Is Good Enough, Good Enough?

A while back Darling Daughter #1 and I went to a restaurant that had just opened in our neighborhood. It’s part of a big chain (Rhymes with Billy’s) and our expectations weren’t high, but what the hell, we might be surprised. As per corporate policy regarding female diners we were seated way back in a dark corner and our server, also per corporate policy, treated us like shit (this is based on hard data proving that female diners do not tip well, so might as well treat them like shit from the get-go because you know, they don’t tip well). The server failed to bring my cheese toast. I asked her for it, she gave me a blank look. I asked again, she sighed–I must have been keeping her away from texting “Wurk sux” on her cell phone or something–and she finally returned twenty minutes later with a plate of two charcoaled pieces of toast. I asked her, “Would you eat this?” Another blank look, a slight shrug, and she wandered away to ponder if she’d put in enough hours to qualify for unemployment compensation.

Needless to say, I haven’t been back to a Rhymes with Billy’s restaurant since. I never will eat there again. Neither will DD1. If friends or family ask for a recommendation, part of my response will include, “Just make sure you never go to Rhymes with Billy’s.”

The irony is, this chain of restaurants spends millions of dollars advertising on television. If they’d put those millions of dollars into training employees and maybe printing a sign that says, I dunno, DO NOT SERVE BURNT TOAST TO CUSTOMERS, they wouldn’t have to advertise.

What does this have to do with ebooks? Plenty if you think about it.

This week Mark Coker wrote an article for the How to Successfully Self-Publish site: “Amazon Is Playing Indie Authors Like Pawns,” says Smashwords founder, Mark Coker.” The main point Coker makes is a good one. Writers should not limit their market to Amazon. (My feeling about KDP Select is that exclusivity is a good idea for some books, but not for others, so writers should do their marketing research, and no I don’t want to discuss it right now, so take any conversations about it elsewhere, m’kay?) Coker unfortunately misses another big point, namely that the ebooks his Meatgrinder produces are burnt toast. When a writer jams a Word file through Smashwords, the very best result they can hope for is a generic, bland looking block of text. Try anything visually interesting and the ebook will break or wobble. (This writer, me, refuses to use Smashwords anymore because ebooks generated with Word offend my sensibilities)

It’s good enough for some folks (the bland, generic part, not the wobbly or broken part).

It’s not good enough for me.

Bland and generic ebooks are born of the same attitude and self-fulfilling prophecy that many restaurant servers have about women. Everyone knows women don’t tip, so it’s okay to treat them like shit, and they should shut up and be grateful they’re even allowed inside the restaurant. Too many writers and publishers seem to have the same attitude about ebook readers. The cheap bastids don’t care about real books, so it’s okay to give them crappy looking ebooks. They should shut up about quality and presentation and be falling-down-on-their-knees grateful to have anything at all to read on their Kindles and Nooks and high-tech toaster ovens in the first place.

Yet the same publishers putting out those lousy looking ebooks are spending a lot of time and effort ADVERTISING and MARKETING and endlessly tweeting and facebook spamming BUY MY BOOK!

Sorry, folks. The book, the story, the writing, that’s the meal in this scenario. Presentation matters. If you don’t care how it looks, how it feels, neither will your customers. At best they won’t give your next book a shot. At worst they’ll tell their friends, “Oh that one? Sucks. Don’t bother.” (There are entire publishing houses from whom I will not purchase ebooks–no matter what the price and no matter who wrote the book–because their ebook formatting sucks rocks, and yes, I do tell friends to not bother)

This is new territory for everybody. Mistakes will be made. Ebook producers are still learning. Right now many consumers are still in the delighting in their devices stage and not being terribly picky about content. ‘Ware, though, to the publisher who blithely believes consumers will happily keep picking up the tab for “good enough.” Once that device-delight wears off, consumers will not be satisfied with a dark corner and burnt toast.

I told you before and I will tell you again why I am spending so much time and energy on learning how to properly format and design ebooks. It’s because I love books and I think ebooks are real books and I truly believe ebooks can be as beautiful in their own way as printed material.

I don’t accept “good enough.” If you really care about your books, you won’t either.

