Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Do It Like a Pro

by R.C. Lewis

I have a confession. I’m a little bit of a perfectionist. Just a little. As busy as it keeps me in my own life, it also has a side-effect of making me picky about some things.

Such as eBooks.

My mother owns a Nook (e-ink), my father owns an iPad, and I have an iPhone. I’ve perused a number of eBooks on all three, both Big-6 and indie, using a variety of apps on the Apple devices. I haven’t e-published anything myself yet, but I’ve played with the file formatting process, educating myself in case I decide to go that route.

"But it’s easy!" I hear you say. A few tweaks to your Word file, upload it to Kindle Direct Publishing and/or Smashwords, and conversion to eBook happens like magic.

Well, sometimes.

And sometimes the magic malfunctions.

With many writers new to the world of eBooks, they often think their DIY product looks just as good as the latest eBook from a major publisher, but does it really?

Here’s R.C.’s personal list of formatting red flags. (And when they show up in “pro” eBooks, I’m really annoyed.)

  • No Linked Table of Contents. Yes, I know, they’re not required. But why would you not utilize one of the most basic advantages of digital literature? When I bring up the ToC, I should see either chapter numbers or the full chapter title.
  • Incorrect Justification. Text should be full justified (lining up on both the right and left edges) with hyphenation to avoid the odd case of one longish word spread out to fill a whole line. This is especially important when reading on a smartphone, and annoying when not done properly. Apparently, some people prefer the ragged-right-edge look—I'm not one of them. Most e-reading apps let the reader choose (which can lead to some other issues), but if there's a "publisher default" option, I prefer that to show up justified.*
  • Missing/Inconsistent Indentation. Paragraphs should be consistently indented. I can live with block paragraph formatting, which is how this blog post is set up—no indentation, and extra space between each paragraph. I have seen eBooks (for which people charge money) with a few paragraphs indented, but many others missing the indent and no space to denote a new paragraph. The only clue that a new paragraph has started is the fact that the last line may have ended a little early (which is hard to spot if the book is left-aligned). Very difficult to read.
  • No Chapter Breaks. Each chapter should start on a new screen regardless of my chosen text size. You’re not saving paper by starting the chapter a “page” earlier. Some may not think this is important, but when I get the chapter heading sitting at the bottom of the page, I don't like it.
  • Weird Margins. This one’s more rare, and I’m not sure what the author/publisher is doing wrong to make it happen, but I’ve occasionally seen eBooks with very wide left/right margins. Again, when reading on a smartphone, this is particularly maddening.

Can you avoid these red flags on your own? It’s been done. There are innumerable forum and blog posts containing tips for formatting your Word document just right to get perfect conversion from sites like KDP and Smashwords.

Alas, my perfectionism has spawned my inner control-freak. If I’m going to DIY, I like the idea of doing as much of it directly as I can, rather than trusting so much of the conversion to happen outside my control. The powers-that-be over at AgentQuery Connect have been experimenting on that end and have developed this helpful guide for getting a file ready for Kindle. They've also got a matching fancy-pants guide for making an ePub file. (I don't think they agree with me about the chapter breaks. Maybe not justification, either. We'll see if they forgive me.)

For my own experiments, I’ve used Apple’s Pages word processor, which will export to ePub format. After a simple tweak to insert my cover image (rather than pasting the image onto the first page of the document), it looked great on both the e-ink Nook and the iBooks app on the Apple devices. (Oh, speaking of covers, I'll get to that in a minute.) I used a free program called Calibre to convert to .mobi format for Kindle readability—a Kindle-owning friend was kind enough to check how it looks on the actual device, and it seems pretty solid. I plan to do some more careful checking of that soon.

* Here's the promised note. I've made four ePub files that I read on my iPhone. Used the exact same style settings and process for all four. With my iPhone full justification setting turned off and auto-hyphenation on, two show up with full justification (as I told it to do in Pages), and two don't, with the exception of a few random paragraphs. After digging into the gnarly code (ePubs are little more than a zipped group of HTML files), I found the difference and had some fun with find-and-replace to clean it up. Still not sure how the inconsistencies crept in there from the Pages file.

I’m sure there are a number of ways to get it done, some requiring more technical expertise than others. The important thing is that your method delivers high-quality results.

Now, a quick word on covers. Remember, on search result screens, your cover image won’t be any bigger than most postage stamps, but the title (and hopefully your name) should still be somewhat legible. On a main product page, the image will be larger, so it should also look good under that level of scrutiny. On many e-ink readers, the cover image will be displayed grayscale; you need to have enough contrast.

Don’t use artwork/images/fonts you don’t have the rights to use.

If anyone could mistake your cover for an elementary student’s very first assignment using Photoshop, consider professional help. It’s the first impression potential readers will have of your book. Don’t make it a turn-off.

Do you have any pet-peeves regarding eBook formatting? Any tips for getting it done right (and at what level of techno-prowess)?


Richard said...

I think you learned a few things from my mistakes. Great post. People thinking about epubbing need to know this stuff in advance and save themselves a lot of extra work.

petemorin said...

I'm about to dive into the experiment with a shortie in Kindle and Smash, so this is timely. I also got Calibre downloaded to my lap - but I'm gonna have to wrestle with uploading the cover correctly, I fear.

Mindy McGinnis said...

Excellent post RC! Great tips from someone who knows what they're doing. And if I'm going to take someone's advice, I'd prefer it come from a perfectionist :)

R.C. Lewis said...

Indeed I did, Richard, so thanks for the education. :)

Pete, Smash seems to be the trickier of the two--the more homework you do on it, the better. When you put something into a "meat-grinder" you're going to get hamburger, not steak, so make sure you put in the best "meat" possible in the first place.

And thanks, Mindy. These quirks of mine have to be good for *something*, right?

Paul Dillon said...

Very useful post. So far I've been saving word docs as HTML and uploading to Kindle or using Stanza to upload to iPhone. Both these methods work well for reading your own stuff - the TOC, justification, indenting etc is fine but probably won't cut it for a retail ebook.

Jemi Fraser said...

I'm really not good with code & other scary things along those lines. So glad I have you and AQ to go to for advice if the time ever comes!! :)

Leslie Rose said...

Thank you for a great starting place to get e-educated. Learning these conversions will be my "what I did on my summer vacation," project.

R.C. Lewis said...

That's what I'm here for, Jemi--your friendly neighborhood geek. :-D

Leslie, it does take a little digging and experimenting (with the occasional question to a friendly geek if needed), but when you get a really clean final product, it's a nice feeling.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I am going to upload a short kid book for nook. I have been looking at all the how tos. I am confused and have to get it right. I am saving the text as .rtf and the drawings as JPEG. I have Sigil to use and from what I read, I can see what the book will look like online.
I went through numerous tantrums when I got another kid book ready fro printing.
I have this thing that the book has to look right.
Strayer from Autho

R.C. Lewis said...

Hi, Strayer! I can only imagine how much more difficult it would be to put together an e-book with illustrations. Best of luck with it. :)

Julie Musil said...

I'm reading this post waaaaay late, but it's timely for me. Thanks!