Does Quality eBook Formatting Really Matter?

Under the Dome

Under the Dome

As an Indie Author, I have become heavily involved in eBook formatting. I have spent many, many hours fretting over my eBook titles, making sure that my CSS is set up properly, making sure my Chapters start on a new eBook “page,” and pouring over my eBooks looking for anything that might have gone awry.

If you are an Indie author, I’m guessing that you too, have been there, done that.

Because I’m not (yet) a “Big-Time, NY Published Author,” I feel that I have to make sure I present my eBooks to the reader in a format that is pleasant to read, stable, and as perfect as the platform allows. I believe that ANY author should strive to offer the best formatting possible. If a reader notices or comments on the formatting of an eBook at all, chances are, you have a problem. Good, quality eBook formatting means that the formatting is “invisible” and it’s the story that stands out. Formatting problems will be noticed, and if there are many of them, they become a distraction to the reader taking the focus off the content.

I know this from experience—as both a reader and Indie author/eBook creator. I have purchased eBooks that were simply unreadable. The formatting problems were so overwhelming that I could not stay focused on the story, as I found myself trying to read around some inserted text that obviously should not have been there, or trying to follow the flow of text that ended in the middle of the line and picked up again halfway across the next line down.

Here’s the funny thing: I read many Indie published eBooks, as well as my share of Publisher-created eBooks, and in my experience, I see many of the worst formatting issues from “professional” publishers.

This seems odd to me, and brings up an eBook that I am currently reading, written by one of my favorite authors. The eBook is Stephen King’s, “Under the Dome,” published by Simon and Schuster Digital Sales, Inc (as listed on the Amazon Kindle page).

I’m a huge Stephen King fan. As I sit in my office writing this, I am 3 feet away from a bookshelf that is dedicated to this author and holds a hardcover copy of every novel and non-fiction book he has written. I had not yet read “Under the Dome,” and was looking forward to the experience. By the way, I paid $9.99 for the Kindle version of this eBook, definitely on the pricier side of what I normally buy, but hey—it’s Stephen King. And eBook pricing is a topic for another article…

Hyphenated

Hyphenated

As I began reading the eBook, I first noticed what I thought was some quirky spacing within the sentences. Then I noticed this pattern repeating itself. It appears that there was a space between words and the following punctuation marks, especially question marks and exclamation points. No biggie—it didn’t detract from my reading very much, but it did cause me to pause and wonder why this was happening. Then I ran across a hyphenated word in the middle of my eBook screen. There was no plausible explanation as to why this word was hyphenated, and there were many more of them as I progressed through the book. I also noticed in many cases it seemed like a paragraph break was missing, as dialog from different characters was  jumbled together, making it difficult to follow.

“Under the Dome,” is, by design, laid out in parts, chapters and sub-chapters. I have no problem with that, but it seems that major parts and chapters start on a new page, but the numbered sub-chapters do not, often causing a number to appear at the bottom of the screen I’m on, while the text starts on the next screen. Again, this is no biggie, and the book is readable even with the formatting issues I’ve described.

Broken Lines

Broken Lines

My gripe is that I paid $9.99 for this eBook, and it came from a Big Publisher (with Digital Sales, Inc. in the name no less) and the formatting has some issues. It looks to me like the publisher simply took an electronic document created for print (which would explain the hyphenated words) and then did a quick conversion to an eBook format without really spending anytime to check the results. The spacing issues and unnecessary hyphenation, as well as starting all chapters on a new page could have been done with little effort. Give me 15 minutes with that file and I’d have it fixed—worthy of Stephen King and making the $9.99 price tag more bearable.

I see poor formatting from professional publishers more often than I do from Indie authors. I’ve seen eBooks where the header and footer information, including page numbers, author name, and title are embedded in the flow of the content—page after page—showing up hundreds of times. I find this unacceptable, and will return eBooks formatted like this to Amazon, demanding my money back. When I see these kinds of formatting issues, I know that the publisher simply took the PDF file created for print, and blindly converted it into an eBook format, sans any quality control on the finished product.

In making ready to write this post, I visited the Under the Dome page on Amazon to see if anyone else complained about the formatting for this particular eBook. I did a quick search on the word formatting in the over 1,300 reviews, and found a number of reviews in which formatting was mentioned. Here’s an excerpt from my favorite:

As for Kindle formatting, the publishers must be smoking crack if they think readers will pay $16.99 for such a poorly formatted book (or for ANY eBook, for that matter, but that’s a discussion for another day…). I was completely shocked that such a huge, mainstream book had so many problems. From words that were clearly incorrectly scanned to missing paragraph breaks to basic misspellings, UTD had so many problems that it was actually distracting for me. It was confusing, trying to figure out where one speaker left off and another picked up because their comments weren’t broken down into separate paragraphs.

