Soft Hyphens for Kindle Books

I don’t care for automatic hyphenation in ebooks. The devices are pretty dumb and because they use an algorithm instead of an English major’s sensibilities, we get words like “mi- nute” instead of “min-ute” or “alt-hough” instead of “al-though.” While it is possible to turn on hyphenation for Kindle books, I’d rather not.

But. If a word has too many characters to fit on one line, this is what you get:

shy1Just like an oversized image, characters disappear off the screen. Because there are so many Kindle devices and apps, you have no idea what settings or screen size your reader might be using. Judicious use of soft hyphenation is an easy fix to an annoying problem.

Here is the same text, hyphenated, at various settings on the Kindle Previewer:

shy3shy4shy5What I did was use the named entity for a soft hyphen — ­

shy6The above example is a bit of overkill, but it was easy, so I did it. This way, no matter what preferences or screen size the user has, the text will not disappear off the screen.

If you’re building a non-fiction ebook, especially one with many long terms (technical or medical) inserting soft hyphens can prevent those unsightly gaps when a long word/term is jumped to the next page.

Have fun!

 

More Fun With Formatting: Why Not Illustrated Fiction?

One of my pleasures when reading is learning something new or unusual (I collect odd factoids the way trash hoarders collect empty soda cups). I truly appreciate writers who extensively research. Some of my finest obsessions (Vikings, forensic science, birds, etc.) spring directly from fiction. Even when my obsessions aren’t triggered, temporary fascination with people, places and things often send me haring off on Google expeditions to learn more about what the writer is talking about.

I’ve often wondered why more writers/publishers don’t indulge such reader impulses with their ebooks?

I had a project recently that did just that. Eye Sleuth, by Hazel Dawkins, and Eye Witness by Hazel Dawkins and Dennis Berry, are mystery novels that feature a sleuth with an unusual occupation–behavioral optometrist–set in visually interesting locations–New York city, coastal England.

The writers wanted a gallery with images of those visually interesting places along with images relating to the sleuth’s occupation. There are also illustrations for the chapter heads. A challenging project, but a lot of fun, too.

SOME TIPS

Manage your image sizes. I have found that using percentages to declare image sizes is a good way to make sure images aren’t cropped on small screens and don’t sprawl on large screens.

images1

One of the sad facts of ereaders is that because of the way they are set up, it’s damned difficult (and impossible for the likes of me) to wrap text and to make sure text stays with an image. Depending on the device, images can be “orphaned” on a screen, which isn’t a good look. Two ways to make sure such occurrences don’t interfere with the text are to (one) give each image its own page; (two) create a gallery with links from the text.

internal linkInternal links in ebooks are easy. I have found that using a div id for the bookmarks reduces the chances of blown formatting. One thing I highly recommend when doing a gallery of images is to insert a link from the image back to the text. Even though ereaders allow a reader to Go Back, sometimes a reader will decide to browse a bit, then suddenly they’ve lost their place. (okay, maybe not all readers, but this reader does) Eliminate that annoyance with a link.

color image1Also, because of how I read–Now where was that cool picture of the whatsit?–I included all the images in the table of contents. It takes some extra time and effort on my part, but it makes navigation and referencing easier for the readers, so that makes it all worth it.

tocIt’s also important to check the quality of images. Black and white photos, crisp and sharp, look fabulous on all ereaders. Color images need to be checked lest what looks okay in color turns to a gray blur on an eink screen.

bw imagesAnother big consideration is overall file size. Amazon charges .15 cents per MB as a delivery fee. You don’t want to eat up your royalty with those fees. Lowering the resolution on images to around 77 to 96 pixels per inch reduces file size a lot without affecting the display too much. Keep track of image sizes and be prepared to trim if necessary.

Illustrating fiction isn’t difficult, but it does require some planning and organization. Put yourself in the reader’s place and consider how the book will be read and how to best use the device features to enhance the experience.

Damn It. ePubbing Is No Place For Purists

I’m a bit of a snob. I admit it. It’s one of my less endearing character flaws. I like to think it’s offset by a mostly open mind. (all the holes in my head have to be good for something, right?)

I’ve been unhappy with Smashword’s Word-only policy and I wasn’t going to use them until they started accepting the EPUB format. Then I read The Business Rush post: No Reader Left Behind. This snagged on one of the holes in my head and haunted me:

I’m not telling  you my sorry saga of writus interruptus so that you’ll pity me. I’m telling you this to explain a perspective of mine that shows up repeatedly in this blog:

Make your books as widely available as possible. Don’t rank one reader above another. Don’t leave any readers behind.

