Formatting NonFiction Ebooks

So I was doing some research about ebook production services. Checking prices, packaging, etc. (I’d like to start my own business, but that depends on luring the incredibly talented Plunderbunny to team up with me–I can’t offer her a steady paycheck, but bennies include homemade brownies, all the coffee she can drink and Temper Tuesdays whereas she is allowed to scream and rage at me as much as she likes). One thing I noticed is that a lot of ebook producers DO NOT want to mess around with nonfiction ebooks–especially ebooks formatted in Word for uploading to Smashwords. Or if they do, they charge an arm and a leg for it.

I suppose I get that. Nonfiction is a challenge. I’ve done quite a few so far and each one is an education. Fiction is fairly standard–the body text rarely takes more than two styles–so the challenges tend to be in the creative details. Many nonfiction books, however, are not suitable for the ebook format if one expects them to look on an ereader the same way they look in print. Ebooks need to be rethought and restructured so they work in digital formats.

Text boxes, for instance. Text boxes are only possible with static page formats. Some platforms allow for static pages, but those are very specialized and that’s not what I do right now. I could do text boxes by creating graphics, but graphics add greatly to the file size and small text can fuzz and become unreadable depending on the size of the screen it’s read on. So what I did was ponder what is the purpose of text boxes. Basically they are parenthetical asides designed to call attention to themselves and demand the reader pay special attention. In one project I set the text boxes off with block quotes and a strong graphic:

It doesn’t look like a printed version of a text box, but I think it accomplishes the same thing.

Graphics are not out of the question (if the writer is willing to absorb some “delivery fees” on Amazon). Devices like the Kindle handle graphics beautifully. The trick with them is getting them properly sized. (I haven’t yet come up with a formula for doing so–this involves much experimenting and tweaking on a case by case basis) If the images are too large it can cause blank “pages”. I’m still playing around with anchoring text to an image.

Things like bullet lists are also a challenge. The reason is because reading devices want to stretch the text for their version of justification. By using a hanging first line style and “locking” the bullets with non-breaking spaces, I managed some nice stable bulleted lists.

I used the same hanging first line styling for an interview:

It’s not as finely-tuned as it would be in print, but the format is stable and the visual effect is what I was aiming for. If I were a super-programmer who could dash off a few lines of code and have flying unicorns magically appear to grant me wishes, I might have been able to do more with the spacing. Even so, I’m 96% satisfied with how it turned out and it is comfortable to read, and that is the important part.

The most interesting challenge was figuring out how to format a screenplay/script. A Kindle is not the best device upon which to read a script. Scripts have very specific formatting requirements for a reason. Then again, the ebook “scripts” aren’t intended for an actor on a set or stage. So my challenge was to emulate the look of a screenplay.

To anyone other than a real screenwriter it looks like a script. So it serves its purpose.

So yes, non-fiction does have challenges. Truth be told, I don’t think the ebooks I formatted were all that high on the difficulty scale. Start getting into textbooks or reference books or anything with footnotes or indices or large glossaries and we could be talking an entire career devoted to a single volume. Whew.

Still, what I’ve learned thus far is that good-looking, reader-friendly non-fiction books are possible IF I–

  • Accept that ebooks are a completely different format than print, and trying to force an ebook to look exactly like a print book causes insomnia and potty mouth.
  • Figure out what the text is supposed to accomplish, then figure out how to make it work.
  • Keep it simple. A multitude of styles in an ebook will quickly devolve into an unreadable mess and can be unstable, too. Pare down the number of styles to the barest minimum, then use bolding or italics and graphic elements to emphasize and set off the text.

Nonfiction ebooks aren’t impossible. Nor does one have to be a magic-unicorn producing super-programmer to create one. They are a challenge, though. But hey, that’s what makes it fun.


18 thoughts on “Formatting NonFiction Ebooks

  1. Your comment about asking what a feature is for is key, and it applies to fiction as well: Titles and subtitles and chapter titles have a reason for being – navigation. Separators help readers note scene or chapter breaks. Small text blocks like epigraphs serve the function of a commentary on the text, or a mood setter.

