The Lost Art of Customer Service

This is what happened on my last trip to Staples:

serviceI needed a ream of 3-hole punched copy paper. I needed it right then. So off the old man and I went to Staples. I hadn’t been inside this particular Staples before, so when a clerk approached and asked if I needed anything, I told him: “I need 3-hole punched copy paper. Where–” He went loping off and I hurried to follow. He pulled a package of college ruled notepaper off a shelf. “No,” sez I, “copy paper. A ream of it. If you could just point–” Off he loped, calling over his shoulder, “Follow me!” Oh, come on, it’s a big store, but not that big, but apparently some brilliant joker in corporate decided “Show don’t Tell” is the new policy. So I hurried to catch up with the rapidly moving clerk. He ended up at a wall display filled with copy paper where he proudly shoved a ream into my hands. “No,” sez I, “I want 3-hole punched copy paper.” To which he gave me a disgusted look and said, snarkily, “We have 3-hole punches. You can put holes in it.” (I’ve been buying and using 3-hole punched copy paper for YEARS. I can buy it on Amazon. I can buy STAPLES brand on Amazon.) At this point I was ready to walk out, empty-handed, and buy it from Amazon, even if it meant waiting a few days. Then another clerk showed up and I told her what I wanted and she pulled a ream off the shelf. The first clerk gave me a filthy look and slunk away. At the cash register the checkout clerk asked if I’d been helped on the floor. I said, “If by ‘help’ you mean did some knucklehead try to make me feel like an idiot for wanting something I’ve been buying for years, then yes, I was helped.” She got that Oh please let this person get the hell out of my store look on her face, and I took my paper and left.

“This,” I told the old man, “is the reason I hate shopping in person.”

The other day I read this article on The Passive Voice, “Just How Many Stores Must Retailers Close to Beat Amazon?” I thought about telling my Staples story, but I was busy, so I didn’t. But I kept thinking about it. I kept thinking about why I rarely go shopping in brick-and-mortar stores, even though I used to love, love, LOVE browsing office supply stores, bookstores, home improvement stores and craft stores. It all boils down to customer service. A lot of these stores are run by big corporations and whenever sales/profits are down it seems as if the first question asked is, “How do we make more money?” This is a bad–terrible!–question for any business to ask. It’s all about focus and attitude. And when one’s attitude is entirely focused on making money, then it’s NOT on customer service.

The Staples clerk had been ordered, I’m sure, to “serve” customers, probably via a corporate directive. The problem was two-fold, though. He didn’t know his inventory and HE DID NOT WANT TO SERVE ME. I don’t know how well Staples pays or how it treats its employees, but it apparently doesn’t hire people for their love of office supplies or desire to help people. Other than my local grocery store, it’s been my experience of late that the majority of people who work in retail establishments would rather be doing anything other than their jobs. I keep running into dispirited, grumpy, and put upon clerks who refuse to look me in the eye or listen to me while they’re spewing dull scripts about loyalty cards and purchased warranty plans. Whenever I have a rare good retail shopping experience, I am so astonished I blather on about it for days. For the most part, shopping in person is such a chore that I’d rather take my time (and dollars) to Amazon. Pretty sad state of affairs when a computer screen offers a more pleasant shopping experience than any brick and mortar establishment.

I have a suggestion for the corporate bigwigs: Visit your stores, anonymously, as a customer. Check out the customer service. Do to the floor clerks look you in the eye? Do they listen? Do they know the inventory? Do they WANT to help? Maybe instead of hiring people based on some computer generated algorithm or merely their willingness to work for minimum wage, how about looking for people who can love their job? You’ll never beat Amazon by cutting costs and closing stores–or by forcing scripts on your employees that are as meaningless to them as to the customers forced to endure them.


Programs for Indie Publishers


Creativity is messy

One of the best aspects of indie publishing is that Do-It-Yourself is feasible. All you need is a computer and some decent programs–many of them free–and you can put together a professionally packaged book.


Many indie publishers start and end with MS Word. I suspect this has to do with comfort. They use Word, they know it (or think they do), and Amazon, Smashwords and Draft2Digital accept Word files. I also suspect fear plays a part. No matter how easy or intuitive a program is, there is still a learning curve. Easier to stay with the devil you know than to leap into the unknown. My hope is that the list of programs I use will encourage DIY indie publishers to wander into deeper waters and increase the quality of their book production.

