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.