What Do Your Chapter Heads Say?

So I’ve been formatting quite a few non-fiction ebooks here lately, and it occurs to me that non-fiction books are doing a lot better with chapter heads than the majority of fiction books do. By that I mean, non-fiction chapter heads tend to give a clue as to what the chapter is about (CHAPTER THREE: The History of Pumpernickel). I just spent a few minutes going through 20 or so non-fiction books within reach of my desk and every single one of them did that. Many dispensed with “CHAPTER” all together and just gave a small description line. Not so with the fiction. I just went through 17 novels (gawd, but I need to clean off my desk!) and found only one that gave descriptors, while the rest did “CHAPTER #” or more often, just a number.

WARNING: I am obsessanting again and this isn’t a life-changing subject, so if you’d rather read about something else, go here and ponder the whimsical nature of the Universe.

The funny thing is, in print I always found the lines and quotes and descriptors in the chapter heads of novels a bit of an affectation. Maybe because they struck me as clutter or maybe it was because they weren’t done particularly well. I dunno. Now that I have Larry the Kindle never far from my side, I find myself growing rather annoyed by CHAPTER # or worse, just a number. Which sends me down a bunny trail of wondering what’s the point of even having chapters or why we ever started breaking up novels into chapters in the first place.

But it does tie into one of my many little obsessions–navigation in ebooks. Because of the way I am, the way I keep track of things, I’m very dependent on visual clues when I read. I might forget the title of a book, but I will remember it has a red cover or it’s thick or thin. If I want to find an especially poignant or funny quote, I won’t recall the page number, but I’ll remember it was near the back or the front of the book and near the end of the chapter or something like that, so I can pick up a book and thumb through a few pages and find what I was looking for. That’s in print books. My Kindle doesn’t give me those visual prompts. If I happen to forget to bookmark a passage as I am reading, I have a devil of a time finding it again. Without the visual prompts of covers, I sometimes have trouble remembering which book it is–it’s a quirk in my memory, but I am terrible with titles and author names. (another quirk, I can remember fictional character names much better than the names of real people)

(If anything ever forces me to break down and get a tablet or some such nonsense, it will be that one feature of having colorful book covers on a virtual shelf. I love my eink reader, but lists of titles just don’t do it for me. le sigh…)

Given my own experience and how I do things, I’m always looking for ways to make ebooks more memorable on a visual level and make them easier to navigate. I’ve thought of this before, mulled over it, decided at one point it didn’t make much difference, but now I’m coming back around again. I remember a lot of books from my childhood that had descriptors (What are those called anyway? Chapter leads? Chapter titles?)–“In which our intrepid hero teases the bear…”–and they served as little memory prompts when I wanted to go back and reread a passage or read it aloud to someone else. Given how very easy it is to include such material in an ebook–both at the chapter location and in the table of contents–I have to ask, why not do it? Sure, it takes some time and thought to come up with the four to ten words necessary for a clever line, it might be worthwhile and it’s relatively painless and it certainly couldn’t hurt.

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Pioneers in Ebook Design: Monica Pierce

Thank you, Jaye, for letting me add my two cents on the matter of ebook formatting. I appreciate your advocacy of self-publishing as well as your ardent promotion of any writers’ ability to create and market their own material.

(No, thank you, Monica. It’s a pleasure to see what you’ve done. Thank you for sharing your process and the gorgeous results.)

——————–

As Jaye has so often pointed out, we (writers and publishers) need to put as much design thought into what comes after an ebook’s cover as we do that cover itself. After all, 99% of the reader’s ebook experience involves what lies beneath. Yet too few writers and publishers seem to pay attention to formatting, and even fewer (writers, in this case) bother to learn the basic markup language (HTML and CSS) that goes into making ebooks. This isn’t rocket science, folks. Hell, it’s not even high school biology. Uploading your Word file into a conversion program and hoping for the best is asking for a questionable and, in some cases, impossible reading experience. It may seem a small thing, but all those strange page breaks, screwed up quotation marks, and odd characters add up to annoyed readers who want to throw your virtual book across the virtual room.

In comments, Jaye mentioned that she’d like to see how some self-published authors have addressed various design issues and decisions. I volunteered to be the first.

After reading Guido Henkel’s excellent blog series on ebook formatting, I tackled the process, making some specific design decisions in order to give the readers the best formatted, but least intrusive, reading experience I could possibly create. So here’s how and why I did what I did with the guts of Girl Under Glass.

