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.

 

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.

Adventures In Self-Publishing: Making ereader Navigation Easier For Readers

It started with a head’s up post from PG over on The Passive Voice blog leading to dbasch’s blog where he talks about how Amazon has drastically changed the way he reads book. (very interesting post, though I disagree vehemently with his justification for piracy. Theft is theft, folks, no matter how badly you want something.) Anyhow, at PG’s blog I left a comment about how the Kindle and Amazon has turned me from a voracious reader into an outright glutton. I also made an off the cuff comment about Tables of Contents:

My biggest weakness is short fiction. .99 cent stories are better than chocolate. I am falling in love with short stories all over again and discovering a lot of really good writers to boot. My only gripe is that I wish authors of collections would do a better job across the board of clickable Tables of Contents. There is also plenty of room for a short description of the stories along with the title to help those of us with minds like steel colanders to find a favorite again.

To my surprise quite a few people chimed in about the subject, which was actually kind of off topic, so I thought I’d address it here.

If you own an ereader you’ve probably noticed that navigating an ebook isn’t as easy as paging through a printed book. Sure, there’s a search function and on a Kindle you can make notes and leave bookmarks. I’m actually learning how to use those nifty functions. What often happens is this. I’m reading along, engrossed in a story, finish it, set it aside, then later realize I want to share something with someone. Or there was an interesting passage or quote I would like to copy or post in a blog or reference in a review. That’s when I have to use my memory (which is fabulous when it comes to useless facts and trivia, worthless for dates, names and titles).

Here’s how it works with a printed book. Can’t recall the title, but know it’s a red book–oh yeah, that one! Loved it. And the passage was in the last third of the book, near the beginning of the chapter. Flip flip flip. Found it.

Here’s how it works on my Kindle. Okay, stuff is organized by categories. It’s a novel. Fantasy… Okay, is that the one? Right. That’s it. The desired quote is somewhere around the middle of the book. No bookmark, damn it. Page, page, page ad nauseum yawn page page. What was that quote? Didn’t it have an unusual word in it? It might have, but what was it? Shit. Page page page. GO TO: Chapter Fifteen. Ah ha, middle of the book, and I remember this scene. Go back a few pages. Page page page. Damn it! Why didn’t I remember to use the bookmark! Ah ha! There is it. Found it at last.

It gets even harder when it’s a short story collection or an anthology. Some time might pass before I want to reread a story or share it with a friend or family member. Then I have to remember which collection it was in and then find the story again. That can take a while.

I don’t expect authors to accommodate my flaky memory. I’m working on making a Kindle bookshelf to hang on my wall (color printer? Should I invest in a color laser printer? Oh, wouldn’t that be lovely… I digress). There is, however, one thing authors can do that would add a bit of extra value to their ebooks and all it would cost would be a little time.

A Table of Contents that makes navigating the book easier. That means clickable links.

What I know for a fact is that if you use Word, clickable links are very easy to create. The Smashwords formatting guide (Smashwords Style Guide, free to download from Amazon) gives easy to follow instructions for doing it. Then when you upload your book to Smashwords, it mostly works though it might take some hair-pulling and tweaking as it goes through the Meatgrinder. If you use Word and convert using MobiPocket for Amazon, the internal links convert pretty well, too. I’m sure other word processing programs and HTML have the same capabilities. It’s all doable and if a non-nerd like me can learn how to do it, so can you.

The great thing about DIY is that you can take advantage of the programs’ capabilities and you don’t have to worry about extra costs in your P&L. With that in mind, you can turn your Table of Contents into a truly useful navigation tool.

For novels: Go beyond Chapter 1; Chapter 2; etc. Go for chapter titles, too. I’ve always had mixed feelings about chapter titles or headings. They often struck me as silly little affectations. As a navigation tool, they can serve as memory prompts to readers. I might see: “Chapter 12–Where our intrepid hero learns the real truth about his twin.” I can click the link and easily find that cool factoid about DNA or that funny bit of dialogue to quote in a review.

For short story collections: Again, go beyond story titles. Put a log line or even a short blurb about each story in the Table of Contents. Than I, Ms Holey Memory, can spot right off the story I want to read to the old man or push on a friend or talk about in a blog post.

For multi-author anthologies or short story collections: You can have two Table of Contents. Easy peasy. At the front, do a regular ToC. At the end, in the author bios, you can also link back to the individual stories.

create link from ToC——->STORY TITLE

create link from author bio—–>AUTHOR NAME

A little bit of effort in making your book easier to navigate on an ereader can pay off big in reader appreciation. Anything you, the author, can do to make your work more memorable can pay off in future sales, too.