30 thoughts on “Is Good Enough, Good Enough?

  1. Jaye – brilliant post. I wish I felt well enough to create a comment that will do it justice. Everything you’ve said is right on. A seriously perfect post about the future of ebooks and why all of us should be wary of anything that smacks of rhymes with Billy’s.

  2. Jaye:

    Awesome entry in a series of awesome entries! Growing up, “good enough” was equated with “C” grading or “average.” And it was not tolerated. Period. That same thinking should apply to anyone wishing to self-publish.

    And think about this — just as you refuse to recommend a certain “rhymes with Billy’s” restaurant, one should seriously consider what the output of one’s book will look like when submitted to a place called Smashwords that calls their formatting program “the Meatgrinder.” Names, like words, matter! George Carlin once quipped, “No one is going to drive on an Aunt Jemima tire, and no one wants to eat a Goodyear pancake.”

    • It’s not just self-publishers, Jon. As far as being respectful to both writers and readers, some of the big publishers are the worst offenders. To add insult to injury, they charge premium prices.

      I don’t really mean to slam Smashwords. In concept it’s brilliant and Coker and crew have helped a LOT of writers get a good start. But Word files make crappy ebooks and Smashwords (and other places) need to stop saying they are good enough. They aren’t.

      • Jaye:

        I understand and acknowledge Mr. Coker’s efforts, but, ultimately, the end product is still merely average. If Smashwords allowed the user to tweak the output….

      • Using an ePub file for input to the Smashwords process would be a tremendous step forward for them. I hope you’re right!

  3. Great post, Jaye, but terrifying for someone like me who’s only just planning on putting out their first ebook next year. You see, I found Mark Coker’s How to manual actually understandable, but don’t feel at all confident that I’ll ever get on top of the Kindle or Amazon hard copy How to versions. Do you have any advice for raw beginners on what manuals to read to produce good quality versions of these two types of books?

    • Hi, Daniella, I apologize. Didn’t mean to terrify anyone.

      Word makes lousy ebooks. That’s not the fault of the producers. It’s that Word is at its best creating printed documents, not ebook files. That said, if Word is what you’ve got to work with, then you do your best. Make sure your source file is squeaky, eat-off-floor and accept no substitutes CLEAN. That’s 90% of the battle right there. (I’ve written a lot in this blog about clean source files) Follow the guidelines in Coker’s style guide regarding style sheets, go for a simple layout, pay extra attention to your punctuation (all ebooks treat punctuation funny so awareness is your friend) and your ebook should end up readable on most devices. As for manuals, check out Paul Salvette’s How to Format Your eBook for Kindle, NOOK, Smashwords, and Everything Else. (available on Amazon) He writes in a straightforward style and you should be able to figure out whatever you need to do.

    • Danielle:

      I will second Jaye’s sage statements. Paul’s guide is as clear as Mark’s guide for Smashwords, and, in my opinion, it’s actually better because you’ll gain a thorough understanding of what’s required to create a good e-book. In my experience, it’s always better to learn the hows and whys so you can do it yourself.

  4. I’ve been tempted to comment on this issue of book formatting with reference to structured documents & LaTeX, but I figure someone smarter than me has been down the path of using (or advocating) those before me.

    So I’ll limit my comments to simply saying there is no way for me to patronize “Rhymes with Billy’s” because the local franchisee went bankrupt a few years ago. (I’ll leave it to the reader to speculate why, but quality of service may very well be part of it.)

    • Oh my, LaTeX? I don’t even know what that is, and if you tell me I’ll be compelled by forces greater than myself to check it out.

      I have noticed over the years that there is a definite correlation between a chain restaurant’s advertising budget and the quality of their food and service. A matter of priorities, I suppose.

      • An _inverse_ relationship, you mean? I’ve noticed the same thing. It must be easier to throw money at advertising than on employees (e.g. training & benefits).

