Oh My God, I’m a Nerd!

Long time readers of this blog have watched my progression from building ebooks in Word to the present day as I’m handcoding html. You’ve heard me whine about the quality of ebooks and the difficulty of producing a book that renders perfectly on every device, every time. I’ve used different programs, different methods–and for the longest time I utterly resisted learning html because 1) I knew nothing about it; and 2) I resented the idea that one had to be some kind of mad genius-computer nerd in order to make a decent ebook.

Well. I was wrong. It doesn’t matter that I knew nothing about html. If one is motivated, one can learn. Plus, one doesn’t need to be a mad genius (or even a slightly bent genius) in order to learn basic coding–which is really all one needs in order to make a beautiful ebook.

One does have to be, however, a bit of a nerd. I realized this the other day when I announced to the old man, “Ha! Regex isn’t so hard and toggling the extended command means I can wrap paragraphs and find extra spaces as easily in the editor as I can in Word. Bwahahaha!”

Do you understand what I just said? Don’t worry. The old man didn’t either. A month ago I wouldn’t have understood it. Suffice to say, I’m learning a whole new language and it is finally making sense to me even though that means my family now looks at me the same way the dog does when I’m talking to him (he’s waiting for me to say the magic words–“walkies” or “cookies”).

But, I haven’t done all this alone. Every time one of you guys, blog readers, makes a comment about a new way of doing something or talks about a new program, I have to check it out. And I learn things. When I’m working, I have a screen open to the W3Schools website so I can quickly get questions answered. I’m always bopping around the ‘net, seeing how others have solved problems and seeing if they’ve learned something new. I don’t always (okay fine, most of the time) understand what others are talking about. The real experts have been doing computer programming for decades and they speak “html” with casual fluency while I’m over here speaking very loudly and very slowly and adding vowels to the ends of every word in an effort to make myself understood (I said-o no comprehendo, capiche-o, amigo?).

Needless to say, when I do find a reference source that a) tells me what I need to know; b) shows me what I’m doing wrong and how to fix it; and c) is written in a way that I can actually understand, I glom onto it.

All that build-up and confession leads to sharing a new treasure: The eBook Design and Development Guide by Paul Salvette. Paul follows this blog and comments occasionally. He also has an ebook formatting service. He gave me a head’s up about the book. There were two major factors in my decision to buy it. First it was written in comprehensive English (most of these types of guides offend my writerly sensibilities) and second (this is really important!) it’s nicely formatted (it’s astonishing how many how-to-format-your-ebook guides are so wretchedly formatted as to be unreadable).

This is not a beginner’s guide. Two months ago I wouldn’t have understood much beyond “and” and “the.” With my usual la-di-dah methods of clicking madly until something works, I learned enough of the basics of html on my own to create some very nice ebooks. Armed with those basics, I’m able to understand quite a bit of what Paul is talking about. It helps that he truly cares about how ebooks look and that they work properly on ereading devices, no matter what those devices might be. It also helps that the book is readable, with an engaging style, and only occasionally lapsing into nerd-speak that leaves me smiling, nodding and waiting for him to say “walkies” and “cookies.”

I read it in one sitting, bookmarking countless passages and taking notes with my analogue word processor. I figured out some areas where I am working way too hard to accomplish simple tasks, and making some mistakes which I had to work even harder to overcome and compensate for. Of course I had to run to the computer and try some new things.  I formatted two ebooks using his guidelines and had so much fun, I reformatted another book that happened to be more complicated just to see if I could. I could. I did! I understand a bit more about how ebooks work and some of the differences between the different platforms and why versions of html coding work better on some platforms than with others.

The book is easy to navigate (a most useful table of contents written in plain English) and it includes templates for xhtml address thingies and resets and style sheets. Handy-dandy and easy to use.

Paul, being a generous fellow, generously (foolishly) opened himself up to answering whatever stupid questions I might throw his way. He might be sorry about the offer, but I won’t be. One book doesn’t make me an expert and it sure doesn’t catch me up on twenty years of experience, but it does go a long way toward helping me reach my goal of producing beautiful ebooks.

Highly recommended for nerds-in-training.

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26 thoughts on “Oh My God, I’m a Nerd!

    • Thank Paul. Actually I thank everybody who comments here and gives me material to steal, er, try. The book has some very advanced stuff that quite frankly intimidates me, but I’m going to try it anyway. Just because.

