Self-Publishing: Amateurs versus the Pros

There’s a war going on right now. Hachette vs Amazon is the big battle du jour. You can read all about it here and here and here. That’s not the real war. The real war is being fought against indie writer/publishers. It’s being fought mainly with propaganda pushed by the big publishing houses (who are part of a HUGE media conglomerates) aided by agents and big-name writers.

In a perfect world (okay, in my perfect world) there would be a separate section on Amazon or B&N.com for self-published e-books, maybe even separate websites. I truly believe that it would help the reader distinguish the books as well. Readers don’t purchase books based on who the publisher is and don’t necessarily care. As a result, they might not even know if they’re buying a book that was professionally edited versus one that was self-published...” –Steven Zacharius, CEO, Kensington

(How about professionally formatted, Mr. Z.? When I purchase a trad pubbed ebook, I do so knowing that being highly annoyed by the sloppy, disrespectful ebook formatting is going to make me grind my teeth.)

ebook design by JW Manus

ebook design by JW Manus

I wish I could say with reasonable confidence that all errors have now been caught, but I reckon that’s unlikely. Hopefully, though, there are no more than a bare few, and minor ones at worst. I guess that’s an advantage of ebooks and POD, that small errors can be fixed and the files reloaded for future purchases… –J. Harris Anderson, author and publisher of THE PROPHET OF PARADISE

Amazon only appears to be the target. Except, it’s not competing against the big publishers. Amazon is a distributor. Sure, they have a publishing wing, but the big pubs don’t care about that. What they really care about is their real competition. That’s you, folks.

ebook formatted by JW Manus

ebook design by JW Manus

“Everything looks great to me. Just one thing to change and one question. In the author’s note, it should say Chesnut Hill (insert comma) Massachusetts. This was an error in the original book.” Kim Ablon Whitney, author and publisher of BLUE RIBBONS

The theory of propaganda is this: Tell a lie often enough and loudly enough and eventually it will morph into the “TRUTH.” Pretty soon, the actual truth is considered a lie and any exceptions to the established “truths” are considered flukes or outliers or aberrations. What the big publishers and agents and bestselling authors would have you, the indies, believe (because trust me, the readers don’t care and 99% of them are probably not even aware that this war is going on) is that your work is sub-par, that the only reason you self-publish is because you can’t hack it as a “real” writer, and that you’re lazy and amateurish.

“Amazon pays amateur authors, often unedited, who upload files not yet ebook-ready to them and don’t know anything about marketing or metadata, as much as 70 percent of retail if they meet certain exclusivity and price stipulations. (Obviously, there are great gems among those, but they are still mostly unproven, unknown, and unsuccessful.) They are apparently fighting hard to avoid giving Hachette — which invests substantially to be consistently superior to a fledgling author on all these counts — the same cut.” –Mike Shatzkin, The Shatzkin Files

ebook & POD design by JW Manus

ebook & POD design by JW Manus

“I have to find it. Once it says Theo instead of Thea. How do I fix that on the kindle? Can I edit the content just for that one word or do I have to upload a new file?” –Julia Rachel Barrett, author and publisher of WINNERLAND

I work with several new-to-self-publishing writers, but I wouldn’t call them amateurs. They’re in this to produce the very best books for their readers as it is possible for them to do. They care deeply about their work and care deeply about satisfying their readers.

cover, ebook, & POD design by JW Manus

cover, ebook, & POD design by JW Manus

“...kindly see below a letter I just got from The National library of Israel in Jerusalem advising the book … has been accepted and listed with the library!” –Anna Aizic, author and publisher of THE CIRCLES OF LIFE (a memoir)

One of the things that really has the big pubs in a dither (or a tizzy or a dizzying meltdown) is how many traditionally published authors are self-publishing their back lists. Many of the big pubs just scan old books, convert them (errors and all), and slap them up on sell sites (usually with the original covers, many of which are entirely unsuitable for ebooks), and call it good. The writers I work with do not do that. They see reissuing as an opportunity to fix old mistakes and to update covers or create brand new covers.

