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?

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Use E-book Technology as an Editing Tool

fast_N_easy

fast_N_easy

All authors are unique and have developed various ways of producing and editing their work. As a long-time e-book fanatic, I have developed a method of using e-books and e-book readers as an editing tool which speeds up and enhances my editing process.  It only takes minutes to set up, saves a ton of time, and allows me to edit virtually anywhere. It breaks up the process into “identifying issues” and then “fixing issues.” Waiting at the dentist’s office is now an opportunity to edit. Waiting for an oil change is another chance to make progress on my story. Downtime is now productive time, whether I’m in an airport or my easy chair.

I’m sure I’m not the only author who uses this method, although I haven’t heard of anyone else who uses it. I’ll share it with you, and you can decide if this method may yield benefits for the way you work.

I am currently editing the sequel to “Ripper’s Row,” which has a working title of “Ripper’s Revenge.” I just got the manuscript back from my co-author, Shawn Weaver, who has already applied his suggestions and edits. Now it’s my turn to read the story again and smooth it out even further before we send it to our editor, Magnolia Belle, and let her work her magic on it. Some of the Screen shots used are from my horror story, “The Hotel California.”

The story is in pretty decent shape at this point, and what I’m looking for are any inconsistencies, awkward sentences or dialog, spelloids, (my name for proper words used in the wrong context that spell-check won’t catch, like “from” instead of “form,”) and other mistakes that still exist in the manuscript.

The first thing I’m going to do, is quickly create an e-book from the Word document that Shawn sent me. It will take me about three minutes to convert the Word doc to an HTML doc, and using Mobipocket Creator, or Calibre (both free programs) I can turn it into a Kindle e-book and have it on my reading device in short order.

Once on my device, I can start reading and marking up the manuscript. At this point, my goal is NOT to fully edit the story on the reading device, but to make notes and highlights that will call attention to areas in the story that need my attention. Later, I will call these notes and highlights up on my PC where the real editing will take place, only much faster and better now that they have been identified and noted.

Android Touch Screen

Android Touch Screen

As I read the story and find flaws that need work, I have a couple of options. I can either use the “highlight” feature or the “note” feature built into the Kindle app for the reading device. I have also worked out a little system for making my marks on the manuscript that will benefit me later on. For instance, if I run across a comma that should not be there, or a missing comma, I highlight the word before and after where the comma should or should not be. Later, when I see two words highlighted together it means I have a misplaced or missing comma. If I run across an awkward sentence, I highlight the entire sentence. I know that sentence needs further attention. If I run across a “spelloid” I will highlight that single word.

If I find a flaw that requires a creative change, I will make a “note” in the e-book using that built-in feature. For instance, I may run across an inconsistency where I need to make a note like “Change POV,” or “Change Tense.” I will make that note at the beginning of the sentence or paragraph it pertains to. Notes can be short and simple, or can be more involved as in writing out an idea that would improve the story.

Using this method allows me to quickly identify problems and make a quick note if necessary, without breaking my stride in reading the story. This allows me to get a better perspective on how the story “flows” as well as identifying issues. After I have completed my reading and have made all my marks, it’s time to really edit, only faster and easier using e-book technology once again.

When I have finished my reading pass, I now have an e-book that is all marked up. There is now a file on my reading device that holds all of my notes and highlights. I connect my reading device to my laptop, and find all the files related to my e-book, and copy them to the “Kindle Content” folder on my PC.

Here is where my efforts will pay dividends. Now I open my marked-up e-book using the “Kindle for PC” application on my laptop. I open the e-book as if I am going to read it, and all of my notes and highlights are still intact.  With my e-book open, I can go to View on the menu, and click on “Show Notes and Marks.” This will open a pane on the right side of my screen, with a complete list of my notes and marks, and their location within the e-book! Clicking on any of these notes or marks will jump you directly to the e-book page they pertain to.

Kindle App

Kindle App

Now I will open my unedited document in Word, where I will make my changes while keeping the Kindle app open and running as well.

