An Alternative to Smashwords? Draft2Digital

I am not overly thrilled with Smashwords right now. After the big announcement about EPUB, the reality has been less than… well, let us just say, I am not impressed. One, the formatting requirements are the exact same ones they use with Word files–that means generic looking books–and there is STILL NO WAY to test or even preview the converted books before they are published. As much as I get frustrated with the Kindle Previewer, it’s still a valuable tool and its error reports make sense. (Smashwords’ error reports tend to make sense only in alternate universes). When I heard about Draft2Digital, I was quite interested.

While I’ve heard from some people who’ve had good results with D2D, I haven’t tried it myself.

Paul Salvette at BB ebooks has done the legwork for us. He and his crew of wonder-formatters took part in some beta testing and have written up a useful report. Here’s an excerpt:

First Impressions with Draft2Digital

Uploading your manuscript to the newly established website, Draft2Digital seems like a perfect solution for DIY eBook conversion. Thanks to Joanna’s tutorial how to use Calibre on TeleRead, automatic conversion has gained momentum in the business when indie authors are striving to publish as cost-effectively as possible. Although we have already discussed automatic conversion before (it’s not very good quality), many of our clients have urged us to try out the closed beta test on D2D. Fortunately, an email from Draft2Digital sent yesterday notified us of the open beta of which anybody can test the service without getting the beta code. We wasted no time this morning to get our hands on their hotly anticipated conversion service. Our initial doubt prevails: how much can you trust the fast quality of artificial intelligence, especially when it comes to formulating the immortality of your eBook?

(Big Plus)

Hooray, It’s Pay Day!

According to the latest email, customized payment methods have been very convenient for international authors who can receive payment directly into their bank accounts or via PayPal. Look under ‘Payment’ in the Draft2Digital FAQ, authors can sign a big relief to be paid by check, PayPal, or Direct Deposit. Please note for non-’Merican authors you will need to get an ITIN so that the IRS can tax you.

Paul and his crew went through the process with… results. BB ebooks is a pro outfit, and Paul is one of the best in the biz when it comes to producing ebooks. His standards are very high. He did find some problems.

Problems Ensue with Automatic Conversion to EPUB

We tried to one of Paul’s other books that was well formatted in Word, including with a hyperlinked Table of Contents. Unfortunately, it looks as though the formatting is completely blown out when their automated conversion is used. All paragraph styles are first-line indent—which is okay for body content, but not for front matter and back matter. Additionally all first paragraphs in Chapters are first-line indent, which screams Amateur Hour. Below is how it looked:

Pop over to the site and read the entire article. Lots of illustrations and good explanations for what is happening.

My takeaway from this and from what I’ve heard and from what little bopping around I’ve done on the D2D site is that they have a lot of potential. Their terms are good, their payout schedule is excellent, and they are responsive to customer complaints and concerns.

So go read BB ebook’s article, then check out D2D. It might be suitable for you.

Fun With Formatting Ebooks: Paragraph Styles

Whether a reader is conscious or not of doing it, they are judging at least some of the quality of your writing by how it looks on the screen. When you send your writing into the world you want it to look polished, professional, and assertive. Even if you don’t use fancy bits and curlicues, you can make your ebook look polished, professional and, yes, assertive–as in, “I am a smart and sophisticated writer who knows what she is talking about, so pay attention!“–just by taking care with your paragraph styles.

The most basic of basic styles are indented and block paragraphs. Convention says, indented paragraphs for fiction and block style for non-fiction. Why the convention? Indented paragraphs are quicker to read (not really, but doesn’t it seem that way?), while block paragraphs tend to be weightier, denser, and can add a measure of gravitas to the text. It’s really a preference and not about right and wrong. Readers do expect text to look a certain way, though, and you take a chance of distracting them from the prose if you mess with their expectations.

For those of you using anything other than html to format your ebooks, (pardon my shouting) NO TABS! Tabs, and using the space bar to indent paragraphs, play havoc with ebooks. NO TABS. Your word processor enables you to use style sheets–use them. NO TABS.

