One-Size Does Not Fit All: Different Files For Different Purposes

“This weekend my publisher discovered that the printer has been using the eBook format instead of the formatted printing version for its printing of A JANE AUSTEN DAYDREAM. So if you have a copy of the novel that is only 280 pages and no page breaks… Well, there you go.”

dohThat’s from Scott D. Southard’s blog. I read that and thought, Ouch! I feel your pain. This piggy-backed on what I was doing this past weekend, trying to figure out how children’s books work on a Kindle with my lovely minion Plunderbunny. She’d built a charming children’s poem, but couldn’t get the cover to come up, so we had to puzzle over that. Then we wondered about the weird line spacing issues with the Kindle iOS app. Which led us to scrolling through our tablets to look at broken ebooks and trying to figure out all the whys and wherefores. You get the picture.

In the majority of cases my guess was that the wrong file was being used. Which is surprisingly–distressingly–easy to do.

When it comes to ebook files, the real pain in the patoot about this issue is that the distributors–Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, etc.–will let you get away with it. (Amazon is the worst offender, by the way. I swear they’d accept a fig leaf covered in bird feces.)

Compounding the problem is that very few people have access to every device in existence, so they have to depend upon online previewers. Those are not 100% reliable. My Kindle Previewer, for instance, has just decided it will not allow me to look at my books as eink versions. I’ve been screwed by the previewers (I have three on my computer) and have learned the hard way that the distributor previewers at Amazon, B&N and Smashwords aren’t 100% reliable either. I have three Kindles (two eink and a Fire), but I don’t have a Nook, or an iPad or Android or Sony reader or any of the other dozens of devices out there. (In some ways I have to go on (literally) blind faith when I load a file at distributors for devices I don’t have access to. It’s disconcerting.)

That means I make a lot of different files. My source file, which is a text file. From that I format a basic EPUB file, a mobi/kf8 file, a Smashwords EPUB file, a Smashwords Word file, and possibly a pdf file. Each one has its own quirks and features. While I could take the basic EPUB file, for instance, and run it through Calibre to convert it into a mobi file, it would be a mistake. That file will load on my ereaders and be readable, but it will not work properly.

What I have learned is that a top-notch ebook, no matter what the format, absolutely requires 1) a squeaky clean source file going in; and 2) targeted structure for the platform. Perhaps I should add 3) it helps to have a high tolerance for the top of one’s head blowing off in frustration.

The device makers and distributors lack incentive to standardize their devices (much the way a DVD can be played on any manufacturer’s DVD player, an ebook should be be stable on any ereading device). Reaching that level will take a while, I fear. Hindering standardization is that I don’t think the distributors consider stable ebooks a high priority. Of them all, Smashwords has the highest quality control (which isn’t saying much, I fear). Amazon and B&N will let you publish the digital equivalent of manual typewriter script on sheets of newsprint that have been stapled together.

meatBut! There is hope on the horizon. I happen to know a very smart person who is busily developing a way to uncomplicate a process that has grown increasingly (and unnecessarily) complex. Take one clean source file, run it through his program, and boom! Stable, professional quality ebook files in minutes. Seriously, this is what indie writers need. Not crazy computing skills. Not hours and hours and hours and hours spent trying to figure out the different platforms. Not a meatgrinder that valiantly attempts the impossible task of turning Word-hamburger into EPUB-filet mignon.

I’ll keep you all posted about the progress my friend is making. In the meantime, pay attention to your files to make sure the right one is going to the right place.

28 thoughts on “One-Size Does Not Fit All: Different Files For Different Purposes

  1. I agree with you, Julia! Thank goodness for Jaye and her desire to create wonderful e-books!

    And Jaye, your friend sounds razor-sharp! I can’t wait to see the end results.

      • Hi Jaye:

        No, I’ve not seen anything. I’m just anticipating. It’s a great idea, too — even though the simplest solution is often the correct one, I know that this proposed bit of programming magic is going to be anything but simple to implement.


  2. Meanwhile, you’re a godsend. And I should have the ocr/Word file for HELLBOTTOM cleaned up and tweaked and ready to send to you for your excellent touch within a few days. (I know, I know. I keep promising–or threatening–but this time it’s true. I swear. Well, mostly.)

