Why Your Printed Book Isn’t an E-Book (Yet)

Photo courtesy of ginnerobot

If you have recently published with an academic press, or if your book is in press now, you might have been disappointed to learn that your work won’t be available on your e-reader anytime soon. While novelists take for granted that their new books will appear in all the electronic formats simultaneously with print publication, for scholars there are no such assurances. Why?

The answers fall into three main areas: (1) technology, (2) rights, and (3) money.


While novels typically consist of straight prose that is relatively easy to pour into the proprietary formats required by the different e-book devices, academic books tend to feature more complex elements. Maps, tables, graphs, and appendixes are still a challenge for e-readers, which must be able to reflow text into various fonts and type sizes according to user preference.

Krista Coulson, digital publishing manager at the University of Chicago Press, points out that while straightforward monographs are excellent candidates for electronic publishing, “math, musical notes, tables, and nonstandard characters don’t translate reliably into reflowable format, especially if the same file needs to work on every platform. Right now we have to insert them as images instead of text.”


Images work fine on e-readers, but that brings us to the next problem: Writers who borrow photos from museums or archives to illustrate their work must acquire permission to reproduce the images, and electronic rights are not automatically included in conventional permission agreements. Scholars who have spent months or years and hundreds or thousands of dollars obtaining permissions might hesitate to pay extra for e-rights in advance of publication, not knowing whether or not they will be used. Even when it becomes clear that a press wishes to publish in electronic form, a writer might be reluctant to spend more time and money to obtain additional rights.


Which brings us to money: Publishers also face added expense when they decide to add an electronic edition. Technicians must convert the text into digital formats—usually several different ones—and someone must quality-check (if not proofread) the often buggy results. Conventional publishers who decide to expand into digital formats must revamp budgets and work assignments accordingly.

Although university presses are eager to publish digital versions of printed books whenever possible, some scholarly books are still nonstarters when it comes to e-book consideration. “There are a number of kinds of books that we just don’t have a good way to translate into reflowable formats,” says Ms. Coulson. “They may be extremely oversized or have multiple levels of footnotes or margin notes. If we publish a companion or commentary, where one book is closely tied to a second book, we don’t have a way to let readers move between the two books. And imagine if the reader bought one book on Kindle and one book on Nook!”

In the book-planning meetings I attend, no one is happy when we have to forgo electronic publishing because of technical or permission constraints. A favorite sport is to try to guess the speed at which technology will evolve in order to make publishing decisions one or two seasons out. About the only thing everyone agrees on is that it’s just a matter of time.

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Readers with questions about academic writing, editing, and publishing may e-mail Carol at

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