A Q&A with Jeff Barry of Soro Design

Some of us are excited about the new media and what it holds for conveying information to readers. Jeff Barry, the self-declared "tech guy" at Soro Design, is among them. This week he took the time to answer some of my questions by e-mail about book publishing's brave new world.


What sort of work does Soro Design do?

We design books. We design book covers as well as the typography & page layout within a book. We're particularly interested in the interaction among text, imagery, and the white space of a page. We also design author websites.

Do you work mainly with self-published authors, or with other publishing houses?

Most of our clients are self-published authors and small presses. The self-publishers who choose our design service are typically authors who also have hired an editor and plan to put forth the effort into marketing their books.

How did your boutique design studio get started?

SoroDesign was founded in 2005 by Cecilia Sorochin and myself as a graphic design agency developing materials for print and Web. The name SoroDesign is derived from Cecilia's last name. In 2007 we shifted our focus to book design since we both have a love for books and printed material. I also worked as a librarian for 15 years, managing various digital library projects, which combined my interests in books & technology. Moving into the niche of book design was a natural progression for us. Likewise, moving into the niche of interactive e-book design would be a natural progression. Yet, we also believe very strongly that there is a bright future for beautifully designed print books.

How has the web influenced the design of print books?

As an influence, the web hasn't changed the style of print books. The Web does facilitate many aspects of book design: identifying and obtaining the appropriate fonts and stock images for a book is a major advantage brought about by the Internet.

And  the web certainly broadens the access that any author or press has to a variety of book designers.

The development of print on demand (POD) enabled completely through Web transactions (from submission to ordering the physical book) is having a large impact on print books.

What is your philosophy regarding the relationship between an author web site and a print book?

An author's web site is the author's business card on the Internet. It's a lot about branding: establishing and re-enforcing the online identity of the author. Generally, I tend to view author web sites as existing for potential readers, those who have not yet read the book. In that perspective, author web sites are promotional tools. And I think that's how most author web sites exist at the moment, especially for writers of fiction. Let me talk a bit more about websites for fiction writers, then I'll examine how it might differ for writers of non-fiction.

Another view is gearing a site for fans of a book (or an author) and providing a more in-depth experience for those readers. This works well for authors who have a loyal following and want to follow more of the author's life through a blog, again here I'm thinking of novelists. As far as fiction goes (and I love fiction), I'm not really sure how many readers actually want to engage further on a Web site about a book. Literary blogs and resources provide a good mechanism for that function, and I'm not sure it needs to be extended or replicated on the website of a fiction writer. (Remembering, also, that the novelist has long moved onto writing his or her next novel by the time anyone is reading the current one.)

But for non-fiction the book's web site might serve an entirely different purpose. Accepting the assumption that all non-fiction books stem from a significant amount of research then the print book captures the analysis and argument at a specified point in time. The book's web site could then become a forum for furthering the analysis and discussing around the book's topic. Revisions to the book or an entirely new book could result from such online discussions fostered by a book's web site. The print book is merely a layer in the scholarship. My perspective on the web & non-fiction books is influenced by my background in academic libraries and scholarly communications.

What sort of books to you imagine first moving to electronic publishing?

Books that are textual narratives are now making the transition. A big issue is the preferred reading device. Small devices require a text format that can reflow, i.e., adjust to the dimensions of various screen sizes and to the reader's preference for type size. Hence, straight text is making that transition first. If reflow is not an issue, then any book is now a candidate for e-publishing through PDF, which is a byproduct of much print book design. (Most books are designed in either Adobe InDesign or Quark and a resulting PDF is generated for the printer to produce the physical book. That same PDF or an optimized version could be used for Web delivery. Note that some technical publishers will use other tools for the page layout.)

The reflow requirement make the transition to digital very difficult for many non-fiction books that utilize images, diagrams, and other layout features. Of course, PDF works well for books that do require fidelity to the printed page.

With the imminent arrival of a new generation of tablet computers, led by the iPad, we're going to see a new emphasis on e-books that are not merely textual. And there's not going to be one clear way that those books will be implemented. Some will attempt to use the EPUB standard, which accommodates reflow very well. Others will simply be PDF (which should be quite viewable on any tablet-sized screen). And others will be custom designed apps for the iPad that will take advantage of the iPad's capabilities in ways that an EPUB or PDF e-book could not handle. Of course, these custom iPad e-book apps will be expensive to develop but for certain titles (particularly non-fiction) then that may offer an author and publishing a way to really distinguish a book/an app from another title on the market.

My real concern is that device fragmentation, which is inevitable, will lead to e-books designed along the lowest common denominator approach. E-book design is really web design, and developing an e-book app for a tablet device is both design and programming. Anyone who has priced web design that properly utilizes CSS, as will be required for e-books, knows that it's not inexpensive. It's going to be very difficult and expensive for a publisher to produce an e-book, and especially an e-book app, that will work and display the same across all possible platforms. The result is likely to be a lowest common denominator design for most e-books.

Of course, most print books already exhibit vast similarities in their design. Many print books are based on layout templates. So this similarity of e-books may, in fact, not be a big concern in the long run for most people. However, there will be a niche of highly designed e-books, just as there is a niche of highly designed print books. And that niche is our customer base at SoroDesign. At the moment, we're looking at both PDF and custom designed e-books apps for the iPad.

Publishers of interactive non-fiction e-books, which by their nature require custom design, will have the challenge of supporting multiple platforms: iPad & any other tablet-based computing devices as well as desktop/laptop/netbook devices. There is much speculation that this will be accomplished through developing content solely via an environment that supports multi-platforms such as HTML5 or WebKit. And that may very well be the dominant method. But I think that there also will be some information products that will solely be available on the iPad (with an alternative packaging for iPhone). This is similar to
how some software is only developed for the Mac and some only for Windows. This will be particularly true for interactive content that makes use of distinct features of the iPad (e.g., the accelerometer). Publishers will have to make strategic choices platforms and functionality for interactive non-fiction content.

What do you think the distribution channels for such books with be?

There's a number of players jockeying for position. In addition to the standard booksellers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.) and publisher direct options, hardware manufacturers are offering a potentially attractive marketplace. Apple is clearly building on the success of iTunes and Google is developing an online marketplace around its Android system, which appears to be the OS of choice around many other mobile devices.

How do you think an aspiring author might fund such a project in the early days of electronic book publishing?

Difficult question. While in one sense, self published authors can offer an e-book on Kindle for practically no cost (if the book is just text and the author isn't that concerned with the resulting display layout), but the development complex e-books are like any other successful print book and really requires a team approach. For most authors that's not practical or realistic to fund out of pocket.

In addition to traditional publishers expanding to produce more complex e-books, I'm very optimistic that a new category of publishers will emerge that will foster the development of e-books that make heavy use of imagery, multimedia, and the varying capabilities of platforms like the iPad. These new publishers are likely to partner with writers in new ways. For instance, a new publisher developing content specifically for iPad might offer an aspiring author a low or no advance in return for greater royalties to the author. Of course, the difficulty is matching aspiring author to an emerging publisher experimenting with new business models and forms of content delivery.

About this site

    Katie Peek is a science writer and astronomer who is figuring out how to give voice to information and data. This web site is a log of her voyage.