Teaching TextMate a new trick

I recently had to switch to TextMate 2 because I had upgraded to OSX 10.10 Yosemite, and my trusty old version of TextMate was no longer fully operational. Some of the bundles I am routinely using when formatting eBooks crashed Ruby, making them useless.

One of the features I constantly use is the “Wrap Each Selected Line in Open/Close Tag” command from the HTML Bundle. It is one of the most important commands I use when formatting eBooks, because it allows me to automatically wrap every paragraph in a text in <p> and its corresponding </p> tags.

After the update to TextMate 2 I found, however, that the functionality was no longer what I really expected. Instead of wrapping everything in <p> tags, I found my text wrapped in <li> tags instead, which was not very useful. Actually, it was not useful at all. It was detrimental.

I’ve done a little bit of TextMate Bundle coding myself in the past to create streamlined commands that help me format eBooks much faster. They have become essential part of my everyday tool chain. Seeing the unexpected behavior of the TextMate 2 bundle I decided to simply dive into the Bundle Editor and change the default behavior of the “Wrap Each Selected Line in Open/Close Tag” command to my needs.

If you want to do the same, here’s how you’d go about it. Simply open the Bundle Editor by selecting “Edit Bundles” from the “Bundle” menu in TextMate. Next, select the HTML entry in the list that appears on the left hand side of the window. You will now see a number of entries appear in the second column of the window. We want to drill into the one called “Menu Actions” and then the one called “Wrap Each Selected Line in Open/Close Tag”.

droppedImage

In the lower window that contains the code portion of the command, you will find the following lines

#!/bin/bash
[[ -f "${TM_SUPPORT_PATH}/lib/bash_init.sh" ]] && . "${TM_SUPPORT_PATH}/lib/bash_init.sh"
perl -pe 's/[\$`\\]/\\$&/g; s/([ \t]*)(.+)/$1<\${1:li}>$2<\/\${1\/\\s.*\/\/}>/'

As you can see, in the jumble of the regular expression there is a reference to the unwanted “li” tag. All we have to do is change that entry to “p” instead and make the line look like this

#!/bin/bash
[[ -f "${TM_SUPPORT_PATH}/lib/bash_init.sh" ]] && . "${TM_SUPPORT_PATH}/lib/bash_init.sh"
perl -pe 's/[\$`\\]/\\$&/g; s/([ \t]*)(.+)/$1<\${1:p}>$2<\/\${1\/\\s.*\/\/}>/'

Once you’ve done that, hit Ctrl-S to save the change, and you’re done. Whenever you now press the Shift-Control-Command-W keys or select “Wrap Each Selected Line in Open/Close Tag” from the Bundle menu, every paragraph of your text will be neatly wrapped with the correct <p> tags.

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Win a cover from Covertopia.com!

Feeling lucky? You should, because I can feel that today is your lucky day. All you have to do is enter in Covertopia’s Give-away, and keep your fingers crossed. You may just win a cool cover for your next book! Heck, I’ll even throw in the formatting for your book.

As you may know, Covertopia.com is a new service provider that I am closely affiliated with. Primarily, the website offers pre-designed covers for authors at an affordable price with an almost instant turn-around time. With a catalog of almost 200 instantly available premade covers at this point, from many genres, you can win any one of these covers for your own book.

CoverTopia_Logo

Participating is easy and you will be helping us spread the word to the community, to make sure more and more authors hear about Covertopia.com. It will enable us to make even more covers, make even cooler covers, create a wider variety of covers, and you can be instrumental in the process.

The way it works is really simple. Go to Covertopia’s give-away page and share info about this give-away on your social network, tweet about it, Facebook about it, or post your favorite cover on Pinterest, and earn points for the give-away. The more points you have, the better your chance of winning—it is that easy! You can even earn points by signing up to my newsletter, liking the Covertopia Facebook page, following on Twitter and more.

Just head on over there and take a look for yourself for the full details, and please, help us letting other writers out there know that the perfect cover for their book might already be waiting for them at Covertopia.com.

Thank you so much for your support! If you want to, you can also submit your entries right here! Keep in mind you can come back every day during the duration of the give-away to collect more entries.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Over the past weeks I’ve been reading a number of non-fiction eBooks—don’t ask me, why, it just happened for some reason. The interesting thing is that I noticed a number of recurring eBook formatting problems that permeated virtually each one of these books, and I thought I’d touch upon the subject for a change.

The problem in question revolves around terms that should be treated as a unit. Take a look at the screenshot and see if you can figure out what’s wrong with it.

bent1

The problem her is, of course, the way the term “30 days” has been line wrapped—twice actually, and the term 1,667 words has been wrapped also. Plenty of bad formatting going on here!

When you have something like this term, a professional typesetter will always make sure that the individual words in the term will not be word-wrapped… ever. There is nothing worse than having the number “30” on one line and the word “days” on the next, or worse yet, on the next page. It just doesn’t look professional and instantly gives off a whiff of amateur that you do not want in your book.

Certain terms need to stick together like Laurel and Hardy

In novels this is oftentimes not such an acute problem, because most authors would actually write “thirty days” instead, which can be wrapped perfectly fine, but by their very nature, non-fiction books often wrangle a lot of data and as such it is no surprise that I found the error striking in the past weeks in particular.

Naturally, the same applies to terms,such as “3 months,” “4 years,” “5 minutes,” “10 dollars” and so forth. Other occasions where you may find terms that should never be wrapped is in dates, for example, such as “November 5,” “Day 3,” “3 AM” or even in situations like a “1964 Mustang” or a “1953 Corvette.”

The most prevalent occurrence of such terms, in both fiction and non-fiction is on cases, such as “Mr. Potter,” “Mrs. Bates,” or “Dr. Jekyll,” and one could even go as far as applying the rule to terms such as “Agent Mulder.”

The solution to the problem is fairly simple, really. If you are formatting your eBook in HTML, you simply replace the space between the words of the term with a non-breaking space character, like this: 30&nbsp;days. This way, you disallow the eBook software to break apart the entity.

