New posts on book production

Over at Electric Book Works, we’re often deep in the plumbing of the Electric Book workflow, the software we created for making books in multiple formats. If you’re curious about that work, I have written a few pieces there that may be interesting.

Producing The Economy with the Electric Book workflow‘ is a case study in multi-format book production, explaining how we built a huge, open-access economics textbook for web and print publication. It’s a great example of the symbiosis of print and digital publishing:

… the practical matter of skills has framed the evolution of publishing as ‘print vs digital’, when of course the conversation should be about print and digital. Not just because we’re stuck with a multi-format world whether we like it or not, but because print and digital formats are symbiotic. …

Print books generate instant credibility. They carry a sense of permanence and authority that digital formats cannot muster.

… Web publications struggle to muster the authority of a printed book, but they scale instantly and allow for a range of funding models.

So, when a book needs to make an impact, it simply must be in print and digital formats. It cannot have impact without the authority of print. And it cannot have impact without the scale of the web.

In ‘Book production with CSS Paged Media’ I explain in more detail how we create print books using HTML and CSS. It has lots of pictures. And also explains:

In our team, we dedicate a significant piece of everyone’s time to technical skills development – both editors and designers – to reduce dependency on developers. And, as our technical lead, I have to spend at least half my time learning or training others. A commitment to digital-first publishing is a commitment to a serious learning curve.

And in ‘Publishing research in useful formats‘ I explain how and why it’s important not to bury research publications in inaccessible PDFs; and the exponential value to be had from publishing as web pages in particular. Ultimately, if you can publish in multiple formats at once, you get a bunch of value, since different people will have different needs and preferences:

  • It can be very powerful to hand a high-quality printed book to an influential person. A beautiful printed book lends a project real credibility.

  • Many people like to download and print out PDFs to read on paper, or to use PDFs in PDF-annotation apps on tablets. Those PDFs must be optimised for use on screens, including clickable navigation and reasonable image sizes. (That is, they are not the same as PDFs for book printing.)

  • Many people do their reading on their phones today. Mobile-friendly web pages are much easier to read and bookmark on a phone.

  • Many people like to read long-form content on an ereader, like Amazon Kindle. A key feature of this is the ability to highlight and annotate as you read, and to see what others are highlighting. If your research is available in the Kindle store (or other stores like iBooks), it’s easy for people to find and annotate it like this.

  • Web pages are easy to share on social media. Today, we get many of our recommendations from contacts sharing links on social media. So website versions of research can be critical for getting others to share your work in this way.

  • Search engines likely rate web pages higher than PDFs, for various reasons. So research published as web-page content (as opposed to PDFs for download) will be far more visible and popular in search results.

  • You can get in-depth analytics from website publications. Using a service like Google Analytics you can see what people read most, what they search for, and where they are, right down to city level.

  • Well-constructed web pages are better for accessibility: for instance, for read-aloud screen readers and high-contrast displays for the visually impaired. And good accessibility has the added advantage of being useful to voice-driven services, such as Google Assistant, which can read out web pages in response to a user’s voice requests.

  • Website versions can be updated instantly, should information change.


For publishers in a racist world, neutrality is not a virtue

In the days before the Göteborg Book Fair, its director Maria Källsson defended the fair’s decision to allow one (and only one) right-wing extremist publisher a platform there:

How we are to tolerantly deal with intolerance is a major dilemma in our time. It is true that we can expel extreme exhibitors from the fair. After all, we decide who is allowed to have a stand there. But we can’t expel them from society. In order to understand our approach and our principles, you have to understand what the book fair is. The book fair is an open arena for free association and freedom of expression, and it does not forbid opinions. That principle comes with a price—even detestable opinions can appear at a book fair.

The Frankfurt Book Fair faced similar ‘dilemmas’, and defended their decisions in similar ways.

The argument that we should ‘tolerantly deal with intolerance’ seems satisfyingly logical. But it hides an abdication of responsibility that leads to terrible things – especially when espoused by publishers, whose job it is to make ideas seem credible, and the fairs that celebrate them.

If you genuinely believed detestable opinions can appear at a book fair, you would allow child pornography, manuals on genital mutilation, recipes for chemical weapons, or handbooks on torturing information out of people. All of these publications doubtless exist, and yet we would never allow them space at a book fair. We recognise here, so clearly, that freedom of expression doesn’t apply to promoting cruelty. It would be absurd to tolerate even one of those publications at a book fair.

And yet right-wing extremist views, which are primarily racist, escape prohibition. Racism, inexplicably, is not considered as harmful, despite the fact that it has driven every genocide in history, and continues to fuel the neglect, bullying, oppression, torture, and murders of people across the world. And it thrives in a world, contorted by hypocrisy, that allows racists freedom to express themselves even as they silence others. Perhaps racism is so widespread and so common that this seems normal.

Like racism itself, Källsson’s argument that we should ‘tolerantly deal with intolerance’ is not rare. It’s a symptom of that particular disease of comfortable people: the mistaken belief that neutrality is a virtue. This dangerous myth suggests that it is possible to debate racism with racists, as if hatred had a logic we might disprove if only we could work it out. And, as a result, our penchant for debate gives racist organisations a platform to ride, like a perfect wave, right into the centre of our lives and our politics.

So we must remind each other, patiently, over and over again: for as long as racism exists, neutrality is not a virtue. The same goes for misogyny. At best, neutrality and debate reinforce a cruel status quo.

