Tables of Contents in Ebooks: Yes!

There’s a big brouhaha going on now with Amazon. Scammers and other crooks have flooded Kindle Unlimited. Amazon is making one of their sweeps in an attempt to root them out. As per usual, when automation is unleashed, innocents get caught up in the net–sometimes with very expensive consequences.

One of the ways publishers are being dinged has to do with the tables of contents. Crooks are manipulating them to game the Kindle Unlimited page reads, so Amazon is going after ebooks that lack a standard (in form and in placement) ToC. Amazon highly recommends that every ebook has an active (publisher generated) table of contents, and requires an internal table of contents (this is what you see when you use the Go To feature on a Kindle). For more information on Amazon’s policies, start here and don’t forget to read this.

ToC Blog 1

The two most common arguments I get against building a Table of Contents in an ebook are (1) It’s a novel. It’s stupid to put a table of contents in a novel. And (2) A long list of chapters eats up the sample/Look Inside features at Amazon and hurts my chances at a sale.

My answer to #1 is: Novels don’t need tables of contents, but ebooks do. A reader can’t just open a book to the middle and leaf through a few pages to find Chapter 9. They have to navigate. An ebook without a ToC requires endless paging through to navigate and that’s no fun. As a reader, an ebook without a useful navigation guide is a broken ebook, and it’s irritating. For those who point out that the internal ToC is the navigation guide, my answer is that not every Kindle device (or other reading devices) displays the internal guide. Instead the device points to the user generated table of contents and if there isn’t one, the link is grayed out–useless.

The answer to #2 is not so easy. For non-fiction, it’s a no-brainer. A comprehensive table of contents IS a sell point. Readers want to see what they are getting and a solid ToC in the sample/Look Inside can often tell them everything they need to know.

ToC Blog 2

For novels, especially with a lot of chapters, it does get trickier. I’ve read ebooks with up to ten “pages” of chapter lists. Endless Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3… This does eat up the sample/Look Inside. It’s useful once the reader has purchased the ebook, but for tempting them into buying in the first place, it can be harmful. The temptation is strong to forego the ToC altogether or to move it into the backmatter. Normally, I’d recommend putting the ToC in the back of the book, but with the current Amazon crackdown, I would say that for any ebook enrolled in Kindle Select/Kindle Unlimited, DO NOT DO THAT. Any perception that you are somehow gaming the system or bending the rules can cause you to run afoul of Amazon’s policies.

Let’s explore some practical options.

The Internal ToC (required by Amazon)

If you’re building your ebook from scratch, you will hand-build your internal ToC (tocncx). It will look something like this:

Blog ToC 4

This produces the NCX view/Go To list, along with giving a strict order to display the sections of your book. (If you want to learn how to do this, which will allow you to create more sophisticated and better ebooks, check out The eBook Design and Development Guide, by Paul Salvette.)

For those of you formatting in Word, onsite conversion will build your internal ToC. The conversion seeks out sections based on styles and/or chapter headings (It picks up “Chapter” for instance). For a full explanation, look here. The easiest way to do this is to use Word’s built in heading styles: Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3, etc. Apply these to the chapter/section starts. Conversion will do the rest.

The Publisher-Generated (active) Table of Contents
(highly recommended by Amazon)

If you have up to thirty entries in your ToC it’s not going to eat up too much of the sample/Look Inside (about two “pages” worth). I would build a standard ToC and call it a day, having done due diligence. Where to put it? As long as it’s in the front matter, it’s up to you. (My personal preference is to have the title page be the start page, so I generally place the ToC before that.)

What if you have thirty+ entries? A simple solution is to put all the entries in a block.

Blog ToC 3

The above example is for a seventy chapter ebook, and the ToC takes up one “page”. This can also work well with non-fiction that contains a large number of sub-entries:

Blog ToC 5

In Word, if you use the built-in Heading styles, all you have to do is style your table of contents to look the way you want it, then use the automatically generated bookmarks to link to the entries.