The solution: Prevent word-wrapping with non-breakable space characters

To achieve this one can use a very simple Regular Expression to isolate the cases. The concept is to search for one of multiple digits, followed by a space character, followed by a letter.

A simple search expressions like this

([0-9]) ([a-zA-Z])

will locate such instances. I do not recommend simply running a replacement on this search, however, because there would be too many false positives. Instead, simply go through them one by one and decide whether they need to be adjusted or not. I know, this is time-consuming, but that’s part of the reason why professional ebook formatting costs a bit of money.

bent2

As you know, I do not recommend exporting eBooks straight from word processors, but I do understand that many authors do so nonetheless. It is possible to avoid this kind of word-wrapping in word processors as well, by replacing the space character with a Ctrl-space character. And voilà…

If you can actually make this practice to use Ctrl-space in all the right places part of your general writing habit, all the better, you will be properly prepared right off the bat, and you will make the life of your eBook formatter a whole lot easier.

The thing about this kind of eBook formatting error is that it is not something that readers would report to you, but it is wrong nonetheless. It gives authors the impression that nothing is wrong with the eBooks, when, in fact, there are formatting errors in it. Many such issues can be evidenced in eBooks, pitfalls that most people are not aware of but that hinder the reading flow and somehow give off a bad impression.

That’s why it make sense to hire professionals to handle your eBook formatting. Someone with credentials, someone who understands actual typesetting, in order to make sure these kinds of things don’t happen.

Will you take a look at your books and see if you’ve been a victim of this particular pitfall?


ZenCover
Zen of eBook Formatting is currently on sale for only $2.99 instead of its original $5.99 price!

If you want to keep up with my eBook formatting work, don’t forget to subscribe to my Newsletter. That way I can keep you updated about the latest developments, updates to my books, code snippets, techniques and formatting tips.

Also, don’t forget to check out my book Zen of eBook Formatting that is filled with tips, techniques and valuable information about the eBook formatting process.

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For all my author friends and visitors, today I have an announcement that is slightly different from my usual formatting posts. I would like you to check out a brand new website called Covertopia.com!

As the title suggests, it is a website specializing on covers. Selling book covers, to be more specific, and if you want to be exact about it, Covertopia.com is a destination where authors can find highest quality pre-designed covers as well as custom created covers.

Why am I telling you this? Well, if you browse the site a little, you will notice that my name comes up, because I am affiliated with the site. As part of the packages for authors offered on Covertopia.com I am throwing my formatting experience and services in the ring, so that hopefully it becomes more of a one-stop solution for authors. Here, you can get your eBook and print covers done, as well as your eBook formatting and print layout. All easy, quick and super professional. Here are a few samples I picked for you, just to show you the level of quality you can find there.

Needless to say there are countless more covers available for purchase right now! If you don’t believe me, just browse some of the pre-designed covers that are currently available on the site. Whether you’re a romance, horror, mystery or thriller author, or if you write non-fiction and self-help books, anything in-between, on Covertopia.com you can find an ever-expanding array of pre-designed covers of the highest quality at affordable prices.

But there is more… in addition to the covers themselves, Covertopia.com also offers additional graphic assets for your books, including web ads, Facebook banners, memes, 3D book covers images, audio book covers, bookmark and postcard designs—all designed to help promote your book.

It is very easy to see the decades of design experience shine through in these covers, as they have been tweaked for optimal visibility. Since books are bought primarily online these days, every cover has been carefully designed to ensure that the respective books will get noticed by readers browsing virtual store shelves. Don’t believe me? Go, see for yourself. Right now!

Oh, and before you leave, make sure you will also tell all your friends about Covertopia.com, because undoubtedly, they will need a best-selling cover for their next book as well, and wouldn’t you like to be the one to set them on the right path?

I am making it easy for you! Simply click on the text or the icon below, and tweet the news to all your followers.

Tweet: Covertopia.com is a new hot new site for all your pre-designed #eBook and print cover needs — http://bit.ly/1IL9ciz #covers
Click2Tweet: Covertopia.com is a new hot new site for all your pre-designed #eBook and print cover needs — http://bit.ly/1IL9ciz #covers
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Custom fonts in iBooks

By now, I am sure you’ve heard that every device in the market has its own little quirks. Whether it’s not scaling images correctly, ignoring transparency, overlooking style settings in certain tags or some other weird behavior, the process of formatting ebooks across platforms is anything than straight-forward.

Today I want to direct your attention to one issue in particular, the way iBooks is handling font switches. Ordinarily, and on all other platforms, changing the font in a block of text is one of the most rudimentary and trivial things to do. You would set up styles and then use a, <p>, <span> or <label> tag to switch the style and consequently the font type with it, just as outlined here with these style settings…

span.sans-serif { font-family: sans-serif; }
span.serif { font-family: serif; }
span.monospace { font-family: monospace; }

…and the following HTML paragraph.

<p>This is an example for a <span class=”sans-serif”>sans-serif font</span>, while this is a switch to a <span class=”monospace”>monospace font</span> and this here a quick look at a <span class=”serif”>serif font</span>.</p>

Unfortunately on various occasions, Apple has decided, for unfathomable reasons, to break with convention and create implementations that are more tedious than they really need to be. The approach I just illustrated is not working in iBooks—or rather I should say, it is not always working. Especially when you use embedded fonts that are included using the @font-face rule, you will find that they simply do not show up.

There are two small additional steps that are necessary to get iBooks to properly display your fonts, though small they may be, they are also incredibly cumbersome.

The process involves getting inside the actual ePub file and adding information. Fortunately Calibre lets us do that fairly elegantly, but it is nonetheless a tedium because you will have to do this every time you rebuild your book.

When you right-click your book in Calibre a context menu appears and you will find an entry called “Edit the book” at the bottom of the list. Naturally you will first have to build an ePub version of your book for this to show up, but when you select it, a new window will open showing you the structure of the eBook on the left hand side and the file contents at the center. You now have access to the internal structure of the ePub file, which is a packaged-up assortment of individual files, actually.

