Creating a Professional Look for Ebooks

Can you spot an ebook produced by an amateur? I’m not talking about the writing–I’m talking about the interior production. Take a look at these side by side screenshots:

AmPro2 What about these?

AmPro1Take a good look and see if you can spot what I see.

Screenshot 1, upper left, self-published, amateur. I’m fairly certain the publisher converted a Word format. The story sounded interesting so I downloaded a sample. It looks like a manuscript and I knew it would trigger my Inner Editor and seriously affect my reading enjoyment, so I passed on buying the book.

Screenshot 2, upper right, trad-published, professional. The overall ebook is visually interesting, designed with the reader in mind. Purchased, read and enjoyed.

Screenshot 3, lower left, self-published, professional. One of my productions.

Screenshot 4, lower right, trad-published, amateur. Ugly and distracting. Purchased without sampling because this is one of my favorite authors, but I will definitely sample any other offerings from this publisher and if the next is as poorly done as this one, I’ll pass.

It drives me a little crazy when publishers put so much effort into ebook covers and give so little thought to the interior. I have never once heard a reader say, “Oh, I just loved the cover on Wendy Writer’s ebook, I think I will buy the next one.” Granted I’ve never heard one say, “Oh the formatting was so lovely, I think I’ll buy the next.” I have heard people say, “The sample was such a mess, I didn’t buy the book.” and “I wanted to like the book, but there were so many errors…” Worst of all, they say nothing, just refuse to buy another book by that particular publisher.

AmPro3Readers judge. When the ebook looks amateurish, they judge before they even start to read. They’ll be more aware of and less forgiving of typos. If the ebook makes any visual impression at all, it will probably be a bad one.

On the flip side, professionalism establishes trust. It sends a message to the reader: “You’re in good hands. Sit back, relax and enjoy.” Readers might not consciously recognize how much thought and effort you put into your formatting, but sub-consciously they will notice and it will have a favorable effect on their reading experience.

So how do you cross the line between amateur and pro? If you’re thinking about hiring someone, look at samples. (There are a lot of amateurs out there charging a lot of money for crappy formats.) If you are doing it yourself, start with

THE BASICS

  • Squeaky clean text.
  • Printer’s punctuation.
  • Proper paragraph spacing.
  • Proper paragraph indents.
  • Proofreading.

THE LAYOUT

  • Control your Front Matter (If potential readers have to page through 20 pages of front matter in the sample, you’ll probably lose the sale)
  • Always include a Table of Contents–and make it useful. If, by chance, your book’s ToC is a lengthy list of Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc., come up with a way to shorten it or move it to the back.
  • Make your back matter work for you. Include an author bio, and links to other works and your blog/website.
  • Consider text ornaments or other visuals, especially if your story is long or the text is dense. This gives readers some eye relief.

THE CONVERSION

  • One Size Does NOT Fit All. A Kindle format is different than an EPUB format.
  • Use the right tools. (I know this will cause howls of outrage, but it’s the truth: To create a professional quality ebook using Word, you need some mad-monkey Word-fu skills. If you have those skills, then you’ll have no problem learning html, so why don’t you?)

snoringIf your ebook is already published and you know it’s not up to professional standards, do not be afraid to do it over. That’s the beauty of ebooks–fluidity. Amazon makes it easy to update files. Other distributors aren’t so user-friendly, but updates are still possible. Taking your already published ebook from amateur to professional won’t recover past lost sales, but it will help future sales. It will definitely help sales for your other works.

 

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33 thoughts on “Creating a Professional Look for Ebooks

  1. Screen shot #4 is just plain weird. I felt like my vision was off or something. Interesting, Jaye. Really. I like the visuals- easy to compare.

    • Double bummed, since the three previous ebooks I had bought by the same author, same publisher, were nicely formatted. I felt safe buying this one “sight unseen.” Sigh…

  2. Any of the above would be preferable to some of the review copies I’ve read. I’m talking about random capitalization, weird line breaks and typos. I believe they’ll clean all this up before they publish, but it really distracts from my attempt to give them a fair shake in the review.

    • That’s a bummer, Bill, and a good warning for publishers sending out review copies. I had one instance where a reviewer loaded a pdf onto her iPhone and then bitched about the “ebook” formatting. It horrified me so much that now if a client wants ARCs, I make up special copies in multiple formats. Even reviewers deserve a good looking ebook. 😀

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  4. That’s a good idea with the ARCs – I will definitely consider doing this on my next book with you. I recently received an ARC for review and the formatting wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t good either.