How wide an indent?   para6

The narrow indent is a leftover from the days of pulp fiction when every sheet of paper counted against the bottom line and so the publisher needed to cram as much text onto a page as possible. It looks a bit squishy, especially if the reader prefers narrow line spacing on their device. Wide indents are a writer habit, I think, from being used to working on manuscripts with their half inch indents. Too wide, though, and the ebook can assume the look of a manuscript, and that’s not polished. I prefer a medium width indent of 1.4ems (.3″ in a word processor).

Block paragraphs require spaces between the paragraphs so they don’t run together.

para5Whether you’re using a word processor or html, you need to include that extra leading in your style sheet–not (never) by manually inserting a blank line between paragraphs. Be aware, too, that you do not want to increase the space between indented paragraphs. Doing so means users of the Kindle iOS app will end up with huge spaces between paragraphs. Smashwords will reject files for inserting extra space.

Another style is one I don’t recommend for full paragraphs. Centering.

para4para3

Don’t forget that centering IS a style. Don’t just highlight the text then click the “center” command in the menu bar. Make sure your text indent is set to zero so the center doesn’t end up off-center.

Sometimes you’ll need to set off text. Quotes, song lyrics, poetry, missives.

para2para1The only difference in coding between the first block quote and the lines of poetry is the use of italics.

What if you want to set off an entire section of text?

para7Keep it simple, aim for sophisticated, and keep your reader’s comfort in mind while you style your paragraphs.

What about the rest of you? Any fun styling tricks you’d like to share?

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.

TWO Files For Smashwords?!? Not So Fast With The WTF, Folks

I’ve been one of the noisy gripers bitchin’ about the Smashwords “Meatgrinder.” My complaint was not what Mark Coker of SW was doing, but that MS Word makes lousy ebooks. Now, Coker has made it possible for ebook producers to submit validated EPUB files for distribution wherever fine EPUB-platform ebooks are sold.

This is terrific news.

Now I’m seeing complaints all over the ‘net that in order for an ebook to be fully distributed in the SW catalog one must also submit a Word file along with the EPUB file. A lot of WTF going on and people acting as if they’ve been somehow buffaloed.

Back off a minute and put down your pitchforks and torches. In order for SW to do what it’s been doing, it’s had to take a one-size-fits-all approach (could not have afforded it any other way). Using Word as the source file for conversion made sense for two reasons:

  • One) SW is mostly a self-publishing platform for WRITERS who use WORD PROCESSORS to create DOCUMENTS;
  • Two) Ebook files are based on html coding (they are essentially little websites) and most word processors are based on html which can be converted so they can be read on various and sundry devices.

The problems were not so much in the conversion. The problems came from the ereader devices. Every one of them is different. Some use older technology, some use the newest technology. Many have user interfaces, allowing readers to customize (to an extent) the way they read an ebook. (Ever wonder why mobi files are so big compared to an EPUB file? It’s because they are actually several different formats–eink, tablet, keyboard, touch screen–all of which display differently and give the reader different options on the various Kindle devices.)

Smashwords also offers readers different options, such as PDF and (essentially) text files for reading on the computer. They offer formats like LRF and PDB for people with older, almost obsolete devices.

A mobi file can be converted from EPUB, but it requires some adjustments to the css, the cover image and navigation coding. You can do things on a Nook you can’t do on a Kindle (for instance), and vice versa. Much different platforms. I can convert an EPUB to a mobi file and read it on my Kindle, but in order to make it work properly on all Kindle devices, in order to make it convert through Kindlegen without errors, I need a different type of EPUB file.

Then you get into the platforms that aren’t based on EPUB at all. Can I convert an EPUB file into a pdf file? Well, sure, but it’s ridiculously convoluted and requires more clean-up than conversion. The reason is in the name: “Portable Document Format.” Word files convert easily into pdf files because both of them are document files.

The beauty of what Smashwords has done is that if you have a validated EPUB file (and that means error free according to IDPF–International Digital Publishing Forum–standards) it is going to work on the various devices using the EPUB platform–namely Nook, Kobo and Apple products. It will work the way users (our customers) want them to work and the way the device makers intend them to work.

What it boils down to is quality control. I can control the quality of EPUB files in ways that are not possible with a Word file. It’s not about the bells and whistles, it’s about the formatting and making sure my ebooks are stable and functional across devices.