In the Files Browser window on the left side of the screen scroll down to the Miscellaneous area where you will find a file called content.opf. Double-click that file and its contents will be displayed in the large window at the center of the screen.

Now enter the following code in that file

<meta property="ibooks:specified-fonts">true</meta>

Best place it right at the end of the <metadata> section just before the closing </metadata> tag.

Now comes the trickier part. We actually need to include a completely new file. First open up a text editor and create a new text file. There, enter the following lines


<display_options>
   <platform name="*"> <!-- allowed values for platform "iphone", "ipad", or "*" for all -->
     <option name="specified-fonts">true <!-- must be set to "true" for embedded fonts -->
   </platform>
</display_options>

and then save the file as com.apple.ibooks.display-options.xml. Alternatively, simply right-click this link and save the file to your computer.

addbtnWith the “Edit Book” details page still open in Calibre, click on the “New File” icon in the upper left corner of the window.

Now enter meta-inf/com.apple.ibooks.display-options.xml in the dialog box and then click on the “Import resource file” button. Locate and chose the com.apple.ibooks.display-options.xml file just we created and hit the “Open” button, followed by “Okay.” You will now see that the file com.apple.ibooks.display-options.xml is appearing in the “Miscellaneous” section of the book structure.

savebtnNow save your changes and close the “Edit Book” window. Back on the Calibre main screen, hit the “Save to Disc” button to save the modified ePub version to your computer.

That is it. You now have properly embedded the necessary information in your ePub file that makes it possible for iOS devices to correctly display different fonts.

If you do not use Calibre, you can also make these changes by hand. All you have to do is unzip your ePub file using whatever software you would ordinarily use to unzip a regular ZIP file.

Once completed, you will find a subfolder on your computer, containing the individual files the eBook consists of. Locate the file content.opf and make the same changes I described above.

Then navigate into the meta-inf subfolder and place the file com.apple.ibooks.display-options.xml in there. The process to create or obtain the file is the same one I described earlier.

The changes are now complete, but will have to zip all these files back up into an ePub file.

This is best done using a command line version of your zip tool. Once you have opened a command line or terminal on your computer, navigate to the directory where your actual eBook files are that you need to zip up. Then enter the following command.

zip -X0 ebook.zip mimetype

This creates the base package for the eBook. We now zip all the content files into it using the following command

zip -rDX9 ebook.zip * -x "*.DS_Store" -x mimetype

Once this is complete, you will see a new file called ebook.zip in the folder. All we need to do is rename it now. If you are working on a Windows computer, simply enter the following command.

ren ebook.zip title_of_your_book.epub

Alternatively, if you are working on a Mac, the following command will do the trick

mv ebook.zip title_of_your_book.epub

That’s all there is to it. Keep in mind, however, that these steps will have to be repeated every time you rebuild the book!


ZenCoverIf you want to keep up with my eBook formatting work, don’t forget to subscribe to my Newsletter. That way I can keep you updated about the latest developments, updates to my books, code snippets, techniques and formatting tips.

Also, don’t forget to check out my book Zen of eBook Formatting that is filled with tips, techniques and valuable information about the eBook formatting process.

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On many occasions I’ve kept repeating that it is generally not a good idea to use word processors to export eBooks directly, and whenever I make that statement I am frequently greeted by push-back from authors who are perfectly happy doing it because it works for them.

I guess the operative phrase here is, “works for them.”

Exporting a clean manuscript from a word processor can work if you are dealing with a novel that has nothing but the most basic formatting. I have to point out, however, that not a lot of the books I work on for my clients fall into that category and typically have a few formatting features that require more attention to detail.

In these conversations I have with authors, a lot of folks also seem to think that Scrivener is the ultimate solution and does a perfect job exporting eBooks, a notion that I am going to shred in a moment. First, however, it is important for me to point out that I am a huge fan of Scrivener. I have used it for years. I have written 15 books in Scrivener and I would not consider any other software for the task. I have, however, never considered it to be an eBook exporter. It’s my writing software. Nothing else.

I am saying this because I want you to understand that it is not my intention to discredit Scrivener here. Rather, I want to debunk the myth that Scrivener’s eBook export is perfect and want to show a simple example in which Scrivener’s eBook exporter can completely destroy your eBook.

scrivex1

Imagine, if you would, that you have a small quote you want to format so that it is right-aligned on the page. However, since it is a quote, you do not want it to run the entire width of the page. To make it look nice and neat, you want it to run just, let’s say 20em wide, so that it turns out to be a neat little block of text on the right side of the page.

In Scrivener – or any other word processor for that matter – you would select the text, turn on right-alignment and use the ruler to scale down the width of the printable area. Alternatively, you could have a prepared style that does the same thing, of course, and simply apply it to the text. Makes no difference. The key here is that in order to achieve the proper limited-width word-wrapping, you will have to adjust the printable width.

It looks neat and nice, right? Just until you export it.

If you export a section like this to an ePub file, you will find that your page is mysteriously empty. That’s right. There won’t be anything on the page. What is happening?

In order to understand what is going on, it helps to look at the ePub file that Scrivener creates, and very quickly it becomes obvious that it fell into a major format trap.

Because of limitations in eBooks, in order to create the 20em text canvas on the right hand side of the page, Scrivener decided fake it by simply increasing the left hand margin. It’s a valid approach, no doubt. If you think of the entire page width as 100%, increasing the left margin to 80%, leaves 20% for our quote to be printed. The logic is fine. The execution is not.

First of all, we are not working with percentages. Why? Because if you are looking at a cell phone screen, there is a good chance that 20% of that screen width would barely fit a single word. We cannot allow that to happen. We need something that relates to the text size first and to the display size second.

