So I was doing some research about ebook production services. Checking prices, packaging, etc. (I’d like to start my own business, but that depends on luring the incredibly talented Plunderbunny to team up with me–I can’t offer her a steady paycheck, but bennies include homemade brownies, all the coffee she can drink and Temper Tuesdays whereas she is allowed to scream and rage at me as much as she likes). One thing I noticed is that a lot of ebook producers DO NOT want to mess around with nonfiction ebooks–especially ebooks formatted in Word for uploading to Smashwords. Or if they do, they charge an arm and a leg for it.
I suppose I get that. Nonfiction is a challenge. I’ve done quite a few so far and each one is an education. Fiction is fairly standard–the body text rarely takes more than two styles–so the challenges tend to be in the creative details. Many nonfiction books, however, are not suitable for the ebook format if one expects them to look on an ereader the same way they look in print. Ebooks need to be rethought and restructured so they work in digital formats.
Text boxes, for instance. Text boxes are only possible with static page formats. Some platforms allow for static pages, but those are very specialized and that’s not what I do right now. I could do text boxes by creating graphics, but graphics add greatly to the file size and small text can fuzz and become unreadable depending on the size of the screen it’s read on. So what I did was ponder what is the purpose of text boxes. Basically they are parenthetical asides designed to call attention to themselves and demand the reader pay special attention. In one project I set the text boxes off with block quotes and a strong graphic:
It doesn’t look like a printed version of a text box, but I think it accomplishes the same thing.
Graphics are not out of the question (if the writer is willing to absorb some “delivery fees” on Amazon). Devices like the Kindle handle graphics beautifully. The trick with them is getting them properly sized. (I haven’t yet come up with a formula for doing so–this involves much experimenting and tweaking on a case by case basis) If the images are too large it can cause blank “pages”. I’m still playing around with anchoring text to an image.
Things like bullet lists are also a challenge. The reason is because reading devices want to stretch the text for their version of justification. By using a hanging first line style and “locking” the bullets with non-breaking spaces, I managed some nice stable bulleted lists.
I used the same hanging first line styling for an interview:
It’s not as finely-tuned as it would be in print, but the format is stable and the visual effect is what I was aiming for. If I were a super-programmer who could dash off a few lines of code and have flying unicorns magically appear to grant me wishes, I might have been able to do more with the spacing. Even so, I’m 96% satisfied with how it turned out and it is comfortable to read, and that is the important part.
The most interesting challenge was figuring out how to format a screenplay/script. A Kindle is not the best device upon which to read a script. Scripts have very specific formatting requirements for a reason. Then again, the ebook “scripts” aren’t intended for an actor on a set or stage. So my challenge was to emulate the look of a screenplay.
To anyone other than a real screenwriter it looks like a script. So it serves its purpose.
So yes, non-fiction does have challenges. Truth be told, I don’t think the ebooks I formatted were all that high on the difficulty scale. Start getting into textbooks or reference books or anything with footnotes or indices or large glossaries and we could be talking an entire career devoted to a single volume. Whew.
Still, what I’ve learned thus far is that good-looking, reader-friendly non-fiction books are possible IF I–
- Accept that ebooks are a completely different format than print, and trying to force an ebook to look exactly like a print book causes insomnia and potty mouth.
- Figure out what the text is supposed to accomplish, then figure out how to make it work.
- Keep it simple. A multitude of styles in an ebook will quickly devolve into an unreadable mess and can be unstable, too. Pare down the number of styles to the barest minimum, then use bolding or italics and graphic elements to emphasize and set off the text.
Nonfiction ebooks aren’t impossible. Nor does one have to be a magic-unicorn producing super-programmer to create one. They are a challenge, though. But hey, that’s what makes it fun.