For decades, traditional publishing has ignored readers, looking instead at – hell, I don’t know, because I can’t say the bottom line. If traditional publishing really cared about the bottom line, those publishers would stick with writers whose series are building. But those publishers don’t. They’re off chasing the next bestseller, the next bright new genre, the next—oh! Squirrel!

It took me a while to realize how guilty this made me feel. And stupid. You see, I’ve received letters in the past from readers who couldn’t find my books. Not many, but a few. There wasn’t anything I could do about it except recommend the readers haunt the used book stores because those books had a one-month shelf life and if you didn’t grab them when they were fresh, the possibility existed you might never find them.

And here I am, snobby ebook purist, doing the same damned thing as my former publisher–restricting access to my books.

Damn it.

So this morning I loaded my latest books into Smashwords. With crumbs of crow pie dribbling down my shirt, I publicly state: Kris is right. Why launch into self-publishing as a true indie if I’m just going to make the same stupid decisions as traditional publishing?

Which still doesn’t quash my dissatisfaction with Word. It’s not possible to do the fine-tuning and fancy bits I can do with html. In fact, attempting many of the techniques and touches that are possible with html can clash with Word’s coding and cause bad things to happen during the trip through the Meatgrinder. Even something as simple as using graphics for scenebreaks can cause hiccups and format errors.

Given all that and using the knowledge I’ve gained into how ereading devices work and about html, I knew I couldn’t/shouldn’t format a fancy ebook. I could make one that should render properly for any reader.

  1. CLEAN. Folks, I can’t stress this enough. Your file must be squeaky clean and as free of as much garbage coding as possible. I highly recommend getting a text editor and learning how to use it. Many powerhouse programs are available as free downloads (I use Notepad++) and there is plenty of documentation so even the newest novice can learn how to use them. Copy the file you composed in the word processor of your choice and paste it into a text editor. Root out all your extra spaces and paragraph returns and odd bits and strange characters. At the same time you’ll eliminate extra coding you may have inadvertently introduced during composition. When you import the file back into Word, it’ll be clean and ready to format.
  2. DOUBLE CHECK PUNCTUATION AND SPECIAL CHARACTERS. Nothing separates the pros from the amateurs faster than punctuation. Proper em dashes and ellipses. Standard usage with quote marks. One exclamation point at a time (unless you have an exceptionally good reason for using multiple marks). Make sure any special characters you use will translate (not all do, and if it doesn’t the reader will see a nonsense character or a question mark). If you’re uncertain about proper usage, get a style manual and study it.
  3. WORK WITH DEFAULTS, NOT AGAINST THEM. Every ereading device has default settings and many allow users to “customize” the text with font preferences, margins and line spacing. The less you try to force your preferences for fonts, margins and line-spacing, the better the end result will be. Keep it simple.
  4. USE STYLE SHEETS. Smashwords’ Meatgrinder is set up to work best based on Word’s Normal (for the body text), Heading 1 (for the title page) and Heading 2 (for chapter heads) styles. You can customize those to an extent, but don’t get too carried away. I suggest creating custom style sheets for things like centering text and block paragraphs. Base them on Normal and don’t overuse them.
  5. PREVIEW AND CHECK YOUR WORK. Don’t skip this step. While I don’t 100% trust online previewers such as Calibre, Adobe Previewer and the Kindle Previewer (they do NOT have the same default settings as the actual devices), they are still excellent tools to catch gross errors.

So there you go, my breakfast of crow and a few helpful hints. If and when Smashwords allows EPUB submissions, I’ll go back in and update my books with fancy-pants editions.

**In the meantime, I have some good news/bad news to report. I am now the proud owner of THREE Kindles. That’s the good news. The bad news is, sorry Larry the Kindle (keyboard) you’ve been upstaged and displaced by Lucy Light the Paperwhite. For one thing, it’s smaller and lighter. And that light! Wow. All the easy-on-the-eyes advantages of eink and no external reading light that eats batteries the way I eat M&Ms. Plus, the touch screen has a bit of “drag” so it’s not nearly as sensitive as the Fire. That’s a big plus especially since my cat likes to let me know he’s there (as if twenty pounds of cat on my lap isn’t enough of an indication) by reaching around the Fire and giving it a tap with his paw. Now all I need is another cover to protect it when I haul it around in my purse (or leave it on the desk where the cats like to perch on it). I’m looking for something with zebra stripes.

Boast Post: A New Way To Make Ebooks

A new way for me anyway. Not long ago I got my hands on Paul Salvette’s book, The eBook Design and Development Guide (link in the sidebar). I talked it up because it explained in plain English (mostly) the hows and whys of building a better ebook. Even though it intimidated me, I knew I had to try his method.

