Do You Need Professional Help to Self-Publish?

A few weeks ago I got this email:

Hi Jaye, [a regular client] said you can help me. I got the rights back to my novel [title] published by [Big 5 house]. I had it scanned and converted it to Word. This was back in October and I’ve been working on it off and on, but it’s getting worse instead of better. I’m ready to just forget the whole thing. Is there anyway you can help…

quinngiveupOf course I could help. It’s what I do. He sent the scan, and 48 hours later I sent him back a Word doc in manuscript format with the text restored well enough for him to proofread. It cost him less than $90.

I’m not telling you this to boast about my mad skills. Restoring text from a scan is just something I happen to be very good at–and I’m fast. The reason I’m good at it is because I’ve restored millions of words and I have applied myself to learning how to do it quickly and efficiently. I’m a pro.

I also happen to be good at making ebooks. I’ve done hundreds. I’ve worked and worked to learn how to do it well and how to do it efficiently. I’m pretty good at laying out print-on-demand books, too. I’m even doing covers.

Book production has become second-nature to me. It’s what I do, day in and day out. Most of what I do is very easy for me. I still run into challenges–hell, I look for challenges–but overall I know what I’m doing and I know how to get the job done with minimal fuss and muss.

Writers, on the other hand, write. Formatting an ebook or making a cover or laying out a print-on-demand version look pretty straightforward on the surface. Why not DIY? It sure saves a lot of money. Right? Right?

Sometimes.

Sometimes getting professional results will be beyond you. Not because you’re too dumb to figure it out, but because you don’t know what you’re doing and you don’t have the hours and hours and hours to figure it out. You’d rather be writing. Sometimes your time is more valuable than money. So let’s answer the question:

Should You Hire a Professional?

  • Do you have an ereader? (a Nook, a Kindle, an Android tablet, an iPad, etc.) Do you read ebooks? If the answer is no to either, I suggest hiring a professional. Unless you have a good idea how ebooks work, you will not be able to create a professional product.
  • Is your project complicated? Most formatting pros won’t tell you this, but I will: Conversion programs have gotten much, much, much better at turning word processing program files into ebooks. If your project is simple, which most fiction is, you can create a professional ebook using Word (and other word processors). You do need to take care and pay attention to details. It helps if you have a good guide to walk you through it. I recommend Mark Coker’s Smashwords Style Guide. If you want to go a little more sophisticated, try Guido Henkel’s Zen of eBook Formatting. You can do it yourself. On the other hand, if your book contains complicated formatting (lists, tables, boxes, nested styles, etc.) hire a pro. Complicated formatting is not for the dabbler.
  • Do you have the time? I get a lot of emails from writers who can’t make their DIY ebooks work properly. Quite often the problem is a simple one. A line of code. Or a messed up ToC or a distorted cover. Sometimes the problem is more severe and my recommendation is for the writer to go back to step one and completely strip, then restyle their book. What I hear back is a variation on: “But I’ve been trying to do this for weeks! And you say I have to start over?” Think about it. How much money are you saving if it’s taking you a month or six weeks to do what a pro can do in a day? Book production requires time spent NOT writing and NOT marketing and NOT promoting. Publishing is a business and knowing when to delegate responsibilities and hire sub-contractors is part of doing business.
  • Do you know what you don’t know? Ebooks are getting better, production-wise. It’s rare these days for me to buy one that’s a total mess (even from the trad publishers). Except for one thing: Either margins and line-spacing that cannot be adjusted for my reading comfort. I know what causes it. The formatter used either Word or InDesign and locked the styles either by justifying the text or messing around with page margins. (This irritation is so common in trad pubbed ebooks that I have to really, really, really want the story and it has to be really, really cheap before I will click to buy.) It boggles my brain that the formatter does not know the ebook is broken. It tells me they do not know enough to load the book on a device and run it through its paces. Ebooks are fairly simple, but there is stuff going on beneath the surface that every formatter (DIY or pro) should know. Do you know the difference between MOBI and EPUB? Do you know the difference between manuscript punctuation and printer punctuation? Do you know how to work with styles? Do you know about bloat? How to validate an EPUB file? If you don’t have the time or inclination to learn these things, hire a pro. [If reading my little list gives you an ‘oh shit’ moment, you might want to hire a pro.]
  • Are you willing to do the work at a professional level? If you want to sell your ebook or trade paperback, then your customers deserve a professional product. DIY self-publishers can produce professional products. The question you have to ask yourself is, can you? Book production is work and it can be frustrating and there’s a ton of conflicting information on the internet when you go looking for answers to sticky problems. If you prefer to put your energy and time elsewhere, there is no shame in that. There is shame, though, in putting a price tag on a sub-par product.

