Working for Readers, Always

QuinnPrincessI signed up for a subscription to Kindle Unlimited. In hopes, no doubt, that it’ll keep me from busting my budget. (Yeah, right.) On the plus side, I’m discovering new authors I greatly enjoy. On the down side, I’m seeing a lot of piss-poorly produced ebooks.

When I’m shelling out the cash POS, I shop carefully, reading samples so I can avoid the formatting atrocities that disrupt my reading pleasure.  With KU, if I read a description that catches my interest, I download it and give it a try. Why not? My money is already in the pot. Have to tell you, my DNF (Did Not Finish) rate is running almost 60%.

To be fair, my DNF rate has always been on the high side. I’m not one of those readers who feels compelled to finish every story I start, no matter how much I pay for it. Either a story grabs me or it doesn’t. No big deal. What’s been frustrating lately is that there have been many stories I would have liked to finish because I liked the plot, ideas and/or characters, but the ebooks themselves are so poorly produced I can’t get past their ugliness to immerse myself in the story.

There you go again, Jaye, being an ebook snob.

Here I can state in all honesty, Not Guilty. It is true, I work very hard to make ebooks as beautiful as I know how. I enjoy the challenge of seeing how far I can push the medium. I try all kinds of tricks and hacks, sometimes just because I can, but usually because I believe they make my ebooks better. Here is something that many of my clients do not realize: Everything I do is for the readers. If a client wants something I know will break the ebook or make it difficult to read, I won’t do it. If the writer insists, they can find another formatter. If I do my job right, no reader will notice what I’ve done behind the scenes. They’ll have read a good book and are happy for it.

What makes me give up on an ebook?

#1: The ebook is broken

The main reason I prefer ebooks over print is because they’re much easier on my eyes. I can adjust the font, font size and line spacing to suit me. When I can’t because the producer was either too ignorant or too lazy to properly format the ebook, DNF. There’s no excuse for this. There is too much information on the internet, too many good tools/programs available — many of them at low or no cost — for anyone to put out an ebook that disables device controls.

#2 Manuscript punctuation

I read for a living. When I’m reading a doc/manuscript, I’m working. When I’m reading for pleasure and the story has manuscript punctuation, my Inner Editor comes roaring out of the shadows, waving her red pen like a sword and puts me to work. I can’t enjoy a story when I’m looking for typos and mentally fixing the text. It also annoys me because it says to me that the Writer Does Not Care enough about my reading pleasure to sell me a finished product. If you don’t know the difference between manuscript punctuation and printer punctuation, then look it up and figure it out. (FYI, one of the first things I do when I’m prepping a client’s text for formatting is I change manuscript punctuation to print punctuation. Always.)

#3 Weird-ass paragraphs

I made it through a whole chapter of an ebook by one of my favorite authors because I like him so much I thought I could tolerate no paragraph indents. Not block paragraphs, with a space between, just everything running together. I couldn’t do it. Book removed from device and that author went back on the check out from the library, if I remember list. I gave up on a fun book last night because of poorly done block paragraphs with double returns between most of the paragraphs, and an occasional indented paragraph. The story is okay and the characters are amusing, and if the weird format weren’t so distracting, I might have kept reading, but it finally tipped me over the annoyance threshold. Paragraphs with super deep indents drive me crazy, too — looks like a manuscript. Super narrow indents are difficult to read. The worst part about weird-ass paragraphs is that it tells me the producer just doesn’t care about my reading pleasure. That makes me far more critical about the text and far more likely to give up on the book altogether.

#4 No proofreading

Regular readers know this is a big deal to me. I encourage every single writer who hires me to either proofread themselves or hire the job out. To further encourage the practice, I do not charge extra to input corrections into the ebook file. As a reader, I KNOW when nobody proofread the ebook. I’m not talking about occasional typos or gremlins that sneak in and get missed. That stuff happens — in print as often as in ebooks. I’m talking about sheer sloppiness, laziness, and yes, disrespect for the readers who pay in money and time. If nothing else, loading an ebook onto a device and proofreading it will tell you if the ebook is broken.

