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.

Are Ebooks Getting Too Complicated For DIY?

I’m a tad out of sorts this morning. Irked, annoyed, disgruntled… Pick one.

Partly it is because of anxiety. I used Paul Salvette’s guide to create my very first complete ebook (one that doesn’t have to go through a third-party conversion process). Now the author is waiting for it to be published on Amazon. I hate the waiting…

Partly it’s because my son gave me a Kindle Fire for my birthday. Oh, wow, is that thing cool. It’s not something I’d have bought for myself. I’m not a gadget person and it takes me forever to warm up to anything new. But wow, the Fire is very cool. The first thing I did was load the book I just finished onto the Fire to see how it looked. It looks gorgeous. It also looks a lot different than on Larry the Kindle.

I looked at other ebooks in my library. I have books put out by big publishers and indie books, and books that were professionally formatted and books that were DIY. Quality is all over the board. Some of the books that look just fine on Larry look amateurish and not-quite-right on the Fire. It’s because many of the books were produced before the Fire existed. The older formatting platform doesn’t translate so well. The standards are different.

The ebooks are readable. I’m not going to pitch a bitch just because a book I purchased last year won’t let me adjust fonts on the Fire. Nor am I going to ping DIY publishers who’ve formatted a Word file according to Amazon’s guidelines and ended up with an amateurish looking ebook.

I’m irked and annoyed at the devices and the platforms and distributors. Quite frankly, this shit has gotten way too complicated.

It doesn’t help that I read Baldur Bjarnason’s latest post at Futurebook. This part worsened my mood:

However, as I’ve written about before, a large proportion of ebooks published are rubbish. Not in terms of the content (although that’s probably also the case) but in terms of the quality of the file. Ereader platform vendors cannot support the full range of CSS that EPUB2 and EPUB3 require because a substantial number of their catalogue would become unreadable.

Platform vendors are in a position where they couldn’t support standards completely even if they wanted to.

No kidding. For instance, while I was building my most recent project, this is what I had to do. Build the file. Launch the file in my web browser. See how it looks. Figure out why something doesn’t look the way I wanted it to look (All the while knowing that what appears in my browser is only an approximation of what will appear on the ereader). Fix and fiddle, then validate the file to make sure it meets EPUB standards. Check how it looks in Calibre (I don’t have a device that reads EPUB). Again, I know that what I see on my computer screen is not necessarily what a reader will see on a Nook or iPad or whatever. Then, I convert the file into MOBI format and load it onto my Kindle. Do more tweaking. Tweaking and fiddling means having to go through validation again. It means more converting and loading and inspecting. And I haven’t even gone through the Kindle Previewer yet. I want to know how my ebook looks on as many devices as possible. I change font sizes and line spacing and the size of the reading window. It’s time-consuming, it’s frustrating, but the worst part is that even though I’m checking and double-checking with everything I have on hand, it’s still not enough. There is no guarantee that an ebook that renders perfectly on Larry the Kindle (and now the Fire) is going to render properly on other Kindle styles or versions, the Nook, the iPad, the iPhone, an Android, a Sony, a whatever.

As the cat sez:

This is, in a nutshell, a disservice to readers. READERS. Do you hear me Amazon? Barnes & Noble? Kobo? Smashwords? Apple? While you guys indulge in device wars and competing formats while creating compatibility issues, are you thinking about readers at all? You know, the people paying the bills? It’s all well and good to roll out the welcome mat to publishers big and small, traditional and indie, and invite all comers to list their ebooks with you. You get your percentage of sales. When your guidelines and standards are such that it is very, very easy for anybody to make a crappy looking ebook, naturally people are going to follow your guidelines to the letter and end up with crappy looking ebooks.

That’s not right. It’s not fair to readers.

It’s difficult making an ebook that renders properly across all devices. For the self-publisher who has neither the time nor the inclination to learn all ins and outs of formatting to meet different standards, it’s damned near impossible.

That’s unfair to the do-it-yourselfer. It’s unfair to their readers.

What’s the solution? I do not know. I’m not a programmer or a tech-type. I have no idea what goes into creating these devices or how they work. I just want ebooks that respect the material and are a pleasure to read. That is not too much to ask. All this screwing around with fancier devices and increasingly complicated and narrow platforms is making it too damned hard.

Do We Need Standards in Ebooks?

I’ve been following some discussions about ebooks and file formats and ereaders. Epub versus mobi, tablet versus e-ink. Speculations about the future of reading devices and the future of the book itself.

Nick Disabato wrote a series of articles about standards. (go read them here and here) I disagree with him on some points (anti-Amazon bias comes through) and some of what he talks about is technical and I’m unfamiliar with the terms. To be honest, a lot of the discussions go right over my head. I’m not a technophile and gadgets don’t interest me much. I have a tendency to find something that suits me, then stick with it until it breaks down and I’m forced to upgrade. I’m not a programmer, either, and haven’t learned coding and don’t have the time right now to learn it. But boy, oh boy, do I get Disaboto’s frustration.

A lack of standards in the language (coding and platforms) and compatibility of devices affects readers, writers and publishers. With a print book, it doesn’t matter where I buy it or where I read it. I might worry the content will become outdated, but the object itself will never become obsolete and unusable (barring fire, floods and teething puppies).

