This section contained six questions designed to assess publishers’ opinions on ebook design, and the extent to which small publishers have budgeted for it (including with human capital) and gathered customer feedback:
Generally speaking, small publishers are happy with the state of ebook design, with nearly three quarters reporting being ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with the design quality of their own books. This response contradicted my hypothesis that publishers would be dissatisfied with ebooks’ design quality. This hypothesis was based on anecdotal evidence that publishers were frustrated by issues like poetry losing its line breaks (Teicher, 2013), and evidence of widespread errors in ebooks produced by outsourcers, as documented in a study of ebook outsourcing by Canadian academic publisher UBC Press (Humble, 2012).
As ebook formats evolve and offer designers more options, the potential for quality design increases, so to some extent interest in ebook design and interest in ebook formats can be correlated. Consequently, it can be hypothesised that the response to this question mirrors the general disinterest in the modern EPUB3 ebook format and enhanced ebooks evinced by publishers in 2012: 35% of publishers surveyed by Aptara were unsure about whether they would move to producing EPUB3 books, and the same proportion reported that they were ‘still investigating’ whether to produce enhanced ebooks (2012, pp. 33-34).
Under half of respondent publishers reported having received customer feedback on their ebooks’ design. Those who had received feedback reported that it had been generally positive, with only 15% having received negative feedback.
The extent to which respondents have received positive feedback comes as a surprise. My hypothesis – based on informal conversations with publishers and ebook production experts who have encountered reader complaints about poor quality ebooks – was that reader feedback on ebook quality would be negative overall, or mixed at best.
This unexpected positivity might be explained by the limited distribution of some small presses’ titles: the people most likely to give feedback directly to a publisher are friends, family, or other acquaintances of the authors and publishers – not the unrelated readers who might be less reluctant to provide critical feedback (McIlroy, 2015, no page).
Approximately a third of respondents reported having employed a designer to work on the appearance of their ebooks. Less surprisingly, those publishers who had employed a designer were more likely to have received positive feedback.
Reassuringly for designers, not a single publisher who had employed a professional designer reported having received negative feedback on their ebooks.
Aptara asked a somewhat related question in its survey: ‘Are you seeing a correlation between enhancements and an increase in eBook sales?’. A third of respondents reported a correlation between the production of enhanced ebooks and increased sales (2012, p. 36).
In line with their general satisfaction with the design quality of their ebooks, two thirds of respondents had no intention of altering their ebooks’ design.
The respondents were split on the symbolic importance of producing ‘cutting-edge’ ebooks, with publishers marginally more likely to disagree with the statement than agree, but the largest proportion neither agreeing nor disagreeing.
This is possibly indicative of a general disinterest in ebook design on the part of small publishers (and the meaning of ‘cutting-edge ebooks’ was left deliberately vague to test this hypothesis, by forcing respondents unsure of how to define ‘cutting-edge’ to choose ‘neither agree nor disagree’), although the surprisingly widespread use of designers tends to argue against this conclusion. It may also mean that publishers are not particularly interested in ‘enhanced ebooks’ and the technical possibilities opened up by modern ebook formats.
There is a weak association between a publisher’s interest in being seen to produce ‘cutting-edge’ ebooks and the proportion of revenues ebooks represent at that publisher: generally, the more money a publisher makes from ebooks, the more important it becomes to be seen as a technical leader in the field. To borrow Thompson’s terminology, this is an interesting conjunction of financial and symbolic capital (2010).
The category in which a publisher operates is also likely to affect the extent to which it considers ebooks are essential for its public image. A 2010 survey of Spanish academics found that only 30% considered the production of ebooks to be indicative of a quality publisher (Giménez-Toledo et al, 2013, p. 73). Conversely, ebooks have captured a much greater share of the fiction market, so it is hypothesised that publishers of trade fiction are much more likely to consider ebook production essential for their image.