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.