To accommodate the problem, Scrivener decided to lay it out using em-spacing, which is exactly as it should be. The problem is that it looks at the actual page inside the Scrivener window to calculate the page width. Since the windows on my computer desktop is a lot wider than that of a cellphone screen or even a regular eBook device, the measurements are all off. Scrivener creates a left margin of 80em, and as a result our actual quote is printed off-screen in its entirety. That’s why you see an empty page.

ZenCoverThis is just one example of the unforeseen pitfalls you can run into when you simply rely on a software exporter to do the work for you. There are a myriad of other problems lurking to pop up when you least expect it. These software exporters are great at doing the grunt work, but they are exceptionally poor when it comes to create output that is actually compatible with real-world applications.

A much better way is to take control of your eBook files yourself. Instead of relying on exporting them, which is a hack and a shortcut at best, properly format them yourself. Use methodologies that have proven to work across platforms, such as the approach I outline in my “Take Pride in your eBook Formatting” tutorial series and my book “Zen of eBook Formatting,” which is a step-by-step guide from the most basic beginnings to fully advanced eBook layout features. Feel free to download a free reading sample on Amazon and see for yourself.


ZenCoverIf you want to keep up with my eBook formatting work, don’t forget to subscribe to my Newsletter. That way I can keep you updated about the latest developments, updates to my books, code snippets, techniques and formatting tips.

Also, don’t forget to check out my book Zen of eBook Formatting that is filled with tips, techniques and valuable information about the eBook formatting process.

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In recent days I’ve been visiting a number of message boards related to the indie author community. It is something I had not done in a long time. In over a year or two, in fact. The other day, however, I decided to take a look at some of the forums I used to frequent and realized that the amount of misinformation spread on these message boards is simply horrifying. Particularly when it comes to eBook formatting.

The reason for that is not so much that people are malicious, but that they are oblivious to the many problems inherent in the eBook formatting field that they think what seemed to have worked for them is a universal formula that will work for everyone.

ZenCoverThe problem is that they are sadly mistaken because their own efforts were severely flawed – they just never realized it. Whenever someone recommends to export a manuscript from a word processor or Scrivener, you are seeing one of the biggest mistakes perpetuating. If eBooks are to grow and mature, authors have to realize that formatting eBooks is not a one-click affair. Probably never will be. It takes effort, expertise and a certain know how.

But it works for me, you may say. As I mentioned. It doesn’t. You only think it does, but with five or more generations of eBook devices in the market by now, each with different limitations, quirks and firmware bugs, no word processor exporter will be able to produce an eBook that works reliable on all these platforms.

For that reason I have decided to publish here an excerpt from my book Zen of eBook Formatting, which explains in more detail why you should never ever ever ever use an exporter to build your eBook. For much more information and techniques that will help you create professional-grade eBooks, please make sure to take a closer look at the book. But please, read on…


The Road to Right

Understanding eBook readers

Before we dive headlong into the technical aspects of the creation of eBooks, I believe it is important to understand eReaders a bit better, and how these devices have shaped and changed the way we are experiencing books.

eBook readers have originally been designed with novels in mind. Nothing else. The idea was to make it possible to read novels in digital form, and when you look at novels you will quickly realize that there isn’t a whole lot to them from a presentational standpoint. They have a cover, some front matter and then it’s just reams and reams of text, interrupted only by the occasional page break to mark the beginning of a new chapter. With that in mind it is hardly surprising that eBook readers originally did not have a lot more functionality beyond that. Even today, many eBook readers do not go a whole lot further than this, which creates a very unique set of challenges when you format eBooks. This becomes particularly evident when you leave the novel segment behind and begin to look at non-fiction books where these limitations often become very obvious very quickly.

One of the biggest challenges we oftentimes face as we prepare eBooks has to do with the fact that we cannot know which device or software our customers will use to read the book. It could be a Kindle or Nook with a black and white eInk screen, but it could just as well be a cell phone with a tiny display, a tablet with a nice high definition color screen or a desktop computer with a humungous widescreen monitor attached to it. We have no way of knowing, and we have no way of identifying these different devices, all of which have very different capabilities and create very different reading experiences. A page layout that works on a large screen may suddenly become unreadable and garbled on a small screen, especially because navigation of eBooks is oftentimes very limited and cumbersome.

Another limitation that I have to explain very frequently is that eBook readers do not support a whole lot of different fonts. While some eReaders may offer a variety of different typefaces, the problem is that they are not standardized and are oftentimes not available on other devices. Therefore, using these fonts will dramatically alter the way your book will look and flow on a different device. To make matters worse, custom fonts are not universally supported by eReaders, making it impossible to, perhaps, use that one font you have always loved so much and used in your print layout of the book.

The first thing you need to understand when formatting eBooks is that they are completely different from print books. It is a different world altogether. The sooner you get away from the idea that your eBook should reflect the look and layout of your print book, the sooner you will get satisfying results. Many of the layout possibilities you have in print design, such as text inserts, text boxes, tables, the ability to have page content rotated to fill the page in a landscape format, images with text flowing around them, a multitude of custom fonts, and others, are simply not feasible in eBooks for the most part.

“Feasible” is the operative word in this context. Many of these features are available on the latest generation of eBook devices, particularly tablets like the iPad or Kindle Fire devices. The problem is that they represent only a small portion of the market, and if you want your book to sell, you cannot afford to single out a niche segment of the market like this. In fact, even if you wanted to, it is not even realistically possible, because Amazon, for example, will sell your book to any Kindle owner, not just those who own a tablet. If an eBook that has been formatted using all these newfangled fancy features suddenly ends up on a first-, second- or third-generation Kindle, the results are not only unpredictable, they are going to be abominable. And I mean abominable.

I doubt you would want to present your readers with garbled screens and have your name attached to it, and therefore it is always important to create a common denominator and build eBooks that uphold that denominator throughout the formatting process.

zen Our goal is to create eBooks that can be properly displayed on any device using any screen size!

In order to achieve such a baseline, we need to be aware of the limitations that different eBook formats and devices present, but we also have to take into consideration a variety of quirks and firmware bugs that you will find in these devices. This may sound trickier than it actually is, because in this book I will guide you, and safely steer you away from these potential pitfalls.

