More Power to the Do-It-Yourselfers

quinnremoteSo I got an email last week from a friend. She asked about justification and hyphenation in ebooks, and my opinion about what should be the standard. Then in a PS, she added:

PS I now have a system for making Scrivener create an ebook for me that is rather fancy, but doesn’t require any hand work. There’s a post about it on my blog, if you care to look. A tiny bit of hand manipulation of the final epub + Kindlegen even gives me indented right margins for my epigraphs. I have learned so much from you and your posts – but I do have a different system which works for me with NO hand cleaning of the source code, and just a few tweaks to the templates. So I can say my Scrivener ebooks look good on the epub and mobi readers I’ve tried, and I’ll test them on everything I have access to before even uploading. You did say to tell you if people had a system that worked for them.”

It probably doesn’t make good business sense for me to encourage Do-It-Yourself ebook production. Except, I think DIY is wonderful and I not only encourage it, I highly approve of anyone who wants to give it a shot. In fact, I am of the opinion that anyone who wants to make a career out of self-publishing to at least try formatting an ebook. If you’re an independent writer, you’re ALSO a publisher. A publisher needs to know how things work. They need to know what the people they hire are doing and if they are doing a good job and earning their keep.

There are many, many resources available to the DIYer. Both Amazon and Smashwords have tons of information about how to make an ebook. It is possible to make a quality ebook using readily available tools such as MS Word or Scrivener. Here is a recommendation I made to Alicia:

I haven’t used Scrivener since I had a computer die on me, [two plus years ago] and I haven’t reloaded it. I imagine it’s improved quite a bit. Even so, were I using it, I’d skip using their [built-in] KindleGen, run an epub then convert that using the Kindle Previewer. I’d use the resulting MOBI file for proofing and adjusting, then run a fresh epub and load that to Amazon. That will greatly lessen chances of conversion goofs.

I’ve said it many times in many blog posts that the keys to a quality ebook are clean text going in and then careful testing/proofreading of the ebook before it is uploaded to a retailer. How exactly you go from the clean text stage to the proofread stage is up to you. I prefer html and css to build an ebook from the ground up because it’s efficient and I have a lot of control and I can do some very sophisticated styling without breaking the resulting ebook.

If you are comfortable using a word processor or Scrivener or even InDesign, here are the tips I gave Alicia:

[This is a problem] Using multiple, but not embedded fonts. I encourage people to stick with Times New Roman, not because it’s easy to read or because it will show up in ebooks, but because its character sets are stable and every conversion program knows how to “read” it. It’s foolproof as far as conversion is concerned. When people use multiple fonts that are not properly embedded, what will happen is that sometimes during the conversion the program decides to “help” out. I don’t know if you’ve ever read an ebook where all the sudden a word is super-sized or teeny-tiny or characters are replaced by black diamonds or boxes with question marks. That is a result of inappropriate fonts.

Justifying the text. Across the board, this will break a Kindle book.
[Justified text is the default in most Kindle devices, so even if your Word or Scrivener file is ragged right, the ebook will justify the text. If you justify the text, the program will code based on margins and print commands. They can lock. So what happens when it’s converted to an ebook is that the Kindle will not/can not override those locking codes, and users will not be able to adjust margins or line spacing. This is a bad thing.]

Micro-managing line spacing. This can cause big problems in Kindle books. Broken paragraphs, squished text, weird blank “pages” and so on. Set your spacing at “single” and leave it alone. Problem solved.

Hyphenating text. For the most part, Kindles ignore discretionary hyphens. Sometimes they don’t. So you end up with words in the middle of a sentence with a discretionary hyphen character (looks like a hyphen with a hook). It doesn’t break the ebook, but it does look sloppy and unprofessional. In html I [sometimes] use a soft hyphen character. Several of my clients are medical professionals and they use some extra long terms, so I manually insert soft hyphens. I don’t know if there is an equivalent in Scrivener.

Two more tips for you:

  • Remember that what you SEE in your word processor or Scrivener is not necessarily what you will get in your ebook. So don’t get all worked up about spacing and widows/orphans. Let your text flow, which is what it is supposed to do in the ebook.
  • Use styles. Use one style for the main body text (not tabs or hard returns or extra spaces) and another for headers and even a style for centering text. If you don’t know how to use styles, take 30 minutes and figure it out. It will save you time and headaches, and result in a much better quality ebook.

Finally, a word about Amazon’s Look Inside feature. This is a chronic headache for me because most people don’t realize they aren’t seeing the actual ebook. What Amazon is showing is a sample that is specially converted for the Look Inside. Sometimes they justify the text as the default, sometimes they default to ragged right. Sometimes they ignore margins. In other words, if you want to see what the ebook actually looks like, you have to download a sample. Why does Amazon do this? I don’t know. It’s a pain in the ass and I get tired of explaining to clients how it works, but that’s how it is. So my advice to you is if you want to see how your ebook looks “live” do NOT depend on the Look Inside. If you don’t have a Kindle, then download the Kindle Previewer and open up your book with that. You will get a much clearer picture.