Blog ToC 6

Don’t forget to test all your links–no matter how you build your ebook. It’s easy to mis-link an entry, but even easier to fix it. So test, test, test.

A Word for those who are Dead Set against a Chapter List

There are those who just cannot bring themselves to include a ToC that contains a list of chapters. If you are one of them, include, at least, a truncated ToC. It can be very short. For example:

Title Page
The Story
About the Author

It won’t be very useful for your readers, but it will put you in compliance with Amazon.

 

 

Time to Get Serious About Your Writing Career

Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to PixelBack in the 1980s I wanted to be a writer and I didn’t know any writers or have access to any writers, so I turned to how-to books to learn how it was done. Over the years I amassed quite a collection. Most of them either angered me or depressed me. Angered me because all too often I would run across a passage that said, essentially, “Do NOT write trash like romance or science fiction or mysteries. If you do, you are defiling the Artistry of the Sacred Calling of Authorship, and that makes you a sell-out.” (This to a hardcore genre fiction junkie, shees.) Or else they depressed me because they declared: “Do it THIS WAY and you will be a success.” Only I never could seem to do it THIS WAY, which meant I must be a horrendous failure or more likely those jokers were lying to me and I was a sucker who’d shelled out money for their crap. A couple of books inspired me. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott; Wild Minds, by Natalie Goldberg; Zen and the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury. A couple helped me with craft: Story, by Robert McKee; The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogel. Only one book both inspired AND helped me with craft: Writing the Novel from Plot to Print, by Lawrence Block.

What made Writing the Novel different from so many other writing books–both inspirational and for craft–was LB himself. A serious writer who didn’t take himself seriously. A working writer who had a handle on the business of publishing–the good, the bad and the ugly sides–and who made a career out of writing fiction. (That’s a rare thing, actually, and his career is still going strong to this day.) I read that book to tatters, referring back to it time and again whenever I got discouraged or stuck. I often recommended it to other writers. I don’t know how many copies I purchased and gave as gifts over the years. (I made the mistake of loaning it to someone–breaking my own rule about never loaning a book I wanted to keep–and now I can’t remember to whom I loaned it, so if you’re reading this, please give it back.) What makes it stand out is that LB teaches you how to think as a writer. How to read as a writer. He doesn’t tell you what to write or spout cookie-cutter steps, but he’ll help you figure out what might work for you. For instance, from his chapter on outlining, one of my favorites:

     “An outline is a tool which a writer uses to simplify the task of writing a novel and to improve the ultimate quality of that novel by giving himself more of a grasp on its overall structure.

“And that’s about as specifically as one can define an outline, beyond adding that it’s almost invariably shorter than the book will turn out to be. What length it will run, what form it will take, how detailed it will be, and what sort of novel components it will or will not include, is and ought to be a wholly individual matter. Because the outline is prepared solely for the benefit of the writer himself, it quite properly varies from one author to another and from one novel to another. Some writers never use an outline. Others would be uncomfortable writing anything more ambitious than a shopping list without outlining it first. Some outlines, deemed very useful by their authors, run a scant page. Others, considered equally indispensable by their authors, run a hundred pages or more and include a detailed description of every scene that is going to take place in every chapter of the book. Neither of these extremes, nor any of the infinite gradations between the two poles, represents the right way to prepare an outline. There is no right way to do this—or, more correctly, there is no wrong way. Whatever works best for the particular writer on the particular book is demonstrably the right way.”

Now LB has updated the book and expanded it. He even expanded the title to Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel. He’s brought it out in both ebook and print. The original material is still as valid today as it was when first published in 1978; the new material is geared toward today’s publishing climate, taking into account how traditional publishing has changed and with new chapters on self-publishing.

It’s still a book I recommend. It’s posted now in the sidebar of this blog. Clicking on the image will take you to Amazon.