Why you should not use a word processor

When I visit message boards for authors on the Internet, I frequently come across the same question over and over again, followed by what is effectively the same advice over and again. Sadly, in my opinion, the recommendations are all too often ill-advised and tend to create more problems in the tail-end than they solve.

What I am referring to is the question that aspiring independent authors routinely ask once they get to the stage where they want to self-publish their books, “How do I create an eBook?” Aside from the noise that such a question inevitably generates, the tenor of responses usually goes something like “You can export an ePub file from your word processor” or “Take your word processor file and upload it to insert-your-favorite-conversion-service-here for conversion.”

To me, these responses are usually not real advice, but rather, flawed opinions. Someone suggests the procedure because it worked for them, wholly unaware that the process is richly flawed, and of the fact that their own eBooks resulting from said procedure are oftentimes riddled with problems. Not to mention that the way to get there frequently resembled a gauntlet of cumbersome obstacles and tests of patience.

Real advice, on the other hand gives you the opportunity to make an educated decision based on the evaluation of information. So, allow me to give you a real piece of advice.

zen Do not use a word processor as the source to create an eBook file from. That’s not what they are designed for.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not knocking word processors here. In fact, all of the 15 books I have written I wrote in Scrivener, including this one, but no matter what anyone will tell you, as you will see in a moment, word processors—and that includes “Scrivener”—are not very good at what eBooks do, and are therefore the wrong tools for the job when the time comes to create an eBook from your finished manuscript. It’s like deciding to hand someone a spoon and asking them to dig out a swimming pool. It is certainly possible, but at what cost?

In life, the proper tools will always make your work easier, because tools are designed for a specific task. They will perform that particular task better than any other tool, and should therefore always be your first choice. You would never use a blender to mix waffle batter, yet that is exactly what many authors are doing when they try to export eBooks straight out of a word processor.

Word processors have been designed to enable writers. They are the replacement of the typewriter—in case you still remember those. Their goal is to make it possible for people to write text as quickly, cleanly and efficiently as possible, allowing them to simply dump their thoughts onto a computerized sheet of paper and to edit it at a whim. In order to make this as easy as possible, word processing software puts a number of additional tools at the writer’s disposal, which come in very handy and are designed to help keep writers focused on the task. That is the job of word processing software.

However, as computers have become more powerful and software companies realized that they can’t keep selling the same toolset to people over and over again, they began to add features. Slowly at first, further making the writing flow more practical, it soon deteriorated into what software developers know as feature creep. It is a phenomenon that has cropped up across all branches of software development and describes the situation when features are continually being added to software without any real purpose, other than their own sake. If you take a look at today’s word processing packages you will quickly realize that they contain an overkill of flashy features designed solely to impress users. At the same time, these packages contain a smorgasbord of obscure features, many of which are actually helpful to writers but not very sexy to market. Many of them are so forgotten that most users don’t even know they exist. Or did you know that your word processor probably contains a generator to create random text? Better yet, did you know that it probably contains a feature that allows you to create “Lorem Ipsum?”

Which brings us to the next problem with word processors. Year upon year they have encroached upon what used to be known as the Desktop Publishing space. It started with simple WYSIWYG attempts, and today virtually all word processors in the market pretend to be able to do full page layout. I say “pretend” because despite thinking of themselves as being the jack of all trades, the desktop publishing features in word processors are usually completely worthless. Problems ranging from ridiculous sixteen linked-up text-box limits to erratic object handling, unpredictable text flow behavior and errors, make them pretenders in the truest sense of the word, rather than contenders.

I am rambling, I know, and I am certain you are wondering why I am telling you all this. The reason is simple. These days word processors try to do too much and obscure too much in the process with their glossy varnish—from the point of view of an eBook designer, that is.

All these fancy WYSIWYG text layout features are useless if they can’t be properly converted into eBooks and that, in fact, is the crux of the matter. Word processors are almost by definition inept in enforcing text output that needs to be formatted for variable text flow—a feature crucial to a good eBook.

To illustrate the point, let me show you the following word processor screenshot.

Screenshot 2

As you can see we have three paragraphs of text here, each formatted with a first-line indentation and extra line spacing between each paragraph. Simple enough, right? It’s what a manuscript should look like in the computer.

The problem here is in the detail, however. What you don’t see is what will run you to the edge of madness when the time comes to create an eBook, so let’s take a closer look.

The first paragraph created the indentation using a tabulation character, the one generated when you hit the TAB key on your computer keyboard, while the second paragraph achieved its indentation by inserting a series of white spaces—blanks. The third paragraph on the other hand achieved the same goal by using a style formatting, telling the word processor to automatically indent the first line in every paragraph by a certain amount without requiring any typed characters.

Three very different approaches to achieve the same thing. And notice how all of them seem to look the same in the word processor. When they are directly exported to an eBook, however, the result becomes unpredictable because all three of these approaches generate different kinds of eBook paragraphs that may or may not look the same in the end.

Make a mental note, if you will, which approach you think is the best way to handle first-line indentation. We will talk about it in a bit more detail later on in the book.

This is but a small exploration of the problems inherent in that one little screenshot. If you look at the separation of paragraphs, you are actually seeing another ugly beast rearing its head when the time comes to create an eBook. The first paragraph has been set apart from the second using an extra line feed character—inserted by pressing the Enter or Return key on the keyboard. To set apart the third from the second paragraph, however, we have once again applied style formatting instead, which tells the software to automatically insert extra line spacing of a certain height after every paragraph.

Are you seeing what I am driving at, yet? Since each of these paragraphs has been created differently, there is a very real risk that each of them will look differently once you let the word processor export your text to an eBook.