GENERAL CLEAN UP

I write in Word and did the initial manuscript clean up (removing extra spaces and marking up italics) with that program. Then I imported the manuscript into Textmate to strip out all the Word gobbledegook and used HTML to mark up paragraph breaks, single and double quotation marks and apostrophes, special characters, and breaks. Lastly, I set up styles using CSS for the paragraphs and centering, as well as the title, copyright, dedication, glossary, phrases, and about pages. Centering the images (section and chapter titles and scene breaks) is controlled with p and span tags.

I’m doing a back page promo swap with another indie author and will be inserting a Recommended Reads page with her ad at the end of the book, as well as a link in the TOC. (Thanks, Jaye, I stole that idea from you.)

Honestly, I think I can probably clean up my CSS a little, but I got tired of playing whack-a-mole with divs, spans, and p tags.

TITLE PAGE

This entire page is an image. I wanted to use my cover font, Proxima Nova, for my inside title, section titles, chapter titles, and additional end material, but ebooks allow for a very limited font selection. So my husband, Scott, (a former web and graphics designer) was roped into volunteered to design all of these graphics. But I wanted something more than just the title on this page, so he added the design element. Since the premise behind this book revolves around my main character, Rachel’s, unique genome, he used a diagram of an unraveled RNA segment. It’s a strange, but compelling image.

SECTION BREAK

There are three sections in this book. Again, we repeated the use of Proxima Nova and linked the sections to the title with the RNA graphic. It stops the reader and signals the transition while also, I hope, recalling the reader to the title with a subtle nudge.

CHAPTER HEAD

The large RNA graphic was too much for the chapter, so we decided to use a more compact image. This, too, is RNA, but the view is looking down inside the tightly wound strand. I didn’t define the font or font size in my CSS for the pages. Many readers don’t play with the settings on their ereaders, but I saw no reason to aggravate those who do. The standard font is clean and readable. I set my paragraph bottom margins at 0.7em and the indent at 1em. That’s a totally personal decision; I don’t like a larger indent for this book because that feels more like a traditional design. This book is dystopian and set in the near future, so I made some spacing decisions that were a little non-traditional without being annoying. (I hope.)

SCENE BREAK

Using asterisks for my scene breaks seemed like a cop-out after putting the graphics into the title, sections, and chapters, so Scott gave me a different RNA strand graphic. Ultimately, however, I decided it was too distracting to have a third design element, so I opted to use the circular RNA image to indicate the breaks, as well. (This is how it appears on the Kindle vs. the Kindle Fire for the previous images.)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR/LETTER TO READERS

The circular RNA image was repeated, again, on the supplemental pages. (This is the Kindle Touch. Note the different font. That’s a preset for the Touch, apparently. I don’t own one, so if you do, I’d love to know if that’s what your screen looks like.)

GLOSSARY AND OHNENRAI PHRASES

Finally, the Glossary (Kindle) and Ohnenrai Phrases (Kindle Touch). This book has a smattering of an alien language, and I wanted those readers who were interested to be able to find definitions. At some point, I’ll go back and link the main text to the glossary. In the meantime, this works, but I don’t love it.

Ohnenrai Phrases/Kindle Touch

The entries are separated with HTML breaks, and both the glossary and the phrases have their own divs. But I’m sure they can be better. I’d also like to include a guide to pronunciation for each word, so the glossary will look more like a dictionary. Any suggestions?

Regarding title and author identification at the top of each page. I mulled over various approaches to adding this data but, ultimately, decided it offered too much potential for problems down the road. New ereaders are already picking up that metadata and inserting it, and I couldn’t think of an elegant way to do it without creating repetitive information on the screen for the newer Kindles and the iPad.

Again, thank you, Jaye, for allowing me to talk about my formatting. Girl Under Glass isn’t perfect, but I think it’s a pretty good start for a newbie author with only a little HTML and CSS knowledge going into the project. Now that I have a template and a taste for the process, I’ll be looking for even more ways to design a lovely reading experience. I welcome any feedback on what I can do to make this book (and others) even better.

Monica Enderle Pierce is a self-publishing newbie whose first novel, Girl Under Glass, was a 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award semi-finalist. She writes dystopian romantic suspense and romantic gothic fantasy novels.

 
Beautiful, Monica! I’ve heard people discount the power of the little details, but as someone who reads a lot of ebooks–sometimes four or five a week–I know from my own experience that when I open a new book and if the first image, the first page has a nice look, a nice feel, my attitude about the book undergoes a slight change. It’s more attractive, it looks more important, it has weight–ergo, I’m cued in that is a better book. It automatically ramps down my inner-critic and puts me in a more receptive mood. Kind of like getting into the passenger seat of a clean, fresh-smelling luxury car. The journey is the journey, getting me from point A to point B, but the ride is nicer and I know from the get-go that I don’t have to worry about ketchup stains on my shoes from fast-food litter on the floor.

