Why Your Ebook SHOULD NOT Look Like a Print Book

Blog-Screenshot_2016-05-16-14-37-10I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend of late: Writer/publishers who want their ebooks to look (and act) like print books–and print designers turned formatters who encourage it.

What those who try to force print design into ebooks seem unaware of is WHY readers like ebooks:

  1. Portability. (I can carry hundreds or thousands of books in my purse.)
  2. Availability. If a book is in digital form and offered for sale, then it is always in stock. If you finish a really terrific book and want to read another of the author’s books, just pop over to the retail site, buy the next ebook and keep reading.
  3. Reader-friendliness. If, like me, you have overworked and/or aged eyes, the ability to increase font size and line height is a godsend. If, like me, you enjoy reading outdoors, an eink reader completely eliminates page glare and the resulting eye fatigue. If, like me, you like to read in bed but your partner wants you to turn off the damned light, if you have a tablet or backlit eink reader or smart phone, you can turn off the damned light and keep reading.
  4. Social reading. For those who like being part of a club, you can connect your books to other readers and share highlighted passages and comments.
  5. Price. Unless the ebook is coming from one of the Big5 publishers, it’s probably inexpensive enough to appeal to even the heaviest readers. They are inexpensive to produce, cost nothing to stock and free/cheap to ship. They should be inexpensive. I bet I’m not the only reader who was priced out of the print market and stopped buying new books, but because of ebooks is now back to buying four or five new books a week.

I doubt very much anyone who reads ebooks buy them to admire their looks. A well-designed ebook is a pleasure to read, but ONLY when the design complements and/or enhances the book’s functionality. When the design interferes with the functionality, it can irritate readers to the point where the author or publisher goes on the Do Not Buy list.

Publishers and formatters drop the ball for one of two reasons:

  1. They don’t understand how ebook reading devices work.
  2. Their priorities are skewed.

If you don’t know how reading devices work, you have no business formatting an ebook. Period. It’s not easy keeping up with everything. Trust me, I spend a lot of time keeping up with updates and changing devices and standards. I have four Kindles, an iPhone, and two computers on which I read and/or test ebooks. I use several programs to test out new techniques. My goal with every job is to produce an ebook that can be read on any device. If you don’t know how ereading devices work, you can format an absolutely stunning looking file in Word or InDesign or Scrivener only to have it completely fall apart or turn into an unreadable mess when it’s loaded onto an ereader. If you’re using Calibre to convert commercial ebooks, chances are you’re unaware as to why that’s a bad idea. The truly clueless seem to be the most proud of creating one-size-fits-all formats for print, epub, and mobi.

Priorities. Here are mine:

  1. The writing itself. Properly edited, properly punctuated, properly proofread. A great story can make readers forget a poorly formatted ebook; but no amount of great formatting can overcome a poorly written/edited/proofread book. For my clients, I do a preproduction clean up to make sure their work is professionally punctuated, and if I spot a mistake, I fix it for them. I also encourage proofreading, even going so far as keeping my proofreading charge at a bare minimum, and never charging for inputting proof changes/corrections. I will suggest line-editing if I believe a work merits it. I do my part; writer/publishers have to do theirs.
  2. Functionality. Almost every reading device has user controls for fonts, font sizes, line spacing, margins and background colors. Formatting or conversion that interferes with or disables those user controls results in a broken ebook and annoyed readers. The ebook also has to be readable on varying sizes of reading screens.
  3. Ease of navigation. A functional table of contents, two way internal hyperlinks, a complete and comprehensive internal toc, clearly defined chapter and section starts.
  4. File size. Ebooks work sort of like websites, with each chapter or section much like a web page. I split my html files into individual chapters or sections to make them load faster. If an ebook is image heavy, I rework the images to the smallest size possible. You don’t want readers to experience page lag. Or worse, for them to be unable to load your ebook at all because it’s so bloated. Or crash the ereader. (I’ve had box sets do that and those puppies get deleted without prejudice.)
  5. Design. Functional doesn’t mean unattractive or generic. Each design element, however, has to complement and/or enhance the functionality. Any design element that degrades the functionality has to go–no matter how pretty it might be, or how good it looks in print.