So Where Do You Find a Pro?

I’m not going to recommend anyone (not even myself) because it’s your book and your budget and your schedule. There’s a healthy industry of book production specialists springing up on the internet. Do a Google search for ebook formatting services. Do avoid anything connected to Author Solutions and other vanity publishers. Stay away from “automated” services, too. The only thing they do is convert your Word file–Garbage In-Garbage Out. Kindle Boards is a good place to look, too. Ask other writers. People who are happy with their service providers are usually more than happy to recommend them.

For this post only, if you are a book production specialist, leave a comment with your contact info. I will check you out and if you’re legit, I’ll post your info.

 

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

Fun with Formatting: Playing with Fonts and Images

First, I’m not a fan of embedding fonts in ebooks. It’s simple to do, but it’s a minefield. Not every device will support embedded fonts, some fonts have very restrictive conditions of use, others can cost big bucks for a license, and some are not complete (as in, you can get the regular font, but not italics or many of the special characters such as em dashes or acute or grave marks). Making everything behave, and doing so in legal compliance, is far more hassle than it’s worth. My opinion. And for those of you using Word to format your Kindle files, do not let Word lull you into thinking all is well because your formatted Word file looks good with your fancy fonts. It can turn into a royal mess–and let’s not get into how much bloat the file will contain!–and you can even break the ebook so the user cannot change fonts or margins. Your file will convert just fine if you stick to Times New Roman or Garamond. The conversion programs recognize those.

That said, it’s okay to mix things up a bit by taking advantage of the capabilities already built in to the ereading devices. (I’m going to focus on Kindles because I own Kindles, but most of this applies also to EPUB devices.)  Kindles offer a menu of font families in the user preferences. The Fire tablet offers four serif fonts (Caecilia, Georgia, Palatino, and Baskerville) and a sans serif font (Helvetica). Paperwhites have six fonts (serif, Caecilia, Caecilia Condensed, Baskerville, and Palatino; and sans serif, Futura and Helvetica). Even the older models offer readers a choice between serif and sans serif. You can mix them up.

White6In css styling, it’s easy as can be. Insert this line in your style declaration:

font-family: “Helvetica: , “Futura” , “sans serif” ;

What happens is this, the device will use Helvetica, if it has it, or Futura, if it has it, but if not, it will use whatever sans serif font it has available. This is a nice touch for chapter titles and, as in the example above, a sign, or a headline, or to set off such things as text messages or computer readouts. You can customize the look further by using all caps, small caps, increasing or decreasing the font size, bold and italics. Best of all, it will not bloat the file, cause legal problems or interfere with the user controls.

*          *          *

Let’s move on to images–a subject that reduces many formatters to gibbering cuss-buckets. I’ll leave such things as sizing, text wrapping, fixing images, etc. for another day. Let’s talk about the dreaded WHITE BOX. You know what I mean. You have a nice little glyph or scene break separator that adds a touch of oomph to your ebook and it looks beautiful on the Kindle screen.

White2White1

And then a user decides to read with a sepia background or in Night mode. And even though your image has a transparent background, this happens.

WHITE BOX.

I know of some users who prefer to use Night mode on their tablets. I, myself, will use Sepia when I’m reading long form at night when my eyes are tired. I barely notice the white boxes anymore, and I’m sure users of Night mode are pretty much the same way. It’s a quirk to get used to. As a formatter it drives me nuts. Especially since I own an ebook that has defeated the White Box problem, so I knew it could be done. I finally figured it out.

White4White5Kindles will render three types of image files: jpeg, gif and png. Each has their strengths and each has their weaknesses: namely image crispness and file size. The trick to defeating the white box is the gif image. In Paint.net, the program I use for making simple graphics, when I save a gif image there is an option to adjust the transparency. I set it at 255. What that does is, everything with a resolution less than “normal”, i.e. 255, is transparent. (I should be able to do this with png images, but I haven’t been able to. So, dear readers, if any of you have figured it out, let us know.)

