I Don’t Hate Calibre, But…

duck coverJudging by the heated storm I roused the last time I criticized Calibre it’s probably a mistake to do so again. What the hell. I have to say it:


Yesterday I did a troubleshoot and repair on a writer’s ebook. The EPUB she had converted from Word via Calibre was perfectly fine. It was a valid EPUB, and it displayed the way it should on both Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions. Problems arose when she converted the EPUB into AZW3 and MOBI. The ebook worked when she loaded it onto her Paperwhite Kindle, though it had some disturbing issues. Amazon rejected the file outright.

I took her EPUB and ran it through the Kindle Previewer to see what the problem was. It converted with WARNINGS (never want to see that). The ebook opened, but the button under Devices for Kindle for iOS was greyed out. And the cover didn’t display. When I loaded it on my Paperwhite, some of the user controls were locked. I then went back and looked inside the EPUB. The Calibre conversion had declared font-families–Georgia and Times New Roman–neither of which display on Kindles, but they aren’t ignored either, and hence cause all sorts of interesting little problems. Plus, it had built a cover page.

I’m not a techie person, so I don’t know if I can explain it adequately, but I will try. When a file is uploaded to Amazon it converts the source file into a 3-in-1 ebook. If you’ll compare the size of an EPUB to a Kindle, you’ll notice that the MOBI file is about 3 times bigger than the EPUB. The ebook you buy from Amazon will work across several types of devices: e-ink readers, Fire tablets, and a variety of apps, including iOS for Apple. This is tricky stuff. While Calibre can and does convert your files into the MOBI format or AZW3 format, and the files are suitable for personal use, they aren’t suitable for commercial use because the probability is about 97.3% that an ebook converted through Calibre and then uploaded to Amazon will be broken.

This is all about Amazon. They have proprietary platforms and they are constantly updating and improving and tinkering and it’s difficult for outsiders to keep up. Calibre is a library management tool, not a commercial conversion tool. They can’t be expected to stay ahead of the Amazon updates and bugs. That’s not their purpose.

The fix for the writer’s problem ebook was fairly simple. I removed the font-family declarations, removed the cover page, added a line of code to the metadata in the content.opf so Amazon knew the cover was in the file, resized the cover and ran it through the Kindle Previewer. Voila! Everything worked the way it should. The writer was able to upload the file to Amazon with no problems.

My recommendation to the writer for future projects was this: continue using Calibre to convert her Word files to EPUB files since there appear to be no problems and her ebooks are working fine. But, then to refresh her knowledge about using stylesheets in Word via Mark Coker’s Smashwords Style Guide, and direct load her Word file to Amazon. It’s a bit of a pain since you can’t examine and adjust the file before you start the uploading process, but you can take full advantage of the previewer at Amazon and make sure everything works before you hit the Publish button. That way there won’t be any extraneous items like cover pages and “embedded” fonts to muck up the works.

So seriously, folks, don’t kill the messenger or throw rotten tomatoes. This is just the reality. Calibre is not the right tool for converting files to sell on Amazon. Use the program for what it’s intended–managing your ebook library–and find other means to deal with Amazon.

I Had To Go All Gordon Ramsay On Their Ass

“You, you, you, you! Get out!”

GR angrySo this morning, I reached my limit. The final straw. I returned an ebook for a refund.

It upsets me. I’ve only gotten a refund once before and that was because I bought the wrong book, and realized the mistake the second after I clicked the buy button. I support authors. I hate when authors have to take the hit for their publisher’s mistakes. This was one of my must-read authors and I want to read this book and usually I’ll grit my teeth and ignore the nonsense as best I can in order to read an M-R-A.

But… damn it. I can’t take anymore.

Maybe it’s just me. I spent all day yesterday trying to figure out if a new technique will work properly on devices I don’t have ready access to. That’s a lot of work and nitpicking and frustration. Maybe it’s because the internet is crawling with information about how to properly format an ebook, but I still keep finding ebooks that are broken or ugly or amateurish or just plain careless. Maybe I am just fed up and tired of being tolerant and I’ve read too many poorly formatted books here lately. Maybe I expected that at this point in the game publishers should have figured out the basics.

So Dear Angry Robot Books, please learn how to properly design and format an ebook.

