for it. They do not interfere with it. You can click on a hyperlink if you want, or skip it and go on to the next poem. Adding hyperlinks opens readers of eBooks to the world in a way no print book can do. In print books, references in footnotes require trips to a bookstore or a library to pursue. In eBooks, the research happens instantly. Once done, the reader can return to the eBook and continue their train of thought. Time will tell whether this design approach is best.
Heart Strong is the last book of the trilogy. We went through all the stages of the process again, organizing and finalizing the poems, collecting the drawings and art work, laying out, creating the print version Proof copy with CreateSpace. This time Nina used Adrian Arias’ cover design for the book and the result was wonderful. The eBook went through the same processes. Hyperlinks went in and within a short time, the eBook was available on Amazon.
Feeling more like a veteran of the design process, I ventured out further into the distribution channels on the internet. Outside of the Apple Mac world, I found it was easy to submit the Jutoh created epub files to other distributors. Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books, and Google Play joined Kindle in offering all three books of the Heart Suite trilogy.
Since I use a PC for all of this work, it was more of a challenge to get the books on iTunes. At first I tried Smashwords, a third party distributor that converts your files and places them on iTunes and other sellers. Their process is labyrinthine and in the end unsatisfactory. They impose a 10 megabite epub file size limitation. I managed to get all three eBooks on Smashwords, and through them to iTunes, after a very long wait. The original version of Heart Songs, made with Adobe, was rejected by Apple at first. I remade the book with Jutoh, resubmitted to Smashwords, and Apple was happy. Later I found BookBaby did the same thing as Smashwords without the elaborate processes and without the file size limitations.
This experience has now opened the door to creating more eBooks. eBooks are in my future. The next one to arrive is the eBook version of Critical Focus. After that, well, the list is growing as I write. This review of the process gives an idea of how the doors to self publishing on the Internet are opening to the public. Whether or not you want to publish yourself, you can see that the process is no longer locked up inside big corporations and their privileged staffs, available only to the chosen few who can make money for stockholders. Those restraints on the creative urges of writers and artists have been removed. Internet publishing opened new options for creativity. Instead of selling the rights and giving up most or all of the income from one’s work, artists and writers who don’t want to do the publishing themselves can hire consultants to do the work. Authors can keep the rights and gain a significanly greater portion of the income that a publication might generate. Amazon has been instrumental in opening the gates. Whatever the outcome of the colossal struggle going on now between Amazon and other corporate giants of publishing, the game has changed and it will never be the same.
It is also apparent, I believe, that eBooks offer poets and artists legitimate outlets for their creative works. The eBook is not exactly like the print book. Poetry from the past may be more difficult to publish on eBooks than print books. But designers will undoubtedly rise to the challenge and in the near future solve all the problems associated with eBook poetry publication. And perhaps, poets and artists will find new forms of expression that do suit the new eBook formats and the myriad of devices now available to people world wide. The rewards available to poets and artists who can work with this new format are vast.