The shadows of the human mind will always harbour terrible ideas. There is neither value nor virtue in making them stronger. As the folktale goes, the wolf that wins is the one we feed, and no one bears a greater responsibility for that than publishers.

I love you, InDesign, but it’s time to let you go

I love you, InDesign, but it’s time to let you go. We just can’t be together in a multi-format world.

InDesign is expensive, so I can’t have my whole team working in it. It’s so powerful that it takes years of experience to use it without making a mess. And it’s fundamentally incapable of producing both print PDF and ready-to-use HTML from a single master file, despite some amazing hacks.

Adobe has tried valiantly to turn this page-based, hot-lead-replacement into a multi-format tool, but its roots in print are just too deep. Making books in InDesign and converting them to high-quality ebooks and websites is a rocky journey that leaves even the smartest typesetters bloodied and broke.

At Fire and Lion we make a lot of books for screen and paper (mostly for publishing companies and non-profits). To our clients, what matters most is that the books are well-crafted in every format, and that working with us is problem-free. Behind the scenes, we have to do something special to make that possible.

So the first thing we do is avoid using InDesign for setting everything but the most heavily illustrated books. We don’t do page-by-page layout and convert to HTML later. In fact, we do exactly the opposite: we make each book as a little website, and then output to PDF.

To put it another way: Fire and Lion makes responsive websites that respond not only to screen sizes but to the pages of a book. And we do it so well that, looking at the finished product, you can’t tell the difference between our books and those you’d get from a typesetter working in InDesign.

We’ve been lucky to work with clients who’ve let us make their books with this cutting-edge toolset. You have to be brave to accept a GitHub repository as your open files, rather than an InDesign package; but it’s brave people like that who move our industry forward.

Nothing we’re doing is a secret: our workflow is open. So when we’re not making books, we’ll be talking about how we make them. If you’re working with similar tools, or curious about ours, let us know.

Publishing has a trust problem (and it might just kill us)

In a fascinating interview, Matt Thompson and Steve Song talk about designing for trust:

Higher trust environments, whether in families or corporations or economies, tend to be both more effective and happier.


The point is to design systems that increase trust.

That’s why Wikipedia is such a clever example; the fact that anyone can completely erase and rewrite a Wikipedia page is a form of active design trust. The very openness of it is saying: “We trust you.” And by and large, it works.

It means we need to design for trust if we want to actually encourage people to engage in the acts of generosity that build reciprocity.

[…] knowledge is transmitted in ways that are informal and social, and that aren’t captured in org charts or documents or reporting requirements.

I think that’s an interesting space, and if I were looking at organizational work practice design, that’s what I would experiment with: those little design changes that inspire people to make that “trust deposit” that then hopefully inspires reciprocity.

Read the whole thing here.

How do we design for trust? Steve argues that that’s where openness is important: “openness is a means to an end, not the endgame. Trust is the endgame.” To build trust, build openness into your systems.

In publishing we spend a lot of time and energy making up for a lack of trust – in our colleagues, our business partners and our customers. We use endless sign-off processes, overwrought contracts, and arcane DRM. We guard royalty percentages and salary ranges like national secrets. And we rely overwhelmingly on the devils we know, from authors to booksellers. In trying to sell new ideas to publishers, I’ve seen well-meaning champions of change falter as colleagues choose not to trust their judgement.

This is not sustainable business. And it makes it harder for us to deliver what the world needs from us: more good content to more people.

Greater openness and transparency – and the greater trust they’d build – would help us divert some of that energy to things that matter more. And if we don’t build that trust into our organisations, then other, better organisations will deserve to take our place.

The way to talk about open licensing is to not talk about open licensing


Open-licensing can be incredibly powerful. Converts to open-licensing become zealots quickly, because they can see that a world that is open-by-default is a healthier world.

The problem with open-licensing is that it’s hard to describe. Evangelism is incredibly difficult. Those of us familiar with copyright law and licensing tend to forget that phrases like ‘open-license’, ‘Creative Commons’, ‘CC-BY’, ‘No-derivatives’, and ‘copyleft’ are opaque to most people. Our challenge is to find ways to talk about open-licensing without ever saying ‘license’.

At Bettercare and at Book Dash we use Creative Commons licenses for our publications. At Bettercare, we use a CC-BY-ND-NC license strategically. It’s very important that our customers and competitors know exactly what that means, and why we’re doing it. At Book Dash, we use CC-BY to make sure our books can travel as widely and cheaply as possible. We rely on lots of volunteers, and can’t waste time explaining the technicalities of open-licensing to them.

Over the last few months, I’ve worked hard to remove the jargon from our messaging. Our Bettercare page on licensing is called ‘Reusing our materials’, and starts like this:

Unlike most publishers, we let you make your own copies of our material for free, under certain circumstances. So, in certain special cases, you can reuse or share our books without asking for our permission.

If you follow these three simple rules, you can re-use or copy our books without asking for permission:

  • Each copy must say where it came from: Bettercare, including the web address.
  • You can’t change anything. You must reuse or copy the books as-is. This protects us and our authors from liability, should others’ changes be in any way dangerous or harmful.
  • You cannot reuse or copy them for a money-making activity. This is to protect our financial sustainability. There is more detail about this below.

We go into more detail in plain-language. It’s not perfect, but we’re on the right track. You can read the whole thing here.

At Book Dash, we focus on two phrases: ‘books that anyone can freely download, translate and distribute’ and ‘our work is our gift to the world’. We only use technical terms like ‘Creative Commons’ when there is space and time to do it properly.

If you’ve worked on translating open-licensing jargon into plain language, please let me know.