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.

 

 

Buh-Bye, 2013–Howdy to the New Year

2013 was a helluva year. Lots of personal drama. Evacuated because of a fire, followed by months of malaise from the smoke because the entire state of Colorado was on fire. Massive rains and subsequent flooding that destroyed my basement. Far too many days spent at the hospital with my children and grandbaby. One thing after another and wondering, oh god, what’s next?

QuinnSeatBut 2013 was an amazing year, too. The Amazing Poop Machine is happy, healthy and growing fast. Everyone is healthy now. I got a promotion–Larry Block has dubbed me The Production Goddess. (I’m practicing how to work that into casual conversation.) I worked with some incredible writers this year: Thomas Pluck, Randall Wood, Jerrold Mundis, Julia R. Barrett, Robert Silverberg, Katherine O’Neal, William Arnold, Sharon Reamer, Carole Nomarhas, Chuck Dixon, Steven Ramirez, Penny Watson, Marina Bridges, and far too many others to list. (Heh. I always wanted a job where I am paid to read, and now I have it and it’s the best job ever!)

Burglar_Limited-XmasI took part in a project that tops my Best Of list for all time. Lawrence Block’s new novel, The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, which he decided to self publish. From the first read of the manuscript to receiving the gorgeous hardcover limited edition in the mail, it was The Dream Job. I ended up producing four editions, including a print-on-demand Large Print edition. (You can find the ebook and trade paperback here and the special limited edition here.)

The best part of the year was learning new skills. I’ve learned tons and tons about ebook covers. (And bless you brave folks who have allowed me to do my on-the-job-training with your books!)

Cover montageI’ve learned to format fiction for CreateSpace print-on-demand editions. It’s way different than ebooks and a lot trickier, but it’s well worth the effort. (Pay no heed to the bald spots where I ripped out my hair in frustration. Heh.) At the risk of annoying the Hubris Gods, my book designs are pretty darned good.

pod montageIn the coming year, I’ll be stretching way beyond ebooks. I want to do concierge publishing for writers who’ve reclaimed their back lists and need to bring them back to life. I’d like to offer troubleshooting and production consulting for do-it-yourselfers. I can even do graphics for ebooks–wouldn’t your ebook look delicious with something fun like this for your chapter heads and title page?

titleSo buh-bye and sweet dreams to you, 2013. 2014 is here and it’s going to be a good one. I can feel it! And as a very special treat for all you writers out there, here it is, hot off the production line, available at CreateSpace, and soon available at Amazon and LB’s Book Store, the brand new print edition of Write For Your Life: The Home Seminar for Writers.

wfyl blog

Cover Fun: A Series/Brand Look

I just finished up a fun little project. The ever irrepressible Larry Block decided to put up eight more of his short stories as singles on Amazon. Cool. Doing the interiors was a snap. The real fun came from doing the ebook covers.

blockmontageI don’t know about the rest of you, but I love how they turned out. My intent from the beginning was to make a distinctive series look, for the author name to be prominent, and for the tone to say ‘retro but fresh.’

Mondrian_CompRYBMy inspiration came from Mondrian, a Dutch painter. Not only is his style distinctive and appealing, Mondrian is also featured in a Block novel, The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian, which I real several years ago and loved, and is also mentioned in LB’s latest, The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons. So Mondrian was on my mind and when it came time to come up with a concept for the covers, off to Google I did go and spent about an hour pondering why lines and blocks of primary colors are so compelling.

Now, I’m not an artist and I’m not trained in the graphic arts. But I do love playing with my favorite graphics program–Paint.net–and I have learned over time to:

  • Keep it simple
  • Find a focus and stick to it
  • Identity

By identity I mean that the most effective ebook covers identify either the author or the genre, and sometimes both. LB is well known, so his name has clout, which basically means that his name is going to have far more effect on a shopper’s decision making than would any image. If he were not so well known, I would have put the emphasis on genre. Seriously, that is the biggest flaw I see in ebook covers–there is no clue as to what kind of book it is. Or the clues are too subtle or misleading. Online shoppers are swift beasties. You have only seconds to convince them you’re selling what they are looking for.

For really good advice on designing ebook covers, hop over to Joel Friedlander’s blog–the bookdesigner.com–and especially pay attention to the monthly cover awards. Merely looking at the cover awards will imbue you with tons of information.