As for the glossary and pronunciation guide–love it! I was just discussing with a friend about glossaries and such, and the desirability of putting links in text (I don’t mind that in non-fiction, but I’m sure the underlining would bug the crap out of me in fiction). My initial idea (untried, just a thought) would be to link the glossary terms back to their first appearances in the text. No underlines in the text itself, that way, but those who are interested can see the term in context. It would be up to the writer, then, to make sure the readers know there is a glossary and/or pronunciation guide by creating a custom Table of Contents, and perhaps even a small note or foreword saying something along the lines of “Hey, folks, if you want to know how to pronounce Pzrryewrwtz, there is a pronunciation guide. Click here and then click on the words to take you back to the story.” (actually, something better than that, but you know what I mean) I know this reader appreciates tips and tricks for navigation.

(Just an odd thought about pricing. I read a lot, so I appreciate the lower priced books. Five or six bucks is my preferred price point. I’ve noticed something about myself–when I’m shopping for books, I always check the samples. There is always a moment of “Is this worth the price?” Quite often, how the sample LOOKS is what tips me over the edge and directs my finger to 1-click and Buy. Like I said, just a thought.)

What’s Inside DOES Matter.

Poking my head out of the gopher hole…

You know what really bugs me about some retail establishments and service providers? It’s that attitude of, “We’ve got your money, so screw ya.” Suddenly your problems are no longer their problems and they really couldn’t care less what you think of their product or their service. If you’ve ever dealt with a nightmare disguised as “customer service” then you know exactly what I mean. Had any problems with your cable provider, lately? Hmn? What makes it doubly frustrating is that many of the worst offenders (I’m not naming names, now am I, Directv?) go above and beyond to lure in new customers. Huge advertising campaigns, promises to the moon and back, special promotions, the whole deal. But you know what? It’s gotten to the point where I am super suspicious of those massive campaigns. I’m finally getting a clue that companies that care so much about the people who aren’t buying are the same companies that really don’t care about their current customers. Companies and products with positive word-of-mouth and solid reputations don’t need massive campaigns.

Which brings us to ebooks. Of course. If you’re a regular reader you know I am ambivalent about promotional efforts. I’m also not all that impressed with the time, effort and energy indie writers put into covers. Yeah, yeah, I know books require some promotion (I just have no idea what actually works or why it works when it does–too many factors) and I also know covers are important. To some people. They aren’t to me. Not with ebooks. The reason why is that after I buy an ebook, there is only about a 2% chance I’ll ever see the cover again. Usually the only reason is because I really like the book and want to check the title and author name. While I have purchased a few print books because of their covers–not very many, but a few–that is not the case at all with ebooks. I have zero interest in those thumbnails on Amazon. Except for a very few samples, I couldn’t tell you what the covers look like for any of the hundreds of ebooks currently on my Kindle.

But I will tell you this. There are many ebooks on my Kindle where the writer or publisher had put a hell of a lot of effort into the cover and the promo, and barely any effort at all into my reading experience. I’m not talking about bad stories or even bad editing. I’m talking about the production values. I’m talking about ebooks that offer the reading equivalent of typewritten script on newsprint. Just words with no thought given to the aesthetics of the “page” or the organization or even to reminding me what I’m reading. This lack of concern over my comfort doesn’t make them bad books–it’s make them forgettable. It makes what I’m reading seem cheap and unimportant.

Think about that.

I’ve discussed in previous posts how readers are reading differently on ereaders. They’re reading more closely and they’re more sensitive to errors and goofs. The best I can account for it is that an ereader, such as the Kindle, offers no distractions–not even the faint rustle of a turning page. This can work for or against the writer. Without distractions, readers can read faster, so they buy more books. That’s good. Without something memorable to make your book stand out, it could be forgotten–just another story–when it comes time for the reader to buy something else. That’s bad.

I bring this up (again, and no, not just because I’m the Obsessanator) but because I’m working on an interesting project. I had some problems with Scrivener (by the way, it’s a simple problem to fix, so anybody who is using Scrivener to create ebooks, carry on) and figured I should break down and learn HTML. For those of you comfortable with computers and programming, you’re thinking no big deal. Well, for me, it is a big deal because I do not like machines and the whole idea of them having a “language” kind of creeps me out. In my quest to create beautiful ebooks, however, I buckled down to it. I reformatted some of my short stories, then did a few others, then did an ebook for Julia Barrett, which turned out very nicely. It was actually too easy and I wanted to learn more. (I’m hands on–doesn’t do any good to tell me how to do something. You have to dump a pile of material in my lap and point at a finished product and say, ‘Make it look like that.’) So I sez to my friend, Larry, “I need a challenge. Got anything?”