This following programs and tools are what I use on an almost daily basis. It’s by no means a complete list of all the programs and apps that are available. A Google search for “programs for publishing” will turn up hundreds–thousands!–of programs an indie might find useful.

A word about computers. Currently I use two. A Lenovo Z70 laptop and a Mac. (I’m in the process of finding a new desktop PC, too.) I use the laptop for ebook production and the Mac for print and covers. The reason is: Adobe. I will not allow any Adobe products on my laptop. They are big and grabby and eat RAM like peanuts, especially InDesign. Adobe CC seems to behave better on the Mac, crashing less often. Plus, I have a 29″ screen that makes using Photoshop a real pleasure.

On to the list.

DROPBOX. Dropbox is a cloud storage service. You can sign up for the basic service and it’s free. If you need more storage space, you can go with a business plan that starts at $9.99 a month. Most indies don’t need the extra space. It’s a great way to back up your files. You can synch between devices. There are apps available so you can access Dropbox from your tablet or phone. You can share files and folders. It’s an easy way to share files that are too big for email attachments. I’ve been using Dropbox for years. It’s had a few hiccups, but very few. The only ongoing problem I’ve experienced is that the Kindle Previewer doesn’t like it. So to load a file into the Previewer I have to remember to drag it out of Dropbox and onto my desktop first.

MS WORD.  Used to be just about every PC came pre-loaded with MS Word. Everybody used it. Those days are over. Now you have to purchase it.


  • Personal correspondence and writing
  • Initial file clean-up
  • Basic ebook formats for Smashwords (fiction only)


  • Everybody uses it (for now)
  • It’ll open a huge number of file types and it will generate a large number of file types.
  • Word docs are accepted by Amazon, Smashwords and Draft2Digital


  • Most people have no idea how to use Word properly
  • Clunky, bloated and overly-complicated
  • Makes awful ebooks

NOTEPAD (PC) and NOTES (Mac). These text programs come pre-loaded on most PCs or Macs. When I’m working on a book I keep a file open where I can make notes to myself. Nothing special, but very very handy.

NOTEPAD++. This is my text editor of choice. (In the Mac I use Text Wrangler)


  • Create ebooks in html with cascading style sheets
  • Text restoration
  • File cleanup


  • Free
  • Easy to use
  • No bloat since there is nothing running in the background to add a bunch of junk to a file
  • Powerful search function with multiple levels
  • Can encode files for different purposes, including UTF-8 for ebooks


  • Learning curve (moderate)
  • Must get used to the display which is nothing like a word processor

SIGIL. EPUB editor. I have it on both computers. If you want to step up your ebook quality, Sigil is an excellent tool for creating ebooks. And yes, with some modifications to your file, you can create ebooks for Amazon Kindle, too. Paul Salvette of bbebooks offers a very good tutorial.


  • Troubleshooting epub files


  • Free
  • Mostly stable
  • Offers inline epub validation
  • Can be used in WYSIWYG mode or in html mode


  • Learning curve (moderate)

KINDLE PREVIEWER. Quick and easy way to preview your ebook files before you upload them to Amazon. If you want to see how your ebooks look with Amazon’s enhanced typesetting features you can download the Kindle Previewer 3.

CALIBRE. Quick and easy way to preview an epub file. Has an epub editor (which I don’t use and haven’t looked at it in over a year, so cannot say how good it is). Despite its many fans, Calibre is NOT the tool to use to create commercial ebooks. It causes disabled user preference controls on Kindle devices and apparently there are conflicts with Kindle enhanced typesetting.

MOBIPOCKET CREATOR. Will convert a Word or html file into a prc file that can be converted into a mobi file in the Kindle Previewer or loaded directly onto a Kindle device. Quick and simple. Good way to check how the formatting on a Word file will perform on a Kindle. I use it to do a quick and dirty conversion of Word files I want to read on my e-ink Kindle.