From where I stand (and I suspect I am not alone in this) the discussions amongst device makers and programmers make me uneasy. Not because things get better, faster, more efficient, cheaper–electronic stuff has a tendency to do that–but because I’ve got a houseful of obsolete gadgets. Some of those gadgets were absolutely wonderful and worked fine and did what I asked, until I could no longer find content for them or technical support because the rest of the world passed it by. I also see a lot of tinkering and changing and shifting and screwing around not because it’s necessary, but because folks like to tinker and change and screw around. (are you listening Facebook, hmn?)

Then we have situations where something becomes the standard not because it’s the best or easiest or most efficient, but because it becomes ubiquitous. Like MS Word. It’s clunky, irritating, and can drive a person to drink while trying to create clean digital files. Bazillions of people use it. They’re used to it and know how to make it work for them, so they’ll keep on using it because using something else requires upfront money and a learning curve. Or maybe they get tired of constant change. No! Damn it! No, I am not changing again. I don’t care if your new best thing is actually the best. I am sick of being jerked around.

Because I don’t understand the whys and wherefores behind this, I asked my friend, Jonathan, if he could pretend I’m clueless (doesn’t have to pretend very much) and break it down for me:

“I started learning rudimentary HTML at the time, though pretty much all HTML was rudimentary. So few people were creating their websites  and there were so few browser options that things were opened wide up. Remember, Internet Explorer wouldn’t even debut until the end of the year (1995)– as if we would ever use that. Your options were either the text-based Lynx, Netscape (formerly Mozilla), Omniweb, and Grail. I only heard of the latter, but never saw them. HTML as a standard was still fairly new, and didn’t have anywhere near the features that it would support in ten years, so you were pretty safe writing a web site in a certain way; browsers would handle HTML in the same fashion… you’re ahead of most of the game if you can italicize words or indent.

Internet Explorer is pretty much where that started to go off the rails. This is probably a familiar pattern to most folks — open standard is established, big company comes along and bastardizes the format into a proprietary format that enables said company to corner a part of the market. Microsoft was bad about this, but are far from the only culprits. Suddenly your HTML might not look the same in Internet Explorer as in Netscape. You had to start customizing your code for certain browsers. … The fragmentation just got worse and worse over the years, as new browsers came and went and different companies dug in their heels. Yes, HTML was supposed to be an international standard, but no one could really enforce this. So too, today do we have a myriad of different major eBook formats. Most draw on HTML, but have their own implementations and interpretations of the tags. Here’s just a sampling, though I’m sure you’re familiar with most:

  • ePub
  • eReader (pdb)
  • HTML (yes there are still eBooks that are pure HTML)
  • Kindle (.azw and .kf8, also works with MOBI)
  • Mobipocket (MOBI)
  • Microsoft .lit (LIT)
  • Acrobat (PDF)

All right, Jonathan, that I understand. (Not only does he know how computers work and how to code and program and all that other good stuff that looks like magic to me, he can speak plain English, too.) To read the rest of what he has to say about the issue, click here.

I had told him before I’m leery of setting standards because sometimes that causes stagnation (MS Word, for instance). Truth is, my real fear is that when the dust settles I’ll end up with more useless, obsolete gadgets. Since I don’t understand the mechanics, I have no idea which format is better or why one is better than another. All I know is what ends up in my hands. Also it’s a pain in the butt having separate formatting requirements when I’m producing an ebook.

So, yeah, we need some standards. I’d love to see ebooks that work effortlessly across any device the user happens to have on hand. I’d love one-shot ebook formatting for production. I also want the assurance that my beloved Kindle will still be able to read what’s available and I won’t be forced to buy new gadgets.

Considering Jonathan’s explanation, I think I see what the real problem is and will continue to be for a while. At least for people like me.  The two major players with the best chance of setting the standard are Apple and Amazon. The trouble is, they’re each coming at this from a different perspective. Apple is all about hardware, so it provides content to use on the hardware, whereas Amazon is all about content and so provides the hardware to support the content. What seems to be missing is the realization that content and hardware have to be married. The hardware has to be good enough to support the content and the content has to be good enough to justify the hardware. Speaking purely as a reader, Amazon is preferred because it offers me vast choice in content, which is easy to find and easy to obtain. Amazon doesn’t make me jump through hoops to get what I want. On the other hand, on a purely aesthetic level e-ink technology sucks. It’s functional, it gives me the content, but face it, Larry (I named my Kindle Larry) you’re a homely so-and-so.

There are times when I lust after a Kindle Fire or even an iPad. What stops me are the cost, the irritation over discarding yet another gadget, and the fact that I want a dedicated ereader. I don’t want or need bells and whistles. I don’t want apps or being forced to convert files and sideload or any of that other stuff, none of which is difficult to do, but I don’t want to do it anyway.

As an ebook producer, I spend too much time and energy circumventing the quirks of various programs and trying to compensate for the limitations of the many different devices readers use. That is time and energy I could be using to suss out the advantages of the technology in order to produce better ebooks. So yeah, even at the risk of Larry becoming obsolete, I think it’s time to start working on establishing a standard format and universal reading devices.