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.

 

 

Congratulations to the Anthony Nominees

Bourchercon World Mystery Convention has announced the nominees for the annual Anthony awards. This year I have friends and clients to congratulate!

Best Short Story:
“Old Hands,” Dark City Lights – Erin Mitchell [Three Rooms]
Dark City Lights anthology, edited by Lawrence Block

blog boucher DCL

Best Anthology or Collection
Protectors 2: Heroes — Stories to Benefit PROTECT – Thomas Pluck, editor [Goombah Gumbo]

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Best Paperback Original
Young Americans – Josh Stallings [Heist]

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Best Crime Fiction Audiobook
Young Americans – Josh Stallings – Em Eldridge, narrator [Josh Stallings]

CONGRATULATIONS!

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.