Using Sigil as a Proofreading Tool for Ebooks

Proof Blog 2Indulge me a moment… A few months ago I wrote a story. To my regular readers this is no big deal–you write stories in mass quantities and many of you earn your livings doing so, so ho-hum, am I right? But, for reasons I won’t bore you with, it was a big deal to me. I let my friend Julia Barrett read it and she liked it. Then Julia decided to put together an anthology of romance stories with a foodie theme. Knowing how much I like foodie stories (I call it food porn–yum!) she asked me to write a story for the anthology. To which I said, “I don’t write romances any more, so wouldn’t know where to start.” And no sooner had I hit SEND on the email, then I got an IDEA. Punchline: I wrote a foodie romance and Julia included it in the anthology. Heh.

My main job with the anthology was producing the ebook. Producing an anthology, even a large one, is not that much different than doing a novel. Consistency and file size control are the biggest issues. I’ve discussed the importance of those before, so won’t bore you with a repeat.

I WILL bore you with the necessity of proofreading ebooks. With this anthology, each writer was responsible for proofreading her own story. That meant I had to provide the ebook and a markup document to each of them.

Proofreading is a Big Deal to me, not because I particularly enjoy proofreading, but because I’m a heavy reader. Nothing irritates me more than realizing the publisher skipped proofreading. I can’t tolerate slobs. When I get a new client, I always encourage proofreading. Sometimes I even do it myself. Because it’s so important to me, I’m always looking for ways to make proofreading easier for the writers I work with.

Proofreading an ebook is not brain surgery or even rocket science. (ooh! Bunny trail–Have you read Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN? Engineer porn–yum.) When I proofread an ebook, I load the ebook on my Kindle and go through it word by word. If I discover a mistake, I make the correction in the html file. Because I do so much of this work it’s easy for me.

It’s not so easy for many of the writers I work with. They can’t make corrections in the ebook itself, and the fact that it looks so different from their original document just throws them. Last year I had a writer who just could not make the mental leap between the markup doc and the ebook, so painstakingly went through the markup document and meticulously styled it to make it look like the ebook. Hurt my head AND my heart. The worst part is, when a writer is that distracted by how something looks, it’s easy for them to miss important things like typos and misplaced punctuation which is the whole point of proofreading in the first place.

Then I made an interesting discovery. There is a program called Sigil. It’s an epub editor. It has some features I find useful, namely being able to root out html goofs quickly and easily. I discovered that if I copy/paste the text into a Word doc, Word will do its best to retain the formatting.

Proof Blog 1The translation isn’t perfect. Images and fonts don’t transfer and Word has a problem with italics (tends to squish them) but overall this creates a pretty close approximation to what the ebook looks like. Real benefit is, the text AND layout are exactly the same. For writer/publishers who are not comfortable with proofreading on a device or with an online previewer such as Calibre or the Kindle Previewer, they can proofread the Word doc (turn on Track Changes and go to town). If they have a concern about the formatting, they can look at the actual ebook. The Word doc can be printed (for those who prefer proofreading with red pencil in hand). For those who hire out proofreading, they can check the styling and formatting in the ebook themselves, then send the Word doc to the proofreader.

How difficult is Sigil? Not very. It has a learning curve, but for this purpose, all you have to do is open your epub in the program then put it in book view. Copy/Paste the sections/chapters into a Word doc and that’s it. You have a markup document that closely resembles your actual ebook. Given that Sigil is a free program, it doesn’t cost you any cash to give it a try.

For those doing anthologies or box sets with multiple writers, it’s a quick and easy way to make individual-specific markup docs for each writer.

What about the rest of the you? Any tips or tricks for making proofreading ebooks easier and/or more efficient?

MS Word, A Primer for Indie Writers: Part III: Punctuation and Special Characters

The best evidence that MS Word is not the best tool for fiction writers is in the way it handles punctuation and special characters. The program was created for office writing, and the documents it creates are meant to be printed on site in order to find homes in filing cabinets. Many features that make it terrific for an office can cause major problems for indie writer/publishers.