The best advice of all, though, came not from a cover designer or a graphic artist, but from one of my favorite TV shows, What Not To Wear. It’s on Netflix if you want to catch it. Stacy and Clinton tell this to people who are baffled by style and putting outfits together. They say, find one element you absolutely love and build around it. Can’t go wrong with that.

How It’s Done: Work Flow in Indie Book Production

A few days ago I wrote a post assuring writers that book production is hard work, but it’s not unmanageable or even difficult. It just so happens that I am almost finished with a HUGE project and for those writers still on the fence about whether to take the plunge into self-publishing, it might prove educational to see the actual steps I took in producing a title.

(Book production is just one facet of the publishing process. There is writing the book, which I suspect most of you already know how to do. There is selling the book, which is what happens out there in the world. I’m only going to talk about the work flow of actual production.)

Step #1: Editorial

With this project, the writer had access to experienced first readers. Their impressions and comments helped him fix any inconsistencies or problems with plot or characters. Then it was time for copy editing. My turn.

TIP: Every publishing entity has an “in-house style” to cover punctuation, preferred spelling and formatting. I suggest indie writers develop their own in-house style guide. Settle on a style manual and a dictionary. It will help immensely when you deal with copy-editors and proofreaders, plus it will make your entire body of work consistent.

As a freelance copy editor, my client is the writer, not the “house.” That means every change is highlighted (even inserting a missing period) and must be approved or declined by the writer. The writer is The Boss.

TIP: If you are going to turn your manuscript into an ebook, I suggest you find an alternative to Track Changes in Word. Track Changes inserts nasty coding into the file and it’s a bear to remove.

Now the manuscript is ready for production.

Step #2: The Interior

I have a fairly specific work flow I use for any book production project. It looks like a lot of steps, but it’s actually pretty efficient. I’ll break it down for you:

  • Make a copy of the original document and open in Word (for this I use my ancient version, less garbage to deal with)
  • Tag all special formatting, tag the scene breaks (if they aren’t already) and tag any text that require special styling (poetry, letters, section heads, etc.)
  • Copy/Paste the document into a text editor.(I use Notepad++, powerful freeware that is simple to use and makes ebook formatting a breeze.)
  • Prep the text: remove extra spaces and blank lines, turn quote marks and apostrophes the right direction, deal with reserved characters, etc.
  • Make the graphical elements (in this case, chapter heads and a scene break indicator)
  • Style the text for a MOBI format. (Since I have Kindles, I usually do the MOBI format first.)
  • Load the ebook onto a Kindle and proofread.

TIP: Do not ever skip proofreading. 99% of the goofs I see in ebooks could have been caught and fixed if the publisher had proofread the ebook. If you do not own an ereading device, then download the Kindle Previewer or Calibre or Adobe Digital Editions and proofread it on your computer.

  • Compile the proofed text into a new file. (This book will be an Amazon exclusive, but if it weren’t, I would use the proofed text to make the EPUB and Smashwords formats)
  • Use the squeaky clean text to format the trade paperback. This will be printed by Createspace. You can find their requirements for the book interior here.
  • Send the pdf of the print layout to the writer for another proofread. (In this case, the writer wanted another set of eyes, so we brought in another proofreader–it’s what the trad pubs do, or are supposed to do anyway.)
  • Make corrections to the print format AND in the ebook file.

TIP: Get in the habit of making a copy of your file for every step in the process. That way if disaster happens (computer crash, power surge, forget to save, whatever) you only have to take one step back to recover your work.

  • Use the proofed text to format the hardcover version (essentially the same as the trade edition, but with some extra details)

Step #3: The Cover

This project required three versions of the cover because there are three editions: digital, trade paperback, and hardcover. I handled the ebook cover, my partner Jayne did the paperback cover, and the hardcover will be a partnership between me, the writer and the printer (it’s complicated).

TIP: Whether you hire a cover designer or do it yourself, before you make any decisions go to Joel Friedlander’s blog and study the monthly cover awards. Just by looking at the successes and failures you will absorb many of the guiding principles behind making an effective cover.

The writer commissioned the cover art from the artist who had done the cover art for several previous books in the same series. (Emanuel Schongut, he’s incredible). I used a freeware program called Paint.net to make the ebook cover. I went shopping for the perfect font and decided I needed two. One I purchased at fonts.com (very reasonable, less than twenty bucks) and I found one for free at dafont.com.