One could argue that many of these problems can be avoided by using the same way throughout the entire document, but let’s face it, in the real world, very few people are so disciplined and organized that they apply the proper style setting every time they italicize text or want to create an indentation, particularly over the period of time it usually takes to write an entire book. Since we cannot easily see existing formatting errors in the word processor, we are always teetering on the edge of hidden defects using this methodology. While turning on the display of hidden characters—a feature most word processors feature—might help in some cases, it obfuscates the actual text to the point that it becomes unreadable and you lose all sense of flow and white space. Therefore it is not of much use either, especially because to catch certain problems areas takes a very good eye. Imagine having to spot a stray TAB character in a 120,000 word novel. Yeah, right, good luck with that.

I could bore you with countless other examples where things can go horribly wrong, but since you are reading this book, I assume you already figured that out for yourself, and you are looking for a better way to do things. As authors in the real world, what we need is a way to create eBooks that produce reliable results, and word processors simply don’t do that, no matter how you turn it. What is needed, is a different approach.

zen Each device handles formatting differently and contains glitches that are beyond your control. The only way to work around these glitches is by manually addressing them in your source code. No word processor exporter can do that for you!

But even if you were the most disciplined writer in the universe and would avoid all these pitfalls, there is another problem over which you have no control. The market has gone through various iterations of devices by now and new generations of devices are introduced on an annual basis, it seems. You have black&white eInk readers, tablets, cell phones, and software readers for desktop computers, not to mention countless cheap eBook readers from China. Each of these devices have their own idiosyncrasies. Their little peccadillos, one could say. iOS devices, like the iPad and iPhone, for example, do not follow the standard implementation when it comes to switching fonts. They also have trouble centering content, requiring special work-arounds. Other devices do not scale images correctly, others yet, like the Kindle do not calculate spacing correctly. The list of glitches and firmware bugs is endless and gets longer with every new device and with each new firmware upgrade.

Your word processor does not care about these. If you’re lucky, it will create an eBook that follows the format standards—though even that is often dubious. It does not, however, take any of these device specific quirks into consideration. Aside from the invisible formatting glitches these exporters are prone to introduce, this is the single biggest problem you will run into when using an exporter to create your eBook for you.

Many authors will check the resulting ebook on their own device, and if its displays correctly, they simply assume that the software did its job properly. This may turn out to be a sore error in judgment. Try loading it on a first-generation Kindle, however, or a Kindle DX, or the Kindle reader on the iPhone, or on an older Nook, or a first-generation iBook device, and very quickly you may see how all your well-laid plans fall to pieces. The only way to address these kinds of problems is to manually identify the glitches and implement work-arounds that address them. There is simply no shortcut for it, no matter how much you may wish otherwise, but with the help of this book you will be able to circumnavigate the most common problems.

The road to Right

After having spent a lot of time up to this point, telling you how you should not create an eBook, I will no longer hold you back with explanations of Wrong and instead will point your heads forward and look down the less rocky road to Right.

Let’s start with a quick overview over the process I am proposing, just so you get a general idea of what you’re going to get yourself into. Depending on your level of expertise, this might or might not be all that intimidating at first, but let me assure you that there is no magic involved, and that every task can be performed by virtually anyone familiar with a computer. Remember, the key lies, as so often, in getting the right tools for the job and putting them to work for you.

The majority of eBook formats that are in use today are nothing more than a packaged collection of HTML files. Yes, the same kind of files used to create and display web pages. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. It actually makes a lot of sense. HTML has been created to allow the same information to be displayed on a wide variety of display devices regardless of their capabilities. Whether your computer monitor has a high or a low resolution, whether you are running your browser fullscreen or in a small window, on an old or a new computer, a cell phone or a tablet, basic HTML pages will always be able to display their contents properly in any of these environments.

The same is essentially true for eBooks. Since we don’t know what device or software the reader will use to read our eBooks, it only makes sense to utilize a format that has been designed for that very purpose, doesn’t it? A format that has free text reflow capabilities and can easily embed images and other media. You might recall how I told you that you can actually embed video in your eBooks if you want to, and now you know, why.

HTML is a format perfectly suitable for the needs of the eBook community and all it really lacks is digital rights management, or copy protection to put it in plain old English. To accommodate that, some of the eBook formats are encrypted internally, but that is really none of our concern at this point. Let other people worry about that. We just want to package our book in a digital format that can be used by eReaders for the time being.

zen Garbage in, garbage out!


ZenCoverThis was an excerpt from my book Zen of eBook Formatting, and I hope you have found it helpful. Perhaps it even convinced you that it might be worthwhile learning more about eBook formatting, the techniques and sills necessary to produce eBooks on a professional level of quality. For much more information and techniques that will help you create professional-grade eBooks, please make sure to take a closer look at the book on Amazon.

If you want to keep up with my eBook formatting work, don’t forget to subscribe to my Newsletter. That way I can keep you updated about the latest developments, updates to my books, code snippets, techniques and formatting tips.

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UniMon_1Some time ago, Universal Pictures Chairman Donna Langley made mention of a slate of movies that are evidently in various stages of production at the studio, centering around one of Universal’s greatest legacies, the Universal Monsters. Since, unlike many other studios, Universal does not have any superheroes of renown in its roster, the move makes sense—build upon established franchises that made the studio into what it is.

In her comments, Langley also made mention that the studio is planning to turn these characters into action adventure franchises, rather than pure horror movies. The horror film fan community exploded over the announcement and screamed bloody murder, of course, feeling jilted and betrayed. But is it really warranted?

UniMon_5If you’ll indulge me, I’ll tell you what I think. What is horror, really? Clearly, it has changed a lot. Over the past decades horror movies have become universally more gruesome, gory, sadistic, exploitative and graphic—to the point of being excessively gratuitous. These sorts of films used to be a niche within the horror genre. A niche that we called Splatter. Splatter movies no longer exist, per se, because they have essentially become mainstream horror, the contemporary definition of horror, so to speak. The sad thing is that all the other facets the horror genre had to offer 30, 40 or 50 years ago have pretty much vanished. Subtle psychological horror films, atmospheric ghost stories, gothic horror, are all movie tropes they just don’t make much anymore—with a few truly rare exceptions, of course. A film like “Don’t Look Now” would not even be considered a horror film anymore these days, and neither would be something like the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” for that matter.