Apparently, the price of Under the Dome was reduced from $16.99 at some point, so being a little late to this one saved me $7.00.

I know that this Indie author—and thousands of others—spend countless hours making sure that the quality of the eBook they present to the reader is “professional” quality, and can compete with what the New York publishers are putting out there. If the Big Houses continue to put out shoddy eBooks, chalk up another advantage to the Indies.

Ripper's Revenge

Ripper's Revenge

I recently published an eBook titled “Ripper’s Revenge,” with co-author Shawn Weaver. I created a Kindle version, as well as a Nook version, each with appropriate links to my other titles on the respective sites. I checked and triple-checked the formatting, and poured over the results with considerable care.

The bottom line is this: If you rely on a simple “conversion” process to turn an electronic file into an eBook, chances are you will have formatting issues. In the realm of eBook creation, simple, fast and easy rarely equate to quality eBook creation.

In my humble opinion, eBooks need to be crafted, and require as much attention and knowledge as laying out a good quality print book. If you format your own eBooks, learn what makes them work, and what causes them to fail, and spend some time making sure your eBook formatting puts the focus on your story, not on the mistakes that are inherent in simple conversion process. The internet is full of great articles and support forums on eBook formatting.

At this point, I’m only 80% finished with Under the Dome, but I am enjoying it a great deal. As with virtually every Stephen King book I’ve read, not only is the story intriguing, but it’s a lesson on how to write great stories and keep the reader anxious for more. Thank you, Stephen, for another great story and writing lesson. Hopefully, your publisher and others will learn to put some effort into their eBook titles and create a digital product worthy of your ability.

Or, you might consider going Indie, and having some control over a finished product that has your name on it.

If this particular publisher reads any of the reviews for this eBook, I have to believe they know about the formatting issues. Why have they not addressed it? Is it apathy, or something else? Am I missing something here? Have you ever returned an eBook because of the formatting?  Would you?

Ebook Formatting – Part One – Overview

Ebooks

Creating Ebooks

I’ve been doing a lot of ebook formatting lately, and with each new project, there is a new lesson to learn, or a new barrier to cross. This has given me a lot to write about when it comes to ebook formatting, so I thought I would do an overview of the process, then cover some specific issues I have ran across recently.

Virtually every e-book reader platform utilizes some form of HTML as the programming language. Your goal then, in creating e-books, is to generate the cleanest HTML code possible that can be read by the largest number of devices – dependably. The method described below yields the cleanest, most robust HTML code that I have found.

The Genesis – every ebook in existence started in much the same way – an author recording his thoughts in some fashion. Regardless of whether that author initially wrote on paper, at some point, every ebook was entered into a word processor.

As a writer myself, I spend a lot of time in front of Microsoft Word, carefully crafting my story. I’ve been using Word for years, and I know a lot of the functionality that helps me save time and frustration when I’m writing. But once the story is written and it’s time to create an ebook, my time with Word is almost over.

There are a few good habits to remember when you are writing your book in Word, and a few things that you should avoid. My books will all become ebooks in the end, but I also create print books from my Word file. So, while I’m writing I have three goals in mind:

1) Finish the story

2) Have my Word file ready for ebook conversion

3) Have my Word file ready for print book production

When I’m writing, I do not concern myself at all with the formatting on the page. I set my line spacing to a comfortable level, set my view to page width, and I turn on “show non-printing characters” so I can see the symbols that are encoded into the document. To do so, click the “Pilcrow” button on the “Home” tab in the “Paragraph” section.

pilcrow

My only concern is that there is a paragraph return at the end of each paragraph, and of course, the rest of my punctuation is in place. Beyond that, I’m not concerned with page size, margins, headers, footers, page numbers, Chapter Headings, indents, or anything else.
(*A note on Indents – save yourself time and trouble by NOT using spaces or tabs to indent the first lines of your paragraphs. Word has a function to set this and it’s simple an consistent, as well as adjustable. Look it up…) 
That all comes later and will save me a ton of time if I ignore those things while writing the book. The only “formatting” thing I do is create a blank line before and after the chapter headings, just to create some white space around them, but even that is not necessary. Bottom line is – write the story and don’t worry about making it look pretty, or formatting it along the way.