TIP: If you are doing your cover yourself and need art, Google “stock images” and you’ll come up with hundreds of sites that sell (or give away for free) just about any image you can envision. There are also artists who offer stock covers you can purchase and then you either hire the designer to do the typography or do it yourself.

coverThe trade paperback cover was a little trickier. Paint.net is a powerful program, but Adobe Photoshop is way more powerful and it can do some tricky tricks either I can’t do or haven’t figured out how to do. So the job was passed to Jayne. That edition will be printed through CreateSpace. You can find their cover dimensions requirements here. You’ll need to know how many pages your finished book will be and what size book you want. CreateSpace has templates you can use for the layout.

TIP: When doing an ebook, you’ll need the cover first. If the cover isn’t ready, you can make a placeholder to serve while you convert and proofread the ebook. When the cover is ready, just replace the placeholder with the real cover.

The hardcover edition cover is a little different. It’s a special limited edition and the cover will be really fancy. Essentially I’ll be making plates for the printer. Most indies won’t have to worry about this step. If you do, talk to your printer about what you need to do.

So that’s it. Is it a lot of hard work? Why, yes, indeed it is. But broken down into steps, it is quite manageable. Even with editing, proofreading and waiting for cover art, this project has only taken about a month. Instead of having to wait twelve to fifteen months for a trad publisher to dribble out editions (which I guarantee wouldn’t be better than what our team has produced, and in the case of the ebook would be worse), this book is now available for pre-order on Amazon (ebook and trade paperback) and will be released for Christmas this year.

Whether you are doing a huge production like this one or just making an ebook, the steps are pretty much the same: Editing, Interior Format, Cover. Break the big steps into smaller steps and you have a project that’s manageable.

_______________________________

If you happen to be curious as to why best-selling, multi-published writer, Lawrence Block decided to self-publish his brand new novel in his most popular series, you can read about here.

A Case For Graphical Elements and Ornaments in Ebooks

LB coverI finished up two big projects yesterday. Not just word count big (100k and 160k), but big in the sense that the authors are NYT best sellers and award winners, and so their ebooks better look GOOD. (Granted, making an ebook look better than offerings being released by the BPHs isn’t hard. They’ve set the bar pretty low.) I also pulled double-duty as art director, and did the ebook covers and interior graphics.

CG Cover(To all you cover designers out there, a big salute. That shit is hard!)

This leads me to today’s topic, which involves a big fat WHY? Why spend so much time designing interiors and creating graphics and ornaments when the words are the star of the show and who cares what it looks like anyway, right? (And yes, I do admit that in the past I have gotten carried away just because I really like the fancy bits and love playing with Paint.net, but I’m over that now. Honest.)

LB 1It boils down to the fact that humans are visual creatures. We tend to pass judgment based on appearances. There is a reason mass market paperbacks are considered pulpy and cheap while the exact same text in hardcover is considered important. Trade paperbacks fall in between and tend to be better designed and much better looking than mass market editions. “I’m important, but reasonably priced.” The packaging sends a powerful message to the reader and influences their reading experience before they even begin to read.

CG 2I pay attention to my reading experiences with ebooks, trying to pinpoint exactly what influences me and why. Here is a short list:

  • Covers lose their impact and influence after I buy the book. While the covers display on my Paperwhite and Kindle Fire, when I actually open the book the cover becomes a non-issue just because it’s not handy in the way a print book cover is.
  • Well-designed and visually interesting title pages and section beginnings shut off my inner-editor.
  • Good design increases my confidence in the prose. It also makes me more forgiving. If I find a typo my tendency is to just pass it off as a mistake instead of thinking the writer and/or producer is a slob who can’t be trusted.
  • Ornaments and illustrations give me a little lift. If I’m in a bad mood, it’s harder to enjoy a story.
  • Good design and graphical elements make an ebook stand out from the pack and hence, make it more memorable. I’m more likely to remember the author’s name and book title.

LB 2Does all this mean that every ebook requires graphical elements and ornaments? No. If the producer pays proper attention to overall layout–use of white/negative space, paragraph indents, first line treatments, navigation and front/back matter–they can create a professional looking and reader-pleasing ebook. My suggestion, examine better quality mass market paperbacks. Study those that appeal to you and emulate their design. The less-is-more camp can generate a beautiful product.CG 1

In fact a book I did recently had minimal design elements (visible elements, anyway). For this project the writer wanted it very simple, sleek and clean. I used only one simple ornament on each chapter head just to add some visual interest and make the chapter titles stand out from the text.