Print elements that tend to fascinate writer/publishers and wreck their ebooks:

  1. Fonts. Fonts and licenses are cheap. Fonts are easy as can be to embed in ebooks. Fancy fonts can add elegance and visual interest to chapter headers and limited blocks of text. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, embedding a font for the body text is a bad idea. Fonts suitable for body text add greatly to the file size. Not every font is suitable for ebooks. Special characters can turn into question marks or black boxes on a device. What looks terrific in print can render into something less than desirable on a Kindle or Nook or smart phone screen. Leave font choice up to the readers.
  2. Widows/orphans. I had a client complain to me about a single word ending up on a “page” at the end of a chapter. I told him to change the font size–I wasn’t being a smart aleck. That’s how ebooks work. The text flows to fit the screen. Sometimes you end up with orphaned text that would never be allowed in a print book. Every attempt that’s made to “fix” the text means risking breaking the ebook. Live with it. Readers don’t notice, or care. They are used to it.
  3. Justification. Ereading devices do a shit job of justification. The alternative is worse. (The way my Kindle tablet hyphenates text makes me want to go after somebody’s knuckles with a wooden ruler.) If you absolutely cannot stand the way devices justify text, then left align it. It will jar some readers initially, but if the writing is good, they’ll get used to it. If you are using InDesign, Word or Scrivener to format your ebook, DO NOT justify the text. It’ll disable line spacing and/or margin width controls on many devices.
  4. Drop-caps. They’re pretty, I get it. Unless you are a pro and willing to teBlog-screenshot_2016_05_16T20_52_30+0000st your coding across a multitude of devices, delegate drop-caps to the print version. And don’t forget to test in landscape mode. The results can be… disconcerting.
  5. Text-wrapping around images. This is another element that can seriously bite you in the butt. It can work, but only if you know exactly what you are doing (and just because you can do it in Word or InDesign doesn’t mean you know how to do it in an ebook). Consider the many, many, many readers who use their smart phones as ereaders. What happens on an iPhone as it struggles to fit everything on the screen would be laughable if it weren’t so annoying to the reader. It can be pretty nasty when readers need a larger font size, too.
  6. Graphics with text. I have two words for that: Smart Phones. Those beautiful flow charts become unreadable on a small screen. That caption on your photo becomes unreadable on a small screen. Adjust, compromise, get used to the way text flows–even though the graphics look perfect in the print version and you really want to use them in the ebook.

Writer/publishers, do yourselves and your readers a big favor and forget about trying to force your ebook to look like print. Respect what it is your readers want. What YOU want is for the readers to not consciously notice the design at all, but instead to fall in love with your words and keep coming back for more.

 

 

Fun With Formatting: Emails and Text Messages in Ebooks

“An epistolary novel is a novel written as a series of documents. The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used. Recently, electronic “documents” such as recordings and radio, blogs, and e-mails have also come into use. The word epistolary is derived from Latin from the Greek word ἐπιστολή epistolē, meaning a letter” (from Wikipedia)

All well and good, but what do those look like in an ebook? Notes and letters have a fairly standard format: offset margins, extra space before and after, sometimes italicized. Visually, it is easy to clue the reader in that they are looking at a note or letter. But what about an email? Or a text message?

I recently completed a book where the writer used emails and text messages. One chapter consisted entirely of emails and another chapter was a text message conversation. This particular author writes funny, quirky, sexy, offbeat romances. She likes her ebooks to be pretty and to stand out from the crowd–she wants them to look fun. (Which is tons of fun for me.) She wanted the emails to look like emails and the text messages to look like text messages.

textemail1For text messages inside the body of the ebook I used a sans serif font, bolded, and offset.

Would readers be confused if the text message looked the same as everything else? I doubt it. I know, from my own reading (and I read a LOT!) that visually interesting ebooks stand out. I am delighted by small touches–ornaments, unusual formatting, pictures–that break up the solid chunks of text.

For the chapter that consisted entirely of text messages, I pulled out the stops, using color blocks and right and left text alignment:

textemail2This is a tad over the top, but it fits with the playful tone of this story. For a story with a more serious tone, I would probably not use color blocks. I could use deep right/left margins to make the text messages appear to be in centered blocks. I might give them a border, too, to keep them from running into one another. Or, left align the text and have extra space between the messages. The key would be, as in all things ebooks, consistency. Pick a look, stick with it, and readers will happily follow along.

On to emails. I’ve formatted emails before, but this was the first time that I had a long string of them. The headers had to be included (because they are an important part of the story). I considered (briefly) placing each on its own “page.” But no, that would have killed the sense of rapid back and forth. This is what I came up with:

textemail3I set off each header with two lines (horizontal rules) and sans serif font with the sender bolded. For the body of the email I used regular serif font and a block paragraph style. To my eyes there is no mistaking these as anything other than emails. It’s a style that would work for any story that has emails, whether in a string or as a stand-alone.

