Does Style Matter In Ebooks?

Back in my traditional publishing days it was always a big cause for celebration whenever a writer got a hardcover deal (I never got one). It was a sign that the writer was moving up, that the publishers took her more seriously, and that the book itself was important. Bigger price tag, more room on the shelf, and readers who not only read, but collected. It was a Big Deal.

Or was it? Words is words and stories is stories whether they are bound in cardboard or paper. Right? What real difference does it make when a mass market paperback reads the same as a hardcover?

I don’t know about the rest of you, but it is a Big Deal. There is an aesthetic beauty to a well made hardcover book. From the binding itself, to its weightiness, to the extra care taken in typography and layout. It is that “experience” I’ve talked about before. How the look and “feel” of a book can affect how readers experience the text.

You can make a strong argument for “words is words” and the format doesn’t matter. But it’s not an argument that works with me. For instance, I’ve produced a lot of manuscripts. I have read a lot of manuscripts from others. When I am reading a manuscript it makes no difference how good the story is, the reading experience is Work. My inner editor flips to ON and there is no way to turn it off. If I want to read for pleasure, which means getting sucked into the story-world and engaged with the characters, I want a book–in some form–and not a manuscript.

I’m strongly affected by how my ebooks look, too. While getting this post ready I searched through my Kindle for examples and realized I have very few poorly formatted ebooks and not many serviceable-but-plain ebooks either. It’s because I download samples before I buy. If the sample doesn’t appeal to me visually, I probably won’t buy the book. Here’s one I did buy because I happen to like the author’s stories very much, but I absolutely hate the formatting.

This is "page" one.

This is “page” one.

The problem with this format is that the start of the book looks exactly the same as the rest of the book. Every time I Go To the beginning, this is where I land, then it’s swipe, swipe, click click, trying to figure out where the real beginning is. Even though I enjoyed the story, the lack of visual clues and the text-only formatting bugged me.

Contrast that sample with this one:

begin4Any questions that this is the beginning? Turns out this ebook is actually ‘broken’ so I was forced to read it in ugly font and couldn’t change the line spacing, but despite that the formatter made a real effort to make the book look interesting.

The next example is from an ebook that truly did it right, on every level.

begin3It works properly, the headers tell a story by themselves, and the formatter used some interesting techniques throughout which I’ve been busily trying to figure out how to do.

Contrast that with an example from a sample that I did not buy.

begin5Not only is this ebook badly broken–none of the user features work–but the layout looks exactly like a manuscript. In fact, I suspect the person who formatted this mess took a Word document with manuscript formatting and ran it through MobiPocket.

My mother was never one for good advice, but one thing she said stuck: “Nobody is going to care more about you than you care about yourself.” That applies to books, too–print or digital.

Go back to hardcover versus mass market paperback. The format proclaimed the hardcover as the better book. The more important book. Readers might not articulate it, or even consciously realize it, but they trust the hardcover more. The fact that a publisher cared enough about the book to produce it as a hardcover automatically made it ‘better.” This is perception, not reality. We are talking about taste where perception matters very much and reality takes a back seat.

One reality, reading devices are getting better. I’ve started using color in my formats. Why? Because it’s fun and it’s visually interesting and because it makes the books look fabulous on a tablet.

begin1Because I’m too much of a derp de derp to figure out how to take screenshots off my Kindle Fire, you’ll have to take my word for it. The above example has a hot pink header. It looks fabulous on the Fire.

Now, does your ebook have to be all fancy pants, tarted up like it’s heading to the hottest club in town? Of course not. Different styles for different books. Take a look at the following example. Simple, elegant, but serious to match the tone of the book.

begin6As reading devices improve, readers will grow increasingly demanding about the quality of ebooks. Not only will they expect (and they should!) that the ebooks work properly on their devices, but they’ll start expecting the ebooks to look better, too.

Writers need to ask themselves: Do they want their work perceived as a “cheapie throwaway” or is it “hardcover worthy?” The more YOU care, the more others will care in response.

What about the rest of you? How much does style matter to you?


Should You Tell A Writer His Baby’s Ugly?

I’ve been a writer a lot longer than I’ve been an ebook producer. As a writer I have learned that the vast majority of writers do NOT take criticism well. “What do you think of my story?” is a dangerously loaded question. Enemies are made and grudges are born as the result of answering truthfully.