My Number One Recommendation: Turn It Off

Auto Correct is a boon for office drones, but it’s an annoyance (at best) and dangerous (at worse) for fiction writers. Find it under File>Options>Proofing.

Word_Styles_12Enable or Disable features as you see fit.

Click on the Auto Correct Options button and this comes up:

Word_Styles_13When I’m composing, the only auto-formatting I allow in Word is curly/smart quotes instead of straight quotes. Anything else means I’m going to end up fighting with Word and that pisses off the muse and sends her sulking into the corner. Every once in a while I need to format a Word doc for Smashwords. Then some of those auto features come in handy. See that box in the right hand image that says “Replace text as you type”? You can enable that and make it so Word inserts special characters for you. The copyright symbol, for instance, or the Euro symbol rather than a dollar sign. Be careful with this option and make sure you are using an ebook friendly font (Times New Roman, Garamond), otherwise Word could insert special characters from a subset that is not supported in ereading devices.


When I’m prepping a document for production one of the things I do is make sure the punctuation is print standard. If you want your ebook or print on demand edition to look professional, you will do the same.

Curly/Smart Quotes versus Straight Quotes

Straight quotes/apostrophes look bad and amateurish. Period. Use curly/smart quotes. If you have straight quotes in your document, you can change them to curly quotes with Find/Replace. Enable auto correct for smart quotes, then type a double quote mark in the Find field and a double quote mark in the Replace field, click Replace All and Word will change straight to curly. Do the same for apostrophes/single quotes.

Now you will run into a major headache caused by Word: Curly quotes turned in the wrong direction. To find and correct the most common offenders, here are two searches I suggest you run using the Find feature:

  • Dash/hyphen or em dash with a double quote. In the Find field search for -” or ^+”
  • Space apostrophe (insert a blank space before the apostrophe). This will find open contractions with wrong way apostrophes.


If you take only one thing away from this post, it is to NEVER use Word’s auto-hyphenation feature.

Word_Styles_14When producing an ebook, do NOT hyphenate your text. Ereading devices will render the hyphens as characters placed randomly throughout. It looks awful.

When producing a print on demand book, use Manual hyphenation. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it is tedious. Yes, it seems ridiculous to manually do something the program can do in seconds. But, Word is a slob when it comes to hyphenation and it uses weird rules. Don’t trust it.

Em and En Dashes

This isn’t a grammar guide, so you’ll have to open a style manual and study up. Em and en dashes have specific uses and are NOT interchangeable. If you want your book to look professional, use these punctuation marks correctly.

Hot keys for quick insertion:
Em dash: CTRL+ALT+ Minus (the dash/minus on the Number pad)
En dash: CTRL + Minus (the dash/minus on the Number pad)

Auto-format as you type:
Enable auto format so that a double dash — becomes an em dash
Enable auto format so a space – space becomes an en dash

Compose using a double dash (for em dash) and space – space (for en dash). When you are done and ready to format your book, do a Find/Replace All to take care of them in one shot.
Em dash: double dash in the Find field, and replace with ^+ (caret plus sign)
En dash: space – space in the Find field, and replace with ^- (caret single dash)


Ah, the ellipsis, much beloved by writers everywhere and so widely, horrendously misused. Get a style manual and bone up on proper usage. An ellipsis is a special character consisting of three dots. Not two, not four, not twelve–three. While you are composing in Word, three periods in a row will suffice. When it comes to production, three periods in a row will screw up your book (digital and print) by orphaning periods.

Now is the time..
. (oops, little orphan)

For a professional looking ebook or print on demand book you want to use either the ellipsis character or a spaced ellipsis.

Word_Styles_15I showed the characters with the Show feature both off and on so you can see the (invisible) non-breaking space characters.

To make an ellipsis character:

Hot key: CTRL+ALT+. (period)
Auto format: Refer to the above image showing auto format options. Enable the “Replace text as you type” option to replace three periods in a row with an ellipsis.

