Should You Tell A Writer His Baby’s Ugly?

I’ve been a writer a lot longer than I’ve been an ebook producer. As a writer I have learned that the vast majority of writers do NOT take criticism well. “What do you think of my story?” is a dangerously loaded question. Enemies are made and grudges are born as the result of answering truthfully.

Ebooks are different. Granted, design choices are a matter of preference and taste. For instance, Andrew Vachss’s Strega. His publisher used an unusual device for the first lines in the chapters.

I don’t care for it. When I showed it to my husband and my son, they thought it looked slick and distinctive. It is a matter of taste.

Sometimes the formatting is actually messed up. Ebooks don’t render properly on various devices. I have several that look fine on my eink readers, but on the Fire the font “locks” in Helvetica and can’t be user-customized. Making a book that renders properly on every device is a big challenge and one I’ve faced (it’s what led me to learn html so I could make stable ebooks). It doesn’t make the ebook unreadable, but it has a definite effect on the reader experience.

Occasionally the formatting is so bad the ebook is unreadable.

That one I didn’t purchase. The description makes it sound interesting and the writer sounds interesting, but the formatting is so horrendous, I gave it a pass.

Sometimes the formatting is awful, but not so awful as to make the book unreadable. If the writer is good enough and the story is compelling enough, I can grit my teeth and ignore the layout.

This example looks like a manuscript. It has blank screens throughout. And the author used “typewriter” punctuation. I adored the story and the writing style, but still gritted my teeth. The few typos I encountered leapt off the page like crickets down the front of my shirt. I couldn’t ignore them.

Sometimes the formatting is just plain sloppy. The following example is from a publisher.

The publisher scanned print copy then didn’t bother to properly clean up the OCR rendering. It’s inexcusable, not to mention horribly disrespectful to the writers in this anthology and to the readers. It’s offensive. Unfortunately I see this kind of haphazard garbage in a lot of anthologies. The publisher takes the stories as is, makes no attempt at consistency in style or proper formatting, and slaps together a mess.

In other cases, the writer doesn’t know what he’s doing formatting-wise and uses Word to create the ebook file, ending up with something like this:

It’s not unreadable, but it’s ugly and looks unprofessional. If the quality of writing and story-telling are borderline, chances are it won’t be purchased in the first place or end up in the DNF pile because it’s too much of a chore to ignore how ugly it is.

There is a definite learning curve involved with formatting ebooks. The more I learn, the trickier it seems. I’m not formatting just one ebook every six months or so. I’m formatting several a week, gathering knowledge as I go, and when I run into problems, I’m motivated to figure out the whys and wherefores. My goal is to make ebooks that render well across any device, look professional and make a pleasurable reading experience. The goal of many Do-It-Yourselfers is just to make something cheaply and get published. I suspect some of them do not have ereaders and have no idea what their ebook actually looks like.

I screw up and make mistakes. Several times I’ve had people email me and point out the mistakes. Or comment on this blog to let me know where my techniques can lead to trouble or help me figure out problems or at least point me in the right direction. I’ve made some friends that way. Gained valuable resources. It doesn’t bother me at all. I welcome feedback. I welcome all tips and tricks and questions and comments and “What about if you tried…” suggestions. That’s because I’m committed (or should be committed).

Writers have made me gun shy about offering unsolicited criticisms. I have contacted a few writers to let them know their ebooks have problems. But carefully. With extreme caution. Those I have worked up the nerve to contact have been mostly receptive. Some have ignored me. Others have fixed the problems. Sometimes emails fly back and forth as we troubleshoot to figure out where things went wrong.

But for every writer I’ve contacted, there have been twenty I haven’t–even though I really, really wanted to. It’s the grudges and hatred thing. Which is kind of silly, no? I mean we’re not talking about opinion here. We’re not talking about tastes and preferences. Mistakes are mistakes. And some of those mistakes can seriously hurt the writer. Piss-poor formatting can kill sales. It can cause readers to demand a refund. It can affect every writer in a publisher’s catalog (there are several traditional publishers I will not buy ebooks from, no matter who the writer is, because I know the ebooks are poorly produced and not worth the price). It can affect future sales. I might suffer through one sorry looking book, but I’m not suffering through more of the same by the same writer/publisher.