He sent me a scanned document for a book that contains a screenplay, an interview, and narrative text. Well, I asked for a challenge, and he came through with flying colors. Not only was the scan a big old mess that had to be cleaned up, but I had to figure out how to create the illusion of a screenplay. I wanted to learn some HTML and I learned. A lot. Then to sweeten the pot Larry handed me a bunch more scanned files. These aren’t fiction where the biggest concerns are graphics and pretty touches. These are non-fiction (sort of) filled with case studies and interviews and numbered lists. Challenges. Through it all, the biggest question I’m asking myself is: How to make it look good to the reader and make for a pleasing reading experience? How do I organize the text with visual clues to help the reader keep his/her place and not get lost in the transitions? Print books have certain advantages that ebooks do not. Print can make good use of white space, for example. Large blocks of italics, depending on the font, can look good. With a printed page, the designer controls the right margin and justification (or should). Too much ‘white’ space on a Kindle can look like a mistake. Big blocks of italics are difficult to read. The device controls the right margin and justification, not the designer. What I do have at my disposal are block quotes, hanging first lines, line breaks and a few other tricky tricks. I’ve been spending a lot of time over on w3schools.com to find character codes and figure out how to execute certain commands. Then I try things out, make an ebook, and see how it looks. Sometimes it looks fine, other times it looks like crap, so back to the drawing board. (Notepad++, actually, which is a lot of fun even though I have barely a clue as to what it’s talking about half the time–okay, three-quarters of the time–but fearlessly (or stupidly)I go clicking through anyway.)

It’s a lot of work and I’m still in the relatively slow stage (although, being the queen of Find/Replace does hasten the process quite a bit) but it’s worth it. Yes. It is worth every minute at the computer, every cuss word and crossed eye and “Oh no!” It’s worth it not just because the words matter, but because the readers–our customers–matter. Their comfort, their pleasure, their experience. I want readers to see that I care about them. Not just their dollars, but them. In return, I want them to know that I care very deeply about the books I produce. I want it to show on the screen. I want the ebooks to look important and worthy of respect. Respect=Respect, folks, gotta give it to get it.

I would love to see more ebook producers–indie and traditional–expend at least as much effort in making the actual ebooks look good as they do in producing covers. Honestly, if you’re willing to drop $300 on the perfect cover, but then do a crap layout in Word and publishing the ebook consists of clicking a button and hoping for the best, I have to question where your priorities lie. Don’t be one of those entities that devotes all your time and energy to luring new suckers, er, buyers, then forgets about them as soon as you have their money in your hands.

If you’re interested in seeing what I came up with with the screenplay, interview and narrative, be warned–ADULTS ONLY. The book is about the making of a porn movie. It’s funny and touching and wise, but also pretty dirty. So don’t say I didn’t warn you.

For those who are delving into HTML for their ebooks, a nifty little trick I learned for putting paragraph returns into the Word document before transferring it into Notepad++.

FIND box type ^p
REPLACE box type </p>^p<p>
Do a REPLACE ALL.

Voila! The only command you have to put in manually is at the very beginning of the document. (if you already knew this, meaning I am the very last person to figure it out, pfft, it’s still a nifty trick)

More About Ebook Formatting, Source Files and Tales of Tagging

First an apology for not answering every comment this week. On the “Source Files Update” post there were some great comments. People are coming up with solutions and solving problems. So go read the comments over there. One commenter in particular is hard at work on the subject of formatting ebooks from word processor files. I’ve been corresponding with William Ockham regarding his efforts to create a program that will make it easy to format a word processor file into a good-looking ebook. I’ve sent William some grotty files and he’s been problem solving. I’ve brought one of his comments over to this post so you can get a better idea of what he’s doing:

Wow, I’m flattered. I’ve been busy with my guest blogging stint over at http://www.thepassivevoice.com and didn’t see all these comments. Since there is some interest here, I’ll share what I can of my plans. I firmly believe that writers should use whatever tool works for them. For most people, that’s Microsoft Word. Some folks are using Scrivener and almost everyone else is using some word processor (a flavor of OpenOffice or those WordPerfect holdouts).