To make a spaced ellipsis:

Hot key: .(period) CTRL+Shift+space .(period) CTRL+Shift+space .(period)
Find/Replace: (During composition use three periods) In the Find field type three periods … and in the Replace field type .(period)^s.(period)^s.(period)


If you are creating a document for your personal use, to print on your printer, this isn’t a concern. Just about everything you see on the screen will show up on the printed page. When you’re producing a book, either in print or digital, however, special characters can create big problems.

What is a special character?
Anything you can’t type directly on your computer keyboard.

In the Insert tool bar, click on Symbols.

Word_Styles_16For those of you who hire out your formatting, using obscure symbols or characters can cause big problems.It’s also a big problem when restoring text from scanned pages converted into a Word doc with OCR (Word can be very creative with interpretation). Ereading devices are selective about the characters they will render. The older the device, the fewer characters it will accept. My suggestion to you is, if you want/need obscure characters or symbols in your ebook, send a note to your formatter.

Dear Formatter: In chapter 7 I have several emoticons (smiley face and frowny face) I would like turned into symbols if possible.

Sometimes it is possible, sometimes substitutes must be made. Doing it this way is better than inserting a character that will not render and the formatter missing it and the ebook ends up displaying an “I do not know what this means” symbol (an X’d rectangle with a question mark in it).

For those of you creating ebooks with Word, stick to only those characters and symbols you find in “normal text”, Latin-A extended and Latin-B extended. Most of those are safe. To test if they will render, use the Kindle Previewer and look at the text in the DX device. If it shows up there, it’s good.

For those of you creating print on demand books with Word, you have a slightly different problem. You must ensure that your fonts (or at least, the font characters) are embedded. Go to File>Options>Save.

Word_Styles_17Word comes loaded with dozens or hundreds of fonts. Not all of them are embeddable. When you save the file as a pdf, the receiving program will try to find substitutes for any characters it cannot reproduce in your desired font. This can be a disaster. It can also make getting your book through the Createspace review process a major pain in the patoot.

For more information from Createspace:

For more information about embeddable fonts:

MS Word, A Primer for Indie Writers
Part I: Styles
Part II: Scene Breaks, Page Breaks, and Sections
Upcoming: Part IV: Find/Replace and SpellCheck

MS Word, A Primer for Indie Writers: Part II: Scene Breaks, Page Breaks and Sections

From a production point of view, white space in a Word doc can be a problem. It can confuse you or your hired formatter. It can cause goofs in your ebooks, not to mention making extra work for yourself.

I have some simple solutions for you.


Did you mean to hit Enter twice, or is that a scene break? How much time do you spend centering or using the space bar to align asterisks? How often do you forget to add the asterisks, or sometimes use one and other times five? How hard do you make it on yourself (or others) to find scene breaks when your book is in production?

Make it easy. I use a double pound sign (hashtags, for you young’uns).

Word_Styles_4Type them in and drive on. The double pound signs are unique (be very rare to find them within the text) and thus, searchable. When it comes time to produce the ebook or layout a print on demand edition, all I have to do is search for the double pound signs, do a Replace All and scene breaks are taken care of. (By the way, I turned on the Show feature in the sample so you can see the hard returns.)

If using Word to format your ebook or pod book, you can replace the ## with your scene break indicator of choice and style them all in one operation. Here is how:

Create a new style and call it Break or Scene Break. Here is a simple set up.

Word_Styles_5Open the Find/Replace box and do this:

Word_Styles_6Do a Replace All.

Word_Styles_7If you are sending your book to someone else for formatting, tell the formatter that you used ## for your scene breaks and let them know how you’d like them handled.

NOTE: The ## is arbitrary, which I use because it’s easy and unique. You can use any tag that makes sense to you, even typing in SCENE BREAK. As long as it is an easily searchable string, you’re golden.


