Archive for the ‘ Books ’ Category

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.

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.

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 al 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 names like Scott Adams, Infocom or Magnetic Scrolls make your eyes light up in excitement, you are my kind of crowd. A very special person, obviously with a long history in computer games, because these names are synonymous with the Text Adventure genre.

0031Those of you who have been following my work and career for a long time may actually recall that I started out in the games industry writing text adventures myself. I got hooked on these games after playing Scott Adams’ “The Count” in 1981 on the Apple II. The game captivated my imagination with its storyline, it conjured up images in my mind of gothic horror castles and vampires, it challenged me with its brutally hard puzzles, and it did it all without graphics!

That’s right, folks, as the name suggests, Text Adventures were games that worked without graphics and relied solely on text input and output to play. Today they are often referred to as Interactive Fiction, a term that perhaps describes them a little better, because these games are like reading a book, with the difference that you as the player affect how the story develops. Unlike Choose-your-own-adventure or Fighting Fantasy-style books, however, where the player is confronted with a set of multiple choices at key points, Text Adventures offered full conversational freedom. Using a text parser, you would type in complete sentences, directing and instructing the game to perform certain actions and the game, in return, would report back to you what happened in the story in response. The result was an experience that was, in many ways, richer than anything a game with graphics could offer, and inherently more personal, because the story unfolded entirely in your mind. All the imagery was the result of your own creativity and imagination being unleashed, like playing your personal movie version of the story in your head.

HellowoonCoverSmallScott Adams was one of the pioneers of the genre with his games “Adventureland,” “Voodoo Island,” “The Count” and “Pirate Adventure,” all of which held me spellbound for weeks. They were my first contact with the genre and they made me want to write my own games. These games, and “The Count” in particular, are the reason why I became a developer and have been for the past 30-some years. My very first game “Microchioptera” was a result of playing Scott Adams’ games and although it was never officially published, it was the precursor to my game “Hellowoon,” which was released in 1985 or so.

Around the same time as I played the Scott Adams adventures, I discovered the games made by Infocom, created by a group of MIT staffers and students. As Infocom grew over the years, they offered games in a wide variety of genres, ranging from comedy all the way to horror and everything in between including romance, fantasy and scifi, of course. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is still probably one of their most beloved games, along with titles such as my own personal favorites, “The Lurking Horror” and “Leather Goddesses of Phobos.”

Leather_Goddesses_of_Phobos_boxartHard as hell, these games were real challenges that would keep you occupied for weeks. Oftentimes you would get stuck in a single place for days, trying to find the right command to unlock the next step in the game. It was frustrating, yes, but also unbelievably satisfying when you finally worked it out. The rush that flooded through you, knowing that you had finally worked out the “magic” command just as you typed it, and then hitting the “Enter” key is indescribable, and the memory still brings butterflies to my stomach after more than 30 years.

Infocom was also famous for their packaging, as their games were usually loaded with weird and bizarre gimmicks relating to the games, including letters, notes, buttons, code wheels, goggles, scratch’n’sniff cards, stickers and other often outlandish gadgets. It inspired the packaging of my own game “Ooze” in 1989 where we packed hand-signed and hand-sealed copies of a death certificate and a Last Will note in the box for fans to peruse in the game. Ah, what fun we had…

GraphSpec_12_Guild_of_ThievesAs the genre matured, another star rose in the sky of the genre by the name of Magnetic Scrolls. An English company, under the direction of Anita Sinclair, the studio pushed the envelope of the genre quite a bit by adding imagery to the adventures they sold. These were beautifully painted still images that represented the scenes you were currently playing. It was a huge step forward, and the split-screen technology they employed that allowed you to smoothly drag the image up and down the screen, was nothing less of a revelation because it allowed traditional players to have the images removed entirely and play a traditional text-only adventure, while allowing others to enjoy the “scenery” while playing.

imagesMagnetic Scrolls dazzled players with their debut title “The Pawn” and quickly followed up their success with games such as “The Guild of Thieves,” “Jinxter,” “Corruption” and many others.

Sadly, as the 80s drew to a close, the genre was dying. People no longer wanted to read. They wanted to be flooded with imagery and sounds. The heydays of furious action titles began, as games started to be increasingly driven by visual technology. By the time games like “Wing Commander” hit store shelves, all was lost, and everyone in the industry was chasing after the next technological mega-game, while developers tried to outmatch each other in terms of graphics. A trend that has sadly not stopped since. Many game genres fell by the wayside since those years, and Text Adventures were the first games to get buried.

laasI look back on those games, including the last Text Adventure I wrote, “Drachen von Laas,” with a lot of nostalgia, no question, but with the advent of eBooks I’ve been wondering countless times if, perhaps, there would be a market for Text Adventure games again, after all. Quite clearly, Amazon has gotten people to read again, and from the market data, it is evident that these readers are voracious. More books are being sold than ever in the history of the world, and more books are actually available for sale than ever before, the vast majority of them in digital form, as print media are slowly fading away. With no inventory and stocking costs, digital books have flourished and the reading community has grown exponentially since the Kindle has been released seven years ago.