The first thing I’m going to release is a free document to source file converter service (to use Jaye’s terms). You save your manuscript in RTF format (pretty much every program supports RTF) and upload it to my service. My program will go through and do all the stuff that Jaye talks about. It will strip all the formatting except bold, italics, and chapter headings. You get back a nice clean source file in RTF format. You load it up into your tool and save it back as a .doc file and you have a source file suitable as the input for ebook formatting. It’s not much, but it is a nice little timesaver and your ebook formatter will thank you (even if you DIY). Did I mention it would be free?

I really appreciate all the expressions of support. I hadn’t really given much thought to a Kickstarter, but I am thinking about it now. In the meantime, there is something you could do to help. I need test cases. That is, I need real manuscripts before they’ve been given the Jaye Manus treatment. If anyone has copies of their novels (or short story collections) that they wouldn’t sharing with me, I would really appreciate it. I promise not use them for anything other than perfecting my software. I will send you the cleaned up version and destroy or return the original when I’m done.

If you can help in this way, save your gnarliest files (smart quotes, em dashes, paragraphs indented with tabs and spaces, whatever) in RTF format and
email them
to razoroftruth at
gmail dot
com

Let me know what program (i.e Microsoft Word) and version (like 2000 or 2007) and whether you are using Windows, Mac, or Linux (or other Unix variant).

Which brings us to another problem I’m working on with source files–tagging. One of the things keeping me so busy this week is learning HTML. Turns out it’s kind of fun and quite the challenge. I also discovered that my resulting ebook files are much smaller–why? Who knows. But that’s a plus since I love using graphics for headers and such. Anyhow, the biggest challenge has been doing an ebook in screenplay format. It’s not difficult. It requires essentially three styles: Centered, Block Quote and Hanging Text. Since it ran about 120 pages in manuscript form, the real challenge was making sure every style was properly applied. I also wanted a way to NOT have to go in and tweak every line of text.

Now me, I happen to think FIND/REPLACE is the greatest invention since the light bulb. I’ve stated before that Word’s F/R is a powerhouse. Indeed. I also made some very interesting discoveries about Word and text editors and how they interact re formatting tags.

Le sigh…

Let’s talk about the two most common special formatting tags in the writing universe. Asterisks to indicate bolded text and underscores to indicate italics. Most editors and agents understand what those marks mean. Sending an e-query with those tags in place would be perfectly acceptable. Except… Even if you turn off the auto-formatting features, Word treats them like special characters and so does a text editor. Meaning, a text editor will strip them out. So those are out. You can use them if you like–they are easy to read–but if you ever have to copy the file into a text editor, you’ll lose the tags and your special formatting.

Anyhow, I’ve been using my own little special formatting tags–ii for italics, BB for bolding, and UU for underlining. Nobody but me sees them or has to read them, so no big deal. BUT, I am in the process of creating a cheat sheet for Source Files, and need to come up with tags that One) Make sense; Two) Are easy to remember and use; Three) Don’t activate “helpfulness” in word processors; Four) Work well in FIND/REPLACE operations. Number three is a bitch. I popped around in different programs to see how they handle various tags. Turns out non-letter characters are a problem when created in strings–Word, especially, kept getting wobbly and persnickety. Plus, some can cause problems in HTML coding because it uses so many characters for commands. For instance, I tried i/TEXT/i for italics. That seems fairly straightforward, right? It didn’t make Word go all wobbly either and it translated into a text editor. Problems arose when I did F/R operations in the text editor. I needed characters that are NOT used in coding. Which leaves out almost all of them.

Ah ha, most FIND operations can be made case sensitive. And there is one non-letter character that gave me no problems at all–the lowly dash/hyphen. So here are a few of the tags I ended up with:

  • -ITAL-   -NOITAL-
  • -CTR-     -NOCTR-
  • -BQ-        -NOBQ-
  • -NBSP-

Those might seem a little “wordy” but they are pretty self-explanatory (italics, centered text, block quote, no break space) and they don’t cause interpretation wars between programs. When I paste the Word file into the text editor, all I have to do is run FIND/REPLACE operations to insert the coding. (ex: -ITAL- becomes <i> and -NOITAL- becomes </i> to make italicized text) Most fiction doesn’t require every paragraph be tagged. So I won’t go in to the nifty little shortcuts I found.

The really important thing I’ve discovered is that not all tagging is equal and some of the old printer’s tags will not work because the programs want to do something with them and it’s not always what the writer intends.

So how about you, folks? What nifty tricks tricks have you come up for tagging the special formatting in your files?

You Say Documents, I Say Source Files

A manuscript formatted for print, complete with header.

