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  • Ventures in E-publishing

    A chance meeting with an acquisitions editor at the 2005 AIGA Design Conference, in Boston, propelled me into my first book publishing experience. Since 2000, my colleagues and I at Oregon State University have emphasized writing in our graphic design curricula, and I wanted to apply some of these ideas to a book—not to reiterate traditional skills and methodologies of basic writing courses, but to approach writing from a different perspective: a visual one. My informal “pitch” for a book on the subject of writing and design came back with an enthusiastic reply from the publisher. “Yes, we are very interested—but we want it to be an e-book.” Wait, did you say an e-book? When I saw that word staring back from the screen, I felt my elation quickly fade. In my mind, I had just been handed the publishing world's consolation prize.

    As excited as I am about new technology and all it has to offer, I had a hard time mustering enthusiasm for an electronic book. Perhaps my reticence had to do with the clunky e-books I had seen to date, some nothing more than a scanned print book, with little or no interactivity. And call me old fashioned, but I really love the sensation of flipping through the pages of a printed book. An afternoon spent at Powell's Books (a great independent bookstore in Portland) is one of my favorite pastimes. “Flipping” through an e-book equated to tapping arrow keys on the computer. My first reaction was disappointment, but then I started to rethink the possibilities. What else could the “e” in e-book stand for besides electronic?

    An expandable book—with the addition of links and other media.
    An educational book—encouraging learning through interactivity.
    An economical book—costing nothing to print and publish.
    An environmental book—no paper, no waste.
    An ear-friendly book—one that could be heard by the vision impaired, thanks to Read Out Loud software capabilities.
    An exciting book—not only fun to create, but enjoyable to read and experience.

    And the more I thought about engaging the 18-24 target audience I was writing for, the clearer it became that an e-book was the perfect medium to talk about writing. The result is Writing for Visual Thinkers: A Guide for Artists and Designers, exploring the potential of writing as a way to better understand the process of visual communication. Since there are already excellent books that focus on traditional writing and grammar conventions, I used the format to begin a dialogue, in particular with undergraduate art and design students, about the many exciting ways that writing can, and should, be part of their creative lives.

    Sample page highlighting the work of Warren Lehrer, including links.

    Writing a book as an interactive PDF offers some interesting challenges. Whereas a print book keeps a reader engaged within the confines of the book, a PDF e-book allows the reader to click on a link and leave the book anytime. I pondered the ramifications of a reader moving dozens of links away from the original link and ultimately the book itself. An interactive book by its very nature is meant to allow the reader to explore the subject matter in whatever way they choose. The fact that a reader may be dozens of links away from the original book link is a good thing and allows the reader more freedom to explore the subject. The links also allow for easy expansion of content—for example, a reference to Jack Kerouac can result in a video link showing his On the Road scroll being unrolled.

    As with many subjects, I realized that a book about writing could grow into a 500-page tome and I wanted the PDF to be no more than 120 pages. Narrowing and shaping the content was challenging, but again I found the links added a level of detail to the content that would have been impossible to include in the book.

    A page on collabortive works, such as Portland-based magazine Plazm.

    As the content for each chapter unfolded, I began to color code potential links in the text—and ended up with over 500 throughout the book. Deciding on which sites to link to seemed daunting and an initial criteria I set was that a link had to move the reader to a quality site, both visually and verbally. There may be exceptions, but I find verbal content suffers when a webpage is visually challenging—too many colors, too many typefaces with a poor hierarchical layout. I tend not to trust information I can't read.

    Wikipedia presented another issue. This site has become the first and possible last site many students go to when researching anything, and many Wikipedia sites are not accurate. Was I perpetuating the idea that Wikipedia is the be all, end all to subject understanding, by having so many Wikipedia links in the book? I wrestled with this question for a while and in the end saw the Wikipedia links as jumping off points for further reading.

    An e-book allows for a variety of media and I was interested in adding audio interviews to the book. The interviews allow the reader to hear leading artists, designers, educators and writers, discuss their thoughts on writing, reading, editing and making. My participants spoke to me via Skype through their computer and I recorded the podcast interviews remotely onto my computer using an inexpensive and simple piece of software called Call Recorder. Overall this worked well, though background noise such as traffic and trains can sometimes be heard. The advantage of an e-book is that future interviews can be easily added and sent to those who have already purchased the book, thus keeping the dialogue about writing alive. To that end, I have come to realize that an e-book can be an ever-changing book, where readers voices can help shape future content that can be added simply and inexpensively.

    My venture into e-publishing has been exciting, educational and exhausting. Upon completion, I started to think about how Writing for Visual Thinkers would work as a print book. As much as I love print, I now can't imagine the book in any other format.

    Listen to Andrea's interview with Warren Lehrer from the e-book. 

    Download an excerpt from Writing for Visual Thinkers.

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