    All these devices serve the reader by making it easier to absorb the content. Some have become standard in non-fiction because they do just that – for example, the symbols used in most of the For Dummies books. Programs have the same standards – I know how to use a program on a Mac from the GUI – things tend to be in standard places under the menu items, and the Help system works approximately the same on different programs.

    Have you found a standard way to compress graphics that are black and white? Many grapics in ebooks could be rendered that way, including pen-and-ink type drawings of characters and settings. You would want compression methods that both work on ebooks, expanding properly when viewed, and that don’t make the files too massive (among other reasons because Amazon’s delivery charges to the author are dependent on the file size. I haven’t seen many graphics of this kind in ebooks yet, but I’d love to know if they could be included. Full color graphics such as photos can take up a lot of space, and so would be suited for only some ebooks – but colored photos could really enhance some, and display nicely on a screen that isn’t just BW.

    An alternative would be a link, say, from a Kindle to the author’s website, where the photographs could be viewed in full color.

    Curious as to what your thoughts are here.

    • I really can’t answer the questions about compression and such. I only started using (playing) with graphics a few months ago, and I’m slowly figuring out how the program works and how ebooks handle graphics. Right now I count myself lucky if I can figure out the optimum image sizes and keep the file bloat manageable.

      As for linking to photographs. Linking wouldn’t work on my Kindle since it’s not connected to the internet. I don’t know how a tablet like the Kindle Fire could handle something like that, but it might be an interesting experiment if you could figure out how to open the link in a separate window so the reader isn’t taken away from the book. Doing ebooks for tablets is on my list of things I want to learn to do. The possibilities intrigue me.

  2. Hi Jaye:

    Boy, I’m away from my keyboard for a day and look what I miss — TWO journal updates from you!

    This entry really intrigued me because you touched on all kinds of interesting formatty-wormatty things that I’m finding fascinating. Kind of like being presented with a puzzle that MUST be solved. (And because you talked about screenplay formatting on e-readers, which is a great interest of mine. But I digress.)

    Your comment about intent of the text, too, is horribly key to successfully formatting the work. That’s got me interested in trying out all kinds of new CSS tricks to see what might work on an e-reader.

    Your hanging first line is really quite clever. I’m guessing you used a negative value for the line-indent for that text along with a larger margin? Did you do this just with regular ol’ <p> marks or did you use <ul> and <li> formatting? Either way, it’s really slick.

    Also, I believe the preferred format for graphics is PNG. My understanding is that it provides a “lossless” compression, whereas JPG is a “lossy” compression method that has a tendency to not scale up well. I may be way off here, but I seem to recall reading this somewhere.

    My only suggestion for your screenplay formatting is to indent the dialogue a bit more. Oh, it might also be easier to format a spec script rather than a shooting script as you’ve done above.

    Every entry of yours is pure e-formatting gold! Thanks!

    • She had me at “brownies.”

      I agree entirely with determining the intent of a feature and working outside the textbox! If it’s supposed to be text, keep it text and figure out a way to let it fulfill its function. Now, I know this is about the oddities of non-fiction formatting (which helps with ideas as I’m struggling with footnotes. BAH!), but I’m going to give my $0.02+ tax about jpg vs png image formats: in a nutshell, go with jpg. Caveat: based on what you want to do.

      I’ll start with the caveat: jpg can’t handle transparency, so if you want it, use png. Also, if the file-size difference is minimal and jpg quality is poor, png might be the way to go.

      Now: jpg vs png?
      For eBooks, this is a question between file-size and quality. No matter if you save a 200px image as jpg or png, if you view it at 500px, it will look pixelated and blocky. A larger image displayed at a smaller size will look good, but have a larger file-size. File-size matters. We want beauuuuuuuutiful eBooks. In a tiny file. A tiny file requires higher compression. When saved at a higher compression, jpgs will lose file information and quality (hence “lossy”), get pixelated, and (eventually) look like 1980s arcade game graphics. (While I love Space Invaders, it doesn’t always hold its own next to the 3D CGI of Call of Duty.) On the other hand, “lossless” pngs will keep their loveliness–at a file-size cost.