If you understand how ebooks work and how other file formats work, then you know it is not feasible for SW to convert EPUB files into other formats such as mobi or pdf or rtf. That’s my job. These are my ebooks and my readers/customers, and it’s up to me to figure out the best way to make the ebooks I create compatible with their devices.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to ebooks and ereading devices. SW made a valiant effort when it tried to force Word into that role, but it was doomed from the get-go because Word is not the right tool.

EPUB is only one format out of many, and it is not Smashword’s or Mark Coker’s fault that the retailers and device makers cannot get their shit together and settle on a standard.

You do not have to submit two files to SW if you don’t want to. You can go EPUB only–which shuts out those who don’t have a device based on the EPUB platform. You can submit a Word file only–take your chances that your ebook is going to glitch, or settle for an ebook so generic it might as well be a text file.

Something else, too. Smashwords is a distributor. It reaches markets that indies cannot always reach on their own. I suspect the number one reason many of those avenues are closed to direct distribution from indies is because those outfits don’t want to deal with buggy, broken, half-assed ebook files created in word processors. SW could have insisted that those who wished to use their distribution service must provide files in compliance with the different platforms. That would have set back the ebook revolution several years. Instead SW came up with concept that mostly worked. So to those who are bitching that they now have to provide TWO files to SW, take a deep breath, step back and consider the alternative–the market could demand that you create up to ten different formats in order to reach all your potential readers. That, my friends, would be real cause for cries of WTF.

 

Happy New Year, Happy Day: Smashwords Now Accepts EPUB Files

It’s finally happened. Thank you, Mark Coker.

Smashwords Supports EPUB Uploads With Smashwords Direct

“One year ago in my 2011 annual year-in-review here at the Smashwords Blog, we committed to support direct EPUB uploads to the Smashwords platform in the second half of 2012.

Today we fulfilled that commitment with the launch of Smashwords Direct.

This new capability allows our authors and publishers to upload their own professionally formatted EPUB files for sale at the Smashwords store, and for distribution to the Smashwords retail distribution network….”

Read the rest at the Smashwords blog.

What does this mean? Why is this a happy day? A portent of wonderful things to come? At its heart, it means the most important thing:

Stable ebooks

I’ve spent the past year learning how to make stable ebooks. The biggest learning curve lay in figuring out how ebooks work. I’m handicapped because I’m NOT a computer savvy person. I’ve used computers for writing since the 1980s, but quite frankly I’ve used them as glorified typewriters and fancy bookkeeping ledgers with nary a thought about the inner workings or what was going on behind the scenes (behind the screen?). I had to learn a foreign language (html) and figure out who the smart people were so I could learn from them. It’s mostly been trial and error along with plenty of indulgence from some good friends who had enough faith in me to allow me to experiment on their books.

As much as I love the bells and whistles and trying this trick and figuring out that one, the most important lesson I’ve learned is this: If the ebook isn’t stable, none of the fancy stuff matters.

Is it possible for a Do-It-Yourselfer to make a stable ebook with Word? Or Scrivener? Possible, but not probable. Word processors are the wrong tools. You can follow all the directions and be meticulous, but speaking non-tech layperson to non-tech layperson: Shit happens.

A lot of that shit comes from the hardware side of the aisle. Every device maker is dreaming that his device is going to rise as Number One Preferred By Consumers Everywhere. Retailers like Amazon and Apple want their proprietary platforms to be the One Ring That Rules Them All.

With their Meatgrinder conversion program Smashwords struggled mightily to serve a lot of masters, all of them squabbling, and many not playing nice. The goal was to make it possible for anyone to self-publish and get wide distribution. The problem inherent with trying to satisfy everybody, though, is that compromises and narrowing parameters result in an overall lower quality. Ebooks had to be stripped down to the bare bones and great care had to be taken to lessen the chances that shit would happen.

It was backward and upside-down. Here we have increasingly sophisticated ereaders and tablets, full of possibilities that have barely been touched. The wrong tool (Word) makes it too dangerous to attempt exploiting the technology.

In order to reach greater heights, in order to really open up the possibilities, to look under the hood and see what these babies can really do, the ebook must be stable.