cover, ebook, & POD by JW Manus

cover, ebook, & POD by JW Manus

Thanks for the two PDFs. Both sailed right through CS absent objection – but, with apology, I did catch one little detail that we’ll have to change (a web address). I’ll be getting an email off to Erin right after this, since how we’ll change that will depend on her answer. I’ll copy the email to you so you can see what needs doing.” –Jerrold Mundis, author and publisher of SLAVE

The real fear is that those authors self-publishing their back lists will realize that the process is the same for publishing new releases and it’s not an impossible task and not only can the writer/publishers do an excellent job, they can do it faster and even better than the trad pubs can. The media is still pretty much ignoring self-published titles, and that’s a downer, but it’s slowly, slowly changing and eventually self-pubbed titles will receive their due. If you don’t think that doesn’t scare the bejeezus out of the trad pubs…

BURGLAR

ebook, cover & POD by JW Manus

My decision to self-publish The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons has had gratifying results, but there’s been a downside: self-pubbed titles don’t get much media attention or store distribution. Well, Orion’s UK edition just came out, and here’s Geoffrey Wansell’s lovely review in the Daily Mail...” –Lawrence Block, author and publisher of THE BURGLAR WHO COUNTED THE SPOONS

The bottom line is, as always, money. Lots and lots of money. Every time you self-publish a book or a short story or an instruction manual or get together with like-minded writers to produce an anthology, you–yes, YOU–are costing the big pubs money. Have you been following the Author Earnings reports produced by Hugh Howey and Data Guy? If not, you should, if only to understand the scope of this situation and to understand why the big pubs and their minions are hitting back so hard. They need you to line up (quietly, hat in hand, head bowed respectfully) to provide them with vast amounts of materials from which they can pick and choose. If you don’t, well, that must mean you’re an amateur, right?

ebook design by JW Manus

ebook design by JW Manus

Love the edit. Jessica frowned at the little notebook though. She said it doesn’t fit in with the rest of my books and I have to agree with her. Can we do something in black/white under the chapter heading like all the others? Something reporter-ish?” –Randall Wood, author and publisher of INSIGHT

The big pubs and their minions want you to believe that you’re helpless without them. That you need nurturing and someone to hold your hand and to take care of all that nasty business-y stuff. Because, you know, writers are such idiot savants that accounting is waaaaay over their heads. Far better to let the grown-ups take care of that.

ebook design by JW Manus

ebook design by JW Manus

I was wondering if part of your illustrious services include helping with HTML descriptions?  I.e., when inputting product descriptions on Amazon, it is much better if the text is in HTML rather than, say, Word.” –Layton Green, author and publisher of THE METAXY PROJECT

To go for a publishing contract or to self-publish, either way is your choice. As a reader, if I like your stories or the information you’re putting out, it doesn’t matter a rat’s patoot who publishes it. And many, many other readers feel the same way. Sure, there are some who are loyal to a particular publishing house or imprint, but the majority are interested only in the authors. If their favorite authors goes indie, they follow. The big pubs know that, too. One of their responses has been even more draconian contracts which include life-of-copyright terms and non-compete clauses. AND, a propaganda campaign to convince you–YOU!–that self-publishing means you’re an amateur and a loser and you’ll never be successful and you’ll regret your foolishness to the end of your days…

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to return to proofreading an ebook for a self-publishing author who cares very much that his text and formatting are professionally polished.

 

 

Calibre, Word and MOBI: A Tale of Three Programs

(Yes, I know, MOBI is not a program, but my blog, my headlines…)

Ever since I started blogging about ebooks, I’ve cautioned people against using Microsoft Word to format their ebooks. Not because Word is a bad program and not because it’s impossible to create ebooks with it. It’s because it’s the not quite right tool. Word’s strength lies in creating print documents or pdfs.

Recently, I’ve been cautioning people to not use Calibre to convert their Word files into MOBI files in order to sell them on Amazon. Not because Calibre is a bad program and not because it’s impossible to create MOBI files with it. It’s because it’s not quite the right tool. Calibre’s strength lies in managing a person’s digital library. It was not created to convert commercial ebook files.

EPUB files are not as troublesome as MOBI files. EPUB is EPUB is EPUB, and while each device has its own special way of rendering the file to fit the platform, the differences between devices aren’t big enough for most people to notice. A single EPUB file will work pretty much the same on a Nook as it does on an iPad.