Today’s rant isn’t directed at self-publishers. Overall, trad pubs put out the worst ebooks. It’s directed at everybody. Formatting an ebook isn’t rocket surgery. Anyone with a computer and willingness to learn a few basics can produce one that works properly and doesn’t interfere with the reading experience. Knowing that makes slobby, sloppy, broken, ill-constructed ebooks all the more depressing. It says to me that the creator doesn’t care about the readers. It says they don’t care enough about their own stories to present them in a suitable package.

Let’s do better, people. I’m tired of giving up on otherwise enjoyable books.


28 thoughts on “Working for Readers, Always

  1. I’m finding a whole lot of unenjoyable ebooks. Tragic but true – for more reasons than formatting and proofreading. Plain old crappy writing and piss-poor boring stories. And lack of an ability to actually tell a story. Very depressing.

  2. Surprisingly, Julia, that doesn’t bother me so much. I can tell within three or four paragraphs if the writer has the chops to keep me interested. I’m going crazy trying to read otherwise decent stories that are so poorly produced they’re impossible to enjoy. Grumble….

  3. I agree that there is no excuse for poor formatting in an e-book. I use Open Office and Calibre, and keep the formatting very simple. I suspect that a lot of the weird formatting that I have seen is from authors who think that a high dollar product like InDesign will do a better job, without really knowing how the software works.

    I have also seen a lot of terrible formatting from traditional publisher’s re-releases of classic novels as e-books. Often there are numerous OCR errors ( 3 for E, ! for I, things of that nature) that a proofreader should have caught. Sometimes even worse errors, like missing pages or repeated chapters. I have a lot of old favorites that I have been getting as e-books, but now I make sure I read the samples and check out the reviews before I buy.

    • I agree. That thing with backlist from the trad pubs just kills me. I could have complete collections of my favorite authors, but so many are just plain unreadable. If I had time, I’d crack them open and reformat them for my reading pleasure. Ooh, did I say that out loud?

  4. Interesting post. I was curious about printer punctuation. I just googled it and it didn’t seem to come up. You wouldn’t happen to have a link/reference for it, would you? I’d really appreciate it if you did. Thanks.

    • I probably should have said Typesetting Punctuation. Manuscript punctuation is what you’d find on a standard keyboard. A double dash to indicate an em dash; three periods for an ellipsis; straight quotes. Ebooks should have curly/smart quotes; spaced ellipses (the ellipsis character is suitable, but ugly, and using three periods can cause orphaned periods); and proper dash characters.

      Producers can’t fine-tune the typography of ebooks the way it possible in print. Sometimes it can break an ebook to try. They can make it look professional, though, by using proper paragraphs and punctuation.

      • I agree wholeheartedly with all you say and my DNF rate is very similar if not worse. I thought I must be just getting picky in my old(er) age, but I prefer to think ‘discerning’. You used to be able to get smart quotes on a keyboard and even tho I tick the box in Word to convert straight quotes to smart, it doesn’t work. You can still get them on Scrivener thank heaven. But then Scrivener comes from the UK not the US 🙂 I’ve looked at lots of book templates too and they all have straight quotes. Setting up a bad habit.

      • Ah! I wondered what you meant as it wasn’t possible to find it anywhere when I googled. Surely people must go out of their way to get straight quotes? All the major word processers and tools like Scrivener do that for you.

      • Simon, Word will use smart/curly quotes IF you toggle it on. The main reason so many straight quotes slip in is that writers tend to use whatever device they have on hand to write and/or edit. Smartphones, tablets, back and forth emails, whatever. It is, however, very easy to do a quick search for them pre-production, and get them all pointing in the right direction.

  5. Hey, Jaye-

    ‘If nothing else, loading an ebook onto a device and proofreading it will tell you if the ebook is broken.’ I’m not sure I understand that sentence. Do you mean format my book (or pay you to do it) and then upload it to my Kindle to see what it looks like before I send it out into the world?

    • Yes, of course. I do that, doesn’t everyone? It only takes a minute to side load an epub or mobi file into an e-reader, and it really should be the last step in the editing process, to read what it’s going to look like on an actual e-book reader.