  3. Frustrating & disconcerting as h#$@. Your friend’s program sounds exciting. Can’t wait to hear more about it.

    Did you see the convert your ebook in 10 minutes post on Chuck Wendig’s blog? Have you tried, or do you know anyone using Scrivener to do the conversion?

      • Scrivener DOES have the capabilities to make good ebooks. A caveat, though. First, What You See Is NOT What You Get. That is the biggest problem with using any word processing or word processing type program. We SEE what is on the screen instead of what will end up in the ebook. The program can lull you into thinking you are building one thing while its inner works are busily building something else altogether. You have to be meticulous about your styles and the special formatting and make sure you don’t inadvertently do something that works AGAINST the ebook devices. Plus, while Scrivener handles graphics well, it does have a tendency to bloat the files. That’s something to keep in mind when making a Kindle file for Amazon (big files cost money!). Also, it is really really important to split your file. If you use the Inserted Page Break command there is a good chance you will lose your intended page breaks and the device navigator won’t work.

        The real beauty of Scrivener is that it is user friendly and it’s fast. It takes less than a minute to compile a mobi or EPUB file and load it up on a device or in a previewer to check it.

        One big downside I have found with Scrivener is that it is grabby to the max. For instance, if you discover you did something to lock the fonts so the user can’t customize their screen view, it makes sense to go back and fix what needs fixed, right? Except fixing the problem doesn’t seem to erase the problem. It just covers it up. So all that old coding is still in the ebook and that can cause some weird NEW problems. If that happens, the best thing I can recommend is to ditch the broken file, and start over from scratch. ALWAYS have a clean source file on standby.

  4. It would be nice if these platforms would provide half-way decent documentation, particularly in how CSS is rendered. Sure, we can all get an XHTML1.1 or XHTML5 source that validates, an EPUB that validates with EPUBCheck 3, but that doesn’t mean the eBook won’t look terrible. The smart friend recently suggested to me that the platform developers for the software don’t even know how the eBook will look on their platforms. I think he’s right.

    For the publisher that uploaded the PDF for the Kindle edition, that is a very serious error that could have been discovered immediately by click on the “Preview my Book” button during the KDP process. It makes you wonder what else this publisher is screwing up. Are they sending his royalties to the wrong person? Are they paying their employees? etc.

    • Hi Paul. No, the publisher I mentioned at the beginning didn’t make an ebook–it used an ebook format for a printed edition. It caught my eye because mixing up files is my personal worst nightmare. At least with ebook goofs, the costs are measured in time and headaches instead of paper and ink and shipping.

      I can believe the platform developers don’t pay much attention to the actual ebooks themselves. Or the people creating them. The more I learn about how ebooks work, the less sense the complexity makes to me. I mean, look at WordPress. There are millions of users having relatively little problem figuring out how to set up blogs and websites that are readable across a huge spectrum of devices. I truly don’t understand why ebooks can’t be that simple.

      • Your words about the eBooks complexity reminded me of Andrew Tridgell’s rants about Microsoft’s own implementation of the SMB network protocol, which he describes as unnecessarily complicated. (He’s never seen the code, only studied the data as it flows over the network.) He’s convinced that the original programmers have gone on to other things (or retired) & it has been passed thru several generations of less capable programmers who simply bolt on more code to fix problems, turning the software into a mess of spaghetti code. (And if you understand all of that, you know some of the dark secrets of computer software — which even some computer geeks never learn.) It’s going to get worse before it gets better — assuming it ever gets better. :-/

      • Well, aren’t you a ray of sunshine, Stephen. 😛
        I wish you weren’t right, but I suspect you are. I’ve noticed that when Amazon updates Kindles, bizarre things sometimes happen. Locking fonts or making covers disappear or the nav guide stops working. It truly makes me wonder if the people doing the updating even look at what the updates do to existing ebooks.