Calibre is set up for optimum use with EPUB files. If a publisher converts a Word (html) file into an EPUB file using Calibre, then what they see there is pretty close to what a Nook or iPad reader will see.

This is not true with MOBI files. The reason is Amazon. You see, EPUB devices have evolved and changed and upgraded and gone the way all technology goes, ever upward and onward. But the device makers built the newer devices around the existing ebook platform. So an EPUB ebook formatted five years ago will work pretty much the same on a new iPad as it did on a first generation Nook. Amazon went bass-ackwards. They built the new devices then tinkered and recreated entirely new ebook platforms to fit the new devices. So a MOBI file being sold on Amazon isn’t just a MOBI file. It’s also a KF/8 file and an iOS file and an AZW3 file and god knows what else is there. I don’t quite get all the technical stuff. What I do get is that the same ebook can work fine on a Kindle Fire, but go to hell on a Paperwhite and look okay on a Kindle Keyboard and turn into gibberish if an iPad user gets hold of it.

The whys and wherefores don’t matter as much as the fact that a file formatted in a program which is optimal for printing documents and then converted with a program that is at its best with EPUB files, is going to have trouble meeting the very odd demands of Kindles.

(By the way, if you are using Scrivner or InDesign to create your ebooks for sale on Amazon, you will run into the same exact problems because Amazon is constantly tweaking and fiddling with the platform(s) and updating devices and they don’t necessarily share what they’ve done with the rest of the world.)

I realize that none of what I just wrote is going to dissuade people from using Calibre to convert their Word docs into MOBI files to sell on Amazon. I know this because people are using Word because that’s the program they know and love(hate) and they need a way to convert those Word files and Calibre is the shortest distance between A and B.

So instead of wagging my finger and clucking my tongue, I did some research. Question: Is it possible to format a file in Word and convert it with Calibre and create a MOBI file good enough to sell on Amazon? (Here, I make a very clear distinction. If your Nook died and you bought a Kindle, and you want to convert all your Nook books into MOBI files you can load onto your Kindle, Calibre is a great tool. That’s personal use. You expect that the ebook might not work completely right, but that’s okay, at least you have it. You can’t ask your paying customers to accept that standard.)

What I discovered is: Yes, it is possible.

I managed to fix the worst problems I see with Calibre-converted ebooks. I managed to create ebooks that respond properly to all the user preferences in three generations of Kindles (Kindle Keyboard, Paperwhite and Fire). I almost got Calibre to build a toc.ncx (what the user sees in the Go To features on Fires and Paperwhites) the way I want it to. I think with some more tinkering and fiddling around inside the opf file, I can fix that problem. I couldn’t get the cover to display on the bookshelf in my Paperwhite, but that’s kind of a non-issue, since Amazon will handle that when the book is uploaded. (It is only a big deal if a publisher is selling direct.)

Even though the ebooks I created this way aren’t up to my standards, they will respond to user preferences and they will look fine and read fine, and thus, they are good enough for uploading to Amazon.

There is a caveat. If you format your document, save it as an html file and convert it as is with Calibre, your ebook will be broken. It will be a substandard product you should not ask people to pay for. What you have to do first and foremost is format your Word file so it works within Calibre’s parameters, and secondly, you have to fix the html coding in the Word file.

Sound scary? It is, kind of. Word’s html coding is a nightmare, full of mso odd bits that give Kindles the hiccups. The good news is, all you really need to do is remove some very specific lines of code and rearrange a few others.

Since this post is running long and I don’t even have any pretty pictures to enliven it, (plus I have a buttload of Christmas gifts to wrap) I am going to explain how I did it in my next post. It’ll have pictures. In the meantime, if any of you, Dear Readers, have figured this out and feel like sharing in the comments, feel free.

I Don’t Hate Calibre, But…

duck coverJudging by the heated storm I roused the last time I criticized Calibre it’s probably a mistake to do so again. What the hell. I have to say it:

DO NOT USE CALIBRE TO CONVERT YOUR EBOOKS FOR THE PURPOSES OF SELLING THEM ON AMAZON.