These past couple of years have been hell on writers. Trad pubbed writers are suffering because the industry is in flux; indie writers are running themselves ragged learning to be publishers during a time of rapid changes. The biggest frustration I keep hearing expressed is that the writing itself is suffering because of the business side of publishing. Time to remember what’s important, folks. Storytelling. The writing itself. Business goes through the crazies–that’s one aspect that never changes–but the core of who we are–storytellers–that remains true whether we’re chiseling our tales into stone tablets or tapping them out on an iPhone. Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel can help you remember what’s important: telling a good story.

Like LB says:

“…while there are far too many books in this world, there are far too few good ones.

“And I don’t ever want to run out of things to read.”

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.

Ebook Formatting Services

What Makes a Great Ebook?

#1 Great writing, great story

#2 An ebook that works properly on the reader’s device

#3 An ebook that looks beautiful and is a pleasure to read

BlogServices2When I’m reading a book, that’s my priority list. If #1 isn’t there, #2 and #3 don’t matter. If, however, it is a wonderful story, but the ebook is broken or carelessly formatted, the writer will end up on my “When I get to the library…” list.

Production values matter. It’s why I work as hard as I do.

It’s why I have this blog. I know there are people who’ve improved the quality of their ebooks by using the tips, tricks and resources I write about. I applaud these do-it-yourselfers and have made it my mission to help out in any way I can.

Some readers come looking for professional help. I’ve updated my services page here. All my ebooks are custom, so prices can vary, but you can get an idea about how much your project will cost based on the size of your book.

BlogServices1I’d also like to mention a very special service I can do for you. If you have a clean source file, you’ve won 90% of the battle toward creating an ebook that works and looks good. I can clean your Word file for you. Strip out the ugly code and extra spaces, tidy up the special formatting (bolding and italics), and bring your punctuation up to snuff. The file will be ready to format. All you have to do is style it.

So check out my new page. If you need me, give a shout.

Fun With Graphics: Make Your Images Fit The Screen

For those of you who are whizzes at computer stuff and html and css, do not laugh at my puny efforts. Go look at this video of great social significance instead. I’m talking to the folks like me–who believe our computers are plotting against us when we’re not looking.

You all know that ereaders can play havoc with your graphic images, right? Depending on the device, they can shrink or expand or get cut off in inconvenient ways. The way to make sure your images stay the size you want them to is define the size in the coding. So a line of html for a scene break glyph might look like this:

graphic8

I needed to insert a graphic that ideally should fill the screen, no matter what size screen was displaying it. I knew how to do this thanks to Paul Salvette (and if you are really serious about formatting ebooks, you must get his book for your resource library) and my partner-in-obsessanating Jon Westcot. Change the size to a percentage–in this case I needed the width to always be 100% of the screen.

graphic7Do that and the image will expand or shrink depending on the screen size. Never have to worry about it being cut off.

That’s when it hit me I could do something cool with chapter heads and scene break indicators.

I had a project with a noir-ish theme and I made graphics with a grayscale fade. The problem with locking the image sizes, though, was that on some screens the fade effect was lost and the graphic looked like a block–too graphic-y. That’s when it hit me that I could use percentage coding to make the graphic fill the screen width no matter what size the screen–even a full-sized computer screen.

graphic5How it looks on the Kindle Previewer for the iPhone app–a very small screen.

graphic6How it looks on the iPad screen–very wide display.

I also did the same with the scene break indicators. For this series I wanted a simple grayscale fade line instead of a glyph, but I wanted to always fill the entire line. Setting the width at 100% did exactly that. Here’s how it looks on Lucy Light the Paperwhite.

graphic2If you happen to have an image you want to fill an entire screen, top to bottom, you use the same trick, except you set the height at 100%. That way you can manage the size of your graphics, but still make sure your book illustration or chart gets its own screen “page.”

Nifty trick, eh? Thanks, Paul and Jon.

