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.

And Yet Another Post on That Pest, The Em Dash

Pardon my obsession, folks, but it’s the little things that drive me nuts. The lowly em dash, one of my favorite punctuation marks, drives me nuts in ebooks.

Kindle mobi files are lovely things. You can read them on your Kindle, Kindle Fire, computer, tablet, phone, or whatever your preferred device. The device will helpfully fit the text to your screen, and on the Kindle (don’t know about other readers) it makes a fair attempt at justifying the text. Look at the above image and see what happens when the file runs into an em dash that it believes is part of the words it connects. A monster space.

I read a lot of ebooks. Improper formatting can hurt you, the self-publisher. Oh sure, the weird spacing, font size jumps, orphaned punctuation, blank pages and other little irritants are only that, irritants. It’s not often I run into something that makes the text unreadable–it has happened, though. Sometimes I have to just grit my teeth and ignore the errors. Sometimes the formatting errors are so bad I will refuse to purchase from that particular publisher (or writer) again.

Now that I am learning how to format ebooks those little details obsess me. Then, I began to notice something. The majority of orphaned punctuation and monster spaces were showing up in some ebooks, but not in others. The problem is most prevalent in reissued back list titles. Ah ha, I thought, OCR–Optical Character Recognition. Publishers were scanning printed books and converting them to ebook files. That’s all well and good, except OCR files have to be proofread with extreme care because the print doesn’t always translate properly. Plus, OCR reads


as one word. Thus the ereader treats it as one word, too, so if it comes at the end of a line, you end up with a monster space. In order to prevent that, the formatter needs to go in and manually insert a “No-Width Optional Break.”

So, that led to me experimenting with Word to see how it handles the em dash.

In the version of Word I use (Word 2000), you will notice that Word has decided that between the first word and the em dash there is a No-Width Non-Break, meaning the first word and the em are forever joined. Between the em dash and the second word there is a No-Width Optional Break. There is no space between the em dash and the words it connects, but when it comes time to wrap to fit the screen, the break occurs and thus, there is no monster space.

happy– unhappy <–How Word actually sees the em dash

This is also quite elegant because it never allows the em dash to occur at the beginning of the line (which is nitpicky, but I’m a nitpicky person who believes punctuation should always be presented in context). Problem solved, right? Not right. Look at my poor little orphan quote mark. Word treats the quote mark as a word so the No-Width Optional Break rule is applied.

If I were a techno-geeky kind of person, I could fix that. I’m not. My version of Word does not allow me to insert No-Width Optional Breaks or Non-Breaks. Since this is standard formatting language, you can find out if your word processor or Word version allows you to manually insert those commands. Find SPECIAL CHARACTERS (in Word it is under INSERT and then SYMBOL. It will open a box that will let you find SPECIAL CHARACTERS. If there is a shortcut code (Ctrl + Whatever + Whatever) next to the special character, you can insert the code. If not, your version doesn’t support it). I’m pretty sure there are updates or special files that can be downloaded to allow for the characters.

Moving on… Since I’m using Scrivener to format mobi files, I wanted to see how the program handles em dashes.

Scrivener inserts the No-Width Optional Break before and after the em dash. That’s not wonderful. It’s not nearly as bad as the monster space, but an em dash at the beginning of a sentence is out of context. Not much, only a smidge, but it’s enough to give sensitive readers a slight pause as they figure out the meaning of the punctuation. And because of that, if the em dash is at the end of a piece of dialogue next to a quote mark, you end up with an orphan.

So I went looking in Scrivener’s CHARACTER MAP. This is what I found.

Those little blank boxes are actually codes. You select one, copy it and then paste it into the text where you want. If you’ll look at the Scrivener text image at the bottom you will see that by using the Narrow No-Break Space I hooked up the “else” with the em dash and quote mark. No orphan. This means I can go through the manuscript with the Search function and customize the em dashes. This requires patience and attention to detail. This code does NOT show up on the screen. Your text will look the same with or without the inserted code.

Also, Scrivener sort of freaked me out by inserting a paragraph return along with the code, which makes no sense, but then that’s why I’m NOT getting the big bucks. I just backspaced and it worked fine.

So, what I have learned so far.

  • If you are using an OCR file, you need to go in and manually insert either Optional Breaks or Non-Breaks between the em dashes and the words they are connected to.
  • Test whatever program you are using to see how it handles breaks. If the default set-up is screwing up your formatting, you need to manually insert Optional Breaks and Non-Breaks. Watch out for orphans.

Is this important? I vote yes.


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.