When I’m finished writing, I’m going to check a few things. I have my copy of Word set up with all of my preferences and auto-correct features, but if I am formatting someone else’s work, I do the following:

  • Using Word’s “search and replace” feature, I’m going to find all occurrences of the double quote marks, (“) and replace them with double quote marks. I know it sounds silly, but this will invoke Word’s “Smart Quotes” feature and replace all double quote marks with proper curly quotes. I get a lot of books to convert that have a mix of quote mark styles, and this will make them all consistent – and – pay dividends in future steps.
  • I will do the same thing with single quote marks.
  • I will then type three periods in the “find” box, and a proper ellipsis in the “replace” box, then hit “replace all.” (There is an actual ellipsis character that is three dots… but when properly done, the dots cannot be separated and become a single character. This prevents the dots from separating one line to the next. Details in upcoming post.)
  • I will then “find” all — double dashes and “replace” with a proper “EM Dash” which is a single, longer dash.

Once this is done and I feel it’s ready for e-book and print book creation, I save two versions of my Word file. One will be called “My Story Ebook.docx” and the other will be called “My Story Print.docx” At this point, we have two versions of the same file, each of which will be formatted differently from this point forward.

I will create my e-book now, from the file designated for the e-book version.

With my e-book file open in Word, I’m going to prepare the text for creating a NEW e-book source file. This file will eventually be an HTML file, but NOT converted to HTML through Word. When word converts a file to HTML, you get a boatload of unnecessary “junk” code added to the HTML that just bogs things down and makes the HTML bloated and slow. What we are shooting for here is a “clean” HTML file, that is free of all the junk tags that Word adds to it. I will then “massage” this clean HTML to create a fully functional “source” file for further e-book conversion. This file will be free of all the formatting from Word, and will perform very well and dependably.

At this point, I’m going to urge you to read on here, but the details of this process have been covered very thoroughly by friend and fellow author Guido Henkel on his blog. Click here for specifics on this process, but I also urge you to read Guido’s entire series, titled “Take Pride in your e-book formatting.”  Read it. Study it. Get to understand it and you will be formatting like a pro.

If you took the time to read Guido’s excellent formatting articles, then you are up to speed. If not, I will continue with a high-level overview of the process, and include more details in future posts, expanding on some of the things I’ve learned from Guido, as well as a few things I’ve discovered on my own.

With Word still open, we are now going to add some HTML tags directly into our Word document, which we will then copy and paste into a programming editor. When we do this, we will lose ALL of the formatting created by Word – all italics, all bold, all headings, all indents – everything but the text. But don’t worry, it will be easier than you might think, and makes for a better e-book.

Again, this is covered in Part VI of Guido’s formatting series.

What we are going to do, is let Word’s powerful “find and replace” feature help us prepare the HTML we need and save a bunch of time, and preserve some of the desired formatting we want to retain. We are going to give Word’s “find” feature the task of finding all italic fonts, and wrap them with the italics HTML tags <i></i>

With the cursor in the Find Box, hit CTRL+i and Word will look for all instances of italic fonts.

find italics

find italics

In the replace box, we type;
<i>^&</i>
Then click “Replace All”

This is a set of HTML tags for italics, and between them is a wildcard search term that will look for all italic fonts and wrap them the the tags.

This will preserve the italics font style when we take this text into the HTML editor.

When you go looking at your text in Word, all cases of italics should now be wrapped in tags.

In Guido’s series, he suggests not wrapping bold text with the proper tags. <b></b>
He has a reason for this – which he explains in the series. Most novels do not make use of bold fonts, except in Chapter Headings. If the only bold text you have in your book are Chapter Headings, then follow Guido’s advice, and we will handle them differently. However, I have formatted a number of e-books that utilize bold fonts – in blurbs, in quotes, in references, etc. If you have bold text in your book, I suggest following the same procedure and wrapping them with tags now. Chapter headings will be handled differently anyway.

To find and wrap all bold text, type CTRL+b in the find box, and <b>^&</b> in the “replace with” box. Then click “Replace All.” Now all bold and italics are wrapped in tags, and ready for the programming / HTML editor.

Now, still in Word, select all text (the entire document) and copy it to the clipboard. It’s time to move to the programming editor and finish the work.

At Guido’s suggestion, (since I’m on a PC) I downloaded a copy of jEdit – a free programming editor that works nicely for this task. Download and install the program, if you haven’t already. You will also want to install an available plugin called “JTidy” which will do a lot of work for you with a single click.