I’ve been creating manuscripts for well over twenty years. I can rattle off the formatting in my sleep. Double-spaced, one inch margins, header with page number top left corner, drop to middle of page to start a new chapter, blah blah blah. It’s a manuscript. A document to be printed and stacked and tucked in a box or an envelope and put in the mail. Who does that anymore? Oh sure, some agents and editors still insist on hard copies, but they’re in the minority and growing rarer by the day. Even though most agencies and publishers have gone digital, even though more and more writers are finding markets online and many are self-publishing either ebooks or POD, old habits die hard. Writers are still producing documents when they should be producing source files.

Whatever do you mean, Jaye?

Many writers, especially those who’ve been around a while, treat word processors like typewriters. We want to see on the screen what we want to appear on paper. Word processors are very accommodating that way. Most aren’t WYSIWIG, but pretty close. If we center text on the screen, it centers in the printout. If there are 24 lines on the screen, 24 lines print on the page. The printer doesn’t care if we indent lines with tabs, first line hanging or hit the space bar five or six times. It prints as an indent. If all you ever intend to do is create printed documents, then you can quit reading now. If you intend to submit electronically or create an ebook or a POD book or make pdf files, then listen up. It is time to break the document/manuscript habit.

You see, a clean source file can be copied indefinitely and used to create printed manuscripts, digital files for electronic submissions, ebooks, pdfs and POD books. With a clean source file an agent or editor can read your submission on a computer, smart phone, iPhone, iPad, Kindle, Nook, tablet or whatever else they might happen to have and your work will be readable. With a clean source file you can easily make a copy to create a professional looking printed document for that guy still living in 1973. And with a copy of that same file you can format an ebook that will convert cleanly for Smashwords, Amazon, Nook or whatever–or send it to a professional formatter who can turn it around in a matter of hours. Then you make another copy and format that for a slick pdf to send to reviewers. And you can snag a template off CreateSpace or Lulu and load it with your nice clean file and create a POD book. All the while that source file is sitting on your computer, nice and clean, and ready to be turned into whatever you happen to need next.

A Clean, Plain Jane, No Frills Source File, Created in MS Word

There is nothing difficult about creating source files. They are straight text files, nothing more. The difficult part is getting out of the mindset of seeing it as a printed document living on your screen. I know, I know, old habits die hard and writers, especially fiction writers, get a bit freaked out by the lack of page numbers, headers, page breaks and centered chapter heads. Trust me, get into the new habit of creating source files and it could save you from rejections (I wonder how many agents and editors have rejected submissions out of hand just because they couldn’t read the text on their iPhone or it turned into gobbledegook on their computer screen and rather than walk the writer through how to set up a file, they just said to hell with it); it can save you from the frustration of having Amazon or Smashwords reject your ebook (you followed their instructions!) or worse, getting it through the conversion process only to discover your ebook is live, but horribly corrupted; and it can save you money if you hire someone to format your ebooks or your POD book and they have don’t have to charge extra to clean the junk out of your file.

To create a clean source file:

  • Turn off all Auto-Correct/Auto-format functions in your word processor (especially if you use MS Word). Turn off widow and orphan control.
  • Set up a simple style sheet to take care of the font, line-spacing, and indents. Apply it to every source file before you begin a new project and use it religiously.
  • No tabs. NO tabs! NO TABS EVER NEVER NOT EVEN ONCE!
  • No extra spaces between sentences or at the ends of paragraphs.
  • No extra paragraph returns (if you have a scene break, indicate it with the pound sign or three asterisks). Do not use paragraph returns to drop your chapter heads to the middle of the page or to create a page break.
  • No page breaks–of any kind.
  • No centering text–not chapter heads, titles, poetry, nothing (easy way to track chapter breaks, use all caps CHAPTER ONE or bolding)
  • No special characters. Use “typewriter” characters such as two dashes to indicate an em dash and a slash mark for fractions. Avoid super- and subscript characters. If your text contains foreign characters, Anglicize the spelling and track the usages so the special characters can be inserted when the file is formatted for whatever purpose.
  • Even in Word, italics, bolding and underlining don’t seem to screw up a source file. Those are safe.

I’ve had people tell me, “But I need page breaks or nobody will know how many pages there are!” Nobody will be able to tell anyway unless you intend to print out the file on 8.5 x 11 20# bond. And then I’ve been told the writer knows how they want the document to look, so it’s okay. Trouble is, they know how it looks on their screen and how it looks coming out of their printer. They do not know how it looks on an iPad or iPhone or Android or Nook or Kindle or an agent’s Mac (you use a PC) or vice versa. Trouble is, every bit of formatting they do adds code to their file and that code can be misinterpreted or corrupted by another device. If you hire someone to create an ebook, they will look at your wonderful page arrangements, and tack on extra charges to the estimate because the first thing they have to do is get rid of everything you’ve done.