Yesterday I did a troubleshoot and repair on a writer’s ebook. The EPUB she had converted from Word via Calibre was perfectly fine. It was a valid EPUB, and it displayed the way it should on both Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions. Problems arose when she converted the EPUB into AZW3 and MOBI. The ebook worked when she loaded it onto her Paperwhite Kindle, though it had some disturbing issues. Amazon rejected the file outright.

I took her EPUB and ran it through the Kindle Previewer to see what the problem was. It converted with WARNINGS (never want to see that). The ebook opened, but the button under Devices for Kindle for iOS was greyed out. And the cover didn’t display. When I loaded it on my Paperwhite, some of the user controls were locked. I then went back and looked inside the EPUB. The Calibre conversion had declared font-families–Georgia and Times New Roman–neither of which display on Kindles, but they aren’t ignored either, and hence cause all sorts of interesting little problems. Plus, it had built a cover page.

I’m not a techie person, so I don’t know if I can explain it adequately, but I will try. When a file is uploaded to Amazon it converts the source file into a 3-in-1 ebook. If you’ll compare the size of an EPUB to a Kindle, you’ll notice that the MOBI file is about 3 times bigger than the EPUB. The ebook you buy from Amazon will work across several types of devices: e-ink readers, Fire tablets, and a variety of apps, including iOS for Apple. This is tricky stuff. While Calibre can and does convert your files into the MOBI format or AZW3 format, and the files are suitable for personal use, they aren’t suitable for commercial use because the probability is about 97.3% that an ebook converted through Calibre and then uploaded to Amazon will be broken.

This is all about Amazon. They have proprietary platforms and they are constantly updating and improving and tinkering and it’s difficult for outsiders to keep up. Calibre is a library management tool, not a commercial conversion tool. They can’t be expected to stay ahead of the Amazon updates and bugs. That’s not their purpose.

The fix for the writer’s problem ebook was fairly simple. I removed the font-family declarations, removed the cover page, added a line of code to the metadata in the content.opf so Amazon knew the cover was in the file, resized the cover and ran it through the Kindle Previewer. Voila! Everything worked the way it should. The writer was able to upload the file to Amazon with no problems.

My recommendation to the writer for future projects was this: continue using Calibre to convert her Word files to EPUB files since there appear to be no problems and her ebooks are working fine. But, then to refresh her knowledge about using stylesheets in Word via Mark Coker’s Smashwords Style Guide, and direct load her Word file to Amazon. It’s a bit of a pain since you can’t examine and adjust the file before you start the uploading process, but you can take full advantage of the previewer at Amazon and make sure everything works before you hit the Publish button. That way there won’t be any extraneous items like cover pages and “embedded” fonts to muck up the works.

So seriously, folks, don’t kill the messenger or throw rotten tomatoes. This is just the reality. Calibre is not the right tool for converting files to sell on Amazon. Use the program for what it’s intended–managing your ebook library–and find other means to deal with Amazon.

Making It Easy For Readers: Links In Ebooks

Does it bother you when authors ask for a review? It doesn’t bother me in the slightest. As long as the request is pleasant and upbeat, (no whining!) it serves as a nice reminder. I recently did a job for a writer who included a review request in the back matter (pleasant and upbeat), and then kicked it up a notch by making it very easy for readers.

SRzombiesHe did it in a way that made me slap my forehead and wonder why I hadn’t thought of it first! He published his book on Amazon, then as soon as he had live links, I updated the file with the links and he updated the book at Amazon. He included not just the link to the listing at Amazon, but to Amazon.uk and Amazon.ca, too.

So now, when a reader is basking in reader ‘afterglow’ the link is right there. If the reader happens to be in Canada or the United Kingdom, they have a direct link, too.

But, Jaye, you say, Amazon already offers links to write a review when the book is finished. Plus, Amazon sends emails to remind you to review.

This is true. IF the reader has a Kindle. What if they are using an app or reading it on their phone or computer or magic toaster? I don’t know if all the reminders and such show up then. And the reminder emails from Amazon are a bit random and come whenever. So.

Here’s my philosophy on review and sell links in ebooks: They don’t hurt.

