Damn It. ePubbing Is No Place For Purists

I’m a bit of a snob. I admit it. It’s one of my less endearing character flaws. I like to think it’s offset by a mostly open mind. (all the holes in my head have to be good for something, right?)

I’ve been unhappy with Smashword’s Word-only policy and I wasn’t going to use them until they started accepting the EPUB format. Then I read The Business Rush post: No Reader Left Behind. This snagged on one of the holes in my head and haunted me:

I’m not telling  you my sorry saga of writus interruptus so that you’ll pity me. I’m telling you this to explain a perspective of mine that shows up repeatedly in this blog:

Make your books as widely available as possible. Don’t rank one reader above another. Don’t leave any readers behind.

For decades, traditional publishing has ignored readers, looking instead at – hell, I don’t know, because I can’t say the bottom line. If traditional publishing really cared about the bottom line, those publishers would stick with writers whose series are building. But those publishers don’t. They’re off chasing the next bestseller, the next bright new genre, the next—oh! Squirrel!

It took me a while to realize how guilty this made me feel. And stupid. You see, I’ve received letters in the past from readers who couldn’t find my books. Not many, but a few. There wasn’t anything I could do about it except recommend the readers haunt the used book stores because those books had a one-month shelf life and if you didn’t grab them when they were fresh, the possibility existed you might never find them.

And here I am, snobby ebook purist, doing the same damned thing as my former publisher–restricting access to my books.

Damn it.

So this morning I loaded my latest books into Smashwords. With crumbs of crow pie dribbling down my shirt, I publicly state: Kris is right. Why launch into self-publishing as a true indie if I’m just going to make the same stupid decisions as traditional publishing?

Which still doesn’t quash my dissatisfaction with Word. It’s not possible to do the fine-tuning and fancy bits I can do with html. In fact, attempting many of the techniques and touches that are possible with html can clash with Word’s coding and cause bad things to happen during the trip through the Meatgrinder. Even something as simple as using graphics for scenebreaks can cause hiccups and format errors.

Given all that and using the knowledge I’ve gained into how ereading devices work and about html, I knew I couldn’t/shouldn’t format a fancy ebook. I could make one that should render properly for any reader.

  1. CLEAN. Folks, I can’t stress this enough. Your file must be squeaky clean and as free of as much garbage coding as possible. I highly recommend getting a text editor and learning how to use it. Many powerhouse programs are available as free downloads (I use Notepad++) and there is plenty of documentation so even the newest novice can learn how to use them. Copy the file you composed in the word processor of your choice and paste it into a text editor. Root out all your extra spaces and paragraph returns and odd bits and strange characters. At the same time you’ll eliminate extra coding you may have inadvertently introduced during composition. When you import the file back into Word, it’ll be clean and ready to format.
  2. DOUBLE CHECK PUNCTUATION AND SPECIAL CHARACTERS. Nothing separates the pros from the amateurs faster than punctuation. Proper em dashes and ellipses. Standard usage with quote marks. One exclamation point at a time (unless you have an exceptionally good reason for using multiple marks). Make sure any special characters you use will translate (not all do, and if it doesn’t the reader will see a nonsense character or a question mark). If you’re uncertain about proper usage, get a style manual and study it.
  3. WORK WITH DEFAULTS, NOT AGAINST THEM. Every ereading device has default settings and many allow users to “customize” the text with font preferences, margins and line spacing. The less you try to force your preferences for fonts, margins and line-spacing, the better the end result will be. Keep it simple.
  4. USE STYLE SHEETS. Smashwords’ Meatgrinder is set up to work best based on Word’s Normal (for the body text), Heading 1 (for the title page) and Heading 2 (for chapter heads) styles. You can customize those to an extent, but don’t get too carried away. I suggest creating custom style sheets for things like centering text and block paragraphs. Base them on Normal and don’t overuse them.
  5. PREVIEW AND CHECK YOUR WORK. Don’t skip this step. While I don’t 100% trust online previewers such as Calibre, Adobe Previewer and the Kindle Previewer (they do NOT have the same default settings as the actual devices), they are still excellent tools to catch gross errors.

So there you go, my breakfast of crow and a few helpful hints. If and when Smashwords allows EPUB submissions, I’ll go back in and update my books with fancy-pants editions.

**In the meantime, I have some good news/bad news to report. I am now the proud owner of THREE Kindles. That’s the good news. The bad news is, sorry Larry the Kindle (keyboard) you’ve been upstaged and displaced by Lucy Light the Paperwhite. For one thing, it’s smaller and lighter. And that light! Wow. All the easy-on-the-eyes advantages of eink and no external reading light that eats batteries the way I eat M&Ms. Plus, the touch screen has a bit of “drag” so it’s not nearly as sensitive as the Fire. That’s a big plus especially since my cat likes to let me know he’s there (as if twenty pounds of cat on my lap isn’t enough of an indication) by reaching around the Fire and giving it a tap with his paw. Now all I need is another cover to protect it when I haul it around in my purse (or leave it on the desk where the cats like to perch on it). I’m looking for something with zebra stripes.

14 thoughts on “Damn It. ePubbing Is No Place For Purists

  1. Would it be rude of me to suggest an alternative or two?

    1) Sell from your own site.
    2) Just let them paypal you and e-mail it to them.