I don’t use page breaks when I’m composing in Word. It’s unnecessary and just makes extra space I have to scroll through. I use a tag:


That’s two equal signs. I use it because it forms a unique search string. So the text ends up looking something like this:

Copyright Information
Table of Contents
Chapter One
Chapter Two
And so on
Chapter One

My little tag comes in handy while I’m formatting, too, since it allows me to use it as a search term to plug in page breaks and styles. If you want to print your document or you’re formatting an ebook or pod edition, there are two easy ways to insert page breaks.

Number 1: Find and Replace

Word_Styles_8If you want to retain the tag, use ^m== in the Replace field.(You can delete the tags later) Do a Replace All and you have page breaks.

NOTE: ^m is Word’s code for Manual Page Break. You can find other codes in the Special menu you see in the Find/Replace box. Those codes can be used in either the Find or the Replace fields.

Number 2 is to use your Heading 1 style. Modify Heading 1 the way I showed you in Part I. In the modify paragraph box, Line and Page Breaks, check the Page Break Before box. Now Word will insert a page break before every instance of the Heading 1 style.

Word_Styles_9To insert a manual page break in Word. You can use the hot key: CTRL+Enter. Or go to the Insert tool bar. Click on the icon for Page Break.


Sections are a nice feature in Word. They allow you to treat different parts of a large document with different styles, page numbering and first page treatments (no headers or footers on the first page, for instance). For composition, most print documents, or ebooks, you don’t need sections. If you are laying out a print on demand book, sections will save you many headaches and much frustration. The Section Breaks command (with its options for Odd and Even breaks and Next page or Continuous) is found in the Page Layout tool bar.


As noted before, white space can be a problem in Word. Sometimes you want a blank line–to set off a poem or letter, for instance–but it’s not a scene break. What I do is tag the blank line with a single pound sign/hashtag. It looks like this:

Here is my story moving along.
The only problem with
Kittens is that
Kittens grow up to be cats!
And the story continues on (with apologies to Mr. Nash)…

My little tag (which is entirely arbitrary, by the way, you can use anything you like, even type in BLANK LINE if it suits you) is a search term and I also use it to indicate that a section requires special formatting. If you use my single pound sign, remember it is NOT necessarily a unique search string. I make it unique with this string in the Find field ^p#^p. That tells Word to only consider a pound sign if there is a paragraph return before and after it.

There you go, learn a few Word features and use my tips, and white space will never trip you up again.

Part I: Styles
Next Post: Part III: Punctuation and Special Characters

MS Word, A Primer for Indie Writers: Part I: Styles

Let us ponder MS Word. It’s ubiquitous. Until recently, just about every PC came pre-loaded with it. Writers use it because it’s there. In the course of cleaning thousands of documents generated in Word, I’ve come to the conclusion that the vast majority of writers have zero idea about how to actually use the program. This is not a slam. Up until I began formatting ebooks, I had no idea how it worked either. I typed my stories and my printer puked out the pages, and that was that. Back in those days, it didn’t matter much. I had a standard manuscript format to follow, one my editors demanded, and once the manuscript was in my publisher’s hands, it was completely out of mine.

What I never thought about, and you probably don’t either, is that MS Word has evolved from a word processor into a quasi-publishing program. Its purpose is to create office documents: memos, contracts, forms, etc. Stuff that is printed for office use. As a tool for writers, especially fiction writers, it’s over-powered and way too complicated. For writer/publishers it’s horrendous. But, it’s what most people use and they aren’t going on a hunt for something different because it takes time to learn a new program and they’d rather be writing.

Indie writer/publishers, pay attention. If you don’t learn how to use Word properly, it’s either going to a) Drive you insane; b) Drive your hired production people insane; c) Create a less than professional end product; d) All of the Above.

I get enough questions via email about how to fix some problem or another created in Word, that I think this primer is necessary. Since Word is such a complex program, I’m doing it as a series. I’m not, however, writing a manual. (90% of Word’s features aren’t something you will ever need, so I’m not bothering with those.) Every feature I cover will pertain to you.