CD 1

I wish I'd done this cover. Derek Murphy is the star here.

I wish I’d done this cover. Derek Murphy is the star here.

As always, go for functionality first.

  • Test your graphics at different sizes because you don’t know what size screen the reader will be using.
  • Don’t be afraid of color. Colors render beautifully on tablets and other color readers. Sometimes just a spot or a dot of brightness can take an ebook from blah to wowza!
  • Test your colors to see how well they render in grayscale. (In Paint.net I can view the images in black and white and that gives me a good idea how they will render on a non-color ereader.)
  • Fonts are a wonderful design element. You can find hundreds to use for free at such sites as dafont.com and fontsquirrel.com.*
  • For good ideas, study expensive hardcovers. A lot of skill and artistry go into their design. Examine the balance and tone of the design elements and how the most effective designs enhance the reading experience.

So go forth and experiment. If you come up with something very cool, send me a link so I can see what you’ve done.

* I am so NOT a fan of embedded fonts in ebooks. They add a lot of bloat to the file size for what I consider very little benefit. Plus, they don’t always render properly, especially on older ereaders. If you do want to embed fonts, do your research, read and heed the font developer’s licensing agreement, and test test test to make sure it works.

 

 

Making Your Own ARC (advance reading copy)

Confession time: I suck at self-promotion.

Even sticking those book covers on my own blog makes me feel weird. Buy my book? (my neuroses are screaming!)

I’m not anti-self-promotion. In fact, in the last six months or so I’d say that just about every one of the books I’ve purchased has been a result of the self-promotional efforts of others. And if I read a book I really like, I will tweet it, talk about it, shove it into peoples’ hands. But talk about my own writing? Ah geez, let’s not go there…

Here is what I am good at. Somebody sez, “Hey, Jaye, do you think you can…?” If the idea intrigues me, I will figure out how to do it. (Then I won’t shut up about it. Heh.)

I just finished building an ARC for Lawrence Block’s soon-to-be released Hit Me, a Keller novel. I’d never made an ARC before, but I’m quite familiar with them. Back in the Dark Ages (the 1990s) I called them “green books.” Publishers would wrap galley proofs in plain covers (often institutional green and stamped NOT FOR RESALE) and send them out to reviewers and anyone else who might help promote the book. I have no idea how many publishers provide actual bound, printed ARCs these days. It’s very expensive. Even if an indie publisher is using print-on-demand, the cost of mailing out printed copies could eat up all the profits. The thing is, ARCs work. The big publishers knew it back in the old days and indie publishers know it now. So I’m not telling anybody anything new when I claim ARCs are a valuable tool.

What may be new is that some of you might not realize that you can make your own professional-looking, easily accessible ARCs. It doesn’t have to cost you anything except time and paying attention to details.

Professional looking is important. Very important. The reviewers on your list get a lot of submissions and have to pick and choose which books to read and review. That decision might come down to picking a book based on presentation. Yours might be the next Great American Novel, but if it looks amateurish or painful-on-the-eyes to read it might be passed over.

Also important is accessibility. The biggest trouble with any kind of electronic submission is you’re never quite sure what kind of device your writing will be read on. A Kindle, Nook, iPad, smart phone, tablet, computer–what? I suppose you could send an email to your list and ask people what their preferred reading format/platform is and then customize your submissions. Or send a .doc or .docx file and hope for the best.

Or make it very easy on yourself and your intended readers by creating a pdf file. For those who don’t know, the acronym stands for “Portable Document Format.” The keyword here is “Portable.” Even if you’ve never made a pdf file, I know you’ve read them. You’ve probably read them on not just your computer, but on your ereader, smart phone, iPad, tablet or magic toaster oven. What you may not know is that many word processing/desktop publishing programs can generate a pdf file. If your particular word processor doesn’t have that capability, you can use Adobe Acrobat Reader (free download) to generate a pdf. The true beauty of the pdf is that every reviewer on your emailing list will be able to access and read your file.

Here’s how the ARC looks when I ran it through MobiPocket and downloaded it onto my Kindle:

Looks nice, eh?

I used Scrivener to build and generate the pdf file for this ARC. Scrivener is NOT a desktop publishing program, so it’s not the first choice if one were laying out a for-print book. It does, however, make excellent pdf files and is user-friendly.