Well…

(Pardon my not using screenshots. I haven’t figured out how to capture screenshots off the Kindle Fire yet. The instructions I’ve seen require a little more… Anyhow.)

As per my usual knuckleheadtude, I picked for my maiden voyage a three-book omnibus. Go bold or go home, right? By the time I figured out I should have chosen an easier project, it was too late and I had no choice except to keep going forward.

This method is NOT for beginners. You need at least some experience with html and text editors. If, however, you are like me, knowing just enough to be dangerous and curious about how ebooks and ereading devices work, going through the steps to build an ebook this way will teach you plenty. I now have a much better understanding about what happens to files when they go through conversion and why some things work better than others and why some things fail.

The biggest difference between what I was doing before and what I did with this book is that before I was formatting the ebook and producing files that could be read on ereaders, but they were not complete ebooks. To make them complete they had to be run through a conversion program. What was missing on my end was a navigation guide and a toc.ncx. Ebooks, I’ve learned, have two tables of contents. The one the formatter creates while formatting and the toc.ncx which is the internal table of contents which is generated during conversion. Conversion also produces a navigation guide which is what makes, for instance, jumping from chapter to chapter possible. Why are there two tables of contents? I do not know. All I know is, I didn’t know how to make them before and I left it up to the conversion programs to do it for me. With this new (to me) method, I built my own navigation guide and toc.ncx. Now, if someone asks me to format a book that they intend to sell on their own site rather than through a distributor, I know how to do it.

What I appreciate most about Paul’s guide (other than being written in language I could understand or figure out–which often takes staring at the screen until, like magic-dot pictures, the answer slowly appears) is that he takes the time to explain what is happening and how things can go right or wrong depending upon which device the book will be read on. That’s valuable information, especially for a non-programmer. I spend a lot of time over on the w3schools.com site seeking answers to my problems, but what’s over there is geared for programmers and people who have skills and experiences that are foreign territory for me. Which means I do a lot of, “hmn, let’s try this and see what happens,” and sometimes I get the desired results and sometimes I don’t. When I can’t get the results I want, it’s a bear figuring out why. I also learned I’ve been making some parts of my formatting tasks overly complicated and much too hard.

As a bonus, on his website, BB eBooks, Paul has an area for developers with templates and guides. It’s a terrific resource.

If you’re like me, you know how to format an ebook, know some html, are comfortable working in a text editor and now you’re ready to kick it up a notch, the guide will take you through the process step-by-step. I recommend you read the entire book first so you get the overall picture of what it is you’re about to attempt. I took a lot of notes and used my whiteboard to help me keep track of such things as bookmarking navigation points and naming files. Since this method involves splitting up the main file into many smaller files, you will need to find a solid, simple way to name the files and keep track of them.

One area where I had serious trouble was in making the zip file. I could not get the recommended program to synch with my computer. That’s not the guide’s fault (I need to get my son over here to figure out why my computer disallows changing directories). So I cheated and copied my files into a .zip folder then changed the .zip designation to .epub. I don’t know if you’re supposed to do that, but it worked. I’m not comfortable with it because my computer sends me nasty grams when I do, but it did work.

Because I was building a book for the Kindle, I had to disregard some of the advice about line spacing. In the most recent update that Amazon did for Kindle devices, they changed the default font and apparently the line spacing and paragraph spacing defaults, too. I’ve noticed in some of the recent stories I’ve downloaded the text appears double-spaced and changing the line spacing on my Kindle takes it down, at the most, to a space and a half between lines. Plus, where before some extra leading between paragraphs made them look better, now the extra leading puts a noticeable gap between paragraphs. I don’t think that is happening on Nooks or other EPUB readers. It didn’t appear to be a problem on Calibre. So pay attention to line spacing when you’re building a book for the Kindle. Things have changed.

I also refrained from reducing the font size anywhere in the book because I don’t know if Amazon fixed the bug that squishes the font in older Kindles. Until I’m sure of that, no font reductions for Kindle.

Some of the touches I did for this book included moving the copyright page and table of contents to the back of the book so potential buyers can get a larger sample. Plus, because it’s a three-book omnibus, I placed a header at the beginning of each chapter with the title of individual book. Just to keep readers reminded of which book they are reading.

I love the way the book turned out. Despite being intimidated by the process, I learned some skills, gained a whole lot of understanding and ended up with a very nice looking ebook that is easy for readers to navigate. (I also learned some new cuss words, but I won’t go into that…)

Thank you, Paul.

If you want to check out my latest masterpiece, and some pretty good stories, too, it’s available now on Amazon.

 

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.