  1. “And” “The” And there you have it. My dog understands far more of what you said than I do which is why I thank god every single day for your persistence and your natural, previously untapped, not-so-deeply buried spring of mineral water, uh, I mean gift of interpretation.
    Your learning curve is quite geometric. Rapid progression, Jaye. Send me back to the Calamitous Fourteenth Century and I’m all good. Show me ‘code’ and I’m convinced I just had a stroke.

    • What astonishes me, Julia, is how much fun I’m having with it. I’ve been using computers as turbo-charged typewriters and overpriced paperweights for years. I’ve always been a little suspicious about what they’re doing when I’m not looking (machines intimidate me). It’s only been here recently that I’ve figured out how to MAKE them do things. New toys.

      • You nailed it there, Jaye. Coding / markup creates a magical romance of cause and effect. You tap some keys and make these little marks in the source document, invite your browser / reader in to look, et voilà! Oh, and it’s also highly addictive.

  2. Jaye, I’m really interested in this book, but, alas, it’s currently not on the Barnes and Noble list for Nook. Existential disappointment! :( Do you know if Paul plans to release it in ePub format? I did get his free ePub on using Sigil (my current tool of choice) to create an ePub, and enjoyed it.

    I’ve just been dabbling with e-book formatting for, oh, maybe six weeks or so. I’ve done web page design for years, though, and finally undertook the “teach myself CSS” process out of necessity — the wife wanted our Corgi rescue website to look more professional, and I didn’t want to have to change each and every page every time she wanted the look updated. So, CSS to the rescue! So you can imagine my surprise — my very pleasant surprise! — that e-book formatting is, at its core (well, its current core — EPUB 3 is gonna be a HUGE leap forward!), just HTML coding and CSS formatting.

    Frankly, I owe much of my verve for e-book formatting to your journal. You constantly impress me with your knowledge and moreso with your willingness to share that knowledge. A very wise manager, early in my programming career, told me that, for her, an employee’s worth grew with the amount of knowledge said employee shared with the other employees. I took that to heart and have always tried to share my (oftentimes hard-gained) knowledge with any and all who are interested. Finding someone else who is willing to do that, and who makes this frequently esoteric work comprehensible to all, is just a huge thrill.

    Keep up the excellent work!

    • Thank you, Jon. My philosophy is, the more we share, the more we raise awareness about making beautiful ebooks, the better ebooks will be for everybody (especially me ;) )

      re Paul’s book, it’s pretty new. He’ll probably put it up on B&N soon. I really and truly appreciate how he talks about quality and design choices. So many books about ebooks are get-rich-quick garbage. It’s difficult to find works that are truly useful.

      • Hi Jaye:

        Yes, we did Corgi rescue when we lived in Arizona. The rescue ran from 2004 to 2010, when we moved back to Illinois. We never started up again, though, as Eileen’s health precluded it. And now that she’s passed away, I doubt I’ll ever run a rescue again, although I will always support animal rescue.

        The original website was AZCorgiRescue dot com. Our hosting and domain fees were covered by a dear friend who was running several other sites and was rescue-friendly. Unfortunately, she somehow lost control of the domain and it was snatched up by a site-grabbing company and they wanted a huge amount for us to repurchase it! So, I moved the site to a subdirectory on my main site and domain, westcot dot net. The Corgi info is somewhat incomplete, as I never fixed up all the links or fixed the “Corgi Crafts” store (where my wife was selling her beadwork jewelry to help raise funds for the rescue), but the main part works. The address is (in longhand format) www dot westcot dot net slash azcorgirescue.

        Luckily, my wife posted a bunch of photos of some of the Corgis (technically it’s Corgwyn, but no one understands making a Welsh word plural!) that we adopted out on her Facebook page, and, for that, I’ll give you the active link: https://www.facebook.com/eileen.westcot#!/media/set/?set=a.1191776999029.2029399.1366510954&type=3 . I hope this works out! And enjoy the photos!!

      • Ah, bummer, no pics on the FB site that i could access. I’ll check back later.
        Good and generous folks who love the dogs (both of my hounds are rescue mutts–all of my animals are rescues). I knew there was a reason I liked you, Jon.

    • Jon,

      I didn’t put this out on B&N since I didn’t think it would sell a single copy there. You have just proven me wrong, and I apologize for that. Please shoot me an email [paul (at) beebee (dot) asia] and I can email you an EPUB copy or even a PDF if you prefer. Thank you.

  3. You are so a nerd – and it’s a good thing to be. Have lots of fun learning more and more about sweet-talking computers to do your bidding.