Anything that makes it easier for readers to find your books is a good thing. (As a reader, if I really enjoy a book, I have a tendency to immediately hop over to Amazon and One-Click my way through the author’s other offerings. Can’t let that TBR pile get too low, you know?)

So, on Amazon, which makes updating a listing so very easy and painless, if you include a direct request for readers to review your book, make it easy for them to do so by providing live links.

What Makes Self-Publishing Fun

Alert: for the second time this week, this post is not about producing ebooks.

It’s not my habit to use this blog to promote books. I’m not big on marketing and promotion. I do urge my friends to read books all the time, sometimes to the point of obnoxiousness and sometimes will resort to gifting them books from Amazon so they HAVE to read whatever I’m excited about. But other than an occasional tweet or talking about books on my other blog (which I haven’t done enough of lately) I rarely do that with strangers.

Today, though, I want you to buy a book.

It’s a short story and it’s only .99 cents on Amazon. It’s about zombies, so it may not appeal to everybody. Maybe you could gift it to a friend. Or give it a tweet or a mention on Goodreads or whatever it is you happen to do. You could even read it and review it.

Junk_Mail_CoverLet me tell you why.

I get emails from folks who solved a problem or learned a new trick from reading this blog. They say thank you. I’ve had emails from folks who’ve dipped their toes in self-publishing waters and found out the water is just fine, and they say they got up the nerve to try because this blog encouraged them to do so. They say thank you. I’ve made friends who’ve helped me and I help them and there are thank you’s all around. I look at the search queries that bring visitors to this blog and it gives me a good feeling knowing they are finding some answers. It makes me feel useful and for that I feel thankful.

None of this would happened without one person. If you’ve learned something or felt inspired to self-publish or to make more beautiful ebooks or striven to meet new challenges because of something you’ve read on this blog, you should thank Marina Bridges.

I met Marina many moons ago on the eBay blogs. Our senses of humor clicked. When I found out that not only was Marina funny as could be, but that she wrote, too, I started bugging her for stories. When I began looking at self-publishing. I asked Marina if she’d be interested in being the “test” case, so to speak. She said yes and that’s how it started. We bought Kindles. We got hooked. I started the process of learning how to produce an ebook. Marina trusted me to get better. That’s a terrific quality in a friend, by the way. I’d propose something nutty and she’d say, “Um… okay,” and then I’d scamper off to do the nutty thing. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but she always had faith that I’d figure it out.

She’s still my biggest supporter. Most days the chat box is open and she gets to “hear” me bitching about my computer or railing against my own idiocy when I screw something up. Whenever I figure something out or produce something nifty, I send her screenshots and she listens while I crow. It must bore her to tears when I’m problem-solving “out loud” about formatting issues, but she never says it does. She listens. When I’m feeling down, she writes stories and sends me snippets to make me laugh. (somehow, ahem, always forgetting to issue a spew alert)

She is the number one reason book production and self-publishing is fun for me. She doesn’t let me get too serious–she mocks me heartily when I do. She encourages me when I feel stupid and out of my league. She’s always ready to say, “Oh go ahead, you can do that.” She keeps it real and she keeps it fun.

There is no Thank You in the world big enough for that.

So. If you have ever felt the urge to say thank you to me for this blog, the very best way you can do that is to thank Marina and buy her short story. It’s a little thing, but it would mean the world to me.

Junk Mail, a Kindle short story, on Amazon.

How The Kindle Works

I talk a lot about broken ebooks, but judging from the search terms that bring visitors to this site, I suspect many people do not know what I mean. Part of the confusion is because I am actually talking about Kindle books (and I should make myself clearer, sorry). Since I don’t own a Nook (and have never played with one), or an iPad or iPhone or Sony reader or magic toaster, I tend to judge ebooks by what shows up on my Kindle.

I suspect there are a lot of people who don’t own Kindles. Maybe one or two who’ve never even seen a Kindle.

Here is Amazon’s dirty little secret regarding its Kindle. As long the ebook is converted to either mobi or prc, the Kindle can read it. (I convert raw documents all the time since I prefer reading on my Kindle over manhandling reams of paper–I just run a Word doc through MobiPocket creator and load it up. I’ve done that with pdf files, too.) I don’t call those ebooks. A person who isn’t aware of how a Kindle actually works, might be unaware their ebook is broken–after all, Amazon let them upload it and reported no problems.