Styles in Word are the most useful feature of all. Learning to use them and then actually using them consistently will save you headaches, frustration and hours of useless, mind-numbing work. If you hire out book production, professional formatters will have no trouble with your text. If you do it yourself, styles will eliminate the majority of problems before you even begin.

NOTE: I am demonstrating using Word 2010, and its menus are different than other versions, but all the principles are exactly the same.

Word_Styles_1The Style menu is found on the Home menu screen. Pictured here is a work in progress. It requires only two (TWO!) styles. Normal and Heading 1, which are both built-in styles in Word. For composition purposes, especially with fiction writers, I recommend you stick to those two styles. You’re composing. You don’t need to worry about margins, headers, tabs, centering, page breaks, etc. If you aren’t going to print the document for any purpose than your own, none of that matters. Trust me.

The sample is set up for MY composition comfort, the layout that floats my boat. You may prefer a different font or line spacing. To modify a style to suit you, right-click on the style you want to change and choose Modify.

Word_Styles_2This will open the main style modification menu. In the lower left corner is a box that says Format. Click on that and you will open boxes that allow you to change the font and paragraph styles. The above sample shows my paragraph set up. To prevent future production problems, I suggest:

  • Alignment: Left
  • Outline Level: Body Text
  • Indent: (right and left): 0
  • Special (paragraph indent): 0.3″ if you like it narrow; 0.5″ if you like it wide
  • Line-Spacing: Your preference, single, 1.5, or double
  • Under Line and Page Breaks: Unclick ALL the boxes

You can modify your font the same way. Select Font from the Format menu and choose your font and font size.

NOTE: Choose a font that you can stand to look at and work in for however long it takes you to write your story. BUT, big warning here. Fonts in Word are designed to work in print. If you’re going to produce an ebook, and if you are using special characters (umlauts, breve and grave marks, ornaments, etc.) some character subsets will NOT translate. Times New Roman is the safest. Garamond and Courier are also pretty reliable.

So you set up your body text style as Normal, what happens? You type. When you hit Enter for a new paragraph, the cursor is at the proper indent (no need to use the Tab key or hit the space bar.). Your document will look the same throughout. If you decide to modify the layout, Word will update the entire document to match the new style.


Heading 1 is a built-in style. If you use it

  • Word will create a navigation guide for you. (You can do levels using Heading 2, Heading 3, Heading 4, etc., but for most fiction projects, that’s just silly.)
  • You can bop around your manuscript easily. You can tell at a glance where you are.
  • You can use the search function to find your chapter or section starts.
  • When you give the document to an editor, proofreader or formatter, Heading 1 makes it perfectly clear where your chapters begin even if you don’t use page breaks or title your chapters with “Chapter”.
  • If you are formatting a Word doc for Smashwords, Heading 1 alerts the Meatgrinder and enables it to build the internal ToC.
  • It makes building a Table of Contents easy.

To demonstrate how easy styles can be, I just spent a few minutes manipulating styles. The left document is my working document: Normal and Heading 1. In the middle is the same document styled for Smashwords. I modified Normal and Heading 1, then added a new style called “First” (you can make custom styles) to remove the indent from the first paragraph. On the right is a document I can save as a pdf to use for an advance reading copy. (I would, of course, adjust the margins, hyphenate the text, and add headers and page numbers, but that is another post).

Word_Styles_3Minutes. No hassle, no fuss, no bother.

Some tips for Styles:

  • Print and Digital are two completely different things. Use Save As to make a working copy any time you decide to style for a new format.
  • For ebooks, never use a justified style (in Word). Justifying your text can cause Word to insert “lock” commands that render user preference controls useless in the ebook.
  • Don’t use the centering command in the tool bar. Create a style for centering. That way you’ll never have to remember to remove the paragraph indents.
  • If for some reason, you prefer working in block paragraphs, use your style to insert space between paragraphs, NOT extra hard returns. Take a look at the image for modifying paragraphs. See the Spacing Before and After? Select “6” in the Before box and that will automatically insert a space between your paragraphs. “3” will you give you a half-space.
  • Remember, for printing purposes, What You See is pretty much What You Get. That is not true when formatting ebooks. If you are formatting an ebook in Word, set your view to Web Layout so you are not distracted by “pages” and margins. Adjust the window to make it smaller and larger, and you will see what I mean. Trust the styles to take care of your paragraphs, and don’t try to micro-manage spacing.