Clarifying Source Files: How To Use Them

I’ve done a lot of talking about source files, and inadvertently confused some folks. I don’t mean to muddy issues–it just happens. So I made a chart! (Aren’t you glad you stopped by?)

The SOURCE FILE is just that. The source from which everything else springs. You don’t format it (beyond what is necessary for YOU to comfortably compose) because you DO NOT NEED TO. Essentially, while composing original works the more you act as if your word processor is a typewriter (except for tabs–no tabs!), the cleaner it will be and the easier it will be for you or someone else to format it for a specific use.

Once you have a Source File, you MAKE COPIES of it in order to format it for a specific purpose.

Let’s say you’re sending a manuscript to XYZ Publishing House. You need a printed document. You open the source file and do a Save As to make a copy. In that copy you will insert a cover page, header, page numbering, and adjust the margins and font according to the publisher’s guidelines. The source file remains intact, unchanged.

You want to self-publish your novel. You open the source file and do a Save As to make a copy. You can send that copy to a hired formatter and let them take it from there. You can format a .doc file in Word according to the distributor guidelines. You can hand code the copy in html. The source file remains intact.

I didn’t include every single way to format a file, but you get the picture, right? Let’s say you published your ebook. A reviewer would like a pdf file. You do a Save As, make a copy and format a pdf. You want to make an electronic submission? Do a Save As, add your address block, maybe change the font and line spacing, and you will submit a nice clean file that agents and editors can easily read on almost any computer or device.

If you look at my chart and think this is terribly complicated and I’m trying to make extra work for people, you are wrong. When it comes to digital files, there is no One-Size-Fits-All format. If you get in the habit of creating your original files in a no-frills, minimally formatted style it will save you work, save you time, and save you headaches.

I hope this clarifies things.

 

What Do Your Chapter Heads Say?

So I’ve been formatting quite a few non-fiction ebooks here lately, and it occurs to me that non-fiction books are doing a lot better with chapter heads than the majority of fiction books do. By that I mean, non-fiction chapter heads tend to give a clue as to what the chapter is about (CHAPTER THREE: The History of Pumpernickel). I just spent a few minutes going through 20 or so non-fiction books within reach of my desk and every single one of them did that. Many dispensed with “CHAPTER” all together and just gave a small description line. Not so with the fiction. I just went through 17 novels (gawd, but I need to clean off my desk!) and found only one that gave descriptors, while the rest did “CHAPTER #” or more often, just a number.

WARNING: I am obsessanting again and this isn’t a life-changing subject, so if you’d rather read about something else, go here and ponder the whimsical nature of the Universe.

The funny thing is, in print I always found the lines and quotes and descriptors in the chapter heads of novels a bit of an affectation. Maybe because they struck me as clutter or maybe it was because they weren’t done particularly well. I dunno. Now that I have Larry the Kindle never far from my side, I find myself growing rather annoyed by CHAPTER # or worse, just a number. Which sends me down a bunny trail of wondering what’s the point of even having chapters or why we ever started breaking up novels into chapters in the first place.

But it does tie into one of my many little obsessions–navigation in ebooks. Because of the way I am, the way I keep track of things, I’m very dependent on visual clues when I read. I might forget the title of a book, but I will remember it has a red cover or it’s thick or thin. If I want to find an especially poignant or funny quote, I won’t recall the page number, but I’ll remember it was near the back or the front of the book and near the end of the chapter or something like that, so I can pick up a book and thumb through a few pages and find what I was looking for. That’s in print books. My Kindle doesn’t give me those visual prompts. If I happen to forget to bookmark a passage as I am reading, I have a devil of a time finding it again. Without the visual prompts of covers, I sometimes have trouble remembering which book it is–it’s a quirk in my memory, but I am terrible with titles and author names. (another quirk, I can remember fictional character names much better than the names of real people)

(If anything ever forces me to break down and get a tablet or some such nonsense, it will be that one feature of having colorful book covers on a virtual shelf. I love my eink reader, but lists of titles just don’t do it for me. le sigh…)

Given my own experience and how I do things, I’m always looking for ways to make ebooks more memorable on a visual level and make them easier to navigate. I’ve thought of this before, mulled over it, decided at one point it didn’t make much difference, but now I’m coming back around again. I remember a lot of books from my childhood that had descriptors (What are those called anyway? Chapter leads? Chapter titles?)–“In which our intrepid hero teases the bear…”–and they served as little memory prompts when I wanted to go back and reread a passage or read it aloud to someone else. Given how very easy it is to include such material in an ebook–both at the chapter location and in the table of contents–I have to ask, why not do it? Sure, it takes some time and thought to come up with the four to ten words necessary for a clever line, it might be worthwhile and it’s relatively painless and it certainly couldn’t hurt.