EPUB VALIDATOR. The idpf validator is the standard for making sure your epub files are free of errors and up to snuff. I use this tool in conjunction with Sigil. If I get an error message, I can find and fix it quickly in Sigil, then transfer the fix back to my html files.

UNMANIFESTED EPUB FILE CHECK. Apple iBooks is picky about unmanifested files within an epub package. Running your epub file through this checker will help ensure your ebook will make it onto the Apple site.

IRIS OCR. I do a lot of text restoration, recovering the text from printed books and turning it into a workable document. I have used and researched a lot of OCR programs. Quality ranges from “oh my god you have to be kidding” to excellent. IRIS is excellent. If you have an HP scanner, you can download IRIS OCR software along with the HP drivers. You can also purchase software that allows for side-by-side document editing (necessary if you’re scanning and restoring graphic/image heavy or complicated layouts in non-fiction books).

INDESIGN. For print on demand layouts. (Despite what many of its fans say, it’s NOT a good program for making ebooks. I can usually tell an ID generated ebook because it looks gorgeous and the user preference controls are disabled. There are apparently conflicts with Kindle enhanced typesetting, too.)


  • For POD it’s easier to use than Word.
  • Print is what it was made for and print is what it does best. Makes beautiful books.
  • Adobe help sucks, but google “how do I…InDesign” and you’ll find answers all over the place.
  • Trouble-free export into POD ready pdf files.


  • Expensive! I don’t think you can buy the program new from Adobe. Instead, you have to set up a subscription. If you cancel your subscription, your .indd files are rendered useless.
  • Steep learning curve.
  • RAM grabby and has a tendency to crash.

PAINT.NET. A powerful paint program that is easy to use. Fun, too. And free! Good for resizing images and creating simple graphics. Offers many plug-ins that make it possible to create ebook covers. It does a good job of modifying and manipulating photos.

PHOTOSHOP. The more I use Photoshop, the more I learn about it, the more I like it. I use it to make covers and to clean up damaged images. Unlike ID, I’ve had no problems with it either slowing my computer to a sluggish crawl or crashing. Like ID, it’s not being offered for sale by Adobe, but is on a subscription plan.


There you go. My favorite book production programs. What about yours?





Can YOU Create the Perfect Ebook Cover?

Since here of late I’ve been playing “art department” for several of my clients, I’ve been thinking a lot about ebook covers. What works, what doesn’t, and more importantly, Why? I do a lot of browsing for books on Amazon. Why do some ebook covers catch my eye and cause me to click on the listings, while others are merely clutter on the page? What is the real difference between a “good” ebook cover and a “bad” one? Is there a way to ensure an ebook gets the perfect cover?

Perfection? Probably not.

A cover that does exactly what it is supposed to do? That’s doable, each time, every time.

I read an article the other day about one writer’s quest for the perfect covers. She did market analysis using surveys (read it here). I found it fascinating and admirable. I also spotted right off the mistake she is making. It’s a mistake I see over and over again with indie publishers. The writer is designing a cover for herself.

Now, you are probably saying, “Jaye, what’s the point of being an indie if you can’t do things your own way?”

You can do things any way you want to. It’s your book.

Here’s the problem with designing an ebook cover for yourself. You have lived with your story for weeks or months or years. You know the plot, the characters, the emotional arcs. You know your own vision. What excites you. What you want the world to know. You want a cover that captures all that nuance. All the wonder and beauty and drama that is your story.

Potential book buyers don’t know any of that. Until they actually start reading the book, they have no context, no point of reference, and thusly, they don’t really care. All that love and knowledge the writer holds in her heart is wasted. In many cases, it can so miss the point that it fails to catch attention of potential buyers or, worst case, turns them off completely.

An ebook cover has one job: Induce potential buyers to click on a listing. That’s it. Once the ebook is purchased, it’s done its job and, like the packaging for a new gadget, it can be discarded. It won’t be displayed on a shelf or coffee table. It won’t be taken out to be studied and admired for its art. In fact, once it’s loaded on Kindle or Nook or smartphone or tablet, it’s almost irrelevant. It’s already served its major purpose and no longer matters–except for one very important aspect: the cover can serve as a trigger that leads readers to other books.

What I see are ebook covers that miss the major Sell Points.

