Using Sigil as a Proofreading Tool for Ebooks

Proof Blog 2Indulge me a moment… A few months ago I wrote a story. To my regular readers this is no big deal–you write stories in mass quantities and many of you earn your livings doing so, so ho-hum, am I right? But, for reasons I won’t bore you with, it was a big deal to me. I let my friend Julia Barrett read it and she liked it. Then Julia decided to put together an anthology of romance stories with a foodie theme. Knowing how much I like foodie stories (I call it food porn–yum!) she asked me to write a story for the anthology. To which I said, “I don’t write romances any more, so wouldn’t know where to start.” And no sooner had I hit SEND on the email, then I got an IDEA. Punchline: I wrote a foodie romance and Julia included it in the anthology. Heh.

My main job with the anthology was producing the ebook. Producing an anthology, even a large one, is not that much different than doing a novel. Consistency and file size control are the biggest issues. I’ve discussed the importance of those before, so won’t bore you with a repeat.

I WILL bore you with the necessity of proofreading ebooks. With this anthology, each writer was responsible for proofreading her own story. That meant I had to provide the ebook and a markup document to each of them.

Proofreading is a Big Deal to me, not because I particularly enjoy proofreading, but because I’m a heavy reader. Nothing irritates me more than realizing the publisher skipped proofreading. I can’t tolerate slobs. When I get a new client, I always encourage proofreading. Sometimes I even do it myself. Because it’s so important to me, I’m always looking for ways to make proofreading easier for the writers I work with.

Proofreading an ebook is not brain surgery or even rocket science. (ooh! Bunny trail–Have you read Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN? Engineer porn–yum.) When I proofread an ebook, I load the ebook on my Kindle and go through it word by word. If I discover a mistake, I make the correction in the html file. Because I do so much of this work it’s easy for me.

It’s not so easy for many of the writers I work with. They can’t make corrections in the ebook itself, and the fact that it looks so different from their original document just throws them. Last year I had a writer who just could not make the mental leap between the markup doc and the ebook, so painstakingly went through the markup document and meticulously styled it to make it look like the ebook. Hurt my head AND my heart. The worst part is, when a writer is that distracted by how something looks, it’s easy for them to miss important things like typos and misplaced punctuation which is the whole point of proofreading in the first place.

Then I made an interesting discovery. There is a program called Sigil. It’s an epub editor. It has some features I find useful, namely being able to root out html goofs quickly and easily. I discovered that if I copy/paste the text into a Word doc, Word will do its best to retain the formatting.

Proof Blog 1The translation isn’t perfect. Images and fonts don’t transfer and Word has a problem with italics (tends to squish them) but overall this creates a pretty close approximation to what the ebook looks like. Real benefit is, the text AND layout are exactly the same. For writer/publishers who are not comfortable with proofreading on a device or with an online previewer such as Calibre or the Kindle Previewer, they can proofread the Word doc (turn on Track Changes and go to town). If they have a concern about the formatting, they can look at the actual ebook. The Word doc can be printed (for those who prefer proofreading with red pencil in hand). For those who hire out proofreading, they can check the styling and formatting in the ebook themselves, then send the Word doc to the proofreader.

How difficult is Sigil? Not very. It has a learning curve, but for this purpose, all you have to do is open your epub in the program then put it in book view. Copy/Paste the sections/chapters into a Word doc and that’s it. You have a markup document that closely resembles your actual ebook. Given that Sigil is a free program, it doesn’t cost you any cash to give it a try.

For those doing anthologies or box sets with multiple writers, it’s a quick and easy way to make individual-specific markup docs for each writer.

What about the rest of the you? Any tips or tricks for making proofreading ebooks easier and/or more efficient?


An Admonition for Self-Publishers. Ahem…

I’m reading a self-pubbed novel purely for enjoyment (majority of my reading these days is because of work). I want to read it because it is my mostest, favoritest type of fiction, plus the writer is from a place I love to read about. I am motivated.

The writer is making it very hard.

  1. The Kindle book is broken. It’s not a bad break. The user control for line spacing doesn’t work. Problem is (for me) I do most of my pleasure reading late at night. My eyes are tired. I need extra white space on the page.
  2. The styling makes it look like a manuscript, which makes it ugly, which makes me pay even more attention to problem #3.
  3. Lack of proper proofreading. Not that this book is the worst example I’ve seen, but combined with the manuscript-look, every error I stumble across irks me and takes me out of the story.

I will finish this novel. Unfortunately, for the writer, I doubt I will try another of his ebooks.

So, self-publishers, pay attention. This is VERY important. Your writing deserves respect. Start to finish. You write the best you can. You get the best editorial help you can manage. You package the product as best you can. Even if you are on a very tight budget and are doing most of the production work yourself, that’s still no excuse for sloppy work.

Priority: An ebook that works across devices.

If you are using Word to format your ebooks, download the Smashwords Style Guide by Mark Coker. It’s free. Pay close attention to the sections about using style sheets. The ebook you produce will be rather generic, with zero bells and whistles, but if you pay attention, start with a squeaky clean source file, and follow instructions, your ebook will work.

Word-users, print this out and hang it over your computer:


There are some long, involved reasons for that list. All you really need to know is that doing them will break your ebook.

When it is time to convert your ebook, do not save the document as an html file then convert it in Calibre. Please. Stop doing that. That takes all the junk Word piles on then piles on even more junk. Calibre is not the right tool. It will break your ebook.

Some tools that do work: Sigil, MobiPocket, and Kindle Previewer.