    • ARCs needn’t be fancy, but they should be readable. Since it’s just as easy to offer multiple formats as it is to offer one, better to do the multiples. Right?

  5. What’s up with book #4 not starting a chapter on a fresh page? Not only does this look nasty, running chapters together in one clunky HTML file will cause serious lag issues.

    Also, for book#2, why is the first part of the text starting way the hell down near the bottom of the page. It’ll probably end up on the next page for smartphone readers. Trad publishers do this crap all the time. I’m reading an eBook right now where the first part of the chapter starts half way down on the second page (I use Kindle for iPad). The spacing does not need to be in the much (it ain’t a print book, you rubes).

    The one Jaye worked on of course looks nice. Are you using font-variant: small-caps?

    • Book #4 has multiple issues in the formatting. Trouble is, and publishers take heed, what works well in print doesn’t always translate well into digital. (Which is a whole ‘nother post).

      As for book #2, mixed feelings about that. It’s a cool effect on the Kindle screen–UNLESS, the font is enlarged or the screen being used is smaller. Bad juju to widow one’s own text on the opening page. My rule of thumb is, “Never more than 1/3 of the screen, but 25% works better.” And that goes for text placement and graphics. One thing that I would have done differently is that first character. I appreciate that the publisher didn’t use a drop cap (By all that is holy, people! No drop caps for Kindles–you’ve no idea how Kindles mangle them.) I wouldn’t have gone more than 1.2em for the large character. Any larger and the extra line spacing starts being a distraction.

      ‘Tis small-caps, Paul. I think it’s a nice look, much less clunky than all-caps for section starts. It’s a good technique for writers who do not want scene break indicators in the form of asterisks or graphics. To make double-dog certain it renders properly on all devices, put the words in all-caps, then reduce all but the first letter to 80%. (And a tip for those who embed custom fonts–double-check to make sure the font renders in small-caps because not all do.)

  6. Well, I just purchased Mr. Salvette’s book on ebook formatting. A lot of meat in there, but I think it’ll be worth it in the end. While I’ve not received any complaints about my formatting, I want to take that extra step and make the books look as professional as possible.

    • At first Paul’s book nearly made the top of my head blow off, Rob, but once I dug in and started applying his principles and techniques, worlds opened for me. The very best thing is, you’ll learn what actually works across devices. The hell of ereaders is, what works on one, might not work on others.

  7. I’m writing what will be a LONG book, even if I break it up into three volumes.

    I’d say it’s even MORE important to have it perfectly formatted because a reader who makes it through will be spending a lot of time with the text, and deserves the easiest-on-the-eyes experience I can produce.

    A definite reason to hire a true pro – or learn to do it right. And what is the idea of sending an ARC that isn’t perfect? Then your reviews would be based on a reviewer (who has standards – or why did you pick him or her?) having a bad experience. Counterproductive at least. Do you really want to scream “Amateur!” at a reviewer?

    • I’m with you all the way, Alicia. What I’ve learned is that many reviewers aren’t that tech savvy (hence the reviewer who tried to read a pdf “raw” on her iPad). So even if a writer is doing Kindle Select, for instance, it doesn’t hurt (or take much more time) to do an EPUB version. In the query to reviewers, ask which format they’d prefer.

      • Exactly. Since you should already be having a personal experience with the reviewer – you are, after all, asking for a favor and a big chunk of their time – you should always ask them which format(s) they would prefer, and making it as easy as possible for them to access your book.

        In olden times, you mailed them an ARC (may still have to do that with some) which, except for the cover, should have been as good as the actual product to be offered for sale.

    • What amuses me is that one of the books is from a professional house. And I wasn’t asking for a finished, but at least spell-checked with sentences running together properly and properly-capitalized words. The obvious stuff anyone would see by simply paging through the book.

      • Sad thing is, you probably did receive the finished product. Just recently the CEO of Kensington stated publicly that they don’t bother proofreading their ebooks. I work with scanned materials all the time, and I don’t care how “clean” the scan looks or how well it is converted, it’s going to be full of junk that ONLY a proper proofreading can root out. Oh lord, I don’t want to rant about this, but it is so annoying.