A validated EPUB file is stable. When the end user opens their ebook, no matter what the device, it will work. If the user wants to change the line spacing or the font or whatever else their device allows them to do, the ebook will oblige. It will look good on a small screen and it will look good on a big screen. If a user has multiple devices, the ebook will be stable across the devices. The ebook will continue to work even as devices are updated, improved and changed (as long as the devices continue to base them on EPUB–knocking wood here).

What does this mean for the Do-It-Yourselfer? I’m not going to lie. Building a validated EPUB file is NOT the easiest thing in the world. I have heard on good authority that the program called Sigil does a good job and is user-friendly. Having not used it myself, I do not know. Anyone who wants to discuss it, please, feel free.

By opening up Smashwords to EPUB files, my prediction for the New Year is that we’re going to start seeing a serious uptick in the overall quality of ebook formatting. Readers will demand it. They will grow increasingly dissatisfied with bland, generic looking ebooks and unhappy with ebooks that cannot be customized by their devices. We’ll start seeing innovation, too. Right now ebooks are a digital imitation of print. Face it, printed books are just about the perfect medium for conveying text. For that purpose, there’s not much room for improvement. What I’m thinking is how ebooks are different. That’s where the innovations will arise. With a stable platform, a solid foundation from which to build, ebook producers are free to innovate.

So thank you, Mark Coker and Smashwords. I predict your Smashwords Direct publishing option is going to result in benefits far above and beyond whatever it is you envisioned.

Format A Nice-Looking Novel For Smashwords

Everybody knows, or at least regular readers know, I don’t like using Word to make ebooks. Just about all distributors allow you to submit a doc or docx file to be converted into an ebook. You shouldn’t. You really, really shouldn’t. An ebook converted from Word will not work properly on many ereaders.

But. One major distributor does require Word files–Smashwords. They have their reasons and until they change those reasons, Word it is.

Rather than bitch again about the sheer silliness of using Word for ebooks, I’ll be constructive. Here is a quick primer on how to make a Word document that will make its way through the Meatgrinder without too much damage. (This is for fiction only. Trying to shove complicated formatting through Smashword’s Meatgrinder will give you hives and bald spots, so if you want to give it a shot, you’re on your own.)

I recommend before you do anything that you go in to TOOLS on Word and turn off all the auto-correct and auto-format features. This will cut down on Word’s “helpfulness” and make a better ebook. I also recommend that you turn on the SHOW feature so you can see the paragraph returns and extra spaces (in the menu bar it looks like a pilcrow).

STEP ONE: START WITH A CLEAN FILE

This is imperative. You will prevent 95% of ebook glitches by making sure your document file is clean. By clean I mean free of the excess or extraneous coding that Word inserts at every opportunity. You must use a text editor for this. I use Notepad++, which is a free downloadable program. Easy to use once you get used to the way it looks.

After your text is edited in Word, go through this checklist:

  1. Make sure your curly quotes are turned the right way.
  2. Get rid of tabs and extra spaces, including those before and after paragraph returns. Including those between sentences. You do not want double spaces between sentences in an ebook.
  3. Get rid of extra paragraph returns.
  4. Tag your special formatting such as italics, bolding and underlines. (VERY IMPORTANT: Your special formatting will disappear in the text editor)***
  5. Make sure you have proper em dashes and ellipses.

Now COPY/PASTE your text into the text editor. This makes a txt file (text). Go through your file and make sure you have gotten rid of all your extra spaces and hard returns. It will look a little odd, but don’t worry about the lack of formatting–you DO NOT WANT any formatting at this stage. If you are using Notepad++, open the Character Panel (it’s in the Edit drop down menu). That will give you ASCII characters. If you need to change your double or single quotes, em dashes, special characters, etc. use the characters and symbols from the Character Panel.

STEP 2: MAKE YOUR STYLE SHEETS

Smashword’s Meatgrinder is set up to work best with certain stylesheets already built in to Word. If you are not familiar with using stylesheets in Word, now is the time to learn. You’ll find them under FORMAT in the main menu. For most fiction, all you need are four stylesheets.

