photo by by arminho-paper via flickr (CC)

In a recent blog post on Teleread, Juli Monroe mentioned an email (probably unsolicited) that advertised ebook-conversion services for “only $400”. The author called the price offer “ludicrous”, arguing that softwares such as Calibre and Scrivener enable authors to do their own ebook-conversion, for free.

The most controversial part of this article (as so often) was in the comment section, where self-described ebook conversion professionals attacked Monroe for sneering at the $400 price tag and recommending Calibre, which according to the pros was just a “hacker software” that produced nothing but a “mushy mess”.

I would like to politely point out that you get what you pay for. If a self-published author, trying to string together the services traditionally supplied by a publishing house, uses hacker software like Calibre to create an ebook, they will have a mushy mess of a book that they paid no money to produce.

You Get What You Pay For

These kinds of arguments are predictable. It’s like telling a group of dedicated language teachers that in a few years algorithms à la Google Translate will do most of their work for them. They will roar back at you that machine translations will never match the finesse of human language processing, that they are prone to grave errors and professionally unacceptable!

So, first of all it’s no surprise that professional ebook conversion specialists will not accept an ebook created with freely or commonly available software. It’s a matter of defending their territory.

However, what this whole discussion fails to address is that ebook-conversion (like so many other things in life) is not a zero-sum game. It’s not about either free conversions or professionally produced ebooks by digital typesetters (for lack of a better term).

For many authors with a limited budget and not unusually complex layouts, a free ebook conversion solution will be sufficient most of the time. If the author does his homework, he’ll make sure that his book looks the same on as many devices as he possibly has access to through either hardware or software simulators such as the Kindle Previewer.

Will the code behind the ebook be as immaculate as that of a hand-crafted HTML-document with carefully pruned Cascading Style Sheets? No. Will the reader care? As long as it doesn’t interfere with his reading experience, probably not.

However, when it comes to publishing houses who have both unusually complex (text-)books and a budget to spend, free conversion will often be not sufficient. When there are complicated elements within the book such as tables, formulas, indeces, footnotes and so on, hiring a professional will not only produce better results, it will also save time, since fixing the results of an automatically converted ebook will take much longer than just creating a clean ebook from the start.

Custom-Tailored Or Off-the-Rack

In the end, it’s all a question whether you want your ebook conversion “custom-tailored” or “off-the-rack”. Both have their advantages. If you want the best-fitting, best-looking (according to your wishes) thread you can get, there’s nothing like going to a tailor and ordering a custom suit. Most people, however, will just buy their clothes in their favorite shop around the corner which fits both budget and expectations. It’s fast, simple and affordable. (Plus, you can always customize the result if you feel up to it.)

There is not just one solution which is always right for everyone. There are different solutions for different people in different situations. If both professionals and pragmatists acknowledge this, there is no reason to be upset.

UPDATE: This post has generated some interesting conversation on Reddit, the resulting thread in some ways being the complete opposite opinion-wise of the one on Teleread. I think it just proves that there are indeed two very different ways to approach this topic, and that in the end, everyone has to pick their own route.

In the “second goldrush” of digital publishing, a lot of small companies and service providers have sprung up that offer cover design, editing, and also ebook conversion. And that’s great, especially for those self-publishing authors who don’t have the time, nerves or skills to wrap their head around the more technical aspects of creating TOCs and consistent typography. On the other hand, anyone with a bit of common (computer) knowledge, time, and the will to figure things out can produce high quality ebooks, that — even if they aren’t as perfect as the ones created by skilled programmers — can still compete with the majority of currently available ebooks.

 photo:  Some rights reserved/CC by arminho-paper via flickr