So there you go, one way to handle text messages and emails. What about the rest of you? Have you found a fun/interesting way to make emails and text messages stand out in your ebook? Inquiring minds want to know.


Samples are from Penny Watson’s Sweet Adventure. Sweet-Adventure-ebook-cover-blue2

Buh-Bye, 2013–Howdy to the New Year

2013 was a helluva year. Lots of personal drama. Evacuated because of a fire, followed by months of malaise from the smoke because the entire state of Colorado was on fire. Massive rains and subsequent flooding that destroyed my basement. Far too many days spent at the hospital with my children and grandbaby. One thing after another and wondering, oh god, what’s next?

QuinnSeatBut 2013 was an amazing year, too. The Amazing Poop Machine is happy, healthy and growing fast. Everyone is healthy now. I got a promotion–Larry Block has dubbed me The Production Goddess. (I’m practicing how to work that into casual conversation.) I worked with some incredible writers this year: Thomas Pluck, Randall Wood, Jerrold Mundis, Julia R. Barrett, Robert Silverberg, Katherine O’Neal, William Arnold, Sharon Reamer, Carole Nomarhas, Chuck Dixon, Steven Ramirez, Penny Watson, Marina Bridges, and far too many others to list. (Heh. I always wanted a job where I am paid to read, and now I have it and it’s the best job ever!)

Burglar_Limited-XmasI took part in a project that tops my Best Of list for all time. Lawrence Block’s new novel, The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, which he decided to self publish. From the first read of the manuscript to receiving the gorgeous hardcover limited edition in the mail, it was The Dream Job. I ended up producing four editions, including a print-on-demand Large Print edition. (You can find the ebook and trade paperback here and the special limited edition here.)

The best part of the year was learning new skills. I’ve learned tons and tons about ebook covers. (And bless you brave folks who have allowed me to do my on-the-job-training with your books!)

Cover montageI’ve learned to format fiction for CreateSpace print-on-demand editions. It’s way different than ebooks and a lot trickier, but it’s well worth the effort. (Pay no heed to the bald spots where I ripped out my hair in frustration. Heh.) At the risk of annoying the Hubris Gods, my book designs are pretty darned good.

pod montageIn the coming year, I’ll be stretching way beyond ebooks. I want to do concierge publishing for writers who’ve reclaimed their back lists and need to bring them back to life. I’d like to offer troubleshooting and production consulting for do-it-yourselfers. I can even do graphics for ebooks–wouldn’t your ebook look delicious with something fun like this for your chapter heads and title page?

titleSo buh-bye and sweet dreams to you, 2013. 2014 is here and it’s going to be a good one. I can feel it! And as a very special treat for all you writers out there, here it is, hot off the production line, available at CreateSpace, and soon available at Amazon and LB’s Book Store, the brand new print edition of Write For Your Life: The Home Seminar for Writers.

wfyl blog

A Holiday Gift for You: Ebook Ornaments

You’ve all been so nice to me this year, thought I’d give you a little gift. Here are some ornaments you can use in your ebooks for scene break indicators or chapter head ornaments. Just copy the images, rename them for your ebook files, and insert them.

Enjoy!

scroll

scroll

spots and dots

spots and dots

gradient line

gradient line

snowflake asterisks

snowflake asterisks

curved arrow

curved arrow

 

Fun With Formatting: Text Effects

Popping out of my mole hole again. Have you missed me? (Heh, a very nice blog reader contacted me last week and suggested I’d get a lot more traffic and business if I advertised. True. Except, are you frippin’ kidding me? I already spend 16 hours a day in front of the computer. There’s only one of me…)

Anyway, just for fun, I thought I’d share some cool text effects you can do with html in your ebooks.

colortextNow that’s a screen shot of a page built in Notepad++. It’s pretty close to how the text would look as an ebook displayed on a Kindle Fire or other color ereader.

But what about b/w ereaders, Jaye? Well, considering that an ereader like a Paperwhite or even the older model Kindles display something like 256 shades of gray, color usually translates into something quite elegant and lovely.

bwtextNow, that first line effect (using pseudo-elements) doesn’t work in EPUB readers (yet). The advantage of EPUB readers (as opposed to MOBI) is that they handle embedded fonts far more gracefully than do Kindles. The reason for that is the many different models and the differences in MOBI/KF8. They use different font families and different rendering, so embedded fonts (and such effects as drop caps) can go wonky quickly.