In jEdit, open a new workspace/file. (File/New)

Now paste the entire text from your book into jEdit.

What you should see is that every paragraph of your book is on a single, long line. Don’t worry, in just a minute it will look fairly normal again. While it’s in this state, we need to identify each of those lines as a paragraph for the HTML file. To accomplish that, we will use the “search” features in jEdit. Here’s a close-up screenshot of how it should look:

jedit

jedit

Now we can quickly wrap all of these lines with HTML paragraph tags.

In jEdit, go to “search” on the menu.

Then click “find” in the drop-down menu.

This will open the “Find and Replace” dialog box, and you have a selection to make.

Below the main dialog window, you will see a series of check boxes for search options. We will want to click on the option for “Regular Expressions” for our next search string.

With the “Regular Expressions” box checked, we will now enter in a wildcard “search for:” string and “replace with:” search string.

In the  Search for: window, type ^(.+)$, and in the “replace with” box, type <p>$1</p>

Click on “Replace All” and each paragraph line is now wrapped with <p> tags so that HTML will recognize each paragraph as such.

The next step is to let jEdit know that we are working with an HTML file, so we need to wrap everything with the proper HTML identifiers. One click with the jTidy plugin will do the trick. On the jEdit menu, go to “plugins” and then select jTidy from the menu.

Search and Replace

Search and Replace

On the jTidy flyout, select “Tidy Current Buffer.”

This plugin now has placed the proper HTML code into the file, both above and below your ebook text.

jTidy has also done another task for us that is greatly beneficial: It has converted all special characters into “named entities.” This means that all double-quotes, single-quotes, ellipsis, em-dashes, and other special characters have an HTML name and are now embedded in your document. Using this technique yields the most dependable, cross-platform HTML file that you can create.

Next step is to save the file as HTML.

On the jEdit Menu, go to “file” and then “save as” and select a name and location for your file. Make sure to give it an HTML extension. The name should be “my story.html”

Once you hit save, you will notice another difference in the look of your jEdit file – all of the tags turn blue, and all of the names entities turn magenta. All of your HTML tags are in place, and everything is looking good and ready to make the last tweaks.

Now it’s time to create your CSS “styles” as Guido describes in Part VII of his series. Read that now if you haven’t already.

CSS styles can give you an incredible amount of control over how your ebook displays on various devices, and is well worth playing with and experimenting with to get your ebook just right. Guido does an excellent job explaining styles, and I will create another post to expand on what Guido has explained so well, with examples that I have used to make my ebook formatting the best it can be.

At this point, your HTML source file can be converted by a number of different methods into a number of formats. Again, that will be covered in a post coming soon.

~Donnie

Kindle Formatting

POD (print on demand) printing has become a very popular alternative for self-published authors.  Many of those same self-published authors are now turning their print-ready Word manuscripts into to Kindle books and ebooks of various formats.  Once they start in on the process of converting a print-ready file into an ebook format, they begin to discover how much difference there is in between print and ebook formatting.  They quickly (and sometimes painfully) discover that formatting a manuscript for print is totally different from formatting for ebook production.

I need to make some adjustments to my novel, Dark Justice, just to add some blurbs and a preview of another book.  While I’m at it, I figured I would record all the steps so that others can benefit from what I have learned so far.

So, if you find yourself with a Word document that you have painstakingly perfected for a print version of a book, and you now want that same file formatted for an ebook, here are some basics;

Before you do anything to your perfected print manuscript, make sure you save a copy that you will modify for a Kindle or other ebook formats.  A good idea is to put the word “ebook” or “Kindle” in the title.  Something like “My Novel_ Kindle Version” should work fine.  From Word, just open your print manuscript, then “Save As” and give it the new file name.   Once that is done, you are ready to begin making changes.

One note to make everything easier in Word – click on the “Show/Hide” button on the Home tab of Word.  This toggle button shows all formatting that is in your Word document, like spaces, returns, section breaks, etc.  The button has a “pilcrow” symbol on it – looks like this:  pilcrow

 

Blank pages and large blank spaces- Many books have blank pages in the beginning of the book to make sure the title page is on the right side of the open book.  Some pages often have only small sections of print, as in the case of a dedication page.  People reading ebooks do not want to see blank pages – it’s not the same effect as in print.  Make sure you remove all blank pages, and large blank spaces.  A good rule of thumb for ebook formatting is to only have two or three blank lines between sections of text.