    I used to program supercomputers in Fortran (long time ago) and I miss the feeling of knowing exactly what you’re doing – and getting what you asked for, nothing less, nothing more. I really, really miss it.

    I ran over to Amazon and bought Paul’s book – and Squee! There was a quote from A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of my favorite SF books. And I haven’t even started unpacking any of the information – just had to know I OWN the book. Thanks for the lead.

  4. Another Canticle fan. I loved that book. Need to find it again.
    Funny, but the thing that frustrates me most about computers is that they always do what I tell them rather than doing what I mean. But I’m learning.
    I hope you enjoy Paul’s book. It’s giving me some good ideas about design, too.

  5. Thanks, Jaye, for the very nice words. All this eBook creation stuff is new, so we’re all in this together. Please let me know if I can be of any assistance in anyone’s eBook endeavors. It is terribly geeky, but necessary.

    Jaye, I have no idea how you made it through this thing in one sitting. When I was doing the last edit I had to take a break halfway through or else I probably would have hung myself.

    As Jon mentioned, I can provide this eBook in different formats if Kindle isn’t your thing. Just drop me an email at [paul (at) beebee (dot) asia] and I’m sure we can work something out. Thanks so much.

  6. Hi, Paul. It was an enjoyable read.
    As long as I have you here, an interesting thing occurred today. I was inspecting a book through the Kindle Previewer when it occurred to me that I could use it to convert my files rather than using MobiPocket. I’ve converted several books from Scrivener source files using Kindlegen, and they turned out fine (until Amazon updated the older Kindles and gave them a bug–another issue). The prc file I had displayed perfectly on the previewer. When I ran the same file through Kindlegen on the previewer the ebook bugged up and went whackadoo on me. I’m assuming it has to do with the version of html I’m using. It’s not a big deal. It takes 15 seconds to convert a file through Mobipocket and every ebook I’ve generated through it has turned out fine. But I’m really curious as to what the deal is? Any insights?

    • Jaye, I recommend not using Mobipocket since it hasn’t been updated in forever. If you use Kindlegen it will build a source file that can be used for both older e-ink Kindle and the modern KF8 files. You should run Kindlegen at the command line on a source EPUB package rather than one HTML file. You will get a cleaner compilation. Hope that helps.

      • Hi Mr. Salvette:

        What are your feelings regarding the use of Calibre as a cross-platform e-book translator. My understanding is that a recent update or two (seriously, this thing gets updated at least once a week and usually twice a week, if not more!) ago, more extensive support was added for the Amazon proprietary formats. Just curious.

      • Walkies? Cookies?
        No, seriously, you’re talking about the section where you split the book into elements and link them, right? When I read that part I kind of thought, “Oh my, this is interesting, but surely he’s not talking to me?”

        Okay then, polishing the shield, sharpening the sword, girding the loins, preparing to enter the fray and give this a shot.

  7. Thanks, Mr. Westcot. No one has called me “Mr. Salvette” since my Navy days, but I am a sucker for formality. To be honest I have not tried the new Calibre for pro eBook design. I think Calibre is great for maintaining your personal library, and it’s great for stripping DRM if you have the add-ons (another topic on another blog). However, it leaves a lot to be desired when building an eBook for sale due to small little formatting issues, and it’s weird way of adding metadata. It does receive a lot of updates though and has a great developer community. I just don’t recommend it for actually making eBooks, but rather for maintaining your own personal library.

    You may want to try SIGIL if you’re looking for some software that can help you build the EPUB package. Like Calibre, it’s open source too!

    • Mr. Salvette — Paul:

      Thank you for your service! I tend to start out formal in messages; it’s just the way I was raised.

      I’ve used Sigil for the bulk of my e-book creation to date and I really, really like it. I just wish I could get my hands on a version newer than 0.5.3 — their on-line help file is geared for 0.6.0 and has so many great new touches that I wish I could use right now!

      My question regarding Calibre was in regards to its built-in format converter. I have little access to anything other than my Nook Tablet (though I can get occasional access to a Kindle e ink reader), so I don’t know how accurate the conversions are. My sole “development” platform has been ePub (through Sigil), and I have been assuming that Calibre’s conversions work just fine.

      Also, thanks for the links! Much appreciated!

  8. Jaye,

    Splitting the book up into small HTML files is the way to go. It’s best to do by writing your own scripts (PHP, Python, or something suitable), but that might be another blog post. In lieu of getting seriously geeky, you can watch this video. It’s not winning any oscars but I hope it helps:

  9. Pingback: Boast Post: A New Way To Make Ebooks | J W Manus

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