  1. NORMAL
  2. HEADING 1
  3. HEADING 2
  4. center

NORMAL: This is what you’ll use for the body of your text–the main style. You will find listed in style sheets. You can modify it. My recommendation is to stick as close to ereader defaults as possible. So don’t modify too much. Safe settings are:

  • Font: 12 point Times New Roman
  • Align: Left
  • Level: body text
  • Indent: 0 for right and left
  • Special: First Line by 0.3″ or 0.4″ (this is the paragraph indent)
  • Spacing: Before 0; After 0
  • Line Spacing: single

HEADING 1: This is what the Meatgrinder will look for to title your book. For most projects, you only need to use it once. Here you can increase the font size (don’t go higher than 16 points and use the same font as for the rest of your book) and bold or italicize it. You can also center your text, drop it down on the “page” and add some space between your title and the author name. A set up might look like this:

  • Font: 16 point Times New Roman, bold
  • Align: Center
  • Level: body text
  • Indent: 0 for right and left
  • Special: (none)
  • Spacing: Before 12; After 6pt
  • Line Spacing: single

HEADING 2: This is what the Meatgrinder will look for to find your chapters so it can build the toc.ncx (very important).

  • Font: 16 point Times New Roman, bold
  • Align: Center
  • Level: body text
  • Indent: 0 for right and left
  • Special: (none)
  • Spacing: Before 12; After 3pt
  • Line Spacing: single
  • Page Break Before (check this box under Format > Paragraph > Line and Page Breaks)

CENTER: You don’t have to have a style sheet for centering text, but it makes life easier since you don’t have to remember to get rid of the indent. Set it up exactly like NORMAL, except:

  • Align: Center
  • Special: (none)

STEP THREE: Open a new Word file and apply the NORMAL style sheet. COPY your text from the text editor and PASTE it into Word. Your text should be formatted in NORMAL style with indented paragraphs. (Just in case a hiccup occurred, scan through the text and make sure there aren’t any extra paragraph returns–look for blank lines and delete the extra paragraph return)

STEP FOUR: Use FIND/REPLACE to restore italics, bolding and underlining. Then use FIND/REPLACE to delete your special formatting tags.

STEP FIVE: Make your title page. Highlight your book title and apply the HEADING 1 stylesheet. A nice title page for Smashwords will look something like this:

SW Title PageOnly the title uses HEADING 1. With everything else I used the CENTER stylesheet.

STEP SIX: Do your chapter heads. Select (highlight) your chapter and apply the HEADING 2 stylesheet. If you set up stylesheet the way I recommended, it will give you a page break.

STEP SEVEN: If you used scene breaks, go through and select whatever you used to indicate scene breaks and center them. I also like to add a paragraph return before and after a scene break just to make them stand out a bit more.

SW scene breakCHAPTER EIGHT: Add links and/or make a table of contents. Both are optional. Links and hyperlinks are something Word handles very well and generally cause no problems with Smashwords. Use the INSERT HYPERLINK command from the menu. If you make a table of contents, use the BOOKMARK option, and bookmark the chapter heads then link within the document.

And there you go. A simple format, rather generic, but it will go through the Meatgrinder, have minimal formatting errors and be readable on the platforms Smashwords distributes to.

Have fun!

***A word about tagging special formatting. The text editor will strip out your special formatting, so you must tag it. All you need are unique strings of text that you can search for. I use hyphens and all caps to make sure the tags don’t get mixed up with my story text.

  • Italics: -STARTI- and -ENDI-
  • Bolding: -STARTB- and -ENDB-
  • Underlining: -STARTU- and -ENDU-

To tag quickly–for italics–in the FIND box, ask it to look for italics but leave the box empty. In the REPLACE box type -STARTI-^&-ENDI- and do a REPLACE ALL. That will wrap all your italics in tags. To reverse the process, toggle on “wild cards”, type -STARTI-*-ENDI- in the FIND box and toggle on “italics” in the REPLACE box, but leave it empty. Do a REPLACE ALL and your italics are restored. Then do a FIND/REPLACE to delete your tags.

QUICK UPDATE: NOW Smashwords is kicking back files if there is leading (extra space) after a paragraph (indented paragraphs only, not block style). So let us cross our fingers that Apple has fixed whatever it was that caused them to squish paragraphs. grumble grumble grumble…

 

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.