15 thoughts on “More Power to the Do-It-Yourselfers

  1. Thank you, Jaye.

    Love the photo of yr CEO.

    As for everyone trying design work, trust me you do not want me involved in that way. Seriously. Everyone has certain abilities. Cheers,

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Thanks so much for all your good advice, Jaye.

    One little comment about the Scrivener side: use styles all you want in the writing part – they are not true styles, and don’t carry over. You can’t change them globally and affect every place that style is used; the faux-style is used to style the selected text as if you did it manually.

    The place where you want to let Scrivener do the work is in the Compile stage, with its own menus and systems. THAT’S where you decide – and can change – how the final text will look.

    I’m ashamed to say my Scrivener input files are all over the place as far as formatting – practically no two scenes of a hundred are exactly the same (I was learning – it was too hard to retrofit). But the Compile step sees anything as pure text (unless you use the ‘preserve formatting’ feature so Compile can’t get its hands on it), and so is roughly equivalent to Jaye’s ‘clean file’ (without the Word stuff). In concept, at least.

    To get what I wanted, I used a combination: mostly letting Compile set the ‘look’ but occasionally setting up bits of text in such a way that the ‘preserve formatting’ helped me do things more simply for embedded bits of text in the scenes (like an email or a headstone).

    • That’s excellent information, Alicia. I’ve started writing fiction again (only 30 minutes a day, sigh, but work pays the bills) and I miss Scrivener’s organizational features. So much more efficient than my “system” of scribbled in notebooks and sticky notes. As noted before, it’s been a few years since I’ve used it.

      So I will amend my comment: If using a word processor, get in the habit of using styles. Not only will it save time, but it will vastly cut down on formatting glitches when it comes time to format your project into an ebook.

      • Couldn’t agree more.

        Every time you do something different, take a moment and label a style for it, or format the new kind of paragraph – and turn it into a style. Then use them.

        I would use Word except that they’ve gotten so complicated I refuse to take the time to figure out how to get their ‘helpful’ stuff out of the way.

  3. I’m probably sounding like a broken record, but I have no problem turning this aspect over to someone else, no matter how easy. It’s about the only thing I don’t do.

    • Me, too – that and editing. Maybe I will have the time to learn ebook formatting at some point, but in the meantime, since I can’t do it competently, then I’d rather turn it over to Jaye. I personally hate when ebooks look bad (it seriously interferes with my reading pleasure), so maybe it’s just me.

      • You bring up a good point, Sharon. As PUBLISHERS it’s the indie’s duty to think about their readers’ experience with the ebook. There is no consensus about what exactly readers want/expect in an ebook beyond a good story. I’m not the best judge of how much design affects reading pleasure since I’ve always been extremely sensitive (and easily distracted by) the appearance of my reading material.

        That said, I urge DIY-ers to prioritize their formatting efforts:

        #1 The words themselves. Make sure they are edited and polished and proofread. Make the story shine, If the words work, everything else is forgivable.

        #2 Make sure the ebook WORKS. The number one reason I read digitally is for comfort. If I cannot adjust the settings on my devices due to formatting errors, I am most unhappy. Hard to enjoy a story if I have to squint to see it.

        #3 Design with reader comfort in mind. Simple always works. Consistency is a huge plus.

        A good 90% of what I do isn’t “visible” to the reader. The reader isn’t supposed to notice, for instance, that my spaced ellipses never result in orphaned periods. I don’t want them noticing the depth of my paragraph indents (because if they do, then either they are too wide or too narrow). I want readers to take for granted the fact that scene breaks are always apparent and they never have to guess if there’s been a break or not. I make sure readers don’t get “lost” and that styling is consistent throughout. Do my job right, and the reader shouldn’t notice ME at all, but will come away thinking about the story and only the story and how it made them feel. Rather like a car engine running well. Passengers should enjoy the ride, not worry about that pinging noise under the hood.

  4. Jaye said:
    “I am of the opinion that anyone who wants to make a career out of self-publishing to at least try formatting an ebook. If you’re an independent writer, you’re ALSO a publisher. A publisher needs to know how things work. They need to know what the people they hire are doing and if they are doing a good job and earning their keep.”

    This is so true. I formatted my own short stories. I was proud of myself, proud of the result, and eternally grateful that Jaye formats my novels for me! I’m glad I tried it myself, because now I understand exactly what I’m paying for when I hire Jaye. Her services are worth every cent.

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