Ebooks are different. Granted, design choices are a matter of preference and taste. For instance, Andrew Vachss’s Strega. His publisher used an unusual device for the first lines in the chapters.

I don’t care for it. When I showed it to my husband and my son, they thought it looked slick and distinctive. It is a matter of taste.

Sometimes the formatting is actually messed up. Ebooks don’t render properly on various devices. I have several that look fine on my eink readers, but on the Fire the font “locks” in Helvetica and can’t be user-customized. Making a book that renders properly on every device is a big challenge and one I’ve faced (it’s what led me to learn html so I could make stable ebooks). It doesn’t make the ebook unreadable, but it has a definite effect on the reader experience.

Occasionally the formatting is so bad the ebook is unreadable.

That one I didn’t purchase. The description makes it sound interesting and the writer sounds interesting, but the formatting is so horrendous, I gave it a pass.

Sometimes the formatting is awful, but not so awful as to make the book unreadable. If the writer is good enough and the story is compelling enough, I can grit my teeth and ignore the layout.

This example looks like a manuscript. It has blank screens throughout. And the author used “typewriter” punctuation. I adored the story and the writing style, but still gritted my teeth. The few typos I encountered leapt off the page like crickets down the front of my shirt. I couldn’t ignore them.

Sometimes the formatting is just plain sloppy. The following example is from a publisher.

The publisher scanned print copy then didn’t bother to properly clean up the OCR rendering. It’s inexcusable, not to mention horribly disrespectful to the writers in this anthology and to the readers. It’s offensive. Unfortunately I see this kind of haphazard garbage in a lot of anthologies. The publisher takes the stories as is, makes no attempt at consistency in style or proper formatting, and slaps together a mess.

In other cases, the writer doesn’t know what he’s doing formatting-wise and uses Word to create the ebook file, ending up with something like this:

It’s not unreadable, but it’s ugly and looks unprofessional. If the quality of writing and story-telling are borderline, chances are it won’t be purchased in the first place or end up in the DNF pile because it’s too much of a chore to ignore how ugly it is.

There is a definite learning curve involved with formatting ebooks. The more I learn, the trickier it seems. I’m not formatting just one ebook every six months or so. I’m formatting several a week, gathering knowledge as I go, and when I run into problems, I’m motivated to figure out the whys and wherefores. My goal is to make ebooks that render well across any device, look professional and make a pleasurable reading experience. The goal of many Do-It-Yourselfers is just to make something cheaply and get published. I suspect some of them do not have ereaders and have no idea what their ebook actually looks like.

I screw up and make mistakes. Several times I’ve had people email me and point out the mistakes. Or comment on this blog to let me know where my techniques can lead to trouble or help me figure out problems or at least point me in the right direction. I’ve made some friends that way. Gained valuable resources. It doesn’t bother me at all. I welcome feedback. I welcome all tips and tricks and questions and comments and “What about if you tried…” suggestions. That’s because I’m committed (or should be committed).

Writers have made me gun shy about offering unsolicited criticisms. I have contacted a few writers to let them know their ebooks have problems. But carefully. With extreme caution. Those I have worked up the nerve to contact have been mostly receptive. Some have ignored me. Others have fixed the problems. Sometimes emails fly back and forth as we troubleshoot to figure out where things went wrong.

But for every writer I’ve contacted, there have been twenty I haven’t–even though I really, really wanted to. It’s the grudges and hatred thing. Which is kind of silly, no? I mean we’re not talking about opinion here. We’re not talking about tastes and preferences. Mistakes are mistakes. And some of those mistakes can seriously hurt the writer. Piss-poor formatting can kill sales. It can cause readers to demand a refund. It can affect every writer in a publisher’s catalog (there are several traditional publishers I will not buy ebooks from, no matter who the writer is, because I know the ebooks are poorly produced and not worth the price). It can affect future sales. I might suffer through one sorry looking book, but I’m not suffering through more of the same by the same writer/publisher.

So what do you think? What would you think or feel if some stranger came out of nowhere and said your ebook is ugly or unprofessional or unreadable? Would you be offended? Would you blow her off as a hater who dares to criticize? Would you be grateful? Would you attempt to fix the problem?

This inquiring mind really wants to know.