Digital publishing and design: redesigning the monograph

Digital publishing presents academic book publishers with a spectrum of possibilities. At the conservative end, one can simply publish a PDF of the printed text. At the radical end, one can publish texts that differ from printed books to the extent that’s questionable whether the product should be called a book at all. I mean products that incorporate multimedia or interactive features.

Some commentators suggest that the latter will drive out the former. I would be surprised if that happens. The book has been around a long time – primarily because the form works well – and cultural forms often evolve gradually. I don’t mean that multimedia or interactive texts won’t attract readers/users, publishers, or authors/originators – they already do: I mean only that this need not entail the death of the conservative end of (e-)book publishing.

I do think, however, that there’s a case for redesigning the structure of e-books. Here then I offer a modest proposal – a proposal that hinges on the question of sequential reading. In some ways, e-books facilitate non-sequential reading. They make it easier, for example, to search for terms through the book, jumping from one instance to another. And, depending on the format, they might provide links between sections (or layers) through HTML.

But in another way – at least if my own reading experience is anything to go by, they make reading more sequential. For example, I often find myself moving through the prelims to get to the page I wish to settle on. And this can be a rather boring experience, taking me through stuff that has to be there but isn’t very enticing. Acknowledgment pages, for example.

So I have been thinking about the structure of e-books, focusing on the genre of academic monographs (a genre that we will be beginning to publish in 2011). My proposal is to redesign the structure of monographs along the following lines:

(I) Cover

(II) Frontmatter

  1. Cover
  2. Disclaimer
  3. Contents
  4. Index
  5. Abstract and key words
  6. Foreword
  7. Related titles information

(III) Body

Main text (and notes)

(IV) Endmatter

  1. Imprint page
  2. Acknowledgements & credits
  3. References

Let me explain some of the thinking behind this structure. First, the cover. Some commentators have suggested that the digitalisation of book publishing is bad news for the art of cover design. Well, it is true that the current generation of dedicated e-book readers, using e-ink technology, has not been able to handle colour. Nevertheless, I take a less gloomy view. In some ways, digitalisation makes front covers more important, since these form the icons on online retail stores through which readers initiate their interaction with the book. It is extraordinary how appealing such icons can look, even when occupying a small space. I think it is likely, therefore, that cover design will retain its importance, but perhaps change in nature as designers attach more importance to the question of how a design will work as icon on the screen.

Second, the disclaimer. Not all books need a disclaimer, but some do – to advise readers that, for example, the publishers take no responsibility for readers following instructions or advice given in the text. It seems to me – though I’m not a lawyer and can’t claim legal expertise on the matter – that, where a disclaimer is required, it needs to be placed in the least missable place. That, surely, is straight after the cover, as the first page readers are likely to encounter. Probably the disclaimer should also be itemised in the table of contents in the way that other frontmatter components, such as prefaces, usually are. Itemising the disclaimer makes it more difficult for readers to be unaware.

Third, I am proposing to place the index amongst the frontmatter, rather than the back. My thinking is that indexes perform more than one function. For example, they help readers to locate elements, but they also help readers to grasp the scope of a text. For the former purpose, placing the index at the extreme edge (traditionally, as the final component of the endmatter) is probably most helpful. For the latter purpose, however, a more prominent position may be helpful. Placing the index just after the table of contents would help the reader to appreciate the scope of the book by providing first a set of high-level descriptors (say, chapter headings) and then the lower level descriptors (the index entries).

Fourth, I have introduced a new element, namely an abstract, accompanied by a list of key words – as found in journal papers. My thinking here is that, as in the digital age, the amount of information available to readers grows, so abstracting becomes more important. At the moment, we seek to get by providing the blurb and (where search-inside facilities exist) the table of contents and then, in effect, leaving readers to abstract from these documents. The problem here is that this is not primarily what blurbs (especially) or tables of contents are designed to do, so they are usually less than ideal for such a purpose. Better, surely, to provide a proper abstract. Indeed, there might a case for also providing an abstract for each chapter.

The final frontmatter component that deserves comment is the information on related titles. At present this often consists of a bare listing, tucked away unobtrusively in the prelims, where it is easily ignorable. Why not make more of a feature of it and allow each copy of an e-book to advertise other publications from the same publisher? One of the arguments against imposing digital rights management on e-books is that, even when copies are illicitly shared, they at least help to advertise the book and the brand. Displaying related titles information prominently would capitalise on this effect.

In the sequence proposed above I have included the imprint page and acknowledgments amongst the endmatter. My thinking here is that, as I mentioned above, they need to be included but are rarely interesting.

One final point: to acknowledgments I have added ‘credits’. By this I mean credits to the various suppliers and crafts people who have contributed to the making of the e-book – the designer, indexer, proofreader, and so on. The credits at the ends of films mention just about everyone imaginable; CDs often credit a sizable cast beyond the musicians themselves; yet books are often rather shy about many of people who have made a contribution (unless the author chooses to mention them in the acknowledgments). I can’t see any reason for this – especially in e -books, where space is less at a premium – and indeed have noticed signs that this is beginning to change.


One Response to “Digital publishing and design: redesigning the monograph”

  1. […] in a series of separate posts below dealing with genre (11 March), workflow (13 January), design (16 December 2010), abstracts (7 June), and enhanced p-books (20 April). The purpose of this post is to synthesise […]

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