Boast Post: This Time It’s All About Me

What’s that old saying about the shoemaker’s kids? They go barefoot? Something like that. Yeah, it’s been something like that for me. A few months ago my former publisher reverted rights back to me for six of my books. I’ve been so busy doing projects for others, my personal projects kept being pushed onto the back burner.

To make it extra fun, all these books were written prior to 1995. I was able to recover two off disks. One I had as a relatively clean manuscript (as an experiment I ran the pages through my home scanner–take it from me, unless you have buns of steel to tolerate the hours you’ll spend in your chair, this is not the most fun method of file recovery). The others had to be scanned from the actual books. After all that scanning, they still have to be run through an OCR program and cleaned up.

I started with the easiest projects (ha ha), the two files I had on disk. They were final drafts, and required editing. With much help from Julia Barrett and Marina Bridges we managed to eliminate most of my writing quirks, beef up some weak plot points, and even trimmed it quite a bit. I hired the talented Jayne Smith to design the covers.

It’s a risk not putting people on the covers of romance novels, but I love the look and I’m willing to risk it. I also made sure to put “romantic suspense” on the cover so I could include it in the title to nudge the search engines a bit.

Need I say, I had fun with formatting.

Small caps!

I recently read a Ben Aaronovitch novel, Whispers Underground. Kudos to publisher, Del Rey, for releasing a very good ebook edition. They care and this reader appreciates it. At the beginnings of chapters they used small caps. It’s a small touch, but it looks classy.

That’s a screen shot from my Kindle keyboard. Notice the first line. There are many, many ways to start a chapter with a touch to offset the text. The simplest is to not indent the paragraph. Then there are drop caps, bolding, italicizing, or graphics to give it an “illuminated” look. I happen to like small caps.

The Kindle doesn’t actually support small caps. If you’re using html and use the font-variant, nothing happens. What I did was create a span class with small-caps as the variant, but then set the font-size at 80% (I’ll change that for EPUB, which I believe does support small-caps). I left the first letter on the line at normal size and reduced the size of the next few words which I had capitalized. I used a span class as opposed to a paragraph style in the hopes that I wouldn’t trigger the Amazon bug that shrinks the font in older Kindles. I had a friend test the book on his older Kindle, and no teeny tiny font. Yay, team!

The code for this particular sample looked like this:

What that did was make a paragraph with no ident, left the first letter normal sized and reduced the size of the next three words.

I also did something that opened a discussion with a friend. I placed the tables of contents in the backs of the books. He thinks they should go in the front of the book. I think that’s true in non-fiction where readers peruse the toc for information about what the book contains. In fiction it’s merely a navigation guide since in most cases it’s just a list of Chapter One, Chapter Two, etc. Also, if a novel has a large number of chapters then the potential buyer who downloads a sample could end up with pages of toc and very little story to sample.

So what do you all think? Table of contents in the front or in the back?

If you want to check out my latest formatting masterpiece the books are up on Amazon right now. (I’ll be uploading them to other places soon, but first I have some other jobs to do–you know, shoes…)

The Mirror Images series, Dark Reflections and Light Embraced are available on Amazon.

Boast Post: A New Way To Make Ebooks

A new way for me anyway. Not long ago I got my hands on Paul Salvette’s book, The eBook Design and Development Guide (link in the sidebar). I talked it up because it explained in plain English (mostly) the hows and whys of building a better ebook. Even though it intimidated me, I knew I had to try his method.

Well…

(Pardon my not using screenshots. I haven’t figured out how to capture screenshots off the Kindle Fire yet. The instructions I’ve seen require a little more… Anyhow.)

As per my usual knuckleheadtude, I picked for my maiden voyage a three-book omnibus. Go bold or go home, right? By the time I figured out I should have chosen an easier project, it was too late and I had no choice except to keep going forward.

This method is NOT for beginners. You need at least some experience with html and text editors. If, however, you are like me, knowing just enough to be dangerous and curious about how ebooks and ereading devices work, going through the steps to build an ebook this way will teach you plenty. I now have a much better understanding about what happens to files when they go through conversion and why some things work better than others and why some things fail.

