Adapting an extraordinary book: Tribulations and joys of ebook production
Recently I worked on an extraordinary project, the ebook adaptation of Le Putain d’énorme livre du bonheur qui va tout déchirer, by Anneliese Mackintosh (“The Bloody Enormous Book of Happiness”, the French title of So happy it hurts). An epistolary novel for the 21st century, the original paper edition is extremely complex, and gives pride of place to all kinds of documents such as emails or snapchats but also receipts, handwritten notes, official documents… with lots of elements that don’t work at all well in ebooks, like tables.
A project like this represents a double challenge. On the one hand, the spirit of the paper model must be preserved as much as possible, because the layout helps tell the story, as well as contributing to the pleasure of the experience. I tried to stay as faithful to it as possible. But you also have to take into account the characteristics and constraints of the digital format, and adapt as necessary.
In particular, for reasons of accessibility, you must be able to enlarge the text, or hear it read using a text-to-speech app, and it has to be able to dynamically adapt to the very small screen of a smartphone just as well as an ereader or a computer screen. These are characteristics of a “reflowable” format. And it must be beautiful, pleasant to read, regardless of the size of the font chosen by the reader or the size of the screen.
On the left, the original picture, on the right, my fully-accessible reproduction in text.
(The dotted lines on the receipts: top of the list of things-I’m-super-proud-of-that-no-one-will-ever-notice.)
but never at the expense of accessibility
Sometimes I had to compromise. For example I chose to embed several different fonts in the file to reproduce the graphic effects, so I added a note at the beginning of the book to recommend activating publisher styles, rather than using a personal font. Besides the aesthetic effect, the different fonts used play a role in telling the story.
Publisher’s note: Please activate publisher styles and fonts.
On the other hand I made sure that there is no inaccessible text. For the few pictures that it was not possible to reproduce only in text (a sketch with hand-written annotations for example, or the picture of the personnel badge), I chose to include the original image, so as to preserve the rich visual content, but I also transcribed the text to ensure readability and full accessibility.
Where the paper edition included tables, I reproduced the visual effect differently, with a layout that looks like a table while being completely reflowable. Otherwise, if the table doesn’t fit on the screen, whatever spills over is just cut off.
Ceci n’est pas un tableau…
This is not a table either.
The ereader war
The most difficult part of a complex project like this is handling the… let’s say “variable” (working hard to stay polite…) interpretations made by different reading applications, and finding solutions that are the simplest and most compatible possible even for sometimes very complex problems.
Reading applications which rely on the rendering engine of Adobe Digital Editions (RMSDK) can’t handle rounded corners (seriously Adobe?? It’s 2018…) and this is far from its only shortcoming, alas; so the borders on the text messages, and the circle of the Sobriety App are shown as squares. It’s not as pretty but you don’t miss out on any information.
Text with rounded corners (in iBooks)
In reading apps based on Adobe’s software the grey circle of the Sobriety App is displayed as a square.
Going to the other extreme, iBooks (and only iBooks…) refused to display one of the fonts originally used by the publisher unless it was underlined; some parts of the text would simply have been invisible, which is unacceptable. What’s the solution? Use a different font. And test your file a thousand times, in every possible reading app…
Here’s how it should look.
Here’s how it looked in iBooks
As you can see, the text is all there, and it shows up if it’s underlined. It’s a mystery.
When it came to reproducing the circled item on this list, I had to try four different solutions, all technically valid, before finding one that displayed correctly everywhere.
You’re wondering what happens if you enlarge the text?
I’m not going to lie, I really enjoy twisting my brain around to find an elegant solution to a thorny challenge. Having to find four solutions to the same problem however starts to get a little tedious. Did I (again) heap curses on the heads of the devs responsible for iBooks and Adobe Digital Editions, who don’t seem particularly bothered about standards that have been in place for years, or sometimes literally decades? Did I.
Since we’re on the topic, zero love to iBooks’ stupidly bad cache management, which forces me to modify the title in the metadata every single time I want to test a new version.
A beautiful book, a beautiful ebook
I’m very proud of the result. I think readers will be able to enjoy the ebook just as much as the paper book, without missing out on anything. I’m very grateful to e-Dantès and Bragelonne / Milady for trusting me with this project; I hope we’ll have lots more bloody enormous projects together.
Le Putain d’énorme livre du bonheur qui va tout déchirer (So happy it hurts), by Anneliese Mackintosh, published by Milady, is available drm-free from all good ebookstores; personally I have a preference for independent bookstores, for example 7switch.