Tailored to Fit:
 On the Importance of Bespoke Ebooks

The Porcupine’s Quill has always been known for creating beautiful print books. For over forty years we have offered handsome editions of Canadian literature whose quality in design and craftsmanship harkens back to 19th-century letterpress volumes. Needless to say, the recent boom in electronic reading, with its emphasis on reflowable ebooks often hastily and imperfectly rendered, is not easily reconciled to the ethos of our press.

So what’s a small publisher to do? When we decided to dip our toes into digital publishing waters, so to speak, we wanted to do so in a way that remained true to our ideals. For many of our books, the answer was to create PDF ebooks for readers enjoy on their tablets or computers. But for some of our content, we wanted a way to offer short, digital-only editions. For that, we had to come up with a different approach suitable for today’s mobile readers to enjoy, while still paying homage to our unofficial credo, “handmade in Wellington County.”

Created with GIMP

This approach is visible in an imprint we like to call STICKY fingers, a somewhat irreverent moniker for a series of short, attractive, informative editions that explore the intersection between Canadian literature and the book arts. The STICKY fingers project takes on the challenge of translating the Porcupine’s Quill’s design expertise into the digital realm in a meaningful and attractive way. In keeping, we’ve developed an ebook production style at the Porcupine’s Quill that is still very much handmade—or rather, hand coded—and is, like us, a bit eccentric.

A good ebook is like 
a bespoke suit.

We like to keep things pithy.

The metaphor is amusing enough insofar as it contains certain Bond-like connotations, and while it is by no means exact, it takes into account three aspects of the digital reading experience that we consider key:

1. It looks good.

The custom-tailored suit is the epitome of sophisticated fashion. From colour to cut to texture of fabric, each detail is specially chosen to flatter and impress.

So, too, with the bespoke ebook. Customizing ebooks allows an unprecedented amount of control over the aesthetics and functionality of the ebook. STICKY fingers ebooks are designed at code level, so we are able to display a sophisticated use of typography that goes a bit beyond your typical digital offering. We choose fonts with beauty and on-screen readability in mind, employ leading to reduce eye fatigue, and include colour where appropriate to spark interest and indicate prominence. We use true-cut small caps, and yes, we do letterspace them. It’s important. All of these seemingly small choices help to create a rich, custom experience that provides the same level of respect to digital words as printed ones.

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2. It fits perfectly.

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A good suit is tailored to fit the body. No sloppy shoulders or droopy drawers—each seam is nipped and tucked into perfect position.

In the same way, an ebook must fit the device for which it is intended. Unfortunately, all of the reading devices on the market today have their own peccadillos when it comes to text and image output, and many of the ebook authoring tools like InDesign, Calibre and Sigil aren’t able to take into account all of these platforms when creating ebook files.

A bespoke ebook might manifest itself as a single file that, through various means (media queries, clever style sheets, working around known bugs), produces a beautiful result across devices. It takes a fair bit of experience and experimentation and code-level knowledge to get a decent result across devices, and even still, the dream of platform independence is just that—a dream.  Alternatively, one might create two or more device-specific files tailored to the eccentricities of the more popular platforms. STICKY fingers editions, for example, are offered in EPUB and MOBI varieties, each with small tweaks so that the reader, no matter which platform he or she reads from, will experience the design of the book exactly as intended.

3. It never goes out of style.

A well-made suit with a classic silhouette and a practical fabric will last a lifetime. A dry clean here, a fresh stitch there, will keep it looking spiffy for years. Venture away from the established pattern and, well, that’s how ruffled shirts and powder-blue jackets happen.

Garbage code is the powder-blue jacket of the ebook world. Auto-generated ebooks, even those made by industry standards like InDesign, can be full of unintelligible styles, redundant code, and a whole host of defects if the designer isn’t careful. A cleanly coded ebook on, the other hand, is pretty much future-proof.  We make sure that hand-coded STICKY fingers ebooks follow HTML and CSS best practices. The syntax is clear, styles are named meaningfully, there is less waste and redundancy, and very often there are fewer lines of code. Even better, there’s no reason that a developer ten years down the line can’t update a couple of fonts or add an addendum if needed.

With these points in mind, you could say that STICKY fingers’ bespoke approach offers the best of both worlds—the tradition and sophistication of the past along with the potential and the possibility of the future. It is a duality that fits the series perfectly, focused as it is on the intersection of design and literature, of history and eventuality. Where else would you find a classic novel illustrated by a modern artist using all-but-forgotten printmaking techniques? Or charming retrospectives on literary history featuring the technological vagaries of a press quartered in a charming coach house in Toronto? Our custom, bespoke approach brings these seeming oppositions into unexpected harmony

And, for the record, you’d never catch James Bond wearing an off-the-rack suit.

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