Is Good Enough, Good Enough?

A while back Darling Daughter #1 and I went to a restaurant that had just opened in our neighborhood. It’s part of a big chain (Rhymes with Billy’s) and our expectations weren’t high, but what the hell, we might be surprised. As per corporate policy regarding female diners we were seated way back in a dark corner and our server, also per corporate policy, treated us like shit (this is based on hard data proving that female diners do not tip well, so might as well treat them like shit from the get-go because you know, they don’t tip well). The server failed to bring my cheese toast. I asked her for it, she gave me a blank look. I asked again, she sighed–I must have been keeping her away from texting “Wurk sux” on her cell phone or something–and she finally returned twenty minutes later with a plate of two charcoaled pieces of toast. I asked her, “Would you eat this?” Another blank look, a slight shrug, and she wandered away to ponder if she’d put in enough hours to qualify for unemployment compensation.

Needless to say, I haven’t been back to a Rhymes with Billy’s restaurant since. I never will eat there again. Neither will DD1. If friends or family ask for a recommendation, part of my response will include, “Just make sure you never go to Rhymes with Billy’s.”

The irony is, this chain of restaurants spends millions of dollars advertising on television. If they’d put those millions of dollars into training employees and maybe printing a sign that says, I dunno, DO NOT SERVE BURNT TOAST TO CUSTOMERS, they wouldn’t have to advertise.

What does this have to do with ebooks? Plenty if you think about it.

This week Mark Coker wrote an article for the How to Successfully Self-Publish site: “Amazon Is Playing Indie Authors Like Pawns,” says Smashwords founder, Mark Coker.” The main point Coker makes is a good one. Writers should not limit their market to Amazon. (My feeling about KDP Select is that exclusivity is a good idea for some books, but not for others, so writers should do their marketing research, and no I don’t want to discuss it right now, so take any conversations about it elsewhere, m’kay?) Coker unfortunately misses another big point, namely that the ebooks his Meatgrinder produces are burnt toast. When a writer jams a Word file through Smashwords, the very best result they can hope for is a generic, bland looking block of text. Try anything visually interesting and the ebook will break or wobble. (This writer, me, refuses to use Smashwords anymore because ebooks generated with Word offend my sensibilities)

It’s good enough for some folks (the bland, generic part, not the wobbly or broken part).

It’s not good enough for me.

Bland and generic ebooks are born of the same attitude and self-fulfilling prophecy that many restaurant servers have about women. Everyone knows women don’t tip, so it’s okay to treat them like shit, and they should shut up and be grateful they’re even allowed inside the restaurant. Too many writers and publishers seem to have the same attitude about ebook readers. The cheap bastids don’t care about real books, so it’s okay to give them crappy looking ebooks. They should shut up about quality and presentation and be falling-down-on-their-knees grateful to have anything at all to read on their Kindles and Nooks and high-tech toaster ovens in the first place.

Yet the same publishers putting out those lousy looking ebooks are spending a lot of time and effort ADVERTISING and MARKETING and endlessly tweeting and facebook spamming BUY MY BOOK!

Sorry, folks. The book, the story, the writing, that’s the meal in this scenario. Presentation matters. If you don’t care how it looks, how it feels, neither will your customers. At best they won’t give your next book a shot. At worst they’ll tell their friends, “Oh that one? Sucks. Don’t bother.” (There are entire publishing houses from whom I will not purchase ebooks–no matter what the price and no matter who wrote the book–because their ebook formatting sucks rocks, and yes, I do tell friends to not bother)

This is new territory for everybody. Mistakes will be made. Ebook producers are still learning. Right now many consumers are still in the delighting in their devices stage and not being terribly picky about content. ‘Ware, though, to the publisher who blithely believes consumers will happily keep picking up the tab for “good enough.” Once that device-delight wears off, consumers will not be satisfied with a dark corner and burnt toast.

I told you before and I will tell you again why I am spending so much time and energy on learning how to properly format and design ebooks. It’s because I love books and I think ebooks are real books and I truly believe ebooks can be as beautiful in their own way as printed material.

I don’t accept “good enough.” If you really care about your books, you won’t either.