Some tips for making your ARC:

  • Clean Source File. I keep hammering home the necessity of creating clean source files. If you have a clean source file, all you need to do is copy it and paste it into the program of choice and you are ready to format.
  • Turn on the “show hidden characters” feature. You want to track what you are doing so as to maintain consistency throughout. (In many programs the “Show” feature is usually in the main menu bar and is indicated by an icon with a pilcrow–paragraph mark. If you are using Scrivener, go to FORMAT >OPTIONS >SHOW INVISIBLES)
  • Wide margins, large font. Your goal is not to be all fancy-pants, it’s to make your ARC attractive and easy to read. Since paper-printing costs aren’t part of the equation, take advantage of it. Don’t annoy reviewers with a teeny-tiny font and pinstripe margins.
  • Use “printer’s” punctuation. Make sure you use proper em and en dashes, joined ellipses, right and left single and double quote marks (as opposed to straight quotes), and special characters with grave and acute marks or umlauts as necessary. This detail alone will elevate your ARC above the crowd.

That’s pretty much it. Pay attention to details and put in the time, and you’ve just made one of the best promotional tools any writer can ask for.

 

Easy Peasy, Make A Simple Index For Your Ebook

One of my earliest efforts at making ebooks was Ehrengraf for the Defense, Lawrence Block’s collection of Martin H. Ehrengraf short stories. It’s also the ebook that set me on the path to learning html. I built the original ebook in Scrivener. While it turned out great and I was very proud of it, it encountered a rather nasty bug that affected older Kindles. It makes the font teeny-tiny and forces users to greatly increase the size of the font in order to read it. It’s not a fatal bug, but a bug nonetheless.**

So ta-da! Ehrengraf for the Defense, New and Improved!

As long as I was rebuilding the file in html, I decided to stick a little something extra in it. Martin Ehrengraf loves poetry and often quotes it. Each of the eleven stories is preceded by a snippet of poetry, too. In the older version I put the poem snippets and poets in the table of contents. In this version I decided it would be tidier to make an index.

Basically, it’s a table of contents. Click on an entry and it takes the user to the quoted poetry.

The only difference between this and a table of contents is that a ToC is listed in order and this index is alphabetized. I also included a few double-entries for the instances of multiple poems by the same poet.

One important thing for Kindle formats (and thank you Paul Salvette for the head’s up about this) is to make sure you use the “div id=” tag as opposed to “a name=” tag. I enclosed the entire quote with “div” and “/div”. This ensures that when the user clicks through to a poem it doesn’t blow out my formatting. What it looks like is this (with extra spaces to keep from triggering wordpress’s helpfulness):

< div id=”parker” >”Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses”
–Dorothy Parker< /div >

Then the index entry would look like:

< a href=”#parker” >Dorothy Parker< /a >

This is very easy to do. The most difficult part is finding and keeping track of the entries. Because I used a special class for the poetry quotes, I did a search for the class name then used my analog word processor (a pencil and notebook) to list items as I found them. A quick task with so few entries. For something more complicated, such as a glossary of terms, I’d have the author tag the terms or passages to be indexed in the source file (by bolding the text, perhaps) then search for the bolding (or other tag) throughout the file, ID the entries, then copy/paste the items with their identifiers into a program that lets me automatically alphabetize the entries. That way I could double-check to make sure each identifier is unique  and make sure the entire list is properly alphabetized.

Easy-peasy.

** Scrivener users. The Kindle bug that makes tiny fonts in older devices is triggered if you use fonts smaller than the default. Make sure your font default size is 12pt throughout the entire file. It doesn’t appear to make any difference if you increase the font size for headers or whatever. Also, when you compile your file for Amazon do NOT compile a Word file. Amazon will allow you to upload a Word file and will convert it with seemingly no problems, but it can cause the font to “lock” and not allow the user to control their font preferences. Compile your files into mobi files. This means you will have to download KindleGen into your computer, but it’s free and easy and it will ensure that your ebook renders properly on various Kindle devices.

What’s Inside DOES Matter.