  5. Very good article, thank you. I use a software program called Jutoh. It cost something like$39.95. And they answer email support questions very quickly. It does require starting from an OCR file (open text). That has been no problem. You are right, what previewers show differ from the Kindle, for example. But I have five ebooks up (mostly by and related to Brainard Cheney, Georgia author) and they came out pretty well, occasional page breaks where not wanted etc. That may be unavoidable with any software. Thanks again and a ‘shout-out’ for Jutoh from a user NOT a promoter! Best wishes, Stephen

    • Hi Stephen. I’ve heard mention of Jutoh, though I’ve never used it. Thanks for the heads up.

      re the page breaks. There is one way to make sure you get a “page” break every time (I put that in quotes so William doesn’t yell at me.) Think of ebooks as little web sites. Each “page” is a different screen. You have to split your file into components so that each chapter or section is a unique screen.

  6. Tell your friend I will PAY to be a beta tester on that product! I’m a proficient coder but I’m no guru, and my time is just way too limited too reinvent the wheel each time I need a book formatted. I’ll look at Jutoh but so far I’ve been unimpressed with the software out there. Heck, the downloads I get off the AO3 are often cleaner reads than some books I’ve bought, which is saying something. There has to be a better way!

    • Hi KimBoo, Better ways are on the horizon. Truly. I haven’t tried Jutoh (or Sigil). I use Paul Salvette’s method (see his development guide in the sidebar). It doesn’t require third party conversion (where there be landmines) and builds stable ebooks.

  7. Just had a fun time (NOT) posting the beginning of the novel you formatted the first three chapters of for me (yeah, it parses).

    I ran into a new – and unexpected – problem: I’m posting it on my WordPress blog – but there are very few things I have control over, because the blog basically decides for you what things are going to look like. The WordPress 2012 Theme I’m using picked fonts, decided how my epigraphs would look when I used ‘block quote’ to set them aside (made the whole block italics, and reduced the margin by about a half inch).

    No ruler control, no margin control, no ability to make one block of text a little bit smaller font size. No indentation for paragraphs. No control over line spacing.

    And creative hyphenation!

    Believe it or not, the easiest way to get the blog post to look approximately right was to take the Scrivener file and paste it into WORD, and then Paste Word into WordPress. For this particular Scrivener file – which came from Word in the first place formatted with Styles. WYSIWYG in spades.

    I’m not complaining – I think I pretzeled my text into something that looks reasonable on a blog page – but it was like being given a box of crayons with two different shades of red – to color a landscape. Ie, H*ll.

    Makes me long for print, especially now that authors can have so much control over printing their own stuff. One size does not fit all electronic media.

    Thanks for tackling the hard questions so some of us don’t have to.

    • Hi ABE, yeah, you just pointed out the biggest downside to any free service. THEY get to decide what the format will be. However, if you are a whiz with html, you can customize the look of your wordpress posts. I’ve seen some interesting displays on otherwise fixed layouts.

      • “if you are a whiz with html, you can customize the look of your wordpress posts”

        Many years ago (23, to be exact), I was a whiz with FORTRAN. On supercomputers (CRAYs, at Lawrecen Livermore Lab – the computer, not me – I was in NJ). Is that the same thing? Kidding, of course.

        I have used the HTML that is easily available – italics, bold, block quotes, justification – in their posting tools, but it wouldn’t let me, for example, make the block quote NOT italic – by selecting the section a second time and clicking on the ‘italics’ symbol (in my mind, two italics clicks = no italics).

        I’m okay for now – it is ‘good enough’ for now. Some day, after all the other stuff is done, I can see myself getting a self-hosted (right terminology?) website and blog, where I can do what I please. What is there is fine for now – I have to start somewhere, and for me, the blog – and posting fiction to it – is the right step. Free is good – again, for now. It’s a good place to learn.

        I have to choose what to learn, and in what order – like all of us. I want to focus on the editing, and getting feedback, until the WIP is finished with this major revision. Other people will have their own agendas for themselves. I just took a deep breath – I have to decide whether WATTPAD is something I need to do at the same time I’m posting on To each of us our own.

        When I’m done – and get you to format for me – at least I’ll be a better client because of what I’ve learned since you did the mockups for me. It all keeps the brain engaged and flexible.

        Had to laugh at “I’ve seen some interesting displays” – I can only imagine!

        If it doesn’t diss someone, maybe you could liven up your column with examples of formatting gone wrong?

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