Making Your Own ARC (advance reading copy)

Confession time: I suck at self-promotion.

Even sticking those book covers on my own blog makes me feel weird. Buy my book? (my neuroses are screaming!)

I’m not anti-self-promotion. In fact, in the last six months or so I’d say that just about every one of the books I’ve purchased has been a result of the self-promotional efforts of others. And if I read a book I really like, I will tweet it, talk about it, shove it into peoples’ hands. But talk about my own writing? Ah geez, let’s not go there…

Here is what I am good at. Somebody sez, “Hey, Jaye, do you think you can…?” If the idea intrigues me, I will figure out how to do it. (Then I won’t shut up about it. Heh.)

I just finished building an ARC for Lawrence Block’s soon-to-be released Hit Me, a Keller novel. I’d never made an ARC before, but I’m quite familiar with them. Back in the Dark Ages (the 1990s) I called them “green books.” Publishers would wrap galley proofs in plain covers (often institutional green and stamped NOT FOR RESALE) and send them out to reviewers and anyone else who might help promote the book. I have no idea how many publishers provide actual bound, printed ARCs these days. It’s very expensive. Even if an indie publisher is using print-on-demand, the cost of mailing out printed copies could eat up all the profits. The thing is, ARCs work. The big publishers knew it back in the old days and indie publishers know it now. So I’m not telling anybody anything new when I claim ARCs are a valuable tool.

What may be new is that some of you might not realize that you can make your own professional-looking, easily accessible ARCs. It doesn’t have to cost you anything except time and paying attention to details.

Professional looking is important. Very important. The reviewers on your list get a lot of submissions and have to pick and choose which books to read and review. That decision might come down to picking a book based on presentation. Yours might be the next Great American Novel, but if it looks amateurish or painful-on-the-eyes to read it might be passed over.

Also important is accessibility. The biggest trouble with any kind of electronic submission is you’re never quite sure what kind of device your writing will be read on. A Kindle, Nook, iPad, smart phone, tablet, computer–what? I suppose you could send an email to your list and ask people what their preferred reading format/platform is and then customize your submissions. Or send a .doc or .docx file and hope for the best.

Or make it very easy on yourself and your intended readers by creating a pdf file. For those who don’t know, the acronym stands for “Portable Document Format.” The keyword here is “Portable.” Even if you’ve never made a pdf file, I know you’ve read them. You’ve probably read them on not just your computer, but on your ereader, smart phone, iPad, tablet or magic toaster oven. What you may not know is that many word processing/desktop publishing programs can generate a pdf file. If your particular word processor doesn’t have that capability, you can use Adobe Acrobat Reader (free download) to generate a pdf. The true beauty of the pdf is that every reviewer on your emailing list will be able to access and read your file.

Here’s how the ARC looks when I ran it through MobiPocket and downloaded it onto my Kindle:

Looks nice, eh?

I used Scrivener to build and generate the pdf file for this ARC. Scrivener is NOT a desktop publishing program, so it’s not the first choice if one were laying out a for-print book. It does, however, make excellent pdf files and is user-friendly.

Some tips for making your ARC:

  • Clean Source File. I keep hammering home the necessity of creating clean source files. If you have a clean source file, all you need to do is copy it and paste it into the program of choice and you are ready to format.
  • Turn on the “show hidden characters” feature. You want to track what you are doing so as to maintain consistency throughout. (In many programs the “Show” feature is usually in the main menu bar and is indicated by an icon with a pilcrow–paragraph mark. If you are using Scrivener, go to FORMAT >OPTIONS >SHOW INVISIBLES)
  • Wide margins, large font. Your goal is not to be all fancy-pants, it’s to make your ARC attractive and easy to read. Since paper-printing costs aren’t part of the equation, take advantage of it. Don’t annoy reviewers with a teeny-tiny font and pinstripe margins.
  • Use “printer’s” punctuation. Make sure you use proper em and en dashes, joined ellipses, right and left single and double quote marks (as opposed to straight quotes), and special characters with grave and acute marks or umlauts as necessary. This detail alone will elevate your ARC above the crowd.

That’s pretty much it. Pay attention to details and put in the time, and you’ve just made one of the best promotional tools any writer can ask for.