    • When my book comes back from the ebook maker, I load the Kindle version on my touch and the epub on my Nook. I test various aspects: a few from the drop-down table of contents, the links to the annotations in the back, paging through from front to back, that sort of thing. I also check the art to see that it appears fine (I use a lot of old artwork and photos).

      Sometimes I’ve had to ask for a fix, and when that’s done I check that as well to make sure it was done properly.

      On the bad side, I’ve still found errors in my copy. This after an initial edit, another pass, a third pass by my proofer, and then when I make the CreateSpace version, I still find nits.

      • Gremlins. They sneak in when you aren’t looking. I’ve had books go through six or seven careful readings, and seem perfectly clean, until the Publish button is clicked and a gremlin leaps off the screen, shouting, “Neener neener. You missed me!”

        Those aren’t a result of sloppiness or being a careless slob. They’re just honest mistakes and it’s possible to find at least one in any book. (Hell, my favorite DICTIONARY has some typos.) They aren’t the kind of thing that will make me toss aside a book.

        The beauty of ebooks is that once revealed, fixing them takes five minutes or less, then upload a new file and done. I wish Createspace were so forgiving, but if the error is too egregious, it’s worth the $25 to have it fixed.

  6. Exactly. If you’re doing hundreds or thousands, you can pretty much tell what will or will not break an ebook. (By broken, I mean ebooks that disable user preferences on devices.) I used to load every ebook I formatted on one of my devices and run it through its paces. Now I only do that if I’ve tried out a new technique or unfamiliar coding.

    For self-publishers doing it themselves, and only one or two or three books a year, I recommend live testing every single ebook. Ereading devices are inexpensive. Making certain users can use your book the way the device allows is only professional.

    As for proofreading, you don’t have to use a device if you don’t have one. Programs such as the Kindle Previewer or Calibre will give you a very good idea how your formatting will look on a device. (I used to recommend Adobe Digital Editions, but it does such nasty things to computers, I don’t even like typing its name.)

  7. Pingback: Working for Readers, Always @JWManus | paizic

  8. Jaye,

    Thanks again for this newsletter-thingy you send. It’s helpful. #3 had me scratching my head and wondering how much, if any, applies to my work.

    What is a block paragraph?

    I’d guess, but I’d rather have you explain it briefly than me grasping at countless straws to ferret out the right answer.



    • There are different paragraph styles a writer can use. The two most common are block paragraphs, which are not indented and are separated by a space or a half-space; indented paragraphs, where each new paragraph is indented and the paragraphs have no extra spaces between them.

      Block paragraphs are better suited for non-fiction. They are visually more tiresome to read and should only be used in special circumstances.

      Indented paragraphs are the standard for fiction.

      When a writer is composing, it doesn’t matter a whole lot what style they use. Whatever helps the creative process is the right one. You don’t have to start making choices that involve reader comfort until it’s time to format the book into a salable format. 😀

    • It’s a standard part of doc prep. I have standard Find/Replace functions that make it almost painless. Most of the formatters I know and respect do the same thing. (Beware of services that take your Word doc and convert it and call it “formatting” because it’s not.)

      One thing many formatters do, which I DON’T approve of, is make inputting proof corrections expensive. I understand from a business perspective that it’s probably smart. Time is money, after all. From a reader’s perspective, it’s a shame that it discourages writers on tight budgets from taking that final step.

  9. Jaye, can you spell out the rules for ebook ellipses for me? What is the correct spacing? Currently I use the ellipsis character with a space either side (though in manuscript I don’t like spaces either side) unless it’s at the end of a dialogue sentence when I skip the end space. Thanks …

    • Not sure about rules, but decent typography requires that a book (digital or print) NOT use the ellipsis character. It’s such a homely little thing. Instead, what you want to use are spaced ellipsis created with periods and non-breaking spaces.

      Now is the time . . .
      “Happy to know . . .”
      “Well, I said . . . you know.”
      “. . . jumped over the lazy dog.”

      The non-breaking space keeps the ellipsis together on one line and attached to its preceding text. No worries about orphaned periods when the text wraps.

      In Word you can find the non-breaking space in the Symbols tool box. In html it’s the & nbsp ; (joined up) entity.

      This is easy to do with Find/Replace. Your ebook will look better, too.

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