UniMon_4Nowadays, when a horror film is not labelled a “thriller” by default, but is allowed to remain a horror film, it usually goes straight for the jugular, right in your face, and this mentality has even taken over television, where a show like “The Walking Dead” is substantially more gruesome and gorier than even their big-screen grandfathers “Dawn of the Dead” or “Zombi” were back in their days. And with it, the perception of the word “horror” as a point of reference has completely changed.

In our 21st century vernacular, horror now relates to gorefests. Pure and simple. So much so, that it has become an extremely detrimental titulation if you are creating anything but the most graphic, core horror content. Mainstream audiences simply make a wide turn around the genre, intrinsically expecting anything related to horror to be excessively violent, gruesome, sadistic and graphic.

UniMon_7To give you an example, I had to rebrand my “Jason Dark” books to “supernatural mysteries” because too many people were scared off by the “gothic horror” moniker I used originally. Too many potential readers thought I’m trying to sell them the most blood-soaked novels about black-clad teenagers with too much eyeliner being gutted and eaten alive. The term “gothic horror” has gone to oblivion. In essence, the term “horror” has lost all of its subtleties.

One could argue, of course, that the times have changed, and that in the 1940s the monster films that Universal produced were every bit as shocking to audiences then, as our modern bloodshed is to today’s audiences. I would personally disagree, because I don’t even remember the last time I saw a horror film that was actually scary or terrifying. All the in-your-face violence has become so predictable and has desensitized my mind to the point that I find it sophomoric, merely laughable, if not seriously annoying. The originally desired effect is lost entirely.

UniMon_3Going back to the original topic, however, I think that this excursion shows that the whole subject matter about horror films vs. action-adventures is about semantics. It’s a matter of nomenclature, I suppose. What we consider “horror” today used to be “splatter movies,” and quite frankly, “action-adventure” sounds perfectly fine with me, considering the franchise in question. The same way horror films have “pushed the boundaries,” so have action-adventures. They are more overtly graphic than ever before, and they are often steeped in horror themes. I think “Van Helsing,” which most critics would consider to be an action-adventure and not an actual horror film, worked much better and captured the essence of the Universal Classic Monsters much more faithfully than most contemporary horror films do. If that is the template by which Universal Pictures wants to move ahead, I’m all for it. I do not need the moniker “horror” just for its own sake. It’s the result that counts. They could call it a “romantic animal kingdom” movie for all I care, what with the wolves and bats and all.

UniMon_2The fact that Universal casts these upcoming films as action-adventures may have more to do with the perception of the word horror by mainstream audiences than it has with the actual content of the films. The studio simply doesn’t want to make films designed for a wide audience, that ultimately get derailed by the horror label and typecast for an extreme niche, and I think that is understandable.

To me it also reflects their desire to make movies that may capture the flair of the original films better. I am not at all sure if I would really want a “Frankenstein” film that is super-gory, or an excessively bloody version of “The Mummy,” or a movie that takes “The Walking Dead,” good as it may be, for its source of inspiration.

UniMon_6So, despite the uproar that erupted from the horror community after Universal’s announcement, this may not all be bad news. I’ve been continuously working with Hollywood for almost 20 years, and if there is one thing I have learned from Tinseltown business in all those years, it is that, despite what many people seem to believe, they are in it for the money. Not for the movie lovers, not for the idealistic views of fans, but for cold hard cash. In that light, Universal’s announcement makes a lot of sense, because it was simply good business to rebrand the Universal monster films as action adventures.

The use of the word “horror,” or the lack thereof, would be the least of my concerns, however, because the much bigger challenge for the studio will be to get good scripts. They will need material that is more engaging and operates on a much higher level than “Dracula Untold” did, for example, and Hollywood has not produced a lot of that lately.

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As self-publishing, independent authors, to typically relish in the freedom we have suddenly be handed, allowing us to truly own our books, cradling and nourishing them from the very first word, all the way until we usher them out the door through self-publishing platforms such as Amazon or Barnes&Noble.

SelfPubI am sure you’ve heard the saying before, that freedom is never free, however, and while not really meant within that context, it is certainly true for self-publishing authors and contains a nugget of wisdom we should all take to heart.

As a self-published author myself, I know how much work goes into a fully finished product, even in an all-digital world. As an eBook formatter for hundreds of independent authors, I also constantly witness the struggles and problems that authors fight. Whether its questions arising on my formatting blog tutorial, my book Zen of eBook Formatting, or through email, I am witness to the tribulations of many writers. Since I am also a reader, constantly looking for new books to feed my mind, browsing Amazon’s Kindle section further helps me understand the situation that presents itself to self-published authors.

This biggest question, I believe, every self-publishing author needs to ask themselves is this: Simply because we can handle everything ourselves, does it also mean that we actually should do so?

Editing

Writing a book is one thing. Editing a book is a different thing entirely. Too many authors either do not understand the process of editing, or they discount its value. Having a bit of ego is good if you’re a writer, but do not let it interfere with your actual work. It is fine to love what you are writing, but make sure you never fall in love with it! What I mean by that is that if you get to the point that you believe no one should have a right to touch your writing, that every comma is exactly where it should be, and that every word in your prose is perfectly concise and where it should be, the odds are that you are overestimating your abilities.

BookEditingEven Mark Twain had an editor. He did not like it, but he did. What he realized, however, is that a different set of eyes brings out shortcomings in writing. Ambiguous expressions, sentences that may not be quite as clear as they were in the writer’s mind, and much more. Even the best writers jump to conclusions because they have this picture in their mind that they try to relay to paper. The picture in their mind is complete in its own way, so they fill in the words to describe the image. But every once in a while, the writer will overlook a small detail that he takes for granted because of the image in his mind. An editor can help in such cases, pointing out the omission or simply helping to clarify the written words through different word usage or sentence structures.