Poking my head out of the gopher hole…

You know what really bugs me about some retail establishments and service providers? It’s that attitude of, “We’ve got your money, so screw ya.” Suddenly your problems are no longer their problems and they really couldn’t care less what you think of their product or their service. If you’ve ever dealt with a nightmare disguised as “customer service” then you know exactly what I mean. Had any problems with your cable provider, lately? Hmn? What makes it doubly frustrating is that many of the worst offenders (I’m not naming names, now am I, Directv?) go above and beyond to lure in new customers. Huge advertising campaigns, promises to the moon and back, special promotions, the whole deal. But you know what? It’s gotten to the point where I am super suspicious of those massive campaigns. I’m finally getting a clue that companies that care so much about the people who aren’t buying are the same companies that really don’t care about their current customers. Companies and products with positive word-of-mouth and solid reputations don’t need massive campaigns.

Which brings us to ebooks. Of course. If you’re a regular reader you know I am ambivalent about promotional efforts. I’m also not all that impressed with the time, effort and energy indie writers put into covers. Yeah, yeah, I know books require some promotion (I just have no idea what actually works or why it works when it does–too many factors) and I also know covers are important. To some people. They aren’t to me. Not with ebooks. The reason why is that after I buy an ebook, there is only about a 2% chance I’ll ever see the cover again. Usually the only reason is because I really like the book and want to check the title and author name. While I have purchased a few print books because of their covers–not very many, but a few–that is not the case at all with ebooks. I have zero interest in those thumbnails on Amazon. Except for a very few samples, I couldn’t tell you what the covers look like for any of the hundreds of ebooks currently on my Kindle.

But I will tell you this. There are many ebooks on my Kindle where the writer or publisher had put a hell of a lot of effort into the cover and the promo, and barely any effort at all into my reading experience. I’m not talking about bad stories or even bad editing. I’m talking about the production values. I’m talking about ebooks that offer the reading equivalent of typewritten script on newsprint. Just words with no thought given to the aesthetics of the “page” or the organization or even to reminding me what I’m reading. This lack of concern over my comfort doesn’t make them bad books–it’s make them forgettable. It makes what I’m reading seem cheap and unimportant.

Think about that.

I’ve discussed in previous posts how readers are reading differently on ereaders. They’re reading more closely and they’re more sensitive to errors and goofs. The best I can account for it is that an ereader, such as the Kindle, offers no distractions–not even the faint rustle of a turning page. This can work for or against the writer. Without distractions, readers can read faster, so they buy more books. That’s good. Without something memorable to make your book stand out, it could be forgotten–just another story–when it comes time for the reader to buy something else. That’s bad.

I bring this up (again, and no, not just because I’m the Obsessanator) but because I’m working on an interesting project. I had some problems with Scrivener (by the way, it’s a simple problem to fix, so anybody who is using Scrivener to create ebooks, carry on) and figured I should break down and learn HTML. For those of you comfortable with computers and programming, you’re thinking no big deal. Well, for me, it is a big deal because I do not like machines and the whole idea of them having a “language” kind of creeps me out. In my quest to create beautiful ebooks, however, I buckled down to it. I reformatted some of my short stories, then did a few others, then did an ebook for Julia Barrett, which turned out very nicely. It was actually too easy and I wanted to learn more. (I’m hands on–doesn’t do any good to tell me how to do something. You have to dump a pile of material in my lap and point at a finished product and say, ‘Make it look like that.’) So I sez to my friend, Larry, “I need a challenge. Got anything?”

He sent me a scanned document for a book that contains a screenplay, an interview, and narrative text. Well, I asked for a challenge, and he came through with flying colors. Not only was the scan a big old mess that had to be cleaned up, but I had to figure out how to create the illusion of a screenplay. I wanted to learn some HTML and I learned. A lot. Then to sweeten the pot Larry handed me a bunch more scanned files. These aren’t fiction where the biggest concerns are graphics and pretty touches. These are non-fiction (sort of) filled with case studies and interviews and numbered lists. Challenges. Through it all, the biggest question I’m asking myself is: How to make it look good to the reader and make for a pleasing reading experience? How do I organize the text with visual clues to help the reader keep his/her place and not get lost in the transitions? Print books have certain advantages that ebooks do not. Print can make good use of white space, for example. Large blocks of italics, depending on the font, can look good. With a printed page, the designer controls the right margin and justification (or should). Too much ‘white’ space on a Kindle can look like a mistake. Big blocks of italics are difficult to read. The device controls the right margin and justification, not the designer. What I do have at my disposal are block quotes, hanging first lines, line breaks and a few other tricky tricks. I’ve been spending a lot of time over on w3schools.com to find character codes and figure out how to execute certain commands. Then I try things out, make an ebook, and see how it looks. Sometimes it looks fine, other times it looks like crap, so back to the drawing board. (Notepad++, actually, which is a lot of fun even though I have barely a clue as to what it’s talking about half the time–okay, three-quarters of the time–but fearlessly (or stupidly)I go clicking through anyway.)