There you go. Styles. They’ll make your life easier and your books more professional.

Next post: Scene Breaks, Page Breaks and Sections

Boast Post: PROTECTORS 2: Heroes –The Biggest Ebook I’ve Done To Date

protectors6It’s been a while since I’ve done a boast post. But this book is extra special. When Tom Pluck asked me if I’d help with PROTECTORS 2: Heroes, the second collection of stories to benefit PROTECT, of course I said yes. The organization PROTECT is devoted to helping kids. As a human being, I’m all for protecting kids from abusers and predators. On a more personal level, it’s the kind of organization that helps the children I’ve fostered and adopted in my efforts to disrupt the cycles of abuse.

PROTECTORS 2: Heroes is a hundred percent volunteer effort. 55 authors and artists contributed stories and illustrations. Many of those authors are my literary idols: Joyce Carol Oates, Andrew Vachss, David Morrell, Charles de Lint, Joe R. Lansdale, and Harlan Ellison, just to name a few. (I confess to a few fangirl squee moments, folks, so sue me…) Tom Pluck, head editor and story contributor, coordinated the effort. Suzanne Dell’Orto designed the cover and the print edition. I line-edited, formatted the ebook, and proofread. It was a massive undertaking. The book is almost 250,000 words and involved months of hard work. Every penny from the sales are going to PROTECT.

I could end this post by urging you to buy the book. (You really should. It’s fantastic and for a worthy cause.) But as with all challenging projects, I learned a few things. With so many indie writers doing box sets and collaborating on anthologies, some of you might benefit from what I’ve learned.

WORK FLOW. Big projects can easily spiral out of control. The best way to prevent that is to come up with a plan and stick to it. Because we were doing digital and print, it was easiest and most efficient to do the ebook first, then the print. Ebooks are easy to modify and update; print can be trickier. So by doing the ebook first we could get the text in tip-top shape, edited and proofread and in order. Then when I sent the final text (lifted from the ebook) to the print formatter, any minor issues found during the final proofread were easily fixed in the ebook. Our work flow looked like this:
Tom: Copy edit individual stories; create the table of contents
Jaye: Compile the individual files into one Word doc and line edit
Tom: Approve line edit, adjust the ToC, make final decision about front and back matter
Jaye: Format ebook. Send proof copy to Tom so he can make any further modifications to the layout. Meanwhile, proofread the ebook.
Tom: Approve ebook. Upload Pre-order to Amazon.
Jaye: Recover text from the ebook files, compile into a Word doc, and send that to the print designer.
Tom: Go over print proofs. Send Jaye final corrections.
Jaye: Produce final ebook.

This work flow ensured that we were not tripping over each other and, more importantly, we were all on the same page and working off the same text.

TREAT THE PROJECT AS A WHOLE: This might seem self-evident, but judging by some of the box sets and anthologies I’ve purchased, it’s a point that seems to escape many. As a reader it annoys me no end when a collection is a mish-mosh of styles–they can’t even match the paragraph indents. Tom dealt with the individual contributors, so he had to work with individual files. Once he gave me the green light, I compiled all those files into one document and from then on treated it as a whole. While line editing I standardized the punctuation and spelling. The formatting was done with the same CSS stylesheets.


