Sundman: Friedlander on the Future of Publishing

by | Oct 28, 2010

Wetmachine, a “group blog on telecom policy, software, science, technology, and writing” is the online home of author John Sundman. John has self-published his novels for 11 years.

Recently he inaugurated what he calls “a continuing series of interviews with movers & shakers in the rapidly changing world of publishing.” Previous interviewees were Jane Friedman of Writer’s Digest, and Mark Coker of Smashwords.

I was really pleased when John asked me to do an interview, and took the opportunity to expand at some length on his questions, most of which centered around the future of print books and ebooks. And who isn’t interested in ebooks these days?

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the interview. To read the whole thing, see the link at the end of the article.

Q: Your website is called The Book Designer, and yet you blog about electronic publishing, in which authors/publishers have less and less to say about the design of their books, because the target delivery device is not defined. A cell phone is not the same thing as a large computer screen or a kindle, any yet your ebook may end up on any of them. What does it mean to “design” a book these days, when the concept of “book” is so fluid and the variety of reading devices so great?

As I write this, printed book still far outnumber ebooks, and books that are published only in e-formats are rare. Most ebooks start off as print books, so book designers are still busy.

Ebooks are growing and everyone knows that the move to electronic delivery of text is unstoppable. Economic pressures are also pushing this transition

The problems that designers face with ebooks are primarily a result of the primitive nature of the tools available to us to create the files that will be read on these devices. I’m mostly a print guy, and have no particular expertise in EPUB or other ebook formats, but it’s obvious that better software standards and better interpreters on the hardware end will make a huge difference about how we can design these books.

Even now there’s a big difference between ebooks that are produced without much thought, or through automated processing engines, and ebooks that are crafted by knowledgeable and attentive designers. Just look at Elizabeth Castro’s EPUB Straight to the Point for a well-designed ebook built for EPUB format. The best of the translations from print to ebook display their origin in print typography while still being flowable and readable on various screen sizes.

The EPUB version that Joshua Tallent created for my client Lisa Alpine is a good example, where the artwork used in chapter openings was carefully preserved and really does a good job of translating the print design into electronic form.

So the short answer to your question, John, is that while we have entered a dark age for design on ebook formats, it looks like there’s a light up ahead.

To read the entire interview, go to John Sundman’s Wetmachine blog. Here’s the link:

Book designer and self-publishing guru Joel Friedlander talks with Wetmachine about the future of publishing

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by edvvc,

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Roger C. Parker

    Dear Michael:
    I seldom comment on Replys, but wanted to thank you for adding your thoughts in such detail to Joel’s post.

    You bring up several important points that I’ve thought about. I applaud the care you’ve taken to substitute words to smooth-out line breaks and page breaks.

    It never ceases to amaze me how so few printed books–not even considering ebooks–are really pleasing to hold in the hand or to read.

    Yet, best-selling books with “legs” tend to be those that reflect TLC in their design–Malcolm Gladwell’s books, Harry Beck’s, (i.e., What Clients Want, etc.) and the like.

    Great Reply–I look forward to reading more from you. Ebooks don’t have to look bad, as Seth Godin and Rajesh Setty’s prove, but the majority are less than totally satisfying…neither serving their message, their readers, or the author’s cause.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Good point, Roger. Ebooks could look much better than most do today if a little care was taken with them. It’s not so dissimilar to print typography in that just about anyone can put out a bad looking book, but to get something better you just have to pay more attention to what you’re doing. Even though ebooks can’t compare with printed books yet, at their best they are quite acceptable.

  2. Michael N. Marcus

    >>A cell phone is not the same thing as a large computer screen or a kindle, any yet your ebook may end up on any of them.<<

    It's interesting to see cellphones and ebooks mentioned in the same paragraph. They share an important characteristic — and it's not a good one.

    As cellphones have become a major channel for telecommunications, the common noisy calls that are encountered with wireless technology have led to a lowered quality standard for other phone calls.

    Old-fashioned "landline" phone calls remain the gold standard for call quality, but because so many people accept cellphone quality, there is little objection to bad VoIP calls. VoIP quality would not likely be tolerated if people had not been first conditioned by cellphones.

    The growing acceptance of the typographical limitations of eBooks has led to an increasing dumbing-down with pBooks — particularly, the lack of hyphenation. eBooks have made ugly books normal, and apparently acceptable to many

    A few minutes ago, I completed probably the 50th read-through of a 318-page book I'm publishing. I carefully examined each line and each paragraph, made decisions about word spacing and hyphenation, and substituted words, to make each page look as good as possible.

    Yesterday I received a copy of " 5.0," co-auithored by Dan Poynter.

    Dan is generally recognized as an authority on self-publishing, but the text in this book is just plain ugh-lee. Unlike Dan's classic "Self-Publishing Manual, (first published in 1979) the new 2010 book has oversized indents, no hyphens, and the text is sans serif.

    Word spacing is atrocious, every page has rivers, and there are orphans which could have been easily eliminated.

    This book sadly follows the same "design" scheme as Dan's quick-n-dirty "Self-Publishing Manual, Vol 2" from 2009. It's a little less ugly, but neither book is as "profesisonal" as Dan's 1979 book.

    I can't help thinking that Dan decided that since eBook typography (I hate using those words together) is acceptable, an ugly and sloppy pBook is also acceptable.

    I can't help fearing that newbies who regard Dan as a guru will follow his example and produce even uglier books.

    I'm facing a personal dilemma with eBooks right now. I have released a few as PDFs which maintain the page formatting of my pBooks, but I am reluctant to release the books in the more popular — and uglier — eBook formats. Because of this, I may be missing readers and income — but I just don't like ugly books.

    I suppose at some point I will stop comparing eBooks to pBooks and will come to accept a Kindle page as normal, but part of a parallel universe of publishing.

    My cousin Dave is a pizza maven with very high standards. Rather than dismiss Pizza Hut's mass-produced products as substandard pizza, Dave says, "It's not pizza. It's pizza HUT."

    Maybe I should be able to say, "It's not a book. It's an EBOOK."

    Michael N. Marcus
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
    — "Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults),"

    • Joel Friedlander

      You’ve made the assumption that Poynter cares what his book looks like. In the earlier editions, expectations were very different, and most books were done by professionals. There was little choice back then, so books just naturally looked better.



  1. Tweets that mention Sundman: Friedlander on the Future of Publishing — The Book Designer -- - [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ron Kavanaugh, Nadine Williams and Jan Marshall, Mosaic Literary Conf. Mosaic Literary…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.