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.

 

 

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Word to Calibre to MOBI: Part 1: Styling in Word

So, I’ve been obsessanating–again. In my last post I promised that there was a way to convert Word files in Calibre into ebooks that work perfectly on Kindles. That is true. It can be done. I was looking for a quick and dirty hack that worked every time. That is not possible.

Here’s the real problem. You got your indie writer who has put her heart and soul into writing her story. She’s not technical. She’s not a computer geek. She just wants readers to find and love her stories. Problem: How to get the story from Word onto a reader’s Kindle? Enter Calibre. Just save your Word file as an html file, load it into Calibre, convert it into a mobi file and upload it to Amazon. Done!

The problem with that? Calibre mobi files don’t quite work right when uploaded to Amazon. Period. They can work, at best, almost right. For the writer who’s eager to get back to writing her next story, that’s good enough.

As a reader, that attitude pisses me off. I buy and read a lot of ebooks. It pisses me off when the user preference controls don’t work. It pisses me off when I can’t navigate an ebook. (It’s not just indie publishers, folks. I get pissed off by the Big Pubs who can’t bother proofreading the ebooks and by the nastiness that turns up in ebooks built with InDesign, and don’t even get me started on the crap that happens when they turn scanned backlist books into ebooks.) A poorly produced ebook is equivalent to a writer using a mimeograph and newsprint, stapling the pages together and saying, “Here you go. That’ll be five bucks.” I’m insulted.

As an ebook producer, I get it. Amazon doesn’t make it easy. It’s next to impossible to break open a mobi file to tinker around in the code and fine tune it. Plus, as I explained before, Amazon has… quirks. They build their devices, then create the platforms, then play catch up with updates to older models, and it’s not easy keeping up.

NOTE: The last time I bitched about Calibre being the wrong tool, Calibre’s creator informed me that the “line-squish” problem could be solved by converting the ebooks into azw3. That works. Except… I didn’t explore far enough. Amazon rejects azw3 files, so they are useless for distribution through Amazon.

The easiest thing a writer can do to ensure having a perfect ebook to sell on Amazon is to hire someone who knows what they are doing. For any number of reasons, that isn’t always realistic. I’m a realist. Hence, this series of posts that will take you step-by-step through the process of turning a Word file into a commercial-quality ebook to sell on Amazon. The beauty of this is, you don’t really need to understand html or how ebooks work or anything technical at all. All you have to know is how to Copy/Paste.

Before you begin, you will need four–FOUR!–programs on your computer.

Microsoft Word
Notepad++
Calibre
Kindle Previewer

I assume since you are using Word, you have Word. The other three are freeware. A note about Word. You do not want to do this with .docx files. You want .doc files. Older versions of Word actually work a lot better for making ebooks than do later versions of Word.

Ready? Let’s begin.

PART 1: STYLING IN WORD

Step 1: Do a Save As so your original stays intact.

Step 2: Tag your special formatting (italics, bolding, underlining). A word about “special formatting.” This only applies to words or passages that are italicized, bolded and underlined in the body text. Such things as headers and sub-heads will be dealt with later.

Calibre1I use a simple tagging system for special formatting.

  • Italics: -STARTI- -ENDI-
  • Bold: -STARTB- -ENDB-
  • Underline: -STARTU- -ENDU-

STEP 3: Turn “manuscript” punctuation into “printer” punctuation.

  • “Curly” or “Smart” quotes, not straight quotes (and apostrophes). Do make sure your quote marks and apostrophes are turned in the proper direction–Word has a bad habit of reversing them.
  • Proper em dashes, not two hyphens or en dashes or spaced hyphens
  • Proper ellipses

STEP 4: Kill “soft” returns and tabs, and eliminate extra spaces

  • To turn “soft” returns into hard returns: In Find/Replace search for ^l (that’s a caret mark and lower case L) and replace with ^p (caret mark and lower case P)
  • To get rid of tabs: In Find/Replace, search for ^t (caret and lower case T) and replace with nothing
  • Don’t forget to get rid of extra spaces before and after paragraphs

STEP 5: Select all, copy and paste entire file into Notepad++

Calibre2Yes, that is what it looks like. That’s what it is supposed to look like. This is a straight text file.

STEP 6: Finish cleaning up the file

  • Delete blank lines
  • Tag scene breaks (I use ## because it is easy to find)
  • Search for and clean up special formatting tags. Word is very sloppy and you’ll find tags around empty spaces and jumping paragraphs and other untidiness.

STEP 7: Back in Word, open a New Document and set your Styles (I am going by the assumption that you know how to use style sheets in Word.) For the purposes of this tutorial, I used three styles for my ebook:

  • Normal (built in style in Word, modify as you wish)
  • Heading 1 (built in, also modified)
  • Center (user-defined style)

CAL1It doesn’t matter much what font you choose. Times New Roman is fine.

CAL2This will be used for your chapter heads. Again, font doesn’t matter much.

CAL3STEP 8: Apply the “Normal” style to the new document. Select all and copy the text file in Notepad++ and paste the entire document into Word

Calibre3STEP 9: Style the document.

  • Apply the Heading 1 style to all chapter/story headings
  • Apply the Center style to any text you want centered (in this case, I applied it to the scene break indicators, THE END and table of contents entries)

CAL4Calibre4STEP 10: Bookmark all your Heading 1 entries (Word automatically bookmarks Heading entries, but those will not transfer over so you need to insert bookmarks manually)

STEP 11: Link your bookmarks in the table of contents

That’s it for Part 1. Your document is now clean and styled and ready for Part 2: turning your .doc file into a proper html file.

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A word about styles. Like I said, for this tutorial I am using only three styles. You can use all sorts of styles to create visually pleasing ebooks–just remember one very important thing: Word is a program whose main purpose is to create print documents. What you see on the screen is pretty much what you will get on a sheet of paper, but it is not at all what you would get in an ebook. I suspect after you finish this full tutorial you will have a better understanding of how ebooks work and how Word works, and you will understand why it is so important to use style sheets religiously.

A word about questions. I know you have them. Let’s make them useful for everybody. If you have a question about this tutorial, especially if it is a “How do I do this…?” type of question, email it to me at

jayewmanus at gmail dot com

I’ll put together a post with questions and answers.