      So, file-size or quality? Let’s compare. Example!
      I saved the same cover image (1600 x 2400 pixels) in jpg and png formats. Then I ran them through an optimizer. Here are the file-size results:
      JPG pre: 585 KB post: 168 KB
      PNG pre: 904 KB post: 454 KB
      (1 MB = 1024 KB)
      For file-size, jpg wins hands down. What about the quality? There is a loss which is perceptible at full size (certain people who operate this blog couldn’t see it–hehe). A line might be slightly fuzzy instead of sharp and some colors will be a little off. For quality, png has an edge.

      My eBook determining factors:
      Small size = generally more desirable.
      Small size = faster loading and people are impatient.
      Subconsciously, we’re all a bit forgiving with a little lossy jpg quality because it’s all over the internet.
      Only *I* will be viewing an image at full size with squinty little eyes and a magnifying glass looking for flaws. Hopefully.
      You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself. (Even though I’m a png fan!)

      • Enlightenment is hovering right at the edge… 😀 When you say transparency, my using jpeg graphics is the reason that tablet or smart phone users who change the background color see boxes? To prevent that I should png files? But then I risk running into bloated files. Hmn.

        Seems like the best solution would be to use different types of files for different platforms. Use jpeg files to keep the file size down for the Kindle, but use png files for epub formats and for uploading to Smashwords (keeping the overall file down, of course, below the 5mb mentioned in the guidelines).

        If I were doing an ebook with color illustrations for reading on a tablet, I’d probably risk the delivery fees and go with whatever gave the higher quality image.


        As for footnotes, Plunder, I have some ideas about those. Not a particularly elegant solution, but I think it would be workable. Email me.

      • Hi Jaye:

        Just had a thought regarding footnotes. My big issue with footnotes in traditional printed book is that following one that isn’t immediately at the bottom of the page is that I am forced to look elsewhere for said note, either at the end of the chapter or at the end of the main text. This can be annoying at the best of times.

        So, what’s a poor e-book formatter to do? Why, use the whiz-bang features of the new medium, of course!

        You’ve covered the creation of a manual table of contents in earlier an earlier post. But those were one-way links. (Technically, all links are one-way, but go with me here.) What a footnote really needs to be able to do is to return the reader *exactly* to the point left off previously to visit said footnote. So, let it.

        I’d recommend putting each footnote on its own virtual page; that is, each one would have “page-break-before: always” as part of its initial formatting. And then, create a link with text something like “Back to Text” that would link back to an anchor just in front of the original link. (God, this would be so much easier if I could just send you a sample of what’s in my head!)

        Does this even make sense? I am away from my computer at the moment or I’d try this and see if it works before blathering on about some untested theory I *think* will work. Tomorrow, perhaps.

        But the basic idea, I believe, is sound. The big caveat is that every named link must be unique within the document.

        Hope this helps.

  3. Hi, Jon, I made a “hang” class for a paragraph style and used a negative value for the indented text. I need to do some more research and experimenting so I can learn better ways to fine tune the spacing. Always tricky in ebooks because I try not to force my will too much on the default settings in the reading devices. Some of my experiments have resulted in… let us call them odd results.
    (I have no idea what the difference is between a spec script and a shooting script–the example above came from a published paperback. 😀 I looked up some examples of scripts because the book script was a horrendous mess and I could barely make heads nor tails of it. There were some things I couldn’t do–or rather shouldn’t–because it would have involved so many different styles and I feared that would confuse the hell out of the conversion program. It won’t satisfy a real screenwriter, but it looks a lot better than the book. To make a proper script one would need static pages–possible with an iBook or tablets. The possibilities are intriguing, but for now way above my pay grade.)
    I keep seeing conflicting information about which to use–jpeg or png. I just recently began playing with graphics and I cannot see the differences. Need to take a class…

  4. I almost gave up reading non-fiction on my ereader because of some of the problems you pointed out. A book I tried to read recently was packed full of charts–none of which appeared correctly on a kindle or a nook. Yikes. But there *are* beautifully produced, self-published non-fiction ebooks to be found. I was especially impressed with the formatting in OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL by K.M. Weiland. The author did some bulleted lists and a few other things to make it beautiful, without ruining it by trying to get too “fancy.” If writers are looking for a good example to follow, I’d like to recommend that book. (Plus, I really loved the content, too.)