Now, the wise formatter will convert their ebook using KindleGen and check their work on the Kindle Previewer. Amazon just updated it and it has more options, include some font changing, so it’s more reliable now. To truly make sure the ebook works, it should be loaded on a device and run through its paces. People who produce a mobi file using Scrivener or convert a file in Caliber or MobiPocket or run a Word doc through the onsite converter at Amazon might end up with a broken ebook and not know it. (A kind reader might take pity and send you an email to let you know your book is broken, or they might return it for a refund, or–worst of all–they might decide your ebook is too unpleasant to read and not buy any more of your books.)

Pardon my less than stellar photography–here is what the menus look like on Kindles.

Kindle MenusThe font sizes are pretty hard to screw up. There was a Kindle-induced bug that shrunk the font, forcing users with older Kindle models to have to greatly increase the font size in order to read. I think that bug was fixed. But I don’t think I’ve ever run into an ebook where the size can’t be changed. The fonts themselves can be changed.

  • Keyboard: “regular” “condensed” and “sans serif.
  • Paperwhite: Baskerville, Caecilia, Caecilia Condensed, Futura, Helvetica and Palatino
  • Fire: Baskerville, Caecilia, Georgia, Palatino, and Helvetica

A common flaw is a locked font (usually in the ugliest choice). After looking at the html in ebooks that have “locked” fonts, I think what is happening is the producer, using a word processor, has defined a font the Kindle doesn’t recognize. So it displays in the closest match. But, since the font is defined, it can’t be changed.

Line spacing is an option on all models of Kindle. It’s a useful one and it’s also a common “break.” When I format a book in html I don’t mess with line spacing. I define the line height so my text isn’t squished, but that’s different than single-space, space-and-a-half and double space. Word has a really nasty habit of inserting a definition for line-spacing into the document that will override the user menu. Sometimes this is deliberate on the producer’s part, sometimes it is inadvertent because that’s just how Word rolls. In any case, it’s undesirable.

Keyboard line spaceAnother common problem is when the margins don’t work. In the older Keyboard model the user can set how many words there are on a line (fewest, fewer and default) and on the Paperwhite and Fire they can set the margins to narrow, normal or wide. Breaks tend to happen when a producer using a word processor, Scrivener or InDesign justifies the text. Why this affects the margins, I don’t know, but it does.

The Fire allows the user to change the background color. White, sepia or black (sorry, Paul, but black? Oh, my eyes!). It’s a nifty feature, but there is a drawback.

AdjustmentsI apologize for the crappy photo, but if you look very closely at the graphic I circled in red you will see a white box around the graphic. For some odd reason Kindle does not recognize that background is transparent. It’s not a huge issue, but one I hope is soon addressed. Something to keep in mind when using graphic elements in your ebook.

Speaking of graphics… Kindles can be read in landscape mode. The Paperwhite requires an ebook that is specifically coded to be read in landscape mode (such as comic panels or a children’s book–unless, there is some command I am too stupid to figure out and am just missing it) The Keyboard can be changed through the menu and the Fire by turning the device.

LandscapeLandscape mode can have a significant effect on graphics, especially those that are sized to fit the portrait screen. What I do is size the graphics in percentages so that no matter what size the screen or if the book is being read in landscape mode, it will “shrink” or “expand” to fit the text.

(I was reading a novel that had an interesting block graphic in the header. It looked great in portrait mode, but when I flipped it to landscape suddenly it was just a dumb looking box perched atop the text. Yikes!)

Another common problem is page break failure. The best I can tell (and I’m sure there are those smarter than I who will pop in and set me straight) this is a problem when a producer converts an EPUB file into a mobi file through Caliber. Why Caliber destroys the page breaks is anybody’s guess, but it often does.

So what is the poor ebook producer to do? Especially if you do not have a Kindle on which to test your files? (And this isn’t a slam against people who don’t have Kindles–I don’t have an ereader that uses EPUB files, so I’m playing guess and by golly, too. One advantage with EPUB files is that if my file is validated and I haven’t inserted any weird stuff that could override defaults, I’m fairly certain it will work properly. I’d love it if a Nook owner wrote a guest post about its features and common problems. Any takers?)