It takes some conscious thought to break old manuscript habits. You can get used to it. Just keep repeating: Source File, Source File, Source File…

Producing A Kindle Ebook: Design Choices

When Lawrence Block told me he had written a brand new short story about Martin H. Ehrengraf (The Ehrengraf Settlement) and he wanted to produce a collection with all eleven Ehrengraf stories, I was excited. Not just because there is a new story, but because I had ideas.

Here’s the thing. Lawrence Block is an important writer. No matter the format in which his writing is featured–hard cover, paperback, magazine, ebook–the medium should reflect the quality of the writing. I’ve called the Kindle ebooks print books’ “ugly cousins” because of the gray scale screen, uniform page layout, limited typography and the producer’s inability to control the amount of text readers see on the screen. In an earlier post I mulled over why readers seem to be reading differently on the Kindle and in another why some people don’t think of ebooks as “actual” books. Because of that mulling and thanks to insightful readers, I began to think that maybe “ugly cousin” was wrong, but that instead we’re dealing with an “ugly duckling” and there are swans awaiting to be born.

To turn this ebook into a swan, I had two goals:

  • Reader friendly
  • Make it look worthy of the material

To make the ebook reader-friendly, I tackled it on two fronts. The first was with the source files. That required squeaky clean files with no extra spaces or hidden codes. This isn’t rocket science, but it requires paying attention to details such as uniform punctuation. I produced clean source files which I then loaded into Scrivener for formatting.

The second front was in arrangement. Mr. Block wrote these stories in order, so it made perfect sense to put them in the order they were written. Since his fans also enjoy his forewords, introductions and afterwords, it also made sense to include those in the book. Because the main character, Martin H. Ehrengraf, is enamored by poetry and often quotes it, each story has an epigraph consisting of poetry or a poetic quote. Here is where I had to make some design decisions. Do I compile the introduction, epigraph and story into a unit? Place the epigraph above or below the chapter head? I decided to split it all up. The introductions are small stories in and of themselves. The epigraphs would serve as “appetizers” giving the reader a visual rest from the story text. Plus, by setting them off, they are given weight and help to set the tone for the story to come.

This then led to another decision. How to set up the Table of Contents? The story titles and introductions were a no-brainer. But what about the epigraphs? List them as “Epigraph: Story Title” or just use the story title or how about the first line of the epigraph itself? So I asked myself, how do I find quotations when I’m looking for inspiration? Either by subject or author. Since the stories are the subject, I chose to go with the author’s name. It’s my hope that readers will be intrigued by the included names and perhaps find it useful in case they wonder, “Now what was that line from William Shakespeare?”

Now the arrangement was reader friendly. On to making the ebook look good. Make it look worthy of the material.

As anyone who’s produced a Kindle ebook knows, choices in design are limited. Typographical choices are limited, with the standards being Times New Roman (serif) or Arial (sans serif); and it’s best to limit font sizes because the conversion program can get pissy when given too many options. I went with 12 point Times New Roman–serviceable and easy to read. Because I have no control over justification or even how much text a reader opts to show on the screen, I went with consistency over attempts at fancy. I happen to think that narrow indents look better than wide indents, so I set paragraph indents at .3″. I also had to decide how to set off quoted material within the text. My first instinct was to set it off with a wider indent. The danger there is the way the Kindle justifies text and word wraps. In most of the quoted text, the lines are so short neither justification nor word wrapping was a problem, but there were a few long lines. Since I wanted consistency throughout, I went with no indents and italicized text.

When comparing it to a printed book (with kerning and a human hand fiddling with it) it’s not the same. But in an ebook, it works well because it is consistent and even if the reader increases the size of the text, there’s less chance for words to go staggering all over the page. I had tried setting off the quotations further by inserting a line before and after, but felt it set it off too much and made it look disconnected.

That was about as far as I could go with the limited layout options. So that left small details to play with.

Mr. Block used a clipboard and gavel graphic for the book covers. I used it to create the title page and story titles.

I chose AR Julian for the title font because it’s meaty and masculine, but elegant, too, and I thought it complemented the tone of the stories. Notice, too, the “running heads.” One problem I have with Kindle ebooks is I sometimes forget the title of what I’m reading. Unlike some other ereaders, Kindle doesn’t insert true running heads on the pages and there is no way for the producer to insert them. So what I did was insert a faux-running head at the top of the introductions and epigraphs, and at the beginning of each story. Because I’d put the author’s name in the story title graphics, I left-justified the story running head and left off the author name. I thought the slightly different arrangement would help to delineate the story from the introductory material.

