Of Carts and Horses

The traditional process of making books is tailored to the static medium of print. However, in a world of portable reading devices of widely varying sizes and capabilities, print books rarely adapt well. Converting from static print-designs to a format for customizable electronic presentations is error-prone, cumbersome, and time-consuming, and therefore expensive. That is where Bookalope helps.

July 2015, Jens Troeger

Storytelling changed with the advent of computers.

For most of human history, the telling of a story was—sometimes quite literally—set in stone. We listen to stories, change and retell them, we translate them from one language to another, we imagine new ones. In Europe, medieval scribes began to turn storytelling and writing into an art, and since the invention of movable type in the fifteenth century, we have evolved the art of book design to a perfected craft: typefaces, illustrations, inks, paper, binding. We create books, and we make them everyday items to amuse, entertain, and educate. 1

Books can be beautiful if they are written, designed, and printed by talented artists. Richard Hendel’s insightful books on book design illustrate how artists and skilled professionals create beautiful books. But books are static in their beauty, and their design is constrained by budget and process. Within these constraints, the designer creates the page layout of typefaces and spaces and illustrations. The publishing industry has developed and streamlined this process to accommodate the printed medium. 2

Computers, however, are a different beast altogether, and the design of books for digital presentation must be reconsidered. The traditional static book design is being made obsolete by willful and dynamic user customization. The reader herself takes over the design of the storytelling, where she is now free to choose the dimension of her proverbial page (a wide landscape monitor or a small phone screen) as well as the typeface, its size, line width and spacing, margins, and so forth. In contrast to print books, the design of electronic books must adapt to the reader’s choices instead of dictating them.

Such freedom stirs a colorful mess, and I love it.

What astonishes me is how slowly we embrace this new freedom. Instead of designing books that are no longer set in stone, we try to fit the stone (or the printed book) onto whatever medium and device the reader chooses. And that doesn’t go too well. We spend time and effort on turning a story into a print book, and then we try to turn that print book into an electronic presentation which, hopefully, mimics the print while being as readable and legible on our electronic reading devices.

The traditional publishing process. The traditional publishing process.

The traditional process of manufacturing a book yields a PDF file, the de-facto file format for print today. Simply put, PDF is a paged presentation file format which describes the graphical layout of the book exactly: it contains the page dimensions and instructions on what to draw where on a page. These instructions render the glyphs that eventually make up the story on the page, but not necessarily in textual order. PDF has no inherent notion of the story’s text or the text’s structure, it doesn’t know of headers or footnotes or elements like emphasized text or a poem. This makes it difficult to extract text, and simply copy-and-pasting from a PDF can go awry. It is difficult to discriminate important text content and to dismiss inessentials like folios and headers (design relics that are not part of the story itself); it is difficult to extract text structure from styled content (e.g. “Is this line of bold large text a chapter title?”); and it is difficult to undo design changes that were applied to text content (e.g. “Is this hyphen at the end of the line intended, or is it just an ordinary line break?”). Using a PDF file (or similar paged presentation formats like InDesign or Word) to generate an ebook is cumbersome and can be prone to errors. It thus is time consuming and expensive. However, rethinking the process itself leads to a simpler and more efficient and stable approach: Bookalope. 3

Today’s publishing industry largely looks at an ebook as an afterthought, as a continuation of the printed book. It’s a bit like putting the cart before the horse: the book’s story originates in a computer, and via the static print-design (with all of its set-in-stone constraints) returns to it. It’s a bit like pasting the pages of a book onto the walls of a cave, instead of using brush and paint to create a proper cave story.

This is where Bookalope is different.

It’s time to embrace the freedom that electronic devices offer instead of confining that freedom by a process that has hardened over decades and centuries. It’s time to make the electronic presentation of a story a first-class citizen equal to the printed book, and not an addendum of it. We have to rethink the process of book design for multiple media; we have to lay out the design of our stories for the various devices simultaneously, equal to one another! And for some stories this works and for others less so, because some stories want to be told with wide and sweeping images that cannot be confined to the palm of the hand. But the reader chooses her device and setup.

The Bookalope process. The Bookalope process.

Bookalope strictly separates the story’s content and structure from its final visual presentation. Similar to the traditional publishing process, a book is designed based on the story and the publisher’s constraints, as well as the target medium. Bookalope provides various design templates, each tailored specifically for print book and ebook. Once a book has been built for a target medium, it is not the premise for another design for a different medium. By working from a single structured text source, Bookalope provides a highly efficient, consistent, and stable process without cumbersome and repetitive work that alternates between the story’s structure, content, and design.

When I read Richard Hendel’s essay “The Conundrum of the E-Book,” I felt encouraged that Bookalope is doing the right thing, that it provides the right tools for this different way of building books. Bookalope strictly separates the content and structure of the story from its visual presentation; content and structure are edited and maintained throughout the entire process, independently of how the story will eventually be designed for a target medium.

Here is how it works. Bookalope provides smart and interactive tools that analyze the styling of a (finished) manuscript to help extract the story’s content and structure from that manuscript. During the extraction, Bookalope cleans up the content and flags stylistic, textual, and typographical issues. Only when content and structure are smoothed and polished does Bookalope build books in various formats; it builds them depending on the target medium using styling specifically designed to accommodate each medium. The PDF print file is now equal to the electronic book, it is yet another output for Bookalope instead of being the premise and input for an ebook addendum.

Print or e, large or small, whatever matters most to the reader—Bookalope puts the cart behind the horse again, where it belongs. It helps you design your book for any medium by providing an efficient process, without wasting time and resources on shuffling carts and horses around. Bookalope helps you build print books for print, ebooks for any device, and it helps you paint beautiful stories onto the walls of a cave. Because stories want to be told to amuse, entertain, and educate, no matter what the medium.

Welcome to Bookalope!


1Alix Christie’s novel Gutenberg’s Apprentice ( link) is a historical account of the invention of movable type by Gutenberg, Schöffer, and Fust, and the design and print of the famed Gutenberg Bible. Matthew Pearl’s book The Last Bookaneer ( link) is an entertaining (and somewhat accurate) novel of historical fiction about the attitudes of the European and American publishing industry prior to the introduction of the copyright laws in 1891.  

2Richard Hendel’s books are On Book Design ( link) and Aspects of contemporary book design ( link). The second book, Aspects of contemporary book design, contains Hendel’s essay on the ebook conundrum.  

3The de-facto file format for print is Adobe PDF ( link). Much work has been invested into extracting content from PDF files, and many free and commercial tools compete to offer their services in that field. Similarly, programs like Adobe’s InDesign—the industry’s standard application for graphic design—also have little or no notion of a story’s structure, as they are built to work with its content and presentation.