So, clearly, there is a huge market out there of people who have once again fallen in love with the written word, but currently their entertainment is limited to linear fiction—books. The writer and game developer in me would love to go back to my very roots, and I find asking myself often if these readers would, in fact, be interested in games like text adventures, where their imagination is stirred, where they are given control over the experience and the flow of the story. Part of me wants to say, yes, but another side of me understands that marketing and selling purely text-based products in a world where everything has to be flashy, fast and borderline offensive, and to a society that generally has the attention span of a house fly, would be a hopeless endeavor.

Still, one can dream, n’est-ce pas?

"Fu Man Chu's Vampire" is now available through Kindle Unlimited

Those of you who have been following my blog for some time may actually be frowning at this headline. Why? Well, for one thing, because I have been a very outspoken opponent of Kindle Select in the past. In many ways I still am, but for a number of reasons I have decided to give it a try with one of my books. When you have one book that you wrote, it is a very dangerous thing to put all your eggs in one basket, but when you have fifteen books available for sale, like I do, the risk to use one of them as a test balloon is mitigated. So, I decided to give Kindle Select a try with my Jason Dark supernatural mystery “Fu Man Chu’s Vampire.” It is the eleventh installment in the series, and to date, the last one. It is, in my opinion, one of the best books in the series with the strongest writing—and yet, it sold noticeably less copies than the previous books in the series.

That was, in fact, one of the main reasons why I decided to give Kindle Select a try. My sales on channels other than Amazon were virtually nil, particularly for this book, so it is the perfect candidate to see if the much-hyped Kindle Select program, and its opportunity to give your book away for free for a limited period of time is really part of the secret recipe to kickstart book sales. The logic escapes me somehow, but hey, who am I to argue…yet? I’ll try and see.

Yet another why I decided to give it a try is Amazon’s relatively new Kindle Unlimited program. It is catering to people who read a lot and for a flat $9.99 per month fee you can read as many books from the Kindle Unlimited library as you want. I am a slow reader and I simply do not have the time to spare to make it worth the subscription fee, but I hear it has become quite popular with many of the voracious readers that the Kindle has produced. If I can get readers interested in “Fu Man Chu’s Vampire,” perhaps they will go back and try some of the other books in the Jason Dark series, none of which, I might add, are enrolled in Kindle Select and Kindle Unlimited, but are available at a low price as individual books and as part of Jason Dark Collections.

So, if you have been unsure about my Jason Dark supernatural mysteries and would like to give it a try, here is your chance. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, borrow a copy of the book for free now, or get it for free through your Kindle Unlimited subscription. It is an exciting mix of adventure, mystery and a good bit of gothic horror with some Steampunk thrown into the mix. In short, it is exactly the right mix for this Halloween season! Think of it as “Penny Dreadful” meets “Sherlock Holmes” meets “Van Helsing,” and you get the idea!

So, what’s there not to like? Click here and get hooked now…


Every time I see yet another article about the Amazon vs. Hachette stand-off that paints Amazon as a bully, I wonder if we really have become too lazy to think, or if it is just too tempting for even renown websites to give in to the temptation of sensationalism it creates, because when you look at what is really happening, nothing could be further from the truth.

The sentiment that Hachette may be a poor victim in this scenario is incomprehensible to me. Not only is Hachette neither poor, nor a victim. Amazon does not target individual companies, singles them out and then tries to destroy them by refusing to sell their products. Quite the opposite is true, actually. Amazon is dealing with hundreds of thousands of individual vendors and suppliers and not once in its history has it singled out any of their vendors with the kind of vindictive action that is constantly being suggested here. If anything, Amazon has always been an incredibly fair, flexible and forward-thinking partner to all its suppliers.

Let us not forget before we get deeper into this, that Amazon has single-handedly not only saved, but revived the book market not too long ago. Amazon has created a platform for authors to flourish, for books to bloom and all while making money for everyone. Evil? I don’t think so—unless you’re a conspiracy theorist.

There are more active and published writers today than ever. There are more books on sale than ever. There are more books being sold than ever, and there are more books being read than ever, I presume.

Let’s make no mistake. Before Amazon made all of this possible, the book industry was not only stagnant, it was dying. Fast! Meanwhile, the old-school business model of the Big Five publishers is dying still. Companies like Hachette simply do not have a grasp on the reality of book publishing in 2014. They are not adapting and as a result they are no longer needed. They have become a side show in a world where everyone can publish, where anyone can become a bestselling author. I am not saying they are obsolete, but they are no longer relevant and with every year going forward, they