You do need to be careful with gif images. If they are too big they will get a distorted, fuzzy look. Not every color renders well. You should use a simple palette. Don’t use percentages so they adjust to the screen size–that can go bad quickly. Instead declare the width. Solid black images can disappear in Night mode, but if you give your image a narrow stroke of 1-3 pixels in white or pale yellow, that will take care of that.

So there you go, two more ways to improve the look of your ebooks and make them stand out.


Examples are from:

BAD TIMES 3: AVENGING ANGELS, by Chuck Dixon
BOURBONS & BLONDES, by Anthony Venutolo

Ebook Formatting Services: Update

QuinnDecor1As some of you are aware, I removed my ebook services page. There were several reasons I did so, but the major one was that I really hate telling people “no” and I had too much going on in order to say “yes” to everyone who asked.

But the queries keep pouring in.

Here it is the 4th of July and the year is half over, and there are a lot of writers out there gearing up to get their books published in time for the next holiday season.

So this is to let you all know that I’ll be taking on new clients starting in August. Actually, the second half of August since the first part is already booked. I’ll activate my services/pricing page then.

Before you contact me, though, let me explain a little bit about myself and how I work.

  • It’s just me. No employees, no sub-contractors. If I do a job for you, it’s me doing everything.
  • I do custom work. I guess what you’d call me is a “boutique producer.” Every project is unique and I work very closely with writers to make their books stand out. I love a challenge.
  • I care passionately about books in all their forms and when I put my credit for interior design in the book, it’s because I’m proud of it.
  • I do my best to keep my prices as low as possible because 1) Many indie writers are on very tight budgets and I don’t want high prices preventing indies from producing a professional product; 2) As a reader, I don’t want high prices preventing indies from producing a professional product. Some books DO cost more to produce, but I’ll do my best to find creative ways to keep costs down.
  • There are many things I can do: digital formatting, print-on-demand formatting; text restoration from printed material; cover modifications; line editing; proofreading; custom graphics.
  • There are many things I cannot do: promotion; marketing; tell you how to distribute your work (I can tell you where, but YOU have to decide on the strategy).
  • Somebody is going to proofread your book. You can hire me to do it, hire another proofreader, or do it yourself. But if you want me to produce your book, you must make arrangements because if I’m going to work so hard to make it LOOK good, then you have to do your part to make the text as clean as possible.
  • The only time I do Word formats for ebooks is when the writer is using Smashwords and is also uploading an EPUB to them. I don’t do Word formats for any other market and I don’t do them as stand-alones.

QuinnDecor2In the meantime, if you have a project that you need done now and can’t wait until late August, I recommend Paul Salvette at bbebooksthailand.com or Guido Henkel. Either of them will take good care of you.

Also in the meantime, I’m getting a lot of queries about cover work. I can do cover modifications, including putting a spine and back cover on print on demand books, but I don’t do original artwork. I’ve been sending many people to Derek Murphy, but my understanding is that he is very popular and, hence, very busy. So if you have a favorite cover designer you can recommend for skill and professionalism, put a link in the comments and thank you in advance for helping out my readers.

Thanks all for your queries. I apologize to those I’ve had to turn away. I’ll be back up and available soon.

 

 

Managing File Sizes for Ebooks

The majority of fiction writer/publishers will not run into overall file size problems. Text doesn’t create monster files. Using graphics or illustrations can add significantly to the overall file size, but I’ve yet to create an ebook that exceeds –or even comes close to–Amazon’s 50MB limit (which may be changing due to the introduction of the new Fire HD tablets). Even with illustrations and graphics, I do my best to keep the overall file size under 5MB because of Amazon’s delivery fees ($.15 per MB). Those fees are charged against the publisher and can eat up royalties quickly.

As I said, most fiction writer/publishers will not run into problems with overall file size.

Where fiction writer/publishers do run into problems are with the size of individual chapter files within the ebook. When you use <h1> or <h2> tags in html, or the Heading 1 or Heading 2 style in a word processor, you are alerting the conversion programs (such as Calibre or KindleGen) that this is a new chapter and should be split into a new file.* If you don’t use the headings or tags, the conversion programs look for certain words–Chapter, Part, Section, etc.–to determine where the file should be split. What is NOT reliable at all is using page breaks (in a word processor) or the “page-break-before” command in html/CSS. (I have absolutely no idea why those work sometimes, but sometimes they don’t–my best guess is the whims or moods of the Digital God.)