  8. Aesthetics can enhance a book. I won’t argue that point. But rejecting a book that’s at least readably formatted and well-edited just because of a lack of aesthetics is ridiculous. If aesthetics somehow outweighs the contents, then it’s the reader who’s at fault, not the book. That’s a kind of snobbery that indie writers just don’t need. When reviews by average readers start taking note of the aesthetics, I’ll take all that back. In the meantime, I have to say this is a narrow viewpoint not much different from the gatekeeping prerogatives that would-be gatekeepers think they’re entitled to. I admire your skills and generally appreciate your support of indie writers, but labeling a writer an amateur for something that has nothing to do with the quality of the writing goes too far.

    • I’m going to disagree with you, Catana (even while agreeing that I am an ebook snob). Aesthetics do matter in ebooks just as much as they do in print. I CAN’T give the words the attention they deserve when I’m distracted by ugly, broken or amateurish formatting. The LOOK of an ebook affects my attitude going in. If the format is sloppy, I assume the writing is sloppy, too–which is not always the case, but the idea is in my head and it would take truly spectacular story telling to get it out.

      It’s not gatekeeping since there are zero barriers to ANY self-publisher creating a professional looking book (It’s why I have this blog, so people can learn how to do this themselves). Even if the publisher is using Word, all it takes is awareness and attention to details and a bit of time figuring out how ebooks actually work. If you’ll notice, the worst offender in my small sampling is a traditional publisher (one of the Big 5, in fact), so it’s got nothing to do with indies or WHO publishes the ebook.

      I don’t accept “good enough.” It depresses me quite a bit that any publisher, big or small, would treat their stories and their readers in a shabby manner. I CARE about stories and books. I HONOR the art and craft of storytelling. I don’t hand out stars when someone hands me the equivalent of a child’s scribble on a lunch sack and I sure don’t think it’s snobbery to insist that publishers show the work the respect it deserves.

  9. You’ve shifted the argument in a way I can’t accept. I’m talkiong about books that are readably formatted, without errors, not “broken” or “sloppy.” If you believe that a standard-format book is the equivalent of a child’s scribbles, then there’s nothing more I can say, except to point out that you’ve fallen into the same trapas anyone with special skills, who filters everything through those skills.

    {But I’m not going to go away in a huff and unsub over what is really a philosophical difference of opinion. You provide a valuable service to all of us indies, and I appreciate it. I also keep working to refine the appearance of my books, to the degree that makes sensible use of my time and energy.)

    • We’re still friends here, Catana. 🙂

      I’m not equating professionalism with fancy. A lot of my clients want very simple ebooks without any frippery and I honor that. I also know I work just as hard on them as I do on those where I pull out all the bells and whistles stops. Actually, in some ways, it’s more difficult–less room for error. If a book is properly formatted and not broken or sloppy, then it IS professional. Some of the stuff I see (and again, the worst offenders seem to be the trad pubs, not the indies) is sloppy and careless and often broken.

      I call Sample Number 1 amateurish because it is. It looks like a manuscript. Manuscripts are works in progress. If I’m paying to read something, I expect it to be finished. Given that my time and money are both limited, but the supply of reading material is (seemingly) not, I tend to look for the best. The publisher of that particular work could have very easily taken a few steps to give his work a more polished look, taken more care in the package as a whole. Doing so would have made a much better first impression and given me more confidence that his story was worth my time and money. Sample Number 2 is just a crying shame, an amateurish attempt that should leave somebody hanging their head in shame and the author enraged that anyone would treat his work like that.

      Don’t mistake my criticisms for a lack of support. My criticisms ARE support. Get better, work harder, do your best and if with experience the “best” bar raises, then redo earlier efforts.

      • All’s well. I do agree with the criticisms of each sample. It was just the “attitude” that bothered me. I keep learning, and working to improve both my storytelling and my presentation. I’ll willingly read something that looks like a manuscript if the story can draw me in, but maybe I’ll be raising my standards even there, eventually. Total responsibility for one’s own books is still pretty new, and people are still learning, so I’m willing not to be too hardnosed about what’s acceptable.

  10. Hm. I’ve done my e-books according to format #1 as that is how I was advised by an e-publisher to do them. Keep is as simple as possible, because graphics at the top of a chapter page and other such fluffery could make life harder for those who read using smartphones. I wonder how many others are following the KISS principle like I am because that’s how they were told to do it? I do creative chapter headers and such for my paperback books, but not for e-books. If I’d known I COULD use the chapter headers (for example) for my e-books, too, I would have. I prefer them for visual interest. “Chapter 1” is boring as all get-out. Time to rework my e-books…..