The biggest difference between what I was doing before and what I did with this book is that before I was formatting the ebook and producing files that could be read on ereaders, but they were not complete ebooks. To make them complete they had to be run through a conversion program. What was missing on my end was a navigation guide and a toc.ncx. Ebooks, I’ve learned, have two tables of contents. The one the formatter creates while formatting and the toc.ncx which is the internal table of contents which is generated during conversion. Conversion also produces a navigation guide which is what makes, for instance, jumping from chapter to chapter possible. Why are there two tables of contents? I do not know. All I know is, I didn’t know how to make them before and I left it up to the conversion programs to do it for me. With this new (to me) method, I built my own navigation guide and toc.ncx. Now, if someone asks me to format a book that they intend to sell on their own site rather than through a distributor, I know how to do it.

What I appreciate most about Paul’s guide (other than being written in language I could understand or figure out–which often takes staring at the screen until, like magic-dot pictures, the answer slowly appears) is that he takes the time to explain what is happening and how things can go right or wrong depending upon which device the book will be read on. That’s valuable information, especially for a non-programmer. I spend a lot of time over on the w3schools.com site seeking answers to my problems, but what’s over there is geared for programmers and people who have skills and experiences that are foreign territory for me. Which means I do a lot of, “hmn, let’s try this and see what happens,” and sometimes I get the desired results and sometimes I don’t. When I can’t get the results I want, it’s a bear figuring out why. I also learned I’ve been making some parts of my formatting tasks overly complicated and much too hard.

As a bonus, on his website, BB eBooks, Paul has an area for developers with templates and guides. It’s a terrific resource.

If you’re like me, you know how to format an ebook, know some html, are comfortable working in a text editor and now you’re ready to kick it up a notch, the guide will take you through the process step-by-step. I recommend you read the entire book first so you get the overall picture of what it is you’re about to attempt. I took a lot of notes and used my whiteboard to help me keep track of such things as bookmarking navigation points and naming files. Since this method involves splitting up the main file into many smaller files, you will need to find a solid, simple way to name the files and keep track of them.

One area where I had serious trouble was in making the zip file. I could not get the recommended program to synch with my computer. That’s not the guide’s fault (I need to get my son over here to figure out why my computer disallows changing directories). So I cheated and copied my files into a .zip folder then changed the .zip designation to .epub. I don’t know if you’re supposed to do that, but it worked. I’m not comfortable with it because my computer sends me nasty grams when I do, but it did work.

Because I was building a book for the Kindle, I had to disregard some of the advice about line spacing. In the most recent update that Amazon did for Kindle devices, they changed the default font and apparently the line spacing and paragraph spacing defaults, too. I’ve noticed in some of the recent stories I’ve downloaded the text appears double-spaced and changing the line spacing on my Kindle takes it down, at the most, to a space and a half between lines. Plus, where before some extra leading between paragraphs made them look better, now the extra leading puts a noticeable gap between paragraphs. I don’t think that is happening on Nooks or other EPUB readers. It didn’t appear to be a problem on Calibre. So pay attention to line spacing when you’re building a book for the Kindle. Things have changed.

I also refrained from reducing the font size anywhere in the book because I don’t know if Amazon fixed the bug that squishes the font in older Kindles. Until I’m sure of that, no font reductions for Kindle.

Some of the touches I did for this book included moving the copyright page and table of contents to the back of the book so potential buyers can get a larger sample. Plus, because it’s a three-book omnibus, I placed a header at the beginning of each chapter with the title of individual book. Just to keep readers reminded of which book they are reading.

I love the way the book turned out. Despite being intimidated by the process, I learned some skills, gained a whole lot of understanding and ended up with a very nice looking ebook that is easy for readers to navigate. (I also learned some new cuss words, but I won’t go into that…)

Thank you, Paul.

If you want to check out my latest masterpiece, and some pretty good stories, too, it’s available now on Amazon.