Poking my head out of the gopher hole…
You know what really bugs me about some retail establishments and service providers? It’s that attitude of, “We’ve got your money, so screw ya.” Suddenly your problems are no longer their problems and they really couldn’t care less what you think of their product or their service. If you’ve ever dealt with a nightmare disguised as “customer service” then you know exactly what I mean. Had any problems with your cable provider, lately? Hmn? What makes it doubly frustrating is that many of the worst offenders (I’m not naming names, now am I, Directv?) go above and beyond to lure in new customers. Huge advertising campaigns, promises to the moon and back, special promotions, the whole deal. But you know what? It’s gotten to the point where I am super suspicious of those massive campaigns. I’m finally getting a clue that companies that care so much about the people who aren’t buying are the same companies that really don’t care about their current customers. Companies and products with positive word-of-mouth and solid reputations don’t need massive campaigns.
Which brings us to ebooks. Of course. If you’re a regular reader you know I am ambivalent about promotional efforts. I’m also not all that impressed with the time, effort and energy indie writers put into covers. Yeah, yeah, I know books require some promotion (I just have no idea what actually works or why it works when it does–too many factors) and I also know covers are important. To some people. They aren’t to me. Not with ebooks. The reason why is that after I buy an ebook, there is only about a 2% chance I’ll ever see the cover again. Usually the only reason is because I really like the book and want to check the title and author name. While I have purchased a few print books because of their covers–not very many, but a few–that is not the case at all with ebooks. I have zero interest in those thumbnails on Amazon. Except for a very few samples, I couldn’t tell you what the covers look like for any of the hundreds of ebooks currently on my Kindle.
But I will tell you this. There are many ebooks on my Kindle where the writer or publisher had put a hell of a lot of effort into the cover and the promo, and barely any effort at all into my reading experience. I’m not talking about bad stories or even bad editing. I’m talking about the production values. I’m talking about ebooks that offer the reading equivalent of typewritten script on newsprint. Just words with no thought given to the aesthetics of the “page” or the organization or even to reminding me what I’m reading. This lack of concern over my comfort doesn’t make them bad books–it’s make them forgettable. It makes what I’m reading seem cheap and unimportant.
Think about that.
I’ve discussed in previous posts how readers are reading differently on ereaders. They’re reading more closely and they’re more sensitive to errors and goofs. The best I can account for it is that an ereader, such as the Kindle, offers no distractions–not even the faint rustle of a turning page. This can work for or against the writer. Without distractions, readers can read faster, so they buy more books. That’s good. Without something memorable to make your book stand out, it could be forgotten–just another story–when it comes time for the reader to buy something else. That’s bad.
I bring this up (again, and no, not just because I’m the Obsessanator) but because I’m working on an interesting project. I had some problems with Scrivener (by the way, it’s a simple problem to fix, so anybody who is using Scrivener to create ebooks, carry on) and figured I should break down and learn HTML. For those of you comfortable with computers and programming, you’re thinking no big deal. Well, for me, it is a big deal because I do not like machines and the whole idea of them having a “language” kind of creeps me out. In my quest to create beautiful ebooks, however, I buckled down to it. I reformatted some of my short stories, then did a few others, then did an ebook for Julia Barrett, which turned out very nicely. It was actually too easy and I wanted to learn more. (I’m hands on–doesn’t do any good to tell me how to do something. You have to dump a pile of material in my lap and point at a finished product and say, ‘Make it look like that.’) So I sez to my friend, Larry, “I need a challenge. Got anything?”
He sent me a scanned document for a book that contains a screenplay, an interview, and narrative text. Well, I asked for a challenge, and he came through with flying colors. Not only was the scan a big old mess that had to be cleaned up, but I had to figure out how to create the illusion of a screenplay. I wanted to learn some HTML and I learned. A lot. Then to sweeten the pot Larry handed me a bunch more scanned files. These aren’t fiction where the biggest concerns are graphics and pretty touches. These are non-fiction (sort of) filled with case studies and interviews and numbered lists. Challenges. Through it all, the biggest question I’m asking myself is: How to make it look good to the reader and make for a pleasing reading experience? How do I organize the text with visual clues to help the reader keep his/her place and not get lost in the transitions? Print books have certain advantages that ebooks do not. Print can make good use of white space, for example. Large blocks of italics, depending on the font, can look good. With a printed page, the designer controls the right margin and justification (or should). Too much ‘white’ space on a Kindle can look like a mistake. Big blocks of italics are difficult to read. The device controls the right margin and justification, not the designer. What I do have at my disposal are block quotes, hanging first lines, line breaks and a few other tricky tricks. I’ve been spending a lot of time over on w3schools.com to find character codes and figure out how to execute certain commands. Then I try things out, make an ebook, and see how it looks. Sometimes it looks fine, other times it looks like crap, so back to the drawing board. (Notepad++, actually, which is a lot of fun even though I have barely a clue as to what it’s talking about half the time–okay, three-quarters of the time–but fearlessly (or stupidly)I go clicking through anyway.)
It’s a lot of work and I’m still in the relatively slow stage (although, being the queen of Find/Replace does hasten the process quite a bit) but it’s worth it. Yes. It is worth every minute at the computer, every cuss word and crossed eye and “Oh no!” It’s worth it not just because the words matter, but because the readers–our customers–matter. Their comfort, their pleasure, their experience. I want readers to see that I care about them. Not just their dollars, but them. In return, I want them to know that I care very deeply about the books I produce. I want it to show on the screen. I want the ebooks to look important and worthy of respect. Respect=Respect, folks, gotta give it to get it.
I would love to see more ebook producers–indie and traditional–expend at least as much effort in making the actual ebooks look good as they do in producing covers. Honestly, if you’re willing to drop $300 on the perfect cover, but then do a crap layout in Word and publishing the ebook consists of clicking a button and hoping for the best, I have to question where your priorities lie. Don’t be one of those entities that devotes all your time and energy to luring new suckers, er, buyers, then forgets about them as soon as you have their money in your hands.
If you’re interested in seeing what I came up with with the screenplay, interview and narrative, be warned–ADULTS ONLY. The book is about the making of a porn movie. It’s funny and touching and wise, but also pretty dirty. So don’t say I didn’t warn you.
For those who are delving into HTML for their ebooks, a nifty little trick I learned for putting paragraph returns into the Word document before transferring it into Notepad++.
FIND box type ^p
REPLACE box type </p>^p<p>
Do a REPLACE ALL.
Voila! The only command you have to put in manually is at the very beginning of the document. (if you already knew this, meaning I am the very last person to figure it out, pfft, it’s still a nifty trick)