    • When I started messing around with ebooks, Dawn, almost everyone was saying “Oh no, don’t do anything fancy! Just make them plain. You’ll be sorry if you don’t!” That’s not horrible advice for someone who’s just starting out, especially since it takes time and a lot of screwing around to figure out how the different platforms work so you can make an ebook that works properly on different devices. A simple format can be quite elegant. A good model for most fiction is a better quality mass market paperback. Look for a simple design that makes good use of white space and balance, while keeping in mind flowable text and user preference controls.

      • Thanks, Jaye. Out of curiosity, I know how many pixels high and wide works best for the paperbacks I do, but what would be a good pixel size for chapter headers for e-book purposes?

  11. That really depends on the book. All mine are custom, so I go for a look to match the story/genre, and I love using graphical elements in chapter headers. To play it perfectly safe, I’d go with a 2em (about 18pts in Word) top margin and 1.5em (12 pts in Word) bottom margin, and use a 1.5em font size (14-16pt font in Word), bold, and centered. No indent for the first paragraph. That gives you enough white space to make the chapter head stand out and adds a little variety for visual interest.

    There are plenty of nifty tricks you can do with font sizes and variants. Italics, bold, small-caps, mixing up the font sizes, even using color. Spelling out numerals and making them all lower-case. Using em or en dashes or even tildes to bracket chapter numbers. It doesn’t have to be centered–going with left or right alignment can look nice. The only technique I don’t recommend is underlining. It can look nice, but it can make readers think it is a link. So I avoid that.

    • Oh, if you mean the sizes for graphics, again, that’s a preference. I like headers that stretch across the full screen. Since reading screens vary in size, I tend to use percentages rather than fixed sizes (which can end up cropped on some screens). A problem with MOBI and EPUB readers is they don’t allow for vector images. So you have to fiddle with images to make sure they render well on different sized screens. It’s harder to do with small images than it is with large images, so I fix those image sizes, preferring to risk them being slightly out of proportion over being distorted beyond recognition.

      I try to not fill more than 25% of the screen (in portrait mode) with header images (200px assuming an 800 by 600 resolution screen), otherwise it can get really weird if the user goes to landscape mode or is using a phone as a reader.

    • Kinda confused me for a second, then I realized my question wasn’t clear. By pixels, I meant images used in headers, not text. What height x width is best to worth with for e-books?

      • And I wrote a confusing reply. I have a little cheat sheet I use to figure sizes and percentages, but off the top of my head, the key is in screen resolution. An average tablet is around 1280 by 800 pixels and an average eink reader is 800 by 600. So if I’m making a graphical header that I want to stretch across the screen, I’ll make it 1280 by 200 pixels in size, then set the image width in the ebook at 100%. Then I’ll run it in my browser at differing widths to make sure it doesn’t go too fuzzy, and to double check how it’ll look on a larger than average screen (such as an iPad) I’ll run it in Calibre or Adobe Digital Editions. The simpler the graphic, the better it will display across the board. And of course, you have to watch image sizes so they don’t get out of hand.

      • Thanks, Jaye. Your help is very much appreciated. Oh, oh, one other thing. I noticed the formats you like are fully justified, not just left justified. At least, they appear to be. Do you suggest full justification? I had been told not to use it because of smartphone users having tiny little screens that full justification can do weird things with. I don’t use a smartphone, so I have no idea about those things.

  12. Default on most devices is justified text (meaning, if you use Word, the conversion process will automatically justify the text). In html you can declare the text alignment. I do NOT recommend ragged right. It looks pretty awful and amateurish. Some ereaders do auto-hyphenation (not Kindles) and there is an upside and downside to that, too. But you are right, on tiny screens and with large font displays, justification can look insane. On the upside, I hear very few complaints from people who read on phones. I think they accept that they are giving up some display quality in exchange for mobility and convenience.

    My dream situation would be for Amazon to allow me to upload three files–one for tablets, another for eink and a third for android/ios apps. As it stands, Amazon converts one file into three platforms, but formatting that is primo for one platform isn’t necessarily perfect for another. While I’m at it, I’d be able to offer EPUB files on Amazon, too, so other-than-Kindle users don’t have to use apps and can directly purchase books.

  13. Pingback: Giving the First Novel a Do-over | Tracking the Words: a yearly cycle

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