I always split html (text) files into chapters or parts, which manages the overall ebook very nicely. Even though this example is from a novel (Prophet of Paradise by J. Harris Anderson) that is almost 200,000 words long, notice the size of the individual chapters:

File Size

What happens if you don’t use tags or headings and your chapters have titles the conversion programs don’t recognize? What happens if you don’t have chapters at all and your ebook is deliberately one long tract? If it runs up against the 300KB file size limit (approximately 45,000 words), several things could happen:

  • Your file fails to convert
  • The conversion program inserts page breaks whether they are appropriate or not
  • The file converts, but some devices tell the user the ebook can’t be loaded

If your files are less than 300KB, but still largish (over 150KB) your readers could experience serious screen lag as they page through your story. This is an important consideration for genre fiction writers since the chances are your readers are Super-Readers and might have hundreds or even thousands of ebooks loaded on their devices. They will not be happy if your file sizes and their addiction cause several seconds of lag every time they “turn” the page.

What to do?

  • If you are using a word processor to style your ebooks, use the Heading 1 and Heading 2 styles for your chapters, parts and sections. (Do NOT depend on the conversion programs to recognize your inserted page breaks!)
  • If you are styling in html, use the <h1> and <h2> tags.
  • If your project does not have natural breaks such as chapters or parts (it’s long short story or novella) consider a minor restructure. Use the page count as your guide and try to find natural breaks around the 15,000 word mark–a scene break or time or pov shift or even an illustration that sits on its own “page”.

* If you are using Calibre to convert your ebooks, you can check the file splits in Calibre’s EPUB editor. You’ll see the list of individual text/html files and can open each one on the viewer/edit screen. If you are experiencing inappropriate page breaks, you can manage the fixes in the editor.

 

 

Fun With Ebook Formatting: Make a Little List

Did you know that most ereaders handle lists quite nicely? Here are some screenshots from a Kindle Paperwhite of one of my projects:

List1

List2Tidy, eh? The best thing is, lists are very easy to do with css and html.

List3There are two types of lists: Ordered and Unordered. Ordered lists use numbers or letters to mark list items; Unordered lists use symbols such as bullets. The html tags: <ol> for ordered lists; <ul> for unordered lists; <li> for list entries.

List5For some reason ebooks don’t care for type declarations in the html. The EPUB validator issues klaxon call warnings about that. I have found best practice is to declare the styles in the css stylesheet then assign classes.

Styling in css:

List6You can have fun with lists, too. Lists can be nested–perfect for complex Tables of Contents. And take a look at the screenshot where it says Add a Fancy Symbol. The fast and simple way is to make an unordered list with a style declaration of “none” and then insert a named entity (in this case, the right arrow).

List4You can tart up your lists with circles, squares, Roman numerals, and even images. To learn more, the w3schools site has all the information you need. For list type properties, go here. Just keep in mind that ebooks don’t like the “type” declaration, so use either “class” or “style.”

Have fun!

 

Soft Hyphens for Kindle Books

I don’t care for automatic hyphenation in ebooks. The devices are pretty dumb and because they use an algorithm instead of an English major’s sensibilities, we get words like “mi- nute” instead of “min-ute” or “alt-hough” instead of “al-though.” While it is possible to turn on hyphenation for Kindle books, I’d rather not.

But. If a word has too many characters to fit on one line, this is what you get:

shy1Just like an oversized image, characters disappear off the screen. Because there are so many Kindle devices and apps, you have no idea what settings or screen size your reader might be using. Judicious use of soft hyphenation is an easy fix to an annoying problem.

Here is the same text, hyphenated, at various settings on the Kindle Previewer:

shy3shy4shy5What I did was use the named entity for a soft hyphen — &shy;

shy6The above example is a bit of overkill, but it was easy, so I did it. This way, no matter what preferences or screen size the user has, the text will not disappear off the screen.

If you’re building a non-fiction ebook, especially one with many long terms (technical or medical) inserting soft hyphens can prevent those unsightly gaps when a long word/term is jumped to the next page.

Have fun!