Easy Peasy, Make A Simple Index For Your Ebook

One of my earliest efforts at making ebooks was Ehrengraf for the Defense, Lawrence Block’s collection of Martin H. Ehrengraf short stories. It’s also the ebook that set me on the path to learning html. I built the original ebook in Scrivener. While it turned out great and I was very proud of it, it encountered a rather nasty bug that affected older Kindles. It makes the font teeny-tiny and forces users to greatly increase the size of the font in order to read it. It’s not a fatal bug, but a bug nonetheless.**

So ta-da! Ehrengraf for the Defense, New and Improved!

As long as I was rebuilding the file in html, I decided to stick a little something extra in it. Martin Ehrengraf loves poetry and often quotes it. Each of the eleven stories is preceded by a snippet of poetry, too. In the older version I put the poem snippets and poets in the table of contents. In this version I decided it would be tidier to make an index.

Basically, it’s a table of contents. Click on an entry and it takes the user to the quoted poetry.

The only difference between this and a table of contents is that a ToC is listed in order and this index is alphabetized. I also included a few double-entries for the instances of multiple poems by the same poet.

One important thing for Kindle formats (and thank you Paul Salvette for the head’s up about this) is to make sure you use the “div id=” tag as opposed to “a name=” tag. I enclosed the entire quote with “div” and “/div”. This ensures that when the user clicks through to a poem it doesn’t blow out my formatting. What it looks like is this (with extra spaces to keep from triggering wordpress’s helpfulness):

< div id=”parker” >”Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses”
–Dorothy Parker< /div >

Then the index entry would look like:

< a href=”#parker” >Dorothy Parker< /a >

This is very easy to do. The most difficult part is finding and keeping track of the entries. Because I used a special class for the poetry quotes, I did a search for the class name then used my analog word processor (a pencil and notebook) to list items as I found them. A quick task with so few entries. For something more complicated, such as a glossary of terms, I’d have the author tag the terms or passages to be indexed in the source file (by bolding the text, perhaps) then search for the bolding (or other tag) throughout the file, ID the entries, then copy/paste the items with their identifiers into a program that lets me automatically alphabetize the entries. That way I could double-check to make sure each identifier is unique  and make sure the entire list is properly alphabetized.


** Scrivener users. The Kindle bug that makes tiny fonts in older devices is triggered if you use fonts smaller than the default. Make sure your font default size is 12pt throughout the entire file. It doesn’t appear to make any difference if you increase the font size for headers or whatever. Also, when you compile your file for Amazon do NOT compile a Word file. Amazon will allow you to upload a Word file and will convert it with seemingly no problems, but it can cause the font to “lock” and not allow the user to control their font preferences. Compile your files into mobi files. This means you will have to download KindleGen into your computer, but it’s free and easy and it will ensure that your ebook renders properly on various Kindle devices.

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 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>

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)

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 Resources

There has been a lot of interest in my posts on ebook formatting. So rather than make people wade through the entire blog, I put all the links on one page. You can find it in the header under Ebook Formatting Resources or click here.

I’ve linked all my posts on the subject, plus added links to useful sites and resources for the DIY indie. I’ll continue to update the page as I learn new tricks or find useful new blogs and websites.

Ebook Formatting: Lest They Forget

So, last night daughter-in-law showed me what an ebook looks like on an iPad (I had never played with an iPad before). I suffered a moment of pure, unmitigated envy. The pages were set up to look like printed book pages–including the author’s name and the book title on opposing pages.

I want my Kindle to do that.

You can’t format a header into an ebook. That would really mess things up. The technology is in place for automatic headers, though. When I first open an ebook, the bar across the top shows the book title and author name. As I page into the book, the bar disappears. I wish it wouldn’t because I am terrible with remembering names and titles. I’m not the only one.

My problem is not around the details of the story line specifically, but the name of both the author and the ebook itself, both of which I find I always forget by the time I have read about 10 pages or thereabouts.  I am pretty sure that this is caused by the fact that one misses the reinforcing clues of seeing the cover of any paper book you read every time you pick it up and start reading it.  With an ereader, once you are past the title page, you no longer see the title or author’s name ever again while reading the ebook – Thus unless it is a particular favourite book of yours, there goes the title and writer’s name…

That’s from eBookAnoid in his blog post titled, Do You Remember the Name of the Ebook You Just Finished Reading?

