Formatting Errors in Ebooks

All week I’ve been screwing around with formatting ebooks (experimenting, too). I uploaded two short stories, helped another writer load a novel into Amazon and am in email communication with another writer who is struggling with a corrupted file. I’m in an OCD frame of mind. (my new motto: I obsess about this shit so you don’t have to)

I’m not a professional formatter. I don’t know the fancy stuff (yet), but I read a lot on my Kindle and I know what a properly formatted ebook should look like. I have seen some stunningly beautiful ebooks. I have seen total messes. None of the messes made the text unreadable, but they did diminish my enjoyment of the stories.

Many writers don’t want to mess with formatting their ebooks. I don’t blame them. There are good, reliable pros who can do a bang up job for a reasonable price (before hiring a formatter, ask for a list of titles they’ve done, then go download samples onto your ereader to check the quality). But, what if you want to publish shorts? Epublishing is a good way to get your short fiction and essays to market. Shorts, however, are not a great paying market. It could take months or years to recoup the cost of professional formatting. Learn to do it yourself and you can find new readers for a low cost. You don’t have to know how to do the fancy fonts or graphics in order to produce a good-looking, format-error-free, straight text ebook.

What you do have to do is pay attention to details and understand where errors come from. I’m guessing that 99% come straight from our word processors. So, if you get the source file in your word processor right, then chances are excellent you’ll end up with a good looking ebook. Manually rearranging text in your word processor creates problems down the road. The following graphic shows why. If you use Word, you have a Show/Hide feature in the menu bar. It looks like a Paragraph mark. I circled it in red. Click it and you can see the formatting marks in your manuscript.

In the top sample I manually arranged text. (A) shows where I used the space bar to center text. (B) shows double spaces between sentences. (C) shows extra spaces at the end of the paragraphs. (D) indicates a Tab. In the bottom sample I used a style sheet. Notice no extra spaces anywhere, no extra code. (E) shows a second style sheet that centers text.

Amazon usually justifies text for the Kindle (I don’t know what Nooks, iPhones and other gadgets do). When you have extra spaces, it gets factored into the process. (Remember computers talk to each other. One says, “Here’s what I want,” and the other might say, “Yeah, but this is what I’m gonna do.”) Even extra spaces between sentences or at the end of a paragraph can cause the program to “jump” a line, leaving blanks in the text. And using the space bar to center text? You could end up with blank pages. And the Tabs? Conversion programs apparently have a special hatred for Tabs. The ereader could go along fine, ignoring the Tabs for several pages, then all the sudden decide what you really mean is to block indent the text.

The solution to this is using Style sheets. They give you consistency and fewer opportunities to insert unwanted codes for conversion programs to misinterpret. Even if you aren’t going to format your own ebooks or even self-publish, get in the habit of using Style sheets anyway. More and more agents and editors prefer electronic submissions. Using Style sheets will lessen the chances of your electronic submissions turning into gobbledegook on the agent’s or editor’s computer or gadget.

I wrote a post about how to set up Style sheets in Word. You can look at it by clicking here. It’s very easy to do. Once you create the Style sheets, you set ’em and forget ’em. More difficult is getting out of the habit of using Tabs or the space bar to manipulate text. If you want to format nice looking ebooks, that’s exactly what you need to do.

In my next post, I’ll talk about something really fun: Nuking your manuscript to get rid of unwanted coding, and using search-and-replace to make everything pretty again.