  • Do NOT ever center paragraph blocks. Amateur hour! It’s messy, ugly and the only thing missing are hearts and smiley faces dotting the ‘i’s.
  • Don’t compound the ugliness by italicizing the centered text and calling even more attention to how hideous it is.
  • Justify the body text. Left aligned looks like a manuscript. Use it only in special circumstances.
  • Whatever the hell you did to screw up the font size controls so that I was left with a choice between “squint at the screen” or “six words per page”–do NOT ever do that again. Ever. I mean it. Don’t.
  • Use scene break indicators! Want to know what happens when a blank line meets the bottom of the screen? It disappears!
  • Do a proper indent on the paragraphs. That extra narrow indentation is a cheap paperback device to save paper costs. It looks like crap in print and it looks like crap in ebooks.
  • When the ebook is formatted, look at it! Load it up on an ereader and LOOK AT IT. Would you want to read something that is broken and looks awful and is distracting and looks like a 7th grader built it during study hall? No? Then do it over.

So that’s it. I have finally learned my lesson. No more auto-buys from even my most cherished writers. I don’t care if I’ve been salivating a year in anticipation of a new release. Everything gets sampled. Like Gordon says, “Your menu, my standards.” Meet the standards or lose the sale.

Ya donkeys.


An Admonition for Self-Publishers. Ahem…

I’m reading a self-pubbed novel purely for enjoyment (majority of my reading these days is because of work). I want to read it because it is my mostest, favoritest type of fiction, plus the writer is from a place I love to read about. I am motivated.

The writer is making it very hard.

  1. The Kindle book is broken. It’s not a bad break. The user control for line spacing doesn’t work. Problem is (for me) I do most of my pleasure reading late at night. My eyes are tired. I need extra white space on the page.
  2. The styling makes it look like a manuscript, which makes it ugly, which makes me pay even more attention to problem #3.
  3. Lack of proper proofreading. Not that this book is the worst example I’ve seen, but combined with the manuscript-look, every error I stumble across irks me and takes me out of the story.

I will finish this novel. Unfortunately, for the writer, I doubt I will try another of his ebooks.

So, self-publishers, pay attention. This is VERY important. Your writing deserves respect. Start to finish. You write the best you can. You get the best editorial help you can manage. You package the product as best you can. Even if you are on a very tight budget and are doing most of the production work yourself, that’s still no excuse for sloppy work.

Priority: An ebook that works across devices.

If you are using Word to format your ebooks, download the Smashwords Style Guide by Mark Coker. It’s free. Pay close attention to the sections about using style sheets. The ebook you produce will be rather generic, with zero bells and whistles, but if you pay attention, start with a squeaky clean source file, and follow instructions, your ebook will work.

Word-users, print this out and hang it over your computer:


There are some long, involved reasons for that list. All you really need to know is that doing them will break your ebook.

When it is time to convert your ebook, do not save the document as an html file then convert it in Calibre. Please. Stop doing that. That takes all the junk Word piles on then piles on even more junk. Calibre is not the right tool. It will break your ebook.

Some tools that do work: Sigil, MobiPocket, and Kindle Previewer.

Sigil creates EPUB files. There is a learning curve, but the program is fairly intuitive and there is an excellent user guide to walk you through. Caution: Unless you have more than a passing acquaintance with html and css, do not use the EPUB files you make with Sigil to convert into MOBI files for Amazon. There are enough differences in styling that you risk creating a broken ebook.

Amazon will convert Word files when you upload a listing. If, however, you want to view and test your ebook live on a Kindle or other device before you upload, you will need MobiPocket and the Kindle Previewer, which converts your file using KindleGen. I highly recommend viewing and testing. When your Word file is finished, convert it into a prc file in MobiPocket. If there are bad errors, they’ll be caught and you can fix them. You can load the prc file onto your Kindle for live testing. Or you can run it through the KindlePreviewer to make a MOBI file. (Again, do not use Calibre. It’s fine if the ebook is just for you. If you intend to sell it, Calibre is the wrong tool.)

What if you do not have an ereader device? Online previewers are not to be trusted. Find a friend who has a Kindle or Nook and let them test the files. Ask them to toggle all the user controls on and off to see what happens. I do this for friends and friends do it for me (I don’t have a Nook or other EPUB reader). Better you or a friend catches boo-boos before a reader does.

Priority: Readability.

Avoid the “manuscript” look. The best you can hope for, appearance-wise, with a Word format is to basically make it look similar to a mass market paperback. Simple, spare, minimal ornamentation. Go take a look at your book shelves. Simple. Spare. Easy to read.

  • Use printer’s punctuation and use it consistently.
  • Manage the size of the paragraph indents (not too narrow, not too wide, avoid block paragraphs for fiction)
  • Manage your chapter beginnings and scene breaks so readers don’t get confused by what can appear to be random line jumps.
  • Let the machine do the work. Ereaders have user preference controls. Readers have preferences. Make it your goal to interfere with those as little as possible. Figure out how the devices work then format to take advantage of their best features.
  • Proofread. Did I mention your ebook needs to be proofread. I did? Well, I’ll say it again, proofread the ebook. Your pre-production line-editing should have taken care of most of the typos and word choice mistakes, but trust me, no matter how well a work is line-edited, some errors in the text will remain. PLUS, occasionally errors are introduced in the formatting process. It happens. PLUS, hiccups occur in the format itself. If I had to make a choice between paying someone to format and paying someone to proofread, I’d pay the proofreader. It is that important.

