Got Workflow? Step by Step to Better Books

Sloth is my deadly sin of choice. But you know what they say, If you want to figure out the fastest, most efficient means of getting a job done, find a lazy person. That’s me. I want to get my work done for the day so I can kick back with a can of Pringles and watch Gordon Ramsay on Hulu.

Producing books for public consumption is not nearly as difficult, complicated or time-consuming as writing them in the first place. Even so, it is a real job (as opposed to an afterthought) and it takes some skill and planning. To do the job right–produce a great product–requires a workflow that makes sense and doesn’t involve anybody’s head exploding. (And please, please don’t come in bragging how you one-step book production by using InDesign or Scrivener to compose your work, then create print and digital and pdf files in one fell swoop. One-size-fits-all might be fast, but it does NOT produce reader-pleasing products.)

I often work with a team–writer, cover artist, editor/s and proofreader. This must be coordinated and everybody has to be kept in the loop and on the same page. I have to make sure everyone has the same tools. (For instance, I do the majority of my work in a text editor and in InDesign, two programs not every writer or editor owns or is familiar with.) Almost everybody has Word–or a word processor that produces .doc files. Anyone with a computer can read a pdf. For that reason, working files used by multiple people are passed around as either .doc or .pdf files.

Taking into account that there will be changes to the text in every step along the way, I prefer starting with the ebook (easy to modify) then use the text that has been edited and proofread to create the print-on-design edition (not so easy to modify).

HOW IT WORKS

Step 1: The Original

workflow1The very first thing I do when I receive a manuscript is create a project folder and do a Save As of the original. Save As is important. There is no reason to NOT make multiple copies of the file. Your computer has plenty of room, and there will be cases when you NEED a previous version. I’ve come up with a file-naming system that helps me keep track of the files. I date the versions, too. My naming system might not make sense to anyone else, so I recommend you come up with something that makes sense to you. As long as it is easy to remember and searchable, it will work.

Step 2: Scan and tag

workflow2I scan through my version of the original .doc file and make styling notes (chapter heads, special formatting). I note hyperlinks and images placement. Then I use Find/Replace to tag italics, bolding and underlining.

Step 3: Clean Up

workflow3I Select All and Copy, then transfer the text into a text editor. Here I do a thorough cleanup which includes finding “illegal” characters, deleting extra spaces, tidying special formatting (italics etc.), and making sure the punctuation is “printer” punctuation and not “manuscript” punctuation. I also start a simple text file that is called “Notes_…” where I jot down the table of contents entries, any special formatting required, and other bits. (If you are doing your own ebook formatting I HIGHLY recommend you not skip the Clean Up step. No matter how good your Word file looks, it’s going to be full of hidden goobers and grabby formatting.)

Step 4: Create a Mark Up Document

workflow4I do a Select All and Copy the clean text and transfer it back into a new Word doc. I style it as a manuscript (Courier font, double-spaced), create a navigation guide (apply the Heading 1 and Heading 2 styles to chapters and sections), and restore special formatting (italics etc.). If I have made styling notes, I highlight those. (This sounds like a lot of work, but it only takes a few minutes.)

Step 5: Format the Proof Ebook

workflow5I do a Save As of my cleaned up text file as an html file. I always ask the writer/publisher what kind of device on which they read ebooks. This tells me whether they need a MOBI file or an EPUB file (they look the same, but the underpinnings are different), and I make that version first.

Step 6: Proofreading

workflow6Sometimes writers hire me to proofread the ebook, sometimes they do it themselves, sometimes they hire a third party. The process is essentially the same: The proofreader goes through the ebook word by word, finding errors, and uses the mark-up document to note changes. Even if I am the proofreader, I send the ebook AND the mark-up document to the writer. That way if they want adjustments to the styling, they can note it on the mark-up document. If there are multiple readers, Word’s Track Changes* is a handy feature. The important aspect is that all changes to the text are clearly noted.