Sigil creates EPUB files. There is a learning curve, but the program is fairly intuitive and there is an excellent user guide to walk you through. Caution: Unless you have more than a passing acquaintance with html and css, do not use the EPUB files you make with Sigil to convert into MOBI files for Amazon. There are enough differences in styling that you risk creating a broken ebook.

Amazon will convert Word files when you upload a listing. If, however, you want to view and test your ebook live on a Kindle or other device before you upload, you will need MobiPocket and the Kindle Previewer, which converts your file using KindleGen. I highly recommend viewing and testing. When your Word file is finished, convert it into a prc file in MobiPocket. If there are bad errors, they’ll be caught and you can fix them. You can load the prc file onto your Kindle for live testing. Or you can run it through the KindlePreviewer to make a MOBI file. (Again, do not use Calibre. It’s fine if the ebook is just for you. If you intend to sell it, Calibre is the wrong tool.)

What if you do not have an ereader device? Online previewers are not to be trusted. Find a friend who has a Kindle or Nook and let them test the files. Ask them to toggle all the user controls on and off to see what happens. I do this for friends and friends do it for me (I don’t have a Nook or other EPUB reader). Better you or a friend catches boo-boos before a reader does.

Priority: Readability.

Avoid the “manuscript” look. The best you can hope for, appearance-wise, with a Word format is to basically make it look similar to a mass market paperback. Simple, spare, minimal ornamentation. Go take a look at your book shelves. Simple. Spare. Easy to read.

  • Use printer’s punctuation and use it consistently.
  • Manage the size of the paragraph indents (not too narrow, not too wide, avoid block paragraphs for fiction)
  • Manage your chapter beginnings and scene breaks so readers don’t get confused by what can appear to be random line jumps.
  • Let the machine do the work. Ereaders have user preference controls. Readers have preferences. Make it your goal to interfere with those as little as possible. Figure out how the devices work then format to take advantage of their best features.
  • Proofread. Did I mention your ebook needs to be proofread. I did? Well, I’ll say it again, proofread the ebook. Your pre-production line-editing should have taken care of most of the typos and word choice mistakes, but trust me, no matter how well a work is line-edited, some errors in the text will remain. PLUS, occasionally errors are introduced in the formatting process. It happens. PLUS, hiccups occur in the format itself. If I had to make a choice between paying someone to format and paying someone to proofread, I’d pay the proofreader. It is that important.

If you’re bogged down by production and don’t know what to do next, email me. If I can’t answer your question, I’ll find someone who can. Help is out there. You have to ask. You have to be willing to work on it. If you need motivation, know that there are readers–like me!–who really, really want to read your stories, but will curse the day you were born if your laziness, sloppiness, or carelessness gets in the way of our reading pleasure.




Taking Some of the Pain Out Of Proofreading Your Ebook

Okay, everybody, raise your hand and wave it wildly if you love proofreading your ebook!


Yeah, me, too. Nonetheless, proofreading your ebook is essential. By that I mean, actually opening the ebook on your Kindle or Nook or iPad or phone or magic toaster, and going over it word by word, character by character. You’re not just looking at the text. Funny things can happen during conversion. You need to find the goofs and glitches and fix them.

If you don’t have an ereader? Download Calibre onto your computer. It’s free, the display is attractive, and while it doesn’t give you the exact display you’d find on a handheld ereader, it is good enough you should be able to spot the worst problems.

When I proofread an ebook I’ve produced, I load it onto one of my Kindles, run it through its paces (make sure all the links work, and that it responds properly to all the user-interface commands, and that the navigation guide is properly displayed), then I go through the text. I pull up the actual file on my computer and make corrections as I find them. No biggie.

Where the process gets sticky is when someone else proofreads. I prefer the author proof the text. Not just because it’s time-consuming and not much fun, but because the author is the most deeply invested in their work and the final proof is their opportunity to tweak and polish. Plus, they can actually see how graphical elements look in “real time” and see if text effects look good on the screen.

You can’t mark up an ebook. Oh, you can use bookmarks and notes, but it’s ridiculously difficult transferring those to another device, especially when working with “document” as opposed to “book” files. And because such things as “percentage of book read” and “location” depend on the device and the user font and spacing preferences, those are not reliable markers either. What I’ve been doing is asking writers to type out their notes with enough text for me to search and to note which chapter or section the goof/change is in. There are inherent problems with this method. One is typos (the writer’s and mine). Another is fatigue. If you’re tired, the temptation is there to think, Ah, a backward quote mark doesn’t really matter, or What difference does this not-quite right word make?

I stumbled onto a method with a book that required two proofreaders. The key is Square Brackets.

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In the books I produce, there is usually no reason to use square brackets. That makes them, for search purposes, unique characters. What I did was copy the ebook file(s) and turn them into text files. Windows and Mac users have a basic text editor included (under Accessories in Windows–mine is called Notepad). It will open a text file. So the writer opens the text file and while they are proofreading the ebook on their device or in Calibre, if they find a goof or want a change, they can mark up the file. All they have to do is enclose any changes in square brackets. It looks like this:

aProof1When the author is done, they send the entire file back to me. I open it side by side with the ebook file, search for square brackets and voila! I can see the author’s notes in “real time.” If there are text changes, I can copy the author’s exact text and paste it into the ebook file. No typos. (watch those quote marks and apostrophes–make sure you don’t accidentally use straight quotes instead of curly) Last night I keyed in the corrections from the above example. What would have been a two to three hour job using the old method, took me instead about 30 minutes. That included going back through and double-checking my work. The writer reports that after she got over her shock over how weird the text file looks, the job was much, much easier on her end, too.

What about the rest of you? Has anyone else found simpler or more effective ways for proofreading ebooks when two or more people are involved in the process?