    • Hi, Margaret. I hear ya. The real trick to formatting non-fic is to have an idea about what an ereader can do and what it can’t. Then to NOT try to make a digital version of the printed book, but to instead approach it from the angle of, “How can I best use this particular format to present the information for the readers?”

      Will check out the book you mentioned.

  5. Hi, Jon. Great minds–I was actually thinking along the same lines for inserting footnotes. My idea (and like you, I am talking off the top of my head because I have not actually tried this) would be to use bookmarks and internal links, then put the footnotes at the end of the chapters. I’d end the footnote with a link RETURN TO TEXT. Not a particularly graceful solution, but readers would be able to easily navigate. Essentially what I would do:

    “Here is my story and it is based on my short, but interesting career as an (bookmark here) ebook (1) formatter.”
    –The (1) would be linked to a footnote. Click on it and jump to the end of the chapter–
    (1) Digital reading devices (BACK TO TEXT)” <–link back to text

    The only reason I would compile the pertinent footnotes at the end of each chapter is because of the way I tend to read footnotes–bass ackwards. I read the text, then the footnotes, referring back to the text if it's really interesting to me. I don't know if others do that, but it is one way to organize the notes.

    But, like I said, I haven't actually tried this so I don't really know how well it work or how user-friendly it would be. I need to find somebody who'll let me practice on their book.

    • My basic Kindle (no touch, no keyboard) has a “back” button to the left of the navigation box/cursor-thingy. I read one title which had footnotes that were particularly interesting, and I simply pressed that button to return to the text from which I jumped. It seemed to work fairly well and intuitively, kind of like the dictionary feature. One thing I didn’t like about it was that selecting a note jumps to the list, with the selected note at the top of the screen. I don’t like seeing more than the one footnote I selected, because then I am verly likely to be distracted by future notes. It would be nice to be able to embed a footnote file that acts like a sub-dictionary into an e-book. The reader could select a footnote and, as with a definition, see the first part of the footnote pop up on the screen. If it’s of interest, s/he can then follow it into the footnote file/list/page and return with the “back” button, just as one does with the dictionary. At least that’s how it might work on a Kindle…

      • Hi, Chris, Plunderbunny tried an experiment along those lines with the Kindle. She set up a script to create a “hidden” footnote that popped up when the link was activated. Unfortunately it didn’t work with the version of html formatting I’m using or else it clashed with the conversion defaults. I am leaning toward the former. If we can figure out how to make that script work it would eliminate the need to navigate away from the page at all. It would open as a box right at the location of the noted text. Such a thing should work on a Kindle because that’s what the built-in dictionary already does. I think her solution is best–so we’ll just have to figure it out.

      • Hi Jaye:

        If you want a volunteer to test this pop-up widgit on a Nook Tablet, let me know.

        I think the mechanism for doing a dictionary lookup is much different from a simple link within the HTML of the book. BUT, having said that, I believe I read something about creating custom dictionaries for e-books, and implementing a footnote system is really conceptually identical — you’re looking from a known, unique trigger to a known, unique destination. This notion bears some investigation. 😉

    • Hi, Tom. You made me laugh. Thanks, I like the way STAY turned out, too. I’m having fun formatting romance novels. The genre just begs for fancy-bit touches.

  6. Hi, Jon,
    I feel as if we’re building a “cabal” of formatters–our mission: Bend the Devices to Our Will (and take over the world while we’re at it).
    Plunderbunny is as curious and experimental as I am, so I’m convinced if anyone can figure out pop-up footnotes, she can.

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