  • Genre
  • Mood/Tone
  • Title
  • Author

Sell Points are simple. Maybe it’s their obvious simplicity that make them so easy to miss. To figure out the sell points, you have to ask: What are readers looking for? To answer that, you have to know who your readers are and/or who you want your readers to be. (If you say, “My book is for every reader from 8 to 80!” you are doomed. Sorry. It’s true.)

GENRE: If you’re writing genre fiction, your task is fairly straightforward: Make the cover look like it belongs in the genre. It truly astonishes me how many covers miss this mark so completely. Genre book browsers are scanning quickly, not necessarily reading titles, looking for visual clues that something is worth clicking on and exploring further. Your pastel colored cover with blooming flowers might be stunning, a real piece of art and perfectly depicts the theme of “winter always ends and the cycle begins anew” but it’s a crime thriller and it doesn’t look thrilling at all, so potential buyers will pass. Spend a few hours browsing online retailers for your genre. Make lists of common elements. Even, or especially, those that seem cheesy or cliched. Cheesy cliches work because they shout, “This is a thriller! This is a romance! This is horror! This is what you’re looking for!”

cover blog 3

Example of a cover that not only hits all the sell points, but perfectly targets the humorous horror sub-genre market. The title and color work together to set the tone/mood. The design looks simple (it’s not–this is carefully thought out and crafted). It’s legible and eye-catching. (and no, I didn’t do this one, but I wish I had)

MOOD/TONE: Reading fiction is an emotional experience. Readers are always on the lookout for something to either fit a current mood or create a new one. The tone and mood of your cover MUST match the description. The cover and description MUST match the story. If there’s a disconnect between the cover and the description, no sale. If there’s a disconnect between the cover and description and the story itself, you’ll have disappointed and possibly disgruntled readers. Never, ever forget your readers’ emotional experiences AND expectations. If you set them up for a light and amusing read but then hand them Hamlet, your cover–and the book–has failed.

Cover blog 1

Example of a cover that fails. Found under a search for “political thrillers” it doesn’t look like a political thriller. It’s dull. Bad enough to tack on a photo, but it’s not even an interesting photo. The image is static and out of context. The typography is illegible in thumbnail. It looks amateurish.

TITLE: In my rarely humble opinion, publishers should spend more brain time on titles than on artwork. A truly great title can sell books all on its own. (Personally, I am total shit with titles, so I have nothing but admiration for people who come up with great titles.) What makes a great title? It’s snappy, it’s memorable, it tells a story in just a few words. This isn’t the place to be cute or esoteric or lofty. In the article I linked to earlier, one of the problems I noted was the author’s title. THE SCARLET ALBATROSS. Interesting visual, but taken all by itself, what can it possibly mean? Who is looking for a book about a big seabird painted red? (And the author must sense there is something off about it because the cover is bogged down with extraneous tag lines and explanations.) Contrast that to Larry Correria’s MONSTER HUNTER INTERNATIONAL.Says it all.  Anyone looking for a story about monsters is going to at least click on the listing. When it comes to titles, subtlety is not your friend. Nor are lofty literary allusions (unless you are targeting the really tiny market of literary snobs). Wordplay is only going to work if your intended audience is in on the joke. If you’re going to invest time and/or money in market testing, forget the artwork and test your title. Once you have a title, make sure it’s readable on the cover. Yes, I know, the book title is right there in plain text on the browsing screen. But browsers are looking at the pictures first, then when something catches the eye, the text off to the side. If your title is illegible on the listing then it doesn’t exist.

AUTHOR: I am always appalled by writers with audiences whose names are not prominent on the cover. It’s a HUGE sell point. The majority of readers are fairly risk aversive. They might say they want something new and different, but if given a choice they’ll usually go with a sure thing. A writer who’s made them happy in the past might very well make them happy in the future. The more prominent your name is on the cover, the more important it looks. Even new writers should make their name stand out.