It’s a lot of work and I’m still in the relatively slow stage (although, being the queen of Find/Replace does hasten the process quite a bit) but it’s worth it. Yes. It is worth every minute at the computer, every cuss word and crossed eye and “Oh no!” It’s worth it not just because the words matter, but because the readers–our customers–matter. Their comfort, their pleasure, their experience. I want readers to see that I care about them. Not just their dollars, but them. In return, I want them to know that I care very deeply about the books I produce. I want it to show on the screen. I want the ebooks to look important and worthy of respect. Respect=Respect, folks, gotta give it to get it.

I would love to see more ebook producers–indie and traditional–expend at least as much effort in making the actual ebooks look good as they do in producing covers. Honestly, if you’re willing to drop $300 on the perfect cover, but then do a crap layout in Word and publishing the ebook consists of clicking a button and hoping for the best, I have to question where your priorities lie. Don’t be one of those entities that devotes all your time and energy to luring new suckers, er, buyers, then forgets about them as soon as you have their money in your hands.

If you’re interested in seeing what I came up with with the screenplay, interview and narrative, be warned–ADULTS ONLY. The book is about the making of a porn movie. It’s funny and touching and wise, but also pretty dirty. So don’t say I didn’t warn you.

For those who are delving into HTML for their ebooks, a nifty little trick I learned for putting paragraph returns into the Word document before transferring it into Notepad++.

FIND box type ^p
REPLACE box type </p>^p<p>
Do a REPLACE ALL.

Voila! The only command you have to put in manually is at the very beginning of the document. (if you already knew this, meaning I am the very last person to figure it out, pfft, it’s still a nifty trick)

Producing A Kindle Ebook: Design Choices

When Lawrence Block told me he had written a brand new short story about Martin H. Ehrengraf (The Ehrengraf Settlement) and he wanted to produce a collection with all eleven Ehrengraf stories, I was excited. Not just because there is a new story, but because I had ideas.

Here’s the thing. Lawrence Block is an important writer. No matter the format in which his writing is featured–hard cover, paperback, magazine, ebook–the medium should reflect the quality of the writing. I’ve called the Kindle ebooks print books’ “ugly cousins” because of the gray scale screen, uniform page layout, limited typography and the producer’s inability to control the amount of text readers see on the screen. In an earlier post I mulled over why readers seem to be reading differently on the Kindle and in another why some people don’t think of ebooks as “actual” books. Because of that mulling and thanks to insightful readers, I began to think that maybe “ugly cousin” was wrong, but that instead we’re dealing with an “ugly duckling” and there are swans awaiting to be born.

To turn this ebook into a swan, I had two goals:

  • Reader friendly
  • Make it look worthy of the material

To make the ebook reader-friendly, I tackled it on two fronts. The first was with the source files. That required squeaky clean files with no extra spaces or hidden codes. This isn’t rocket science, but it requires paying attention to details such as uniform punctuation. I produced clean source files which I then loaded into Scrivener for formatting.

The second front was in arrangement. Mr. Block wrote these stories in order, so it made perfect sense to put them in the order they were written. Since his fans also enjoy his forewords, introductions and afterwords, it also made sense to include those in the book. Because the main character, Martin H. Ehrengraf, is enamored by poetry and often quotes it, each story has an epigraph consisting of poetry or a poetic quote. Here is where I had to make some design decisions. Do I compile the introduction, epigraph and story into a unit? Place the epigraph above or below the chapter head? I decided to split it all up. The introductions are small stories in and of themselves. The epigraphs would serve as “appetizers” giving the reader a visual rest from the story text. Plus, by setting them off, they are given weight and help to set the tone for the story to come.

This then led to another decision. How to set up the Table of Contents? The story titles and introductions were a no-brainer. But what about the epigraphs? List them as “Epigraph: Story Title” or just use the story title or how about the first line of the epigraph itself? So I asked myself, how do I find quotations when I’m looking for inspiration? Either by subject or author. Since the stories are the subject, I chose to go with the author’s name. It’s my hope that readers will be intrigued by the included names and perhaps find it useful in case they wonder, “Now what was that line from William Shakespeare?”