MANAGE THE FILE SIZE: We knew going in that this was going to be a big ebook. Not only word count, but there were illustrations, too. Part of my job was to keep the finished ebook at a manageable size. I cannot emphasize this enough. Screen lag is always a problem in big ebooks. That must be minimized. Other problems are more serious. One is Amazon’s delivery fee, which is charged back against the publisher. $.15 per MB doesn’t sound like much, but it can add up and eat up the commissions. I’ve bought (and returned) box sets that failed to load. I had one that crashed my Kindle. (I had to reboot it and that did NOT make me happy in the least.)  I manage file size by formatting in html which is very streamlined and allows me to break up the book into bite-sized chunks. I resized the images to make them as small as possible. I strongly advise anyone deciding to do a large anthology or box set to NOT format it in Word (or any word processor), Scrivener or InDesign. Those programs add sometimes fatal bloat.


NAVIGATION: I’m always obsessing about how to make navigating ebooks easier. In this case I did a two-tier table of contents. Click the story title and the reader is taken to the story. Click the author and they are sent to the author’s bio. In the bio section, clicking on the author name takes them to the story. I did it that way because when I buy anthologies, it’s usually because of the authors. I want to know who wrote what and don’t want to page through the ebook in order to find what I want. (And yes, I have bought ebooks that required me to do that because the ToC was useless or non-existent.)


[Box set tables of contents are trickier and I should do a post discussing the problems and solutions.]

FRONT AND BACK MATTER: Big books often have big tables of contents. This is good, since readers are interested in who the authors are, and I consider it a strong sell point. The downside is, it can eat up space in the sample and Amazon’s Look Inside feature. For that reason Tom and I decided to move all the legal notices and copyright information to the back of the book. I put a simple notice on the title page and added a link to the copyright information.

protectors7protectors3Overall, doing a big ebook has its challenges, but with a good plan, some thought and organization, it doesn’t have to mean you’re ripping your hair out or disappointing readers.

Ebooks Available on Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and iTunes
In Paperback
Buy Direct–All Proceeds Go to PROTECT

How To Make Your Ebook Look Like It Was Published by the Big 5

quinn-snotSo a client tells me this morning that he wants to make sure readers can’t tell the difference between his book and one published by the Big 5.

This is easy.

  1. Hire somebody who uses InDesign (because it’s really big and expensive and therefore the best tool available). Make sure the editor in charge is totally dazzled by all the drop caps and floating text and other touches that look fabulous on iPads, but totally fall apart on eink readers. Render all user preference controls utterly useless, especially line spacing. Who needs line spacing anyway. Extra points if the ebook is littered with unreadable characters and question marks.
  2. Do not proofread the ebook. Don’t let anyone check that the chapters are in the right order. It doesn’t matter if a few chapters are missing altogether. Extra points if the ebook displays all your discretionary hyphens.
  3. Include no less than 10 screens worth of front matter (not including the Table of Contents) and make that copyright notice as hostile as possible.
  4. Author bios are optional, but three or four pages about the PUBLISHER are mandatory. And that damn well better be proofread and perfect or heads will roll!
  5. Don’t forget DRM.
  6. Slap on a $14.99 price tag.

Voila! Now nobody can tell the difference between your self-published ebook and one from Harper-Collins.

More Power to the Do-It-Yourselfers

quinnremoteSo I got an email last week from a friend. She asked about justification and hyphenation in ebooks, and my opinion about what should be the standard. Then in a PS, she added:

PS I now have a system for making Scrivener create an ebook for me that is rather fancy, but doesn’t require any hand work. There’s a post about it on my blog, if you care to look. A tiny bit of hand manipulation of the final epub + Kindlegen even gives me indented right margins for my epigraphs. I have learned so much from you and your posts – but I do have a different system which works for me with NO hand cleaning of the source code, and just a few tweaks to the templates. So I can say my Scrivener ebooks look good on the epub and mobi readers I’ve tried, and I’ll test them on everything I have access to before even uploading. You did say to tell you if people had a system that worked for them.”

It probably doesn’t make good business sense for me to encourage Do-It-Yourself ebook production. Except, I think DIY is wonderful and I not only encourage it, I highly approve of anyone who wants to give it a shot. In fact, I am of the opinion that anyone who wants to make a career out of self-publishing to at least try formatting an ebook. If you’re an independent writer, you’re ALSO a publisher. A publisher needs to know how things work. They need to know what the people they hire are doing and if they are doing a good job and earning their keep.