The problem is that too many authors see an editor as the enemy, which they are not. Too many authors see editors as critics with the sole malevolent purpose to tear their work apart and violate it. In the self-publishing world, nothing could be further from the truth. Look at an editor as a fresh set of eyes who can help you streamline your writing, creating a better experience for your readers. After all, you are paying the editor, which makes it perfectly okay for you to reject their comments. There is nothing wrong with looking at the notes of an editor and flat out rejecting some of them because they misinterpret your intentions. But for every one such case, I am certain you will find countless others where the editor’s suggestions will make you think about your writing some more, and perhaps improve it as a result of it. so, why would you want to miss an opportunity to make your writing better?

Proof Reading

A lot of people mistake editing for proof reading, when they are, in fact, two very different things. Naturally, a lot of editors do correct typos and spelling errors, because it often comes naturally as they go through your words with a fine-toothed comb. However, their job is to look at the meaning of your writing, not its fundamentals.

proofreadingThat’s the job of a proof reader, who will ignore all things related to style and grammar, but will instead scan each word in your manuscript to make sure it is spelled according to dictionary standards. This requires a special skill set, different from an editor’s, because a good typesetter is absolutely dictionary proof, which means he has internalized the correct spelling and exact meaning of roughly 500,000 words, plus all of their proper tenses, inflections and cases.

You may confuse your word processor’s spellchecker with a proof reader, but they are not the same thing either, because the spellchecker only looks if the word as such is a valid spelling. It does not determine, whether you are using the proper spelling for the respective word you are trying to us. It will gladly accept the word “hair” instead of “hare,” whereas a proof reader will catch this error and correct it for you.

Having a book that is free of spelling errors and typos is the epitome of publishing and should be every author’s goal, always.

Formatting

Also high on the list is the formatting of eBooks—and the creation of a print layout, for that matter. Once again, you are looking at very specific skill sets here, and unless you do have the technical wherewithal and understanding of what eBooks are, what their technical implementation looks like and what the resulting limitations are, it might not be advisable for you to tackle this end of the publishing pipeline yourself.

zencoverAs you undoubtedly know, I’ve long been an advocate for proper eBook formatting, trying to enable authors with my Take Pride in your eBook Formatting blog tutorial, as well as my book Zen of eBook Formatting.

However, the field of eBook formatting is becoming trickier by the day, and more and more it requires very specialized skill sets and knowledge. With every new eBook reader in the market, with every update to the software readers Amazon, Barnes&Noble or Kobo offers, and with every new cell phone and tablet that enters the market,the playing field becomes harder to control.

When the Kindle was first released, things were easy because it was the target platform. In today’s world Kindle is not even Kindle any longer. There are so many device generations, each of which behaves differently, and there are so many software Kindle readers, each with their own flaws, that formatting a book for the Kindle alone can be a tremendously challenging—and time-consuming—task, depending on your book. But the Kindle is no longer alone. There is the Nook in its countless iterations, there is the Kobo reader, there are hundreds of cheap knock-offs from China… the list has gotten endless. To ensure that a book displays absolutely perfectly on all devices has become a magic trick, almost… something that is almost unattainable for certain books, because there are too few control mechanisms in the eBook format themselves.

And yet, nothing upsets a reader faster than a shoddily formatted eBook. It may just be the number one reason why readers put down a book prematurely, because they cannot see beyond the flawed text flow, the jumping margins, the inconsistent text size, the lack of proper quotes, or the broken indentations. And once a reader has put your book down, the odds are they will never pick it up again, and, what’s even worse, they may never buy another one of your books in the future.

Naturally, for all these services you can hire professionals whose job it is to make sure your work is treated professionally. These collaborators will help you on your road to a successful book with their advice, experience and services. It is for that reason that I have been offering eBook formatting services to authors and publishers for many years; to make sure that digital books will get the same respect as their print counterparts.


If you want to keep up with my eBook formatting work, don’t forget to subscribe to my Newsletter. That way I can keep you updated about the latest developments, updates to my book, code snippets, techniques and formatting tips.

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Over the past weeks, a few interviews with me have appeared around the Web, and I thought I’d mention them here real quick, in case you are not following me on Twitter or Facebook – shame on you! – an may thus have overlooked these interesting tidbits.

I did a two-part interview with Inkwrapped.com on the subject of eBook formatting. As you all know, I have written a book on the subject, called “Zen of eBook Formatting,” and David Powning, who is running Inkwrapped.com, approached me to talk about the state of the industry. The interview turned out a bit lengthy as we covered all the areas and he decided to present it in two parts on the site.

The first part cover the basic questions about what the biggest pitfalls and stumbling blocks are in the field of eBook formatting, and also whether it makes sense to authors to format their eBooks themselves. The conversation goes into some pretty deep details that you may not have been aware of.

In the second part we talk abut the approach that traditional publishers take towards eBooks and the formatting, but also ventures into areas such as interactive eBook features.

Take a look, if you’ve gotten curious, and see what I have to say on the subject, and perhaps it may give you a few new ideas. You can find the interview here


SOA_Box

Another interview arrived, courtesy of “Wilson’s Dachboden,” a German blog. It is an in-depth discussion of the first role-playing game I wrote, called “Spirit of Adventure.” The game was the perfect bridge from the text adventures I started with towards the large-scale role-playing productions like the “Realms of Arkania” games that followed. Fraught with problems during the development and the subsequent distribution, we never managed to bring the game to its full potential, unfortunately, but despite the problems, it opened the door to the “Realms of Arkania” games.

Christian Genzel, who runs “Wilson’s Dachboden,” has been playing “Spirit of Adventure” and is intimately familiar with the game and the conversation we had touches upon a lot of aspects that directly related to issues that had long been forgotten by time, or that had never really been discussed in public.

The interview is in German, but I found that the Bing Translator does a pretty decent job converting it to English.

Make sure to stop by there and check out this in-depth discussion of this classic RPG game of mine.

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