Is this a huge problem? An earth-shattering problem? No, not really. I know it annoys me when I’m reading and realize I have forgotten completely the author name and title, then have to GO TO the beginning or toggle HOME so I can see it on the main screen.

In the reformat I did for Marina Bridge’s Pickers & Pickled Punks, I tried something new:

This is a collection of four short stories. On the title page for each story I inserted a mini-header with the book title and author’s name. (10 pt font, centered) Here’s how it looks on the Kindle.

It’s not nearly as good as having the author and title on every page or every other page, but it’s something. This method would also work on a novel by putting a header at the start of each chapter.

But, here lies danger. Conversion programs such as MobiPocket and Smashword’s Meat Grinder now automatically generate tables of content. This is a good thing since getting the links right can be a pain in the butt. The programs want to use the first line of text on the page after a page break to insert the link in the ToC. With Scrivener this is no problem. I break each chapter/story/section into a file and give the file a name. Scrivener’s ebook generator uses those file names to create the ToC.

Notice how in the ToC I tagged the recipes with “Recipe:” to make them easy to find. In the book itself, I omitted the “Recipe:” and just went with the title.

I haven’t figured out yet how to do this in MS Word. If I were to insert running title/author heads, the conversion program would pick that up for the ToC. I tried doing a manual ToC with links, and that appeared just fine, but then the conversion program generated one, too. Which was very confusing and none too neat, or nifty.

I think it’s worthwhile to figure this out. Discoverability and name recognition are important to indie writers. Every chance we have of locking our names in the readers’ minds has to be a good thing.

Ebook Formatting: Title & Copyright Pages

I’ve had some people ask how I managed the fancy title page and chapter heads in the ebook I made for Beauty and the Feast. Someone also asked about the copyright page. So, two birds with one stone, so to speak. Here’s what I did using Scrivener and

This title page is for a reformat I’m doing on the very first ebook I ever attempted (I’ve learned so much):

To make the title, I created a simple graphic in I sized the canvas at 3″ by 4″ so it makes a nice fill on the Kindle screen. I did a transparent background so the words appear to float. On the page itself I added a small header. That’s because Scrivener gets ouchy when it converts. It wants text. I was accommodating. I also inserted that little header on the first page of every story. That way readers don’t “forget” what they’re reading (I do that, sometimes) and I figure it doesn’t hurt.

Next, the copyright page. I’m formatting this one for the Kindle. If you are setting up a book for Smashwords, you must include “Smashwords Edition” somewhere on the page. It’s one of their requirements.

Because this is a collection of short stories, I included the story titles after the main book title. If you are producing a story anthology with multiple authors, make sure you add their copyright notices. I lifted this setup from printed books, just to keep things neat and simple.

The rights statement and the disclaimer are both optional. My philosophy is keep them simple. I caution writers against hostile rights statements (“Copying this book will get the FBI on your ass! Don’t steal this book! You’re a pirate if you didn’t pay for it!”) If someone is going to steal, they’ll steal. Nothing you can do to stop them. You can, however, refrain from treating your buying customers like thieves.

If you want, you can copy these statements and paste them into your own ebook. They’re all purpose.

All rights are reserved to the author. No part of this ebook may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Names, character, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

If you don’t wish to use graphics for your title page, here is my suggestion:

This in MS Word. I turned on the Show/Hide feature so you can see the hard returns. I have a style sheet set up called “headers” and that automatically gives me 14 pt Times New Roman, bolded and centered. This will give you a nice, neat title page.

Not quite magic, but it works.

Scrivener and the Ebook

I heard about the Scrivener writing program last year. I followed a link to Literature and Latte, roamed the site and got interested. What finally hooked me was the promise of a new way to organize a writing project. So in January I purchased the program. (Why so long? Because I’m scared of hardware. Go ahead and laugh, the old man does. Then again he’s a mechanical genius and never worries about the damned things eating him while he sleeps. When he starts fiddling with things, I have to leave the room, freaked out about him pissing off the machines. Because I’m convinced my computer is just waiting for me to do something stupid, it takes me forever to work up the nerve to install new programs. Now you know.)