There are many, many resources available to the DIYer. Both Amazon and Smashwords have tons of information about how to make an ebook. It is possible to make a quality ebook using readily available tools such as MS Word or Scrivener. Here is a recommendation I made to Alicia:

I haven’t used Scrivener since I had a computer die on me, [two plus years ago] and I haven’t reloaded it. I imagine it’s improved quite a bit. Even so, were I using it, I’d skip using their [built-in] KindleGen, run an epub then convert that using the Kindle Previewer. I’d use the resulting MOBI file for proofing and adjusting, then run a fresh epub and load that to Amazon. That will greatly lessen chances of conversion goofs.

I’ve said it many times in many blog posts that the keys to a quality ebook are clean text going in and then careful testing/proofreading of the ebook before it is uploaded to a retailer. How exactly you go from the clean text stage to the proofread stage is up to you. I prefer html and css to build an ebook from the ground up because it’s efficient and I have a lot of control and I can do some very sophisticated styling without breaking the resulting ebook.

If you are comfortable using a word processor or Scrivener or even InDesign, here are the tips I gave Alicia:

[This is a problem] Using multiple, but not embedded fonts. I encourage people to stick with Times New Roman, not because it’s easy to read or because it will show up in ebooks, but because its character sets are stable and every conversion program knows how to “read” it. It’s foolproof as far as conversion is concerned. When people use multiple fonts that are not properly embedded, what will happen is that sometimes during the conversion the program decides to “help” out. I don’t know if you’ve ever read an ebook where all the sudden a word is super-sized or teeny-tiny or characters are replaced by black diamonds or boxes with question marks. That is a result of inappropriate fonts.

Justifying the text. Across the board, this will break a Kindle book.
[Justified text is the default in most Kindle devices, so even if your Word or Scrivener file is ragged right, the ebook will justify the text. If you justify the text, the program will code based on margins and print commands. They can lock. So what happens when it’s converted to an ebook is that the Kindle will not/can not override those locking codes, and users will not be able to adjust margins or line spacing. This is a bad thing.]

Micro-managing line spacing. This can cause big problems in Kindle books. Broken paragraphs, squished text, weird blank “pages” and so on. Set your spacing at “single” and leave it alone. Problem solved.

Hyphenating text. For the most part, Kindles ignore discretionary hyphens. Sometimes they don’t. So you end up with words in the middle of a sentence with a discretionary hyphen character (looks like a hyphen with a hook). It doesn’t break the ebook, but it does look sloppy and unprofessional. In html I [sometimes] use a soft hyphen character. Several of my clients are medical professionals and they use some extra long terms, so I manually insert soft hyphens. I don’t know if there is an equivalent in Scrivener.

Two more tips for you:

  • Remember that what you SEE in your word processor or Scrivener is not necessarily what you will get in your ebook. So don’t get all worked up about spacing and widows/orphans. Let your text flow, which is what it is supposed to do in the ebook.
  • Use styles. Use one style for the main body text (not tabs or hard returns or extra spaces) and another for headers and even a style for centering text. If you don’t know how to use styles, take 30 minutes and figure it out. It will save you time and headaches, and result in a much better quality ebook.

Finally, a word about Amazon’s Look Inside feature. This is a chronic headache for me because most people don’t realize they aren’t seeing the actual ebook. What Amazon is showing is a sample that is specially converted for the Look Inside. Sometimes they justify the text as the default, sometimes they default to ragged right. Sometimes they ignore margins. In other words, if you want to see what the ebook actually looks like, you have to download a sample. Why does Amazon do this? I don’t know. It’s a pain in the ass and I get tired of explaining to clients how it works, but that’s how it is. So my advice to you is if you want to see how your ebook looks “live” do NOT depend on the Look Inside. If you don’t have a Kindle, then download the Kindle Previewer and open up your book with that. You will get a much clearer picture.