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.