        If you’re curious about my mention of structured documents & LaTeX (the second works best when one aims for the first), I can send you an email to explain what I’m thinking. No sense boring everyone with my own wild, unfashionable theories about subjects I know very little about when you can puncture my egotism privately. ;-)

  5. Smashwords has been talking about doing their “EPUB Direct” program since 2011, but it has yet to materialize. Not sure what the hold up is. Speaking of all things Amazon, the new Kindle Previewer with support for Kindle Fire HD and Kindle Paperwhite just came out today.

    • Sweet. Not that I trust the previewer 100%. Does it automatically update or do I need to download the newest version, do you know?

      I don’t know what the hold-up is, Paul. All I know is, the sooner Word can go back to making print documents, the better.

      • The new previewer is really different, so you might have to download it all over again. Getting into the nitty gritty of HTML with the same techniques seems to work great for the new Paperwhite and KIndle Fire HD. Although, I’m not sure if the conversion programs will mangle it or not.

  6. Pingback: Is Good Enough, Good Enough? | The Passive Voice

  7. Excellent points on both, Jaye. As for Rhymes with Billy’s, how they stay in business at all is beyond me. At least big publishers can get part of their menu right, i.e. most print books.

    • Hi, Suzan. I don’t know if you’ve purchased a mm paperback lately, but the big publishers are dropping the ball on those, too. I browsed through a couple the last time I was at the grocery store, and in every one the text was tiny, cramped and ran into the spine. I don’t like having to break books in order to read them. I’m sure not paying eight bucks for the privilege.

      • When you mentioned MMPBs purchased, I had to go check. I’ve only bought 3 in the last six months. I’ve been making a concerted effort to wade through the TBR sitting in my office. Some of them were bought nearly ten years ago. LOL I promise to pay attention at Kroger’s during next week’s grocery run.

  8. The Only problem is, whether it is a restaurant or an e-book publisher, that when someone as passionate and loving about a restaurant experience or a badly produced e book comes along and gives them such clear advice – they ignore it – idiots…..

  9. Jaye, I couldn’t agree more about Smashwords, there’s no such thing as ‘one size fits all’.

    I am a website designer so I work with html and css all day long. I formatted my own Word ms into mobi/prc for Amazon and my books look exactly as I want them to. I created my own pdf version which is downloadable direct from my website and it looks exactly as I want it to.

    For ease, I used Smashwords for the rest (iBooks, Nook, Kobo, etc.) and, while they’re passable, they don’t look how I want them to look. Word sucks as a converter to html, it’s the most bloat-heavy code I’ve ever had the misfortune to work with. How anyone without html knowledge can find their way around it, I do not know.

    The sooner Smashwords get their digits out of their butt-holes and start accepting epub files, the happier us bunnies will be. Until then I’ll be uploading the next book in epub format direct to the three sites in parenthesis above and probably ignoring the rest. (Other than those three, I haven’t seen any sales from the rest anyway.)

    Peas be with you.

  10. Hi, Steve. I hear a lot of people complain about sorry sales from “third party” sites aggregated through Smashwords. I kind of wonder if part of that is that the ebooks look second-class, so buyers are resistant.

    A much bigger problem, in my rarely humble opinion, is that some publishers treat ebooks as second-class products. As if readers should be happy with whatever they get. That’s a self-defeating attitude. Designing and formatting the ebook is just as important as the cover and marketing. Treating it like an afterthought is not good enough.

    • I agree. I may be more of a pedant than most (some say verging on OCD) but typos, grammar and formatting mistakes really grate on me. If there are too many I’ll abandon the book. This happens all too often, and not only in cheap self-pubbed books, I’ve seen it in trad-pubbed books and even books about self-publishing and formatting by authors who are marketing themselves as experts who know what they’re doing!

      • I haven’t gone much into that re this post, Steve, but yes. Yes, again. The differences between first class and second class or no class at all is in the details.

  11. I agree wholeheartedly, Jaye! The work you’ve done on Lawrence Block’s ebooks makes them (even more of) a delight to read. They were the first things I read on my hand-me-down kindle, and now I’m spoiled. I recently purchased a nonfiction ebook that was so badly formatted I couldn’t read it. Truthfully, if it had been boringly “good enough,” I would have read it. I was looking for information and would have been less concerned, I think, with beauty. I guess I expect more from fiction.

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