I’m lucky that I have two screens on my computer, so I will open Word on one screen, and the Kindle app on the other. On the Kindle app screen, I will click on a note or mark and identify the change that needs to be made. Using the “search” feature in Word, I will then type in a few words that appear near the note, and use them to find the same location in my Word document.  For instance, if the sentence that needs attention starts with “William ran across…”  then I will type those words into the “search” window and click “find.” Unless I use those same words over and over in my document, Word will take me right where I need to apply my edit. That’s when I make the required change, and then move on to the next note or mark, and then repeat the process. I type in just enough words to find the location in Word, which only takes a second or two.

If you don’t have the luxury of two screens, you can have both apps open and simply re-size the windows so that both apps are visible at the same time. However, I love having two screens, so consider doing that if you can. It really makes a difference in how I work and my productivity.

Dual Screens

Dual Screens

I have described how this process works for me using the Kindle app on my Android touch-screen phone and on my PC, but it should be adaptable to about any reading platform and device.

I have found this method to be very useful for the way I work. It allows me to escape from my “writing chair” for some portion of my work, while allowing me to concentrate on identifying issues in one step, then quickly finding and fixing them in another. Perhaps it will work for you as well.

So, that’s my process. If you happen to see me in an airport messing with my phone, don’t assume I’m playing “Angry Birds.” I might just be editing my next novel.

Big Week for Indie Writers

John Locke

John Locke

In the past week we have learned two significant things concerning the world of publishing; John Locke became the first Indie writer to sell a million ebooks on Amazon, and author J.K. Rowling is set to release her Harry Potter series as ebooks – from her own website!

First to John Locke and a million ebooks. Only eight authors in total have sold a million ebooks on Amazon, and John Locke is the first Indie author to do so. Soon after reaching this milestone, Locke released an ebook titled “How I sold a million eBooks in 5 Months,” for $4.99 on Amazon. (An amazing marketing opportunity, which he acknowledges in the book)

Well, I had to satisfy my curiosity, so I plunked down the $4.99 and purchased the ebook version. (Marketing strategy at work!) About 3 hours later, I had read the entire book. By reading the book, I felt I got to know John Locke a bit. John and I have never met, nor have we ever exchanged any email or gotten connected through social media. Through this book alone, I got a feeling for John’s determination and discovered him to be a very gifted strategist when it comes to selling things.

John describes his plan in detail in this book, and how the plan evolved that allowed him to become the first Indie author to reach this level of success. The main takeaway from this books was that his achievement was not an accident! It was a well thought-out plan, and John executed it with a degree of confidence that allowed him the success he envisioned.

I won’t go into details about the plan. If you are interested, my advice is to buy the book and hear about it from the man who thought it up, experimented with it and then made it successful. However, one of my favorite portions of the book is where John tells about what didn’t work  – and the things he tried prior to putting this plan into place.

I enjoyed this book, which in and of itself is a great marketing tool, and which John acknowledges within the pages. $4.99 will get you the story of how he sold a million ebooks, or $9.99 will get you a paperback copy.

Keep in mind that the title is NOT “How YOU can sell a million ebooks in 5 months.” To do that, you would have to approach the plan with the same determination and marketing savvy as John did. However, I think there is a lot of very useful information in the book, and all self-published authors would do well to put this in their knowledge bank and start collecting interest on it…

In other news relevant to Indie publishing, JK Rowling announced this week that she will be launching a new website called “Pottermore” and will be selling ebook versions of the Harry Potter series, along with other works, directly from her own website.  It is thought that the print publishers may have a small marketing role to play, and that retailers are in talks with the author to assure their e-book formats are covered. Details still yet to come.

JK Rowling

JK Rowling

Now this is really big news. The Harry Potter series has never been available in ebook form, so who knows how many readers new to the series will get involved with the ebook versions? And of course, with a fan base the size of Rowling’s, the possibilities are virtually endless. Just image the traffic that can be generated to a site where the Harry Potter books, much less the world of Potter and Hogwarts will be made available along with new works and other value-added materials?

Apparently, the ebook series will be available in various ebooks formats where customers can purchase and download directly from the site.

I say Kudos to JK Rowling. She has played the game with traditional publishing and has come out a big winner. Now she can leverage that success and see where a super-indie publishing can take this idea. I’m rooting for her, and waiting to see how the story plays out.

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.