Now the arrangement was reader friendly. On to making the ebook look good. Make it look worthy of the material.

As anyone who’s produced a Kindle ebook knows, choices in design are limited. Typographical choices are limited, with the standards being Times New Roman (serif) or Arial (sans serif); and it’s best to limit font sizes because the conversion program can get pissy when given too many options. I went with 12 point Times New Roman–serviceable and easy to read. Because I have no control over justification or even how much text a reader opts to show on the screen, I went with consistency over attempts at fancy. I happen to think that narrow indents look better than wide indents, so I set paragraph indents at .3″. I also had to decide how to set off quoted material within the text. My first instinct was to set it off with a wider indent. The danger there is the way the Kindle justifies text and word wraps. In most of the quoted text, the lines are so short neither justification nor word wrapping was a problem, but there were a few long lines. Since I wanted consistency throughout, I went with no indents and italicized text.

When comparing it to a printed book (with kerning and a human hand fiddling with it) it’s not the same. But in an ebook, it works well because it is consistent and even if the reader increases the size of the text, there’s less chance for words to go staggering all over the page. I had tried setting off the quotations further by inserting a line before and after, but felt it set it off too much and made it look disconnected.

That was about as far as I could go with the limited layout options. So that left small details to play with.

Mr. Block used a clipboard and gavel graphic for the book covers. I used it to create the title page and story titles.

I chose AR Julian for the title font because it’s meaty and masculine, but elegant, too, and I thought it complemented the tone of the stories. Notice, too, the “running heads.” One problem I have with Kindle ebooks is I sometimes forget the title of what I’m reading. Unlike some other ereaders, Kindle doesn’t insert true running heads on the pages and there is no way for the producer to insert them. So what I did was insert a faux-running head at the top of the introductions and epigraphs, and at the beginning of each story. Because I’d put the author’s name in the story title graphics, I left-justified the story running head and left off the author name. I thought the slightly different arrangement would help to delineate the story from the introductory material.

I also made a graphic to use for the scene break indicators. I think producers should always use some kind of indicator for scene breaks because there is no way to control the amount of text on the screen and sometimes line breaks can be lost when the reader changes the page. I could have used asterisks or pound signs, but Martin H. Ehrengraf is a bit of a dandy and needed something to complement his elegant clothes and formal manner of speaking.

Notice, too, that at the beginning of each story and scene I removed the indent and bolded the first three words. I have tried faux-drop caps (made by increasing the font size by two points and bolding the letter) but there lies danger. If a reader changes the font size for readability, there is a risk of a hiccup. Bolding three words and not indenting the paragraph is a simple way to set off the text and indicate a new beginning.

I happen to enjoy back matter. I read it all. I’m sure many other readers enjoy it, too. With no concerns for paper or printing costs, there is no reason to skimp on the back matter. In this case, the author included an Afterword, information about himself and a list of titles and links. I included a photo of the author.

The author photo is in color. It looks very good, nice and clear, but I believe a black-and-white photo would have been better. Black-and-white photos, with their lighting suited for gray-scale, look great on the Kindle screen. Something for authors to keep in mind the next time they have an author photo taken.

Overall, I think I achieved my goals. Reader Friendly and Worthy of the Material. The real question is, Does it matter? Plain formatting takes a few hours at most, depending on how clean the source file is–producing this book took me several days. Besides, it’s the stories that matter, right? As long as the stories are good, does the fiddling and tinkering and rearranging and fancy bits make any difference? You wouldn’t serve fine wine in a chipped jelly jar, right? Or serve filet mignon on a paper plate with sauce slopped around willy-nilly and few burned potatoes on the side? Presentation matters in food and it matters in literature. Limitations in Kindle ebook design notwithstanding, with care and thought, the overall reader experience can be enhanced and the stories themselves are well-served. To me it’s well worth the extra time and effort.

Mr. Block tells me he will be making the very first Ehrengraf story, The Ehrengraf Defense, FREE on Amazon for a limited time. That should happen on Thursday. If you can’t wait that long, all eleven Ehrengraf stories are available as singles, or you can find them all in one collection, Ehrengraf For The Defense. Fun to read and it looks great, too.