In my post earlier this week I talked about standardizing ebook formats. My friend, Jonathan Allen, did a pretty good job of explaining why there are so many platforms and proprietary formats for ereaders. Today he continued the explanation as to why it probably is going to take quite a while before we have ONE format and universal ereaders. Even though I now have a better understanding about how the situation turned into a mess and what it will take to untangle it, I don’t hold out much hope the situation is going to resolve itself anytime soon.
As a writer and ebook producer, this is not particularly heartening. I guess I hoped that if I turned my energies toward learning HTML, all my stress would magically disappear. Now I know that is not true. And it is stressful. I just finished a big project. (It turned out great, by the way, I am very proud of it–you can look at it here) The night before I had nightmares about the book being all messed up. After uploading it yesterday to Amazon, while it was in review, I tossed and turned and fretted all night that the book would be all messed up. Today I uploaded it to Smashwords and my stomach is clenched up with worry that I accidentally did something that will mess up the book.
All it takes is one little bit of wayward code that I can’t even see and weird crap could show up on some unsuspecting reader’s device.
Ay yi yi.
All is not lost. While the computer wizards are hashing it out, there is one thing we writers can do to make sure our ebooks don’t become casualties of the formatting wars.
Clean source files.
I bet 80% of the writers who read this post use a version of MS Word. As much as Word frustrates me because it’s so darned helpful, I love the way it produces documents. Therein lies the problem. To produce those gorgeous documents, Word uses a lot of codes, hidden and unhidden. In a printed document, it doesn’t matter how much junk is hidden in the file. Most printers have no beef with MS Word. In most cases, whatever you tell Word to print, it will gladly do so. Ebook files, however, are not documents. Much of that lovely formatting–tabs and extra paragraph returns and centering and font changes and special characters and headers and footers and page numbers and footnotes–will be interpreted by other programs as junk that needs to be fixed. Or some program, somewhere, might throw up its hands in despair and fill a screen with gobbledegook.
Writers who intend to publish their writing as ebooks–whether they do the formatting and conversions themselves, or hire someone else to do it–need to get out of the “document” mindset. What they need to start doing is thinking of the composition–the novel, short story, article, whatever–as a “source file.” Start thinking of formatting as a completely separate process. You compose a source file, then you use a copy of it to create a printed document, a pdf, an ebook or whatever else you require. There is no special formatting in a source file.
I repeat: THERE IS NO SPECIAL FORMATTING IN A SOURCE FILE.
The suggestions that follow are for Word users, but no matter what word processor you’re using, you can adapt to suit your needs.
- No tabs. Ever. Never ever use the tab key in a source file. Not even one for good luck. No tabs!
- No extra spaces. Not between sentences, not after paragraphs, not at the top of the page, not to indent a passage, not to set off text. No extra paragraph returns either.
- No page breaks. But, but, Jaye, what about between chapters? No. Not even one.
- No headers. No footers. No page numbers.
- Turn off Auto-Correct and Auto-Format. You are safe with leaving on italics, bolding and underlining, but everything else, turn it off. Even curly quotes can cause a problem, so turn them off, too.
- Use “typewriter” special characters. Two hyphens for an em dash. Three connected periods for an ellipses. (c), TM, (R) instead of the special symbols. Do not insert subscript and superscript characters. If you have words requiring umlauts, accents or whatever, keep track of them. They can be made right during formatting.
- No bullets or ordered lists or outlines.
- Set up a Source File style sheet. (I give instructions for how to set up style sheets in Word here) Make it simple, bare bones, with a font you like to work in. Use it religiously.
Source files are plain as milk and not particularly pretty. What they should be is clean. Make a copy of your source file to create a printed document with headers, footers, special characters, centering, specified page breaks, and whatever you desire. Make a copy of the source file to format your ebooks according to different platform requirements. If you outsource the work, include a set of instructions to the formatter as to how you want your book laid out, along with a list of special characters, symbols and any special formatting you desire.
That’s how we keep our heads during the format wars, Writers. Clean source files. Make those standard and we can endure the wait until the powers-that-be, whoever they are, get their act together and stop making things difficult for the rest of us.