Section Breaks – Many manuscripts created for print in Word will contain Section Breaks.  These breaks allow a manuscript to have several pages before the page numbering begins.  A section break will likely be found between all of the “Up Front” information in your book, such as Title page, Dedication page, legal statements, etc., and the actual “first” page of the story which is likely “Page One.”
Another place you will likely have section breaks is at the end of each chapter.  If the chapter ends in the middle of a page, a section break will start the next chapter at the top of the next page.  These section breaks are not necessary for ebooks, as you will be removing page numbering and do not want large blank sections between chapters.  Remove all section breaks. They are normally invisible, but can be seen with the Show/Hide button toggled on.

Headers – are totally unacceptable for an ebook.  Many documents formatted for print include a header where the title of the book, the author name, or both show up on even or odd pages.   You will want to remove these headers, as they are incompatible with ebooks.  In Word (2007) click on the “Insert” tab, go to “Header” and then select “Remove Header.”
header
Footers – usually contain the page numbering and sometimes other information.  Footers are also incompatible with ebook formats.  Follow the same steps as in Headers to remove all Footers.

Large Fonts and Fancy Fonts – Another big difference between print and ebooks.  In a print book, you can lovingly select a font that you like, make it the size that you want, and the readers can do nothing about it.  Not so in ebooks!  Most ereader devices like the Kindle, iPod and iPhone, Nook, and others, allow the reader to select the font that they like, and in a size that they like.  When readers have that ability, all of your careful spacing and formatting go right out the window!  Get rid of fancy fonts, as most conversions are limited to a few basic fonts.
Because of that, this is a good place to discuss ebook “Pages.”  Ebooks do not have “pages” in the general sense.  Because ebook readers can change the size of the font, and in most cases the orientation of the page from portrait to landscape, the ebook text needs the ability to flow.
When you read an ebook, you do not get “page” numbers for that very reason.  If a reader increases the font size, the ebook gets longer!  Larger fonts means fewer lines per “page.”  Fewer lines per page means more “pages.”  In an ebook, it is easier to think of a page as a “pageview,” or a dynamic “window” looking into the content.
That brings us back to fonts.  I suggest you select the entire text of your document, and then choose Times New Roman in 12 point size.  Yes, you will lose the special text sizing you have on your title page, and your name will no longer be in 40 point text.  Another rule of thumb for Kindle and ebooks is to NOT have a wide range of text sizes.  10 point for the smallest, 14 point for the largest.  You can still have bold and italics.
Now that the text size of the entire document is the same, go back and adjust the size of each chapter heading to 14 point, bold.  Use Word’s “find” feature to find the word “chapter” and you can quickly adjust each chapter heading.  Don’t forget Prologue and Epilogue if you have them.

Drop Caps – the vastly oversized first letter of each new chapter – are not going to work in an ebook, and really cause some formatting and conversion problems if you attempt them.  If you have used drop caps in your document, you can convert them back to normal text by clicking on the drop-cap letter (which will place a rectangle around it) and then on the “Insert” tab in Word, then select the “Drop Cap” button, then select “None” from the options.  The single letter will become normal sized.

Drop Cap

example Drop Cap

drop cap control

drop cap control box.

Word Styles – the use of predetermined “Styles” in Word can cause some unforeseen problems in converting the file for use in ebooks.  Some authors may use these “styles” to differentiate between normal body text and chapter headings, and subtitles, etc.  If a style is used in Word, and then you override that style with a different font and size and color, that underlying “style” selection does not go away!  It stays in the meta data that often goes with the text, even when cut and pasting it between documents!  If you have used Word’s “Styles” selections in your document, you may want to take a look at that particular style, then change it to match the way you have your document formatted.  For instance, if you have set all of your text to Times New Roman, but the Style selection is set to Arial, then change the style settings to match.

style selection

style selection

Word 2007 does offer a couple of easy ways to accomplish a match between the Style and what you have manually selected as your default font on the screen.  If you right-click on the style, you then get a couple of handy options.  One is to modify the style itself, and the other is to match the style to text that you have selected.  So, if you want Times New Roman to be your default font, then select a portion that has that font, then select the “match selection” option.

At this point, you should have a document that will allow for easy transition over to the Kindle format.  Still just a bit more work to be done, but changes to your Word document should be done at this point.

From this point you can either upload the Word file, or “save as” an HTML file in Word and upload that.  If there are any images in the work, HTML will work better.  Make sure you ZIP the HTML file and the resulting folder by the same name into one file and upload the zip.  The folder will contain the images.

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