I’ve been Kindled…

Dark Justice for Kindle… No, I didn’t get a Kindle as an early Christmas gift, but I did finally get my novel, Dark Justice into Kindle format and it’s now available from the Kindle Store at Amazon. It was actually fairly easy once I studied the process enough to figure out the best method.  Of course, that meant doing it twice.
After registering at http://dtp.amazon.com and completely reading the requirements and guidelines, I discovered that I could take a little shortcut and instead of converting my book into HTML, I could upload a .mobi file that I had previously created.  While HTML is the preferred format for Kindle conversion, there are a couple of other formats that they claim will work.
So after uploading my .mobi file, you get a chance to preview the results in a “kindle simulator” window.  What you are looking for is formatting – making sure the layout on the page looks right and there are no blank spaces and such.
My initial conversion looked pretty good in the simulator.  Formatting looked fine.  Images are converted to black and white, and they converted well and looked okay to me.
The next step is to approve your preview and wait for your submission to make it through the Kindle system at Amazon and become a “Live” offering at the Kindle Store.  That only took a couple of days as I recall, although they claim it could take as many as 5 days to complete the process. 
After the waiting period, Dark Justice was a new offering on the Kindle platform! 
I went to check out the Amazon page, and everything looked great.  Since I don’t yet have a Kindle, I downloaded the “Kindle for PC” application from the same page as my book.  Once that was installed (easy install) I downloaded my own “Free Sample” to see what it would look like in the Kindle application.  Again, the Kindle app allows you to read Kindle content on your PC, so I assume it would look like it does on the Kindle.
While the formatting once again looked fine, I was really disappointed in the font!  It looked something like Courier, only worse.  Like really old-fashioned typewriter font.
I wondered if that was the font all Kindle books come in, so I downloaded another sample from a different book.  That sample looked wonderful!  It made mine look even worse in comparison.
I started doing some research on the DTP (Digital Text Platform) website.  I discovered that you should be able to download the converted source HTML that DTP uses in the Kindle book.  But that choice was not available to me.  There was no “download” option on my preview, as the site stated.
I went to the forums and asked the question.  Within a short time, I have a couple of people explain how I should be able to download the source HTML, make changes and then re-upload to DTP.  I just was not seeing what should have been there.
Then one of the DTP forum admins asked if I had uploaded a .mobi as my original source file, and if I did – then the download option would not be available.  That answered that question, as that was precisely what I had done.
I figured since I had not uploaded HTML as preferred by DTP, that I would now do that and see if it made a difference in the finished Kindle version.  Now I face the task of taking my Word document and converting it to clean HTML to upload. 
I did a quick search on Google, and found this site; http://word2cleanhtml.com/  Exactly what I asked for.  An online utility that converts a Word file to clean HTML.
The first time I tried that, the utility choked on my 80,000 word novel, and returned a message that the file was too big.  So I tried a single chapter and that worked fine.  Twenty chapters later, I have clean HTML that I could upload to DTP and try this again.
After uploading and checking out the preview, I submitted the file once again.  A couple of days later, it was again live on the Kindle Store. 
This time it looked much better!  Still slightly different from other books, but still much better.
Now the only thing that bugs me about the Kindle conversion, is that the Online “preview” window on DTP looks different that the version I download for the Kindle on PC app.  In the preview, each chapter is started on a new page.  On the PC app, it starts about two lines down from where the previous chapter ends – regardless of its placement on the page.
So now I’m wondering what it actually looks like on a real Kindle device.  If anyone has one, download my free sample chapters from the Kindle Store and let me know…

Kindle Readers – Dark Justice

Dark Justice for KindleFor you Kindle readers, Dark Justice is now available at the Kindle Store.
Click here for the link.
Even if you don’t have a Kindle, visit the Kindle store to download the free “Kindle for PC” application that allows you read Kindle content on your PC. You can also download free samples of most Kindle books to get a better idea of what’s inside. There is also an iPhone or iPod Touch app that allows you to read Kindle content as well.
Check it all out at the Kindle Store!

Ebook versions coming soon

I have been working very hard lately to prepare ebook versions of Dark Justice for internet sales. It’s been a lot of work! I am creating PDF, Microsoft Reader and MobiPocket reader versions, and each offers it’s own challenges.
Then there is the whole subject of receiving payment for the download – the e-commerce part of the equation. Still working on that one.
Keep an eye out, as I also plan to offer a free download of about half the book. Give people a chance to really get into the story before they decide to buy it or not. Hope to work out the details on that in the next couple of days.