So how is this done? It’s easy in css. Go to the w3schools website for a full list of colors that will render in your ebook. Don’t forget to include the pound sign–#–in front of the color number. Here’s how I styled that page:

html1When using the “first-line” and “first-letter” elements, style the paragraph in a div class as opposed to a paragraph class

<div class=”flblue”>

html2To color just one letter or word, or to increase its size, use a span class:

<p class=”purple1″><span class=”pinkbig”>J</span>aye</p>

That bit of coding, using the above css, would give you my name in purple with a big pink first letter.

If you’re styling your ebook in Word, DO NOT DO THIS. Even though Word will let you do all sorts of fun text effects in your document, I guarantee it will go weird and ugly and broken very quickly when it’s converted into an ebook.

Have fun! Keep making pretty ebooks! If you have any fun text effects you like to use, share.

A Case For Graphical Elements and Ornaments in Ebooks

LB coverI finished up two big projects yesterday. Not just word count big (100k and 160k), but big in the sense that the authors are NYT best sellers and award winners, and so their ebooks better look GOOD. (Granted, making an ebook look better than offerings being released by the BPHs isn’t hard. They’ve set the bar pretty low.) I also pulled double-duty as art director, and did the ebook covers and interior graphics.

CG Cover(To all you cover designers out there, a big salute. That shit is hard!)

This leads me to today’s topic, which involves a big fat WHY? Why spend so much time designing interiors and creating graphics and ornaments when the words are the star of the show and who cares what it looks like anyway, right? (And yes, I do admit that in the past I have gotten carried away just because I really like the fancy bits and love playing with Paint.net, but I’m over that now. Honest.)

LB 1It boils down to the fact that humans are visual creatures. We tend to pass judgment based on appearances. There is a reason mass market paperbacks are considered pulpy and cheap while the exact same text in hardcover is considered important. Trade paperbacks fall in between and tend to be better designed and much better looking than mass market editions. “I’m important, but reasonably priced.” The packaging sends a powerful message to the reader and influences their reading experience before they even begin to read.

CG 2I pay attention to my reading experiences with ebooks, trying to pinpoint exactly what influences me and why. Here is a short list:

  • Covers lose their impact and influence after I buy the book. While the covers display on my Paperwhite and Kindle Fire, when I actually open the book the cover becomes a non-issue just because it’s not handy in the way a print book cover is.
  • Well-designed and visually interesting title pages and section beginnings shut off my inner-editor.
  • Good design increases my confidence in the prose. It also makes me more forgiving. If I find a typo my tendency is to just pass it off as a mistake instead of thinking the writer and/or producer is a slob who can’t be trusted.
  • Ornaments and illustrations give me a little lift. If I’m in a bad mood, it’s harder to enjoy a story.
  • Good design and graphical elements make an ebook stand out from the pack and hence, make it more memorable. I’m more likely to remember the author’s name and book title.

LB 2Does all this mean that every ebook requires graphical elements and ornaments? No. If the producer pays proper attention to overall layout–use of white/negative space, paragraph indents, first line treatments, navigation and front/back matter–they can create a professional looking and reader-pleasing ebook. My suggestion, examine better quality mass market paperbacks. Study those that appeal to you and emulate their design. The less-is-more camp can generate a beautiful product.CG 1

In fact a book I did recently had minimal design elements (visible elements, anyway). For this project the writer wanted it very simple, sleek and clean. I used only one simple ornament on each chapter head just to add some visual interest and make the chapter titles stand out from the text.

CD 1

I wish I'd done this cover. Derek Murphy is the star here.

I wish I’d done this cover. Derek Murphy is the star here.

As always, go for functionality first.

  • Test your graphics at different sizes because you don’t know what size screen the reader will be using.
  • Don’t be afraid of color. Colors render beautifully on tablets and other color readers. Sometimes just a spot or a dot of brightness can take an ebook from blah to wowza!
  • Test your colors to see how well they render in grayscale. (In Paint.net I can view the images in black and white and that gives me a good idea how they will render on a non-color ereader.)
  • Fonts are a wonderful design element. You can find hundreds to use for free at such sites as dafont.com and fontsquirrel.com.*
  • For good ideas, study expensive hardcovers. A lot of skill and artistry go into their design. Examine the balance and tone of the design elements and how the most effective designs enhance the reading experience.

So go forth and experiment. If you come up with something very cool, send me a link so I can see what you’ve done.

* I am so NOT a fan of embedded fonts in ebooks. They add a lot of bloat to the file size for what I consider very little benefit. Plus, they don’t always render properly, especially on older ereaders. If you do want to embed fonts, do your research, read and heed the font developer’s licensing agreement, and test test test to make sure it works.