I also made a graphic to use for the scene break indicators. I think producers should always use some kind of indicator for scene breaks because there is no way to control the amount of text on the screen and sometimes line breaks can be lost when the reader changes the page. I could have used asterisks or pound signs, but Martin H. Ehrengraf is a bit of a dandy and needed something to complement his elegant clothes and formal manner of speaking.

Notice, too, that at the beginning of each story and scene I removed the indent and bolded the first three words. I have tried faux-drop caps (made by increasing the font size by two points and bolding the letter) but there lies danger. If a reader changes the font size for readability, there is a risk of a hiccup. Bolding three words and not indenting the paragraph is a simple way to set off the text and indicate a new beginning.

I happen to enjoy back matter. I read it all. I’m sure many other readers enjoy it, too. With no concerns for paper or printing costs, there is no reason to skimp on the back matter. In this case, the author included an Afterword, information about himself and a list of titles and links. I included a photo of the author.

The author photo is in color. It looks very good, nice and clear, but I believe a black-and-white photo would have been better. Black-and-white photos, with their lighting suited for gray-scale, look great on the Kindle screen. Something for authors to keep in mind the next time they have an author photo taken.

Overall, I think I achieved my goals. Reader Friendly and Worthy of the Material. The real question is, Does it matter? Plain formatting takes a few hours at most, depending on how clean the source file is–producing this book took me several days. Besides, it’s the stories that matter, right? As long as the stories are good, does the fiddling and tinkering and rearranging and fancy bits make any difference? You wouldn’t serve fine wine in a chipped jelly jar, right? Or serve filet mignon on a paper plate with sauce slopped around willy-nilly and few burned potatoes on the side? Presentation matters in food and it matters in literature. Limitations in Kindle ebook design notwithstanding, with care and thought, the overall reader experience can be enhanced and the stories themselves are well-served. To me it’s well worth the extra time and effort.

Mr. Block tells me he will be making the very first Ehrengraf story, The Ehrengraf Defense, FREE on Amazon for a limited time. That should happen on Thursday. If you can’t wait that long, all eleven Ehrengraf stories are available as singles, or you can find them all in one collection, Ehrengraf For The Defense. Fun to read and it looks great, too.

Ebook Formatting: Two Common Errors

A reader is enjoying your ebook, all the sudden there is a line jump. Is that a scene break? A change in point of view? It doesn’t read like that, but there’s a space in the text. It must mean something, right?

Reader reaches the end of a chapter or the end of a short story, turns the page and there’s nothing. A blank screen. Hoping she didn’t get a defective copy or that the author hasn’t pulled a dirty trick, she turns the page again. Whew. The text continues.

In both cases, a simple formatting error occurred. It’s no big deal. The text is fine, the story continues. The real problem is that, in both cases, the reader is momentarily jerked out of the story. Maybe they were booted for only a second or two. Do that often enough and mild annoyance can turn into major annoyance. Instead of the four or five star review your story merited, the reader instead leaves a two or three star review, or none at all. Instead of remembering how wonderful your prose was, the reader thinks, Amateur, and puts you from mind. Maybe the reader feels he’s done enough by getting through the strange jumps and blank pages and doesn’t bother looking for more of your work.

Here is what causes line jumps and blank pages:

You don’t even notice them in a word processing document, but extra spaces and extra hard returns can wreck your formatting in an ebook.

If you use MS Word, you can use Find and Replace to get rid of all the extra spaces.

  • Turn on the Show/Hide feature. It looks like ¶ in the tool bar. Hard returns will be shown as ¶ and spaces will show as dots.
  • To eliminate extra spaces between sentences: In the Find box hit the space bar twice and in the Replace box hit the space bar once. Do a Replace All and the double spaces will be turned into single spaces. Run the exact process again. If the message box says no items were found, you’ve eliminated the extra spaces.
  • To eliminate extra spaces at the ends of paragraphs: In the Find box type space bar^p and the Replace box ^p. Do a Replace All. Run the process again until the message box says no items were found.
  • To eliminate extra hard returns: In the Find box type ^p^p and then do a manual search (You might have necessary extra hard returns and don’t want to eliminate them). Make sure there are no extra paragraph returns before any page break.
  • To make sure your document is extra pretty, eliminate extra spaces at the beginnings of paragraphs: In the Find box type ^p space bar and in the Replace box type ^p. Do a Replace All.

Take these simple steps, and you’ll minimize the chances of jumped lines and blank pages in your ebooks.