So what do you think? What would you think or feel if some stranger came out of nowhere and said your ebook is ugly or unprofessional or unreadable? Would you be offended? Would you blow her off as a hater who dares to criticize? Would you be grateful? Would you attempt to fix the problem?

This inquiring mind really wants to know.

17 thoughts on “Should You Tell A Writer His Baby’s Ugly?

  1. I would appreciate it.

    When I review books, I don’t mention the typos in my reviews, but if the author is self-published, I let them know I saw a few (if I did) and that they may want to do another proofing pass. So far, everyone has taken it kindly.

  2. I would want to know, but phrased in constructive terms, of course, rather than derogatory. Like you say, you’ve had people contact you to let you know where your techniques can lead to trouble or help figure out problems or at least point you in the right direction. That is feedback, not criticism, and I’m all for feedback.

  3. The essence of constructive criticism is that it’s constructive. I never mind if someone points out a typo or formatting error/issue. I find it helpful. Unless someone is trying to be insulting and then, uh-uh. If something is a matter of taste – such as I hate your subject matter and your hero/heroine – well, that’s altogether different and I ignore those sentiments.

  4. Hi Jaye:

    I would welcome constructive criticism… especially if the e-book in question was something I was selling. Even more so if I had paid to have someone do the e-book formatting for me.

    One of the first e-books my late wife purchased was a piece of Star Trek fan fiction. The formatting was horrendous — every line was treated as a new paragraph. Headers, footers, and even page numbers were injected into the text. I tried to read it and got so frustrated after about two pages that I gave up, which I almost never do to a book. But Eileen was somehow able to see past the flaws and read it through to the end. The really sad part was that the book claimed to be in its fifth revision. Its fifth revision!

    Yes, I should have contacted the author. Maybe I still will. You’ve shown me that it’s okay to point out flaws, because fixing them elevates all of our efforts, while letting them slide helps reinforce the notion that e-books aren’t more than an afterthought.

  5. Thanks all for your input. Formatting can be fixed. It’s not as if the story needs to be rewritten. maybe I should be braver about letting writers know their ebooks are messed up. And no, I’m not going to say anything about design choices and preferences. (I will, however, steal anything I really like. heh)

    Karen, love your idea about typos. Rooting out those bastids is tough and I swear gremlins sneak them in when nobody is looking. Giving readers an incentive to help find them is brilliant.

  6. I downloaded a sample of a novella you recommended on your other blog. The description and cover looked great and I was eager to read it. The Nook sample made me go uh-oh. It was one of those “unreadable” problems. I couldn’t read it because words were cut in half and missing. Apparently the kindle formatting was fine but the Nook formatting was not. I contacted the author, even though it hurt my heart to tell him such bad news. He seemed receptive to fixing it, though. I’m still hoping I can read that book someday.

    Sometimes, books aren’t unreadable, just ugly. I dislike it when there is a blank line between every paragraph, as if the author was writing a blog post instead of a novel. In cases like that, I grumble but muddle through anyway. Tell me, why do authors do that? Have they never read a novel before? Do they not know that paragraphs aren’t supposed to have huge gaps between them unless it’s a scene break?

    • You point out a serious problem with using Word (or any word processor-type program) to format ebooks, Margaret. Earlier today I was screwing around with a Word file, converting it with different programs and producing different types of files and reading them on different devices and device simulators. I make squeaky clean files and use the proper style sheets and I know how to avoid the worst Word coding landmines, but even though I created readable ebook files, they still did odd things on different platforms.