As a novelist I’m not exactly tidy. My process involves notebooks, Post-it notes, scraps of envelopes, colored pens and pencils, sketch pads, clippings, piles of reference books bristling with place markers and file folders. Rolls of butcher paper, colored Sharpies, white boards and reams of printed manuscript also play a role. Clutter is part of my process. I need to see it, need to have it where I can put my hands on it. That’s what Scrivener does. It digitizes my clutter. Instead of having it scattered on my desk top, it’s on the screen, available with a click of the mouse.

Scrivener is not a word processor. It’s a writing program. It’s not for generating printed documents, it’s for generating files. (You can use it to create printed documents, but using Scrivener to write a letter to your mom would be like using a bulldozer to dig a post hole.) It very easily and quickly generates lots of different types of files, including PDF, RTF, Word, epub and mobi (Kindle) files.

Me, being me, I got ideas. Once I got interested in self-published ebooks, I had to try it for myself. I’m always interested in how things are made. Since I read almost exclusively on my Kindle now, I see a wide range of quality in ebook production. When I see a problem, I try to figure out the source of the problem. If you’re a regular reader, you have seen my obsession with em dashes and spacing issues and ways to exploit the ereader vehicle. To me, the two biggest concerns for any ebook formatter should be: Readability and easy navigation.

There are many ebook formatters who are familiar with programming, coding and HTML. I’m not one of them. I have no idea what goes on behind the screen. Because of the limitations of MS Word and the often interesting glitches that occur when converting Word files, learning ebook production increased my vocabulary (children, cover your ears). I also had problems organizing layouts. Every change made in Word offers the program new chances to screw things up. So I was figuring out HTML and basic programming, but slowly.

Then came Scrivener. It speaks my language and doesn’t require me to memorize codes and commands. With its organizational capabilities, I saw a way to make more than a simple ebook. I could make beautiful ebooks. It took me a few tries to figure out the possibilities until I achieved something that came close to matching my vision. You can see my latest creation here.

I also discovered a few quirks and limitations. BUT, by using Word’s powerhouse Find and Replace feature to take care of spacing issues and oddball punctuation, then stripping the file in a text editor, I can produce a squeaky clean file ready for layout in Scrivener. (And yeah, I know, it’s not particularly efficient, but I can do it very quickly and it makes sense to my peculiar way of thinking.) Scrivener’s special character map is far better than Word’s, too. So while I’m proofreading it is very easy to make a little cheat sheet off to the side for any special characters needed, then a simple search and replace takes care of those. Also, Scrivener’s formatting is basic, without all the desktop publishing features of Word (full of cute little traps that can make a total mess of an ebook). Since ebook formatting (for fiction) is quite basic, too, Scrivener’s simple design is perfect. I created a template so all I have to do is break up the main file, then move sections around to get the layout I want. I can send an RTF or PDF file to the writer for their approval, and if they want things changed around, no problem at all. Minimal risk of screwing up the formatting.

Graphics are a breeze with Scrivener, too. I’m not talking about covers. I’ve tried my hand at making ebook covers, with decidedly mixed results, but that’s a whole other project I’m working on. I’m talking about such things as fancy font chapter heads, scene break indicators and illustrations. Graphics open up a whole new world of possibilities to make an ebook visually appealing. I have only dabbled in graphics thus far, but I can see the potential and have several interesting experiments in mind.

Granted, not every indie author is interested in learning how to format their ebooks. Formatting isn’t difficult at all, but there is a learning curve and a million and one little details to track. If you want to focus on the writing and hire out the production jobs, that’s fine. Formatting isn’t terribly expensive and won’t break any writer’s bank. If, however, you’re a die-hard do-it-yourselfer, but you aren’t adept at programming and coding, Scrivener is an excellent way to go.

If anyone who uses Scrivener has tips and tricks for ebook production, or would like to know exactly how I created Beauty and the Feast, leave a note in the comments. I can write another blog post.


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.