Maybe you could come up with 1) a list of features which make ebooks look better, and 2) a seal of approval for books submitted to you which display a majority of those features.–ABE
That comment is from one of my lovely readers in an earlier post. She also suggested I run a feature similar to Joel Friedlander’s ebook cover design awards. (Have you seen the latest? Go check it out.) It’s tempting to emulate him (he’s one of my heroes), but he’s been designing books and covers for decades and he has the technical skills and hard experience to back up his comments. Me? I’m running on instinct. I know when I like something, I know when I dislike it, but not everybody shares my preferences. Plus, when I see a problem in an ebook, I don’t always know what caused the problem, so I have to go rooting around like a pig in a pecan grove, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. And sometimes when I figure something out, I don’t have the language to explain what I’ve done.
Even so, I love it when people send me links to their work or send me screen shots to show off what they’ve done or tell me how they solved or worked around a specific problem. This is relatively new technology and the more we share with each other, the better all of us will get.
Back to the comment. What features make an ebook stand out for me? And by what standards do I judge the quality of formatting? I think I can answer that.
I’ve been reading manuscripts for over twenty years. I don’t mind reading manuscripts, but I don’t read them for pleasure. Manuscripts trigger my Inner Editor. Hence, I do not want ebooks that look like manuscripts.
- Use printer’s punctuation, NOT “keyboard” punctuation and format it in book style. Use proper ellipses and em dashes (NOT floating hyphens or en dashes–they look like mistakes!). Curly quotes instead of straight quotes. Foreign words with properly placed (as in use the actual characters) acute and grave accents.
- Do NOT underline text to indicate italics–italicize it.
- Double-spacing, extra spaces between paragraphs (in fiction), extra wide paragraph indents. All those make an ebook look like a manuscript.
- If yours is a chapter book, clearly indicate the chapters. (I have read ebooks where I couldn’t tell where one chapter ended and another began–disconcerting, to say the least.)
- Use scene break indicators. In PRINT an extra line between scenes offers a useful visual clue. In an ebook, that blank space looks like a mistake. If the scene break occurs between “pages” it can be jarring to suddenly have a shift in time, place or characters without any visual clues to indicate the jump.
This is a sticky one since many ereading devices don’t allow for headers (Like Larry the Kindle, alas, but I love it anyway.). Readers forget–this reader forgets–titles and author names. (I include the title of book at the beginnings of chapters, and sometimes the author’s name) It’s irksome when my only option is to click through the menu and go to the cover to remind me what I’m reading. Even more irksome is a lack of front matter and back matter. I read all the extraneous material. Extra points for ebooks with:
- An interesting title page.
- An interesting About the Author or reader letter page.
- Live links to buy more books.
Another sticky area since not every platform or conversion program is on the same page regarding generating tables of contents and using internal links. Still, extra points for producers who make the effort with:
- A useful Table of Contents
The best feature of my Kindle, a dedicated ereader, is the distraction-free reading. The biggest downside is that it is distraction-free. Meaning, I sometimes grow fatigued by text and more text marching across the screen and nowhere to rest my eyes. It’s not that I’m bored with the story. I’m bored with the visuals. This is a tricky, sticky problem for ebook producers. You don’t want to jar readers out of a story with bells and whistles. Too much cleverness will detract rather than enhance. (And I swear, if fireworks, flickering images or screen glitter start showing up in my ebooks, I’m going back to print…) Small touches, small changes in routine can help maintain visual interest and reduce reading fatigue.
- Interesting chapter headers.
- Drop caps.
- Bolded text at the beginnings of chapters and/or scenes.
- Block paragraphs at the beginnings of chapters and/or scenes.
- Graphic touches–glyphs for scene break indicators or at the end of chapters or sections.
I think the quality that stands out in a terrifically produced ebook the most is the quality that is most difficult to define. It’s that sense that the writer/producer really cares about the book. That it matters to them and they want it to matter to me, the reader, as well. The care shows in the little touches and careful proofreading and attention paid to details.
I used to tease my older sister about her vanity. She wouldn’t walk out to fetch the newspaper unless her hair and makeup were perfect. One day she shut me down with: “It’s not vanity to let people know you care.”
That says it all to me.