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.

TWO Files For Smashwords?!? Not So Fast With The WTF, Folks

I’ve been one of the noisy gripers bitchin’ about the Smashwords “Meatgrinder.” My complaint was not what Mark Coker of SW was doing, but that MS Word makes lousy ebooks. Now, Coker has made it possible for ebook producers to submit validated EPUB files for distribution wherever fine EPUB-platform ebooks are sold.

This is terrific news.

Now I’m seeing complaints all over the ‘net that in order for an ebook to be fully distributed in the SW catalog one must also submit a Word file along with the EPUB file. A lot of WTF going on and people acting as if they’ve been somehow buffaloed.

Back off a minute and put down your pitchforks and torches. In order for SW to do what it’s been doing, it’s had to take a one-size-fits-all approach (could not have afforded it any other way). Using Word as the source file for conversion made sense for two reasons:

  • One) SW is mostly a self-publishing platform for WRITERS who use WORD PROCESSORS to create DOCUMENTS;
  • Two) Ebook files are based on html coding (they are essentially little websites) and most word processors are based on html which can be converted so they can be read on various and sundry devices.

The problems were not so much in the conversion. The problems came from the ereader devices. Every one of them is different. Some use older technology, some use the newest technology. Many have user interfaces, allowing readers to customize (to an extent) the way they read an ebook. (Ever wonder why mobi files are so big compared to an EPUB file? It’s because they are actually several different formats–eink, tablet, keyboard, touch screen–all of which display differently and give the reader different options on the various Kindle devices.)

Smashwords also offers readers different options, such as PDF and (essentially) text files for reading on the computer. They offer formats like LRF and PDB for people with older, almost obsolete devices.

A mobi file can be converted from EPUB, but it requires some adjustments to the css, the cover image and navigation coding. You can do things on a Nook you can’t do on a Kindle (for instance), and vice versa. Much different platforms. I can convert an EPUB to a mobi file and read it on my Kindle, but in order to make it work properly on all Kindle devices, in order to make it convert through Kindlegen without errors, I need a different type of EPUB file.

Then you get into the platforms that aren’t based on EPUB at all. Can I convert an EPUB file into a pdf file? Well, sure, but it’s ridiculously convoluted and requires more clean-up than conversion. The reason is in the name: “Portable Document Format.” Word files convert easily into pdf files because both of them are document files.

The beauty of what Smashwords has done is that if you have a validated EPUB file (and that means error free according to IDPF–International Digital Publishing Forum–standards) it is going to work on the various devices using the EPUB platform–namely Nook, Kobo and Apple products. It will work the way users (our customers) want them to work and the way the device makers intend them to work.

What it boils down to is quality control. I can control the quality of EPUB files in ways that are not possible with a Word file. It’s not about the bells and whistles, it’s about the formatting and making sure my ebooks are stable and functional across devices.

If you understand how ebooks work and how other file formats work, then you know it is not feasible for SW to convert EPUB files into other formats such as mobi or pdf or rtf. That’s my job. These are my ebooks and my readers/customers, and it’s up to me to figure out the best way to make the ebooks I create compatible with their devices.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to ebooks and ereading devices. SW made a valiant effort when it tried to force Word into that role, but it was doomed from the get-go because Word is not the right tool.

EPUB is only one format out of many, and it is not Smashword’s or Mark Coker’s fault that the retailers and device makers cannot get their shit together and settle on a standard.

You do not have to submit two files to SW if you don’t want to. You can go EPUB only–which shuts out those who don’t have a device based on the EPUB platform. You can submit a Word file only–take your chances that your ebook is going to glitch, or settle for an ebook so generic it might as well be a text file.

Something else, too. Smashwords is a distributor. It reaches markets that indies cannot always reach on their own. I suspect the number one reason many of those avenues are closed to direct distribution from indies is because those outfits don’t want to deal with buggy, broken, half-assed ebook files created in word processors. SW could have insisted that those who wished to use their distribution service must provide files in compliance with the different platforms. That would have set back the ebook revolution several years. Instead SW came up with concept that mostly worked. So to those who are bitching that they now have to provide TWO files to SW, take a deep breath, step back and consider the alternative–the market could demand that you create up to ten different formats in order to reach all your potential readers. That, my friends, would be real cause for cries of WTF.


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.