If you’re bogged down by production and don’t know what to do next, email me. If I can’t answer your question, I’ll find someone who can. Help is out there. You have to ask. You have to be willing to work on it. If you need motivation, know that there are readers–like me!–who really, really want to read your stories, but will curse the day you were born if your laziness, sloppiness, or carelessness gets in the way of our reading pleasure.




Does Style Matter In Ebooks?

Back in my traditional publishing days it was always a big cause for celebration whenever a writer got a hardcover deal (I never got one). It was a sign that the writer was moving up, that the publishers took her more seriously, and that the book itself was important. Bigger price tag, more room on the shelf, and readers who not only read, but collected. It was a Big Deal.

Or was it? Words is words and stories is stories whether they are bound in cardboard or paper. Right? What real difference does it make when a mass market paperback reads the same as a hardcover?

I don’t know about the rest of you, but it is a Big Deal. There is an aesthetic beauty to a well made hardcover book. From the binding itself, to its weightiness, to the extra care taken in typography and layout. It is that “experience” I’ve talked about before. How the look and “feel” of a book can affect how readers experience the text.

You can make a strong argument for “words is words” and the format doesn’t matter. But it’s not an argument that works with me. For instance, I’ve produced a lot of manuscripts. I have read a lot of manuscripts from others. When I am reading a manuscript it makes no difference how good the story is, the reading experience is Work. My inner editor flips to ON and there is no way to turn it off. If I want to read for pleasure, which means getting sucked into the story-world and engaged with the characters, I want a book–in some form–and not a manuscript.

I’m strongly affected by how my ebooks look, too. While getting this post ready I searched through my Kindle for examples and realized I have very few poorly formatted ebooks and not many serviceable-but-plain ebooks either. It’s because I download samples before I buy. If the sample doesn’t appeal to me visually, I probably won’t buy the book. Here’s one I did buy because I happen to like the author’s stories very much, but I absolutely hate the formatting.

This is "page" one.

This is “page” one.

The problem with this format is that the start of the book looks exactly the same as the rest of the book. Every time I Go To the beginning, this is where I land, then it’s swipe, swipe, click click, trying to figure out where the real beginning is. Even though I enjoyed the story, the lack of visual clues and the text-only formatting bugged me.

Contrast that sample with this one:

begin4Any questions that this is the beginning? Turns out this ebook is actually ‘broken’ so I was forced to read it in ugly font and couldn’t change the line spacing, but despite that the formatter made a real effort to make the book look interesting.

The next example is from an ebook that truly did it right, on every level.

begin3It works properly, the headers tell a story by themselves, and the formatter used some interesting techniques throughout which I’ve been busily trying to figure out how to do.

Contrast that with an example from a sample that I did not buy.

begin5Not only is this ebook badly broken–none of the user features work–but the layout looks exactly like a manuscript. In fact, I suspect the person who formatted this mess took a Word document with manuscript formatting and ran it through MobiPocket.

My mother was never one for good advice, but one thing she said stuck: “Nobody is going to care more about you than you care about yourself.” That applies to books, too–print or digital.

Go back to hardcover versus mass market paperback. The format proclaimed the hardcover as the better book. The more important book. Readers might not articulate it, or even consciously realize it, but they trust the hardcover more. The fact that a publisher cared enough about the book to produce it as a hardcover automatically made it ‘better.” This is perception, not reality. We are talking about taste where perception matters very much and reality takes a back seat.

One reality, reading devices are getting better. I’ve started using color in my formats. Why? Because it’s fun and it’s visually interesting and because it makes the books look fabulous on a tablet.

begin1Because I’m too much of a derp de derp to figure out how to take screenshots off my Kindle Fire, you’ll have to take my word for it. The above example has a hot pink header. It looks fabulous on the Fire.

Now, does your ebook have to be all fancy pants, tarted up like it’s heading to the hottest club in town? Of course not. Different styles for different books. Take a look at the following example. Simple, elegant, but serious to match the tone of the book.

begin6As reading devices improve, readers will grow increasingly demanding about the quality of ebooks. Not only will they expect (and they should!) that the ebooks work properly on their devices, but they’ll start expecting the ebooks to look better, too.

Writers need to ask themselves: Do they want their work perceived as a “cheapie throwaway” or is it “hardcover worthy?” The more YOU care, the more others will care in response.

What about the rest of you? How much does style matter to you?