Step 7: Complete the Ebook

workflow7I manually insert all changes/corrections into the html files and finish the ebook/s. I will make the necessary versions a writer needs, and make sure everything is validated and working properly. If by chance you are doing your own ebook and you are using Word, my recommendation is that you have TWO versions of your file: Mark Up and Ebook. Do all your markup and changes in the Mark Up version and transfer it into the Ebook version. That way you won’t “infect” your ebook with Word nasties and extraneous grabby styling.

Step 8: The Smashwords Word File

workflow8Some of my clients use Smashwords. To get the best results with SW, I recommend providing an EPUB file AND a Word file formatted to SW’s specs. What I do is copy the text from the finished ebook into a new file, and strip out the html. (With Find/Replace this takes only minutes) I Select All and Copy the clean, proofread text into a new Word doc. This file is named Final_…. I do a Save As and style the new doc for an ebook. Done.

Step 9: The Print-on-Demand file

workflow9For the Do-It-Yourselfer, you can create a perfectly serviceable and attractive POD book using Word. I happen to use InDesign (because of my innate masochistic tendencies). Either way, the key to a well-produced print version is well organized, squeaky clean text. If you followed my workflow step by step, you just happen to have exactly that on hand. 🙂

I always save the POD version for last. Production takes longer, not only in layout and design, but because it takes time for CreateSpace or Ingrams to approve the files, the cover has to be custom fit, then a proof edition ordered, mailed and gone over. It can take a few weeks. While this is being done, the writer/publisher can already have uploaded and started selling the ebook. If by chance an egregious error is discovered in the text (it happens, sigh…) then it is a relatively painless process to fix the ebook file and upload the new version to distributors. If it happens the other way–that the POD version is finished and distributed**, then an error is discovered during ebook production–well, that error is going to cost time AND money to fix in the POD edition.

The easiest way to pass editing/proofreading notes back and forth for a POD book in production is to use a pdf reader (I use Adobe Acrobat) and make use of the highlight/comment features. If you are using Word to create your POD edition, have your other-than-yourself proofreader read a pdf version and use a Markup document to note changes/corrections rather than having them work on your formatted .doc file. Trust me on this.


As with just about everything in my life, I have to try out many methods before I discover the process that works well for me. More importantly, something that others can use with minimal hassle and instruction. This workflow works. It works whether you are going solo or if you’re working with a team. Try it, you might find your productivity increases.

* A caution–A HUGE CAUTION–about Track Changes. It was designed with print in mind and it’s a brilliant tool. For digital productions it can be a nightmare. If you intend to use a file in which Track Changes was used, clean it thoroughly. As for me, TC never touches any text I intend to format for an ebook.

**I had a client who had a professional design her POD edition, and then needed me to format the ebook. Unfortunately, the only version of edited, proofread text she had was locked up in a QuarkXpress file. It cost her extra for me to recover the text and clean out all the print formatting. A problem she wouldn’t have had if she’d followed my workflow. Save As, people, keep using Save As and maintain your markup files in formats anyone can use.


workflow10Examples are from The Metaphor Deception, by Birch Adams, now available in ebook and print wherever fine books are sold.

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15 thoughts on “Got Workflow? Step by Step to Better Books

    • It’s just a matter of remembering what is most important in the process, Margaret. KEEP THE TEXT CLEAN AND UPDATED. As long as readers get great writing, they’ll shrug their shoulders and ignore most production goofs.

  1. Jaye,

    It was a pleasure working with and learning from you on my debut novel, also an honor that you used my novel as an example in this post. Thanks for the great job and now the gracious publicity!

    Birch Adams

  2. Pingback: Got Workflow? Step by Step to Better Books | The Passive Voice | A Lawyer's Thoughts on Authors, Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing

  3. I’ve said for years that necessity may be the mother of invention, but laziness is what causes us to build a better mousetrap. Viva la mousetrap! (And I, too, love watching Gordon Ramsey as well as the other chefs on Masterchef–my guilty pleasure.)

    • I use Notepad++. It’s a free download and far more powerful than any ebook producer needs, but it’s not difficult to use. The number one biggest advantage to using a text editor instead of a word processor is that a text editor always does exactly what I tell it to, and nothing more. Whereas word processors are, you know, helpful.

  4. Pingback: Friday Link Pack 10/17/2014 | I make stories.

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