      Smashwords, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all the rest that invite people to submit Word files are doing the producers AND the readers a disservice. Sure, it’s easy. Sure, almost anyone can do it. BUT, the ebooks are not going to render properly on every device. AND it is very easy to accidentally introduce coding that messes the file up and make it difficult or impossible to read on all devices. The distributors will allow many of those formatting goofs to go through conversion and call them good.

      The only way to produce stable ebooks is to use html to create device-specific files. One size does NOT fit all.

  7. Hi Jaye: I’d want to know if my books are formatted poorly. I take pride in my work.

    (I probably wouldn’t even care if they insulted me while doing it, particularly if they pointed out something glaring and fixable.)

    I like the idea of offering something to readers who point out typos. That’s win-win. :)

  8. I’m with Jules if it is constructive you should be able to take it, but unfortunately some people are just incapable of taking any form of criticism seeing it rather as a complete rejection of their effort. I have to say though that I think I must be incredibly lucky in that I don’t think that I have really found a truly badly formatted e book that I have downloaded, but then again if it has been well written and the story really engages me, I may not really notice as I probably do not have the critical eye that you possess.

    On the other hand it pisses me of just a little when I have found a story that has been well written, that has engaged me and has been written by an academic in his day job, that has a number of spelling and grammatical errors and you offer to send these to him in an email after contacting him in a DM and he totally ignores you! But hey Ho, life goes on

  9. I would definitely appreciate the constructive criticism – but I would also do everything possible to make sure my work was as clean as I could produce before letting it out on the marketplace.

    I have firsthand knowledge of your work – you formatted the first three chapters of Pride’s Children for me – so I have a good standard to aim for.

    Most probably, I will do my own as I go along (I learned Scrivener for exactly that purpose) until the whole is finished. Then, after cleaning up everything I can possibly do on the input file, I plan to let YOU do it. There are enough quirks to the formatting – epigraphs, included movie bits, quotations, etc. – that it will do best with a pro.

    My writing will always be incredibly slow (due to CFS, among other things). If I take the time to learn the fine details in the ebook formatting, I will probably bring actual writing to a half for months – and may still not get it quite right. This is probably one of those cases where getting professional help is the only solution – but I’m sure glad I’m learning the basics for myself, too.

    BTW, I loved the Lawrence Block formatting you did recently.

    Needless to say, I plan to listen very carefully to what you will need from me. And do my very best to supply clean files.

  10. I personally don’t understand the writers, or anyone of any profession, who can’t take constructive criticism of any kind. Did we or did we not go to school? Write reports? Were we not graded by quality of content? In the dinosaur days before typewriters, we were even graded on things like penmanship. Handwriting counted. If it couldn’t be read, it received a failing mark. We studied, practiced, studied, tested, practiced, studied again why? If we did all that in our early adult years in order to graduate, why is it so difficult for adults to discover where their work needs improvement? It should be ingrained in us by now.

    I’m not saying that I don’t look upon my written works like they’re my children. But I’m not going to allow my children to run willy-nilly out in the wild without guidance or structure. I’m not going to allow them to stick their hand in the fire, rob a liquor store, or disrespect others. I still want my children to be a reflection of me, the best possible example of me I can possibly mold. If after all that, they still have faces only their mother (me) can love, I’m okay with that because I know I gave it everything I had.

    And that’s the soapbox I’m standing on this week.

    I love the examples you’ve provided. Formatting is something I’m investigating now as my editor is almost finished with my first novel. I’ve decided to self-publish because I want control over the process, but I refuse to ePub until I have a product that readers will respect and that I can be proud of.

    Baby steps right?

  11. I’d want to know if there was a glitch (or many) in my book, so I could correct it. I’d appreciate someone telling me, assuming he or she didn’t start out by saying, “Hey, as****le,” or somesuch.

    • Hold on a sec while I clean the cocoa off my screen…

      The distributors make it easy for anyone to do a poor job of formatting and difficult to do it right. All those competing platforms and the multitude of devices makes it more difficult still. That leaves us writers and producers to help each other, right?

      So the consensus seems to be, it is useful to let the writer/producer know when something has gone awry.

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