Making an e-book of a richly visual, design-oriented book

Here’s my advice for Stephen Few, who is being urged to create e-books of his great books on information design. [ The urgings appear in comments on his blog post on publishing ]

For e-book creation, an author of design-oriented content has to consider several major issues. (Several of these you’ve already mentioned, but I got into essay mode.)


What should the digital experience be for the reader? Do they want:

  • a “show” with video and music and such, or
  • an improved version of consuming 2D communication?

Consider Nancy Duarte’s e-book Resonate. Her subject is putting on a show, so for her it was a no-brainer to go for the immersive experience. I imagine her iBook has even more sizzle than your live workshops. (Oh dear, can you hear my slightly derogatory tone on “sizzle”?)

I’d vote for your content to be delivered as improved 2D communication. Not a show. And not a virtual classroom, either.

Starting from that vantage point, other issues fall into place.


In your books, you lay out spreads very thoughtfully, because you are highly aware of the experience of your readers. As you said, this can’t be reproduced on the small screen.

You have two choices:

  1. Give up control (as you mentioned). Allow the content to be a standard e-book — presented as a single stream of text with embedded visuals. The advantage is permitting readers to increase the font size on their e-readers, but it kills a book like yours.
  2. Maintain control. Don’t go single-stream, but don’t go PDF either. Find a new way of conveying the relationships between “content units” — text, illustrations, asides, footnotes, etc. Currently, you show them on a spread, related by layout. Achieve the same goal by using interactivity and animation. UX designers have lots of tricks up their sleeves, like user-controlled pop-ups, etc.

Note that choosing (2) leads to consideration in the next section: technology.


What hardware and software do you want to require for readers of your e-book?

If you want to support the lowest common denominator hardware, we’re talking black and white on very small screens. Yuck. But no one says you have to do that. You could limit it to larger, color tablets (and desktops). You could specify minimum processor and memory requirements.

You also don’t have to issue your book in one of the standard e-book formats. You can instead publish it as an app. Then you can have custom visuals, animation, and interactivity. Some people call these “book apps” (or even “transmedia”).

I think iBooks (Duarte’s format) is attempting to get into this realm — but they only work on Apple devices.

Apps are popular for kids’ stories. Nigel Holmes went there with his latest book. For adult non-fiction, not many publishers have taken the apps approach, probably due to file size constraints but also to financial constraints. I’m sure audiences for book apps are smaller than those for e-books. But you have a specific audience already.

Creating an app is expensive, as you’d expect, so I can’t find examples of it done really well except for kids. Here’s an attempt at an older-kid audience. The skills and tools for creating apps are improving.


I see the development coming in several stages, each more effort than the previous.

First, you emulate (and improve on?) the UX of books. With various e-book formats, this is built-in. You provide support for:

  • digital notes, highlighting and bookmarking (sometimes with an online sharing component, popular with students).
  • search of content
  • panning and zooming on pages and/or illustrations
  • hot-linking to online resources (bibliography, “read further”).

Second, you identify places where your book talks about interactive experiences (such as UX of a dashboard), and you add “screencasts.”

Third, you consider where your content could be communicated effectively with animation (or videos and sound). This is serious re-authoring, but for specific bits of content, it could be worth it.

Fourth and optionally, you extend the interactivity to the sort that lets readers seriously control and discover their learning experiences. They could explore the content (and possibly drill down into deeper content than fits in a print book).

There might be a fifth step where you actually make the book (when connected to the net) fetch content from the APIs of services like stock tickers, so the book’s demonstrations used real-time data.

At some point this crosses over into being a lot more than a “book.” It’s a bit like calling the web-surfing, game-playing, texting thing in people’s pockets a “phone.”


In my opinion, the future for rich-media books, which hasn’t quite arrived, is HTML5. It’s out there being experimented with, but not ready for prime time.

Its power is in delivering experiences through any browser… platform-independent, no specialty software required. It’s touted for mobile devices, but it doesn’t mean you have to deliver your whole book on a small phone.

Web authors are being taught to do “responsive design” (reformatting for different screen sizes) and “progressive enhancement” (delivering at least something, if less rich, on less-capable platforms). Apply that to the multi-media support of HTML5, and we may yet experience content in a better way.





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