    It depends on volume of sales and time you have to spend on it, of course.

    But here’s the thing. Smashwords isn’t going to find you new readers. Amazon will. B&N might. Smashwords not so much. Most readers, most readers of e-books even, probably don’t even know it exists. Smashwords exists, as far as I am concerned, as a place to sell stuff to people who can’t get it from one of the larger retailers. If you have another alternative, I’m not real sure there is a reason for using Smashwords.

    • Not rude at all, Gregory. I’m actually scheming with a few other writers in order to open up our own online store. We need more inventory and somebody the brains to run it. We’re shooting for next year.

      As for new readers? Well, it’s the availability thing. I’m publishing backlist right now and not expecting mass quantities of sales. As been pointed out to me before, sometimes gently and sometimes not, not everybody has a Kindle (What?!? Say it ain’t so!) and not everybody who doesn’t have a Kindle has a Nook. So. While I’m not thrilled with the format, that’s something for me to keep whining about and hoping Smashwords makes the necessary changes, but make the books available in the meantime. I still have some other outlets to reach.

  2. Hi Jaye:

    I’ll be very curious to hear what you think of the Smashwords end results. I’ll also be curious to read your comparison results on your three Kindle products.

    Just wondering, too, what percentage of readers are unable to obtain an e-book from either Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Note that I didn’t say “unwilling.” My understanding (which may be woefully incomplete) is that, while Amazon has anywhere from 80% to 90% of the e-book market share, ePub readers can be admirably serviced by Barnes and Noble. Some of the others seem to impose severe restrictions on those who wish to self-publish with them, and, frankly, the only reason I could see to submit (in all connotations of the term) to Smashwords is because they provide an avenue to these providers, which seems to be a weak reason at best. But I could be wrong. ;)

    • Hi, Jon. I wasn’t really thinking about numbers and percentages when I changed my mind about Smashwords. I was thinking about Kris’s post. I’ve been on my own book hunts with frustrating results. Few things are more annoying than NOT being able to find a book I want. I really hate when I love a series and it has gaps I cannot fill.
      As for the Kindle comparison? The Fire is fun! Well-formatted ebooks look gorgeous on them. That said, I do most of my reading late at night, usually after a day spent at the computer. The Fire’s backlit screen is fatiguing and hard on my eyes. For ebooks, I far prefer eink readers. The Paperwhite’s screen is illuminated, but it’s not backlit and there is no glare. The light is very similar to my LED lights, but the advantage is (other than batteries) there is no “spot” affect with accompanying glare and I don’t ever have to adjust the angle of the light. It’s been cold lately, so no sitting outside to read in sunlight. i can’t attest how it’ll perform outdoors. The Kindle keyboard is superior in that regard, even over print books. Zero glare and the grayish background means I can sit in full sunlight without my eyes getting tired (remember sunblock!).

      • Hi Jaye:

        Do folks really look at Smashwords as their primary source for e-books? Do most people even know about Smashwords. I think that most folks are going to look (sadly) to Amazon first, probably only to Amazon if they have a Kindle family e-reader. Those of us with ePub-enabled e-readers will likely look anywhere but Amazon for our e-books.

        The lone Kindle to which I have access is an e-ink device, no light. I like the look of the screen for the most part, but, damn, I’m spoiled by the touch screen on my Nook Tablet. And, as far as a backlit screen goes, I really don’t mind the screen on my Nook, even at night with no other lights on. Of course, in sunlight, it’s not so optimal. ::sigh:: One can’t have everything, I suppose.

      • Jon, my understanding is that the Nook glow has a lit screen. The Paperwhite has lights built into the sides that cast a glow over the screen. Zero glare. It’s as easy on my eyes as the Kindle Keyboard. The real test will come when I try to read outdoors. I have no idea how it will react in sunlight.

        I’m still getting used to touch screens. Can’t decide if they are wonderful or not. The Fire is extremely touchy and sometimes I end up god knows where because I touch the screen accidentally. The Paperwhite has more drag. It requires “intent” which is good.

  3. Smashwords has some nice features. A very, very nice one is the coupon generator. You can generate a custom coupon for 100% off, and it’s an easy way to gift a book since the coupon user can download in any format she wants. Many book reviewers will take a smashwords coupon for the book, too. Easy!

  4. Hello, my love. You are more open than I am. I’m still looking at the bottom line. I do agree the solution lies in our own store. ‘Our’ in the generic sense.

    • Hi, Julia. Best thing about indie publishing? We have no overlords to determine our bottom lines. We just make our own. HA! (Hope all is going well with you)

  5. I like Smashwords for many reasons and mostly hate that what you do: they won’t let you just upload your own epub / mobi files. Scrivener output a Word doc that went through the meatgrinder with no problems, but I still end up with an extra TOC at the front of my book that Smashwords sticks in there. Not much I can do about it, but other than the extra (ugly) TOC, my Smashwords files are mostly identical to the ones on other platforms.

    The one thing I DO like about Smashwords is the immediacy. When I push publish, the book is published. When I change my price, boom, it’s changed. When I get a sale (which ain’t often), I get an email telling me. All things considered, I would much rather my readers purchase my books from Smashwords than just about any other store.

    Now if they’d only make good on their promise to let us upload our own files, we’d be golden. :)

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