A word about artwork. I’m not going to say “pearls before swine” but… Fabulous artwork is NOT a sell point. (Fabulous artwork can sell print editions because sometimes those books aren’t even opened, they are displayed, and in brick-and-mortar stores customers actually pick up books and study them front and back before opening the pages–an entirely different way to shop for books.) Crappy, amateurish artwork can hurt your sales because readers will assume the interior is also crappy and amateurish. But when you’re making decisions about artwork and illustrations for an ebook cover, look at it in context of the sell points. It’s far more important that the illustration imparts information than that it looks pretty.

Cover blog 2

Gorgeous artwork that is utterly wasted on an ebook. The image turns to a muddy splotch in thumbnail. If not for the author’s name, this cover would be a total fail.

Another word, this time about typography. Choose your typefaces wisely and don’t junk them up with too many effects. Make sure your title and name are as legible as possible in thumbnail. Make sure the style of the typeface matches the design.

My number one suggestion for indies designing their ebook cover is to HONESTLY assess whether they can objectively wear the “art department” hat or not. If your mind keeps turning to themes and symbolism and all the many (many!) wonderful elements you want on the cover, and if you keep forgetting to consider what your potential readers are looking for, then it’s probable that you need to turn the job over to someone else. And then let them do their job.



DIY Book Covers: Recycling Old Covers

Caveat: I’m NOT a cover designer. I’m more of a determined monkey turned art department through the process of being too dumb to know better. What helps is having great tools: Adobe Creative Cloud, a Mac computer with a huge screen, and unlimited access to YouTube where you can learn everything about anything when it comes to Photoshop.)


Blog-old covers6When LB handed me the project of restoring his extensive mid-century pulp paperback novels for digital and print we had a minor problem. Covers. Now, while I am in love with the gorgeous retro covers Hard Case Crime is putting on some of LB’s books, I don’t have the ability to create that type of art. So with time and budget concerns (we had a LOT of books to do) we had to get creative. For the Classic Crime Library (most originally published in the 1960s) we came up with what I believe is an elegant solution. I made them look like old-school classics with leather covers and gold leaf. This was surprisingly easy to do–and inexpensive. The only out-of-pocket expense was font licensing. For the rest: I scanned the back of a leather-bound book from my personal library; used a clipart border I had on hand (copyright-free from Dover books); and used my iPhone to take a picture of “gold” leaf from my arts and crafts supplies. Ta da!

Blog-old covers4

When it came time to do the Classic Erotica collection, I’m not sure which of us came up with the idea of recycling the original covers. Might have been me. (When I was a wee child, my mother had a fondness for cheesy potboilers and science fiction novels. I knew all her hiding places. I loved the covers as much as the stories — I wanted to be Frank Frazetta when I grew up.)

First step is cleaning up the images.

Blog-old covers1

Remember, these covers are over 50 years old, and the original cover stock wasn’t the best paper in the world to begin with (which, by the way, scanning in these old books was…interesting. Some of the paper was so brittle it disintegrated if I looked at it too hard. By the time I finished scanning my desk looked as if I’d held a ticker-tape parade.). I used Photoshop to restore the covers as close to the original as I could. I used clipping layers to work on one portion at a time. The repair tool and the clone stamp helped me get rid of the crackling and scuffs.

After cleaning up the image, I made a template. For the background I went with suede. I took a photo of a piece of suede (from my ridiculously eclectic arts and crafts supply). I colored it in Photoshop. Then I tipped in the image and gave it a gold border. Because it’s the ebook cover, we decided to get rid of all text except for the title.

Blog-old covers2

For the print cover, we went with the full cover, as close to the original as I could get it. I know there are people out there who love those old pulp fiction covers as much as I do. I think they’ll enjoy having a classy (classier, anyway) rendition on their bookshelves.

Adobe Photoshop PDF

Blog-old covers5

On a side note, there was one cover we couldn’t bring ourselves to use. It’s the “I’m ready for my enema now,” cover. (You can see it here if you’re so inclined.) Besides, LB wanted to use another title. So… LB found a suitably sinister looking image on Shutterstock and I “retro-d” it. The result isn’t anywhere close to the glory of a Hard Case Crime cover, but I’m happy with it and it fits nicely in the series. And it was budget friendly.

A few tips for recycling old covers:

#1: Make sure you CAN use the images. Find out if you’re legally allowed. You might need to get permission or purchase a license.