  • Download the Kindle Previewer and use it. It’s not perfect and you can’t test ALL the device features, but it will give you a far better display than Caliber or even the previewer at Kindle Direct.
  • If you use a word processor, Scrivener or InDesign be very careful with your style sheets. Do not justify the text. Leave the line spacing at single-space. Don’t get fancy with your margin settings. What YOU see is NOT what the end user will get.
  • Experiment with graphic element sizes and use percentages (when possible) rather than fixed em or pixel sizes.
  • Learn html and get away from using not-quite-right for ebooks programs.

So, now you know what I mean when I say “broken” ebooks. EPUB readers, what are the common problems you find?

 

 

One-Size Does Not Fit All: Different Files For Different Purposes

“This weekend my publisher discovered that the printer has been using the eBook format instead of the formatted printing version for its printing of A JANE AUSTEN DAYDREAM. So if you have a copy of the novel that is only 280 pages and no page breaks… Well, there you go.”

dohThat’s from Scott D. Southard’s blog. I read that and thought, Ouch! I feel your pain. This piggy-backed on what I was doing this past weekend, trying to figure out how children’s books work on a Kindle with my lovely minion Plunderbunny. She’d built a charming children’s poem, but couldn’t get the cover to come up, so we had to puzzle over that. Then we wondered about the weird line spacing issues with the Kindle iOS app. Which led us to scrolling through our tablets to look at broken ebooks and trying to figure out all the whys and wherefores. You get the picture.

In the majority of cases my guess was that the wrong file was being used. Which is surprisingly–distressingly–easy to do.

When it comes to ebook files, the real pain in the patoot about this issue is that the distributors–Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, etc.–will let you get away with it. (Amazon is the worst offender, by the way. I swear they’d accept a fig leaf covered in bird feces.)

Compounding the problem is that very few people have access to every device in existence, so they have to depend upon online previewers. Those are not 100% reliable. My Kindle Previewer, for instance, has just decided it will not allow me to look at my books as eink versions. I’ve been screwed by the previewers (I have three on my computer) and have learned the hard way that the distributor previewers at Amazon, B&N and Smashwords aren’t 100% reliable either. I have three Kindles (two eink and a Fire), but I don’t have a Nook, or an iPad or Android or Sony reader or any of the other dozens of devices out there. (In some ways I have to go on (literally) blind faith when I load a file at distributors for devices I don’t have access to. It’s disconcerting.)

That means I make a lot of different files. My source file, which is a text file. From that I format a basic EPUB file, a mobi/kf8 file, a Smashwords EPUB file, a Smashwords Word file, and possibly a pdf file. Each one has its own quirks and features. While I could take the basic EPUB file, for instance, and run it through Calibre to convert it into a mobi file, it would be a mistake. That file will load on my ereaders and be readable, but it will not work properly.

What I have learned is that a top-notch ebook, no matter what the format, absolutely requires 1) a squeaky clean source file going in; and 2) targeted structure for the platform. Perhaps I should add 3) it helps to have a high tolerance for the top of one’s head blowing off in frustration.

The device makers and distributors lack incentive to standardize their devices (much the way a DVD can be played on any manufacturer’s DVD player, an ebook should be be stable on any ereading device). Reaching that level will take a while, I fear. Hindering standardization is that I don’t think the distributors consider stable ebooks a high priority. Of them all, Smashwords has the highest quality control (which isn’t saying much, I fear). Amazon and B&N will let you publish the digital equivalent of manual typewriter script on sheets of newsprint that have been stapled together.

meatBut! There is hope on the horizon. I happen to know a very smart person who is busily developing a way to uncomplicate a process that has grown increasingly (and unnecessarily) complex. Take one clean source file, run it through his program, and boom! Stable, professional quality ebook files in minutes. Seriously, this is what indie writers need. Not crazy computing skills. Not hours and hours and hours and hours spent trying to figure out the different platforms. Not a meatgrinder that valiantly attempts the impossible task of turning Word-hamburger into EPUB-filet mignon.

I’ll keep you all posted about the progress my friend is making. In the meantime, pay attention to your files to make sure the right one is going to the right place.