#2: Use a scanner instead of photographing the cover. You’ll get a clearer image with better color resolution.

#3: Be patient. The cover might be torn, foxed, scuffed, bent or otherwise damaged. 100% restoration might not be possible (unless you’re a pro or willing to take it to a pro). Work in layers, one small area at a time.

#4: Be creative in “displaying” the image. Picture frames, color blocks, borders, backgrounds. In the collaborative books LB did with Hal Dresner and Don Westlake, I used color blocks to make them stand out.

Blog-old covers7

So for nostalgia’s sake, budgetary concerns or just for fun, don’t be afraid to recycle those wonderful old book covers if you can.

Why Your Ebook SHOULD NOT Look Like a Print Book

Blog-Screenshot_2016-05-16-14-37-10I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend of late: Writer/publishers who want their ebooks to look (and act) like print books–and print designers turned formatters who encourage it.

What those who try to force print design into ebooks seem unaware of is WHY readers like ebooks:

  1. Portability. (I can carry hundreds or thousands of books in my purse.)
  2. Availability. If a book is in digital form and offered for sale, then it is always in stock. If you finish a really terrific book and want to read another of the author’s books, just pop over to the retail site, buy the next ebook and keep reading.
  3. Reader-friendliness. If, like me, you have overworked and/or aged eyes, the ability to increase font size and line height is a godsend. If, like me, you enjoy reading outdoors, an eink reader completely eliminates page glare and the resulting eye fatigue. If, like me, you like to read in bed but your partner wants you to turn off the damned light, if you have a tablet or backlit eink reader or smart phone, you can turn off the damned light and keep reading.
  4. Social reading. For those who like being part of a club, you can connect your books to other readers and share highlighted passages and comments.
  5. Price. Unless the ebook is coming from one of the Big5 publishers, it’s probably inexpensive enough to appeal to even the heaviest readers. They are inexpensive to produce, cost nothing to stock and free/cheap to ship. They should be inexpensive. I bet I’m not the only reader who was priced out of the print market and stopped buying new books, but because of ebooks is now back to buying four or five new books a week.

I doubt very much anyone who reads ebooks buy them to admire their looks. A well-designed ebook is a pleasure to read, but ONLY when the design complements and/or enhances the book’s functionality. When the design interferes with the functionality, it can irritate readers to the point where the author or publisher goes on the Do Not Buy list.

Publishers and formatters drop the ball for one of two reasons:

  1. They don’t understand how ebook reading devices work.
  2. Their priorities are skewed.

If you don’t know how reading devices work, you have no business formatting an ebook. Period. It’s not easy keeping up with everything. Trust me, I spend a lot of time keeping up with updates and changing devices and standards. I have four Kindles, an iPhone, and two computers on which I read and/or test ebooks. I use several programs to test out new techniques. My goal with every job is to produce an ebook that can be read on any device. If you don’t know how ereading devices work, you can format an absolutely stunning looking file in Word or InDesign or Scrivener only to have it completely fall apart or turn into an unreadable mess when it’s loaded onto an ereader. If you’re using Calibre to convert commercial ebooks, chances are you’re unaware as to why that’s a bad idea. The truly clueless seem to be the most proud of creating one-size-fits-all formats for print, epub, and mobi.

Priorities. Here are mine:

  1. The writing itself. Properly edited, properly punctuated, properly proofread. A great story can make readers forget a poorly formatted ebook; but no amount of great formatting can overcome a poorly written/edited/proofread book. For my clients, I do a preproduction clean up to make sure their work is professionally punctuated, and if I spot a mistake, I fix it for them. I also encourage proofreading, even going so far as keeping my proofreading charge at a bare minimum, and never charging for inputting proof changes/corrections. I will suggest line-editing if I believe a work merits it. I do my part; writer/publishers have to do theirs.
  2. Functionality. Almost every reading device has user controls for fonts, font sizes, line spacing, margins and background colors. Formatting or conversion that interferes with or disables those user controls results in a broken ebook and annoyed readers. The ebook also has to be readable on varying sizes of reading screens.
  3. Ease of navigation. A functional table of contents, two way internal hyperlinks, a complete and comprehensive internal toc, clearly defined chapter and section starts.
  4. File size. Ebooks work sort of like websites, with each chapter or section much like a web page. I split my html files into individual chapters or sections to make them load faster. If an ebook is image heavy, I rework the images to the smallest size possible. You don’t want readers to experience page lag. Or worse, for them to be unable to load your ebook at all because it’s so bloated. Or crash the ereader. (I’ve had box sets do that and those puppies get deleted without prejudice.)
  5. Design. Functional doesn’t mean unattractive or generic. Each design element, however, has to complement and/or enhance the functionality. Any design element that degrades the functionality has to go–no matter how pretty it might be, or how good it looks in print.

Print elements that tend to fascinate writer/publishers and wreck their ebooks:

  1. Fonts. Fonts and licenses are cheap. Fonts are easy as can be to embed in ebooks. Fancy fonts can add elegance and visual interest to chapter headers and limited blocks of text. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, embedding a font for the body text is a bad idea. Fonts suitable for body text add greatly to the file size. Not every font is suitable for ebooks. Special characters can turn into question marks or black boxes on a device. What looks terrific in print can render into something less than desirable on a Kindle or Nook or smart phone screen. Leave font choice up to the readers.
  2. Widows/orphans. I had a client complain to me about a single word ending up on a “page” at the end of a chapter. I told him to change the font size–I wasn’t being a smart aleck. That’s how ebooks work. The text flows to fit the screen. Sometimes you end up with orphaned text that would never be allowed in a print book. Every attempt that’s made to “fix” the text means risking breaking the ebook. Live with it. Readers don’t notice, or care. They are used to it.
  3. Justification. Ereading devices do a shit job of justification. The alternative is worse. (The way my Kindle tablet hyphenates text makes me want to go after somebody’s knuckles with a wooden ruler.) If you absolutely cannot stand the way devices justify text, then left align it. It will jar some readers initially, but if the writing is good, they’ll get used to it. If you are using InDesign, Word or Scrivener to format your ebook, DO NOT justify the text. It’ll disable line spacing and/or margin width controls on many devices.
  4. Drop-caps. They’re pretty, I get it. Unless you are a pro and willing to teBlog-screenshot_2016_05_16T20_52_30+0000st your coding across a multitude of devices, delegate drop-caps to the print version. And don’t forget to test in landscape mode. The results can be… disconcerting.
  5. Text-wrapping around images. This is another element that can seriously bite you in the butt. It can work, but only if you know exactly what you are doing (and just because you can do it in Word or InDesign doesn’t mean you know how to do it in an ebook). Consider the many, many, many readers who use their smart phones as ereaders. What happens on an iPhone as it struggles to fit everything on the screen would be laughable if it weren’t so annoying to the reader. It can be pretty nasty when readers need a larger font size, too.
  6. Graphics with text. I have two words for that: Smart Phones. Those beautiful flow charts become unreadable on a small screen. That caption on your photo becomes unreadable on a small screen. Adjust, compromise, get used to the way text flows–even though the graphics look perfect in the print version and you really want to use them in the ebook.

Writer/publishers, do yourselves and your readers a big favor and forget about trying to force your ebook to look like print. Respect what it is your readers want. What YOU want is for the readers to not consciously notice the design at all, but instead to fall in love with your words and keep coming back for more.



Congratulations to the Anthony Nominees

Bourchercon World Mystery Convention has announced the nominees for the annual Anthony awards. This year I have friends and clients to congratulate!

Best Short Story:
“Old Hands,” Dark City Lights – Erin Mitchell [Three Rooms]
Dark City Lights anthology, edited by Lawrence Block

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Best Anthology or Collection
Protectors 2: Heroes — Stories to Benefit PROTECT – Thomas Pluck, editor [Goombah Gumbo]

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Best Paperback Original
Young Americans – Josh Stallings [Heist]

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Best Crime Fiction Audiobook
Young Americans – Josh Stallings – Em Eldridge, narrator [Josh Stallings]


Tables of Contents in Ebooks: Yes!

There’s a big brouhaha going on now with Amazon. Scammers and other crooks have flooded Kindle Unlimited. Amazon is making one of their sweeps in an attempt to root them out. As per usual, when automation is unleashed, innocents get caught up in the net–sometimes with very expensive consequences.

One of the ways publishers are being dinged has to do with the tables of contents. Crooks are manipulating them to game the Kindle Unlimited page reads, so Amazon is going after ebooks that lack a standard (in form and in placement) ToC. Amazon highly recommends that every ebook has an active (publisher generated) table of contents, and requires an internal table of contents (this is what you see when you use the Go To feature on a Kindle). For more information on Amazon’s policies, start here and don’t forget to read this.

ToC Blog 1

The two most common arguments I get against building a Table of Contents in an ebook are (1) It’s a novel. It’s stupid to put a table of contents in a novel. And (2) A long list of chapters eats up the sample/Look Inside features at Amazon and hurts my chances at a sale.

My answer to #1 is: Novels don’t need tables of contents, but ebooks do. A reader can’t just open a book to the middle and leaf through a few pages to find Chapter 9. They have to navigate. An ebook without a ToC requires endless paging through to navigate and that’s no fun. As a reader, an ebook without a useful navigation guide is a broken ebook, and it’s irritating. For those who point out that the internal ToC is the navigation guide, my answer is that not every Kindle device (or other reading devices) displays the internal guide. Instead the device points to the user generated table of contents and if there isn’t one, the link is grayed out–useless.

The answer to #2 is not so easy. For non-fiction, it’s a no-brainer. A comprehensive table of contents IS a sell point. Readers want to see what they are getting and a solid ToC in the sample/Look Inside can often tell them everything they need to know.

ToC Blog 2

For novels, especially with a lot of chapters, it does get trickier. I’ve read ebooks with up to ten “pages” of chapter lists. Endless Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3… This does eat up the sample/Look Inside. It’s useful once the reader has purchased the ebook, but for tempting them into buying in the first place, it can be harmful. The temptation is strong to forego the ToC altogether or to move it into the backmatter. Normally, I’d recommend putting the ToC in the back of the book, but with the current Amazon crackdown, I would say that for any ebook enrolled in Kindle Select/Kindle Unlimited, DO NOT DO THAT. Any perception that you are somehow gaming the system or bending the rules can cause you to run afoul of Amazon’s policies.

Let’s explore some practical options.

The Internal ToC (required by Amazon)

If you’re building your ebook from scratch, you will hand-build your internal ToC (tocncx). It will look something like this:

Blog ToC 4

This produces the NCX view/Go To list, along with giving a strict order to display the sections of your book. (If you want to learn how to do this, which will allow you to create more sophisticated and better ebooks, check out The eBook Design and Development Guide, by Paul Salvette.)

For those of you formatting in Word, onsite conversion will build your internal ToC. The conversion seeks out sections based on styles and/or chapter headings (It picks up “Chapter” for instance). For a full explanation, look here. The easiest way to do this is to use Word’s built in heading styles: Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3, etc. Apply these to the chapter/section starts. Conversion will do the rest.

The Publisher-Generated (active) Table of Contents
(highly recommended by Amazon)

If you have up to thirty entries in your ToC it’s not going to eat up too much of the sample/Look Inside (about two “pages” worth). I would build a standard ToC and call it a day, having done due diligence. Where to put it? As long as it’s in the front matter, it’s up to you. (My personal preference is to have the title page be the start page, so I generally place the ToC before that.)

What if you have thirty+ entries? A simple solution is to put all the entries in a block.

Blog ToC 3

The above example is for a seventy chapter ebook, and the ToC takes up one “page”. This can also work well with non-fiction that contains a large number of sub-entries:

Blog ToC 5

In Word, if you use the built-in Heading styles, all you have to do is style your table of contents to look the way you want it, then use the automatically generated bookmarks to link to the entries.

Blog ToC 6

Don’t forget to test all your links–no matter how you build your ebook. It’s easy to mis-link an entry, but even easier to fix it. So test, test, test.

A Word for those who are Dead Set against a Chapter List

There are those who just cannot bring themselves to include a ToC that contains a list of chapters. If you are one of them, include, at least, a truncated ToC. It can be very short. For example:

Title Page
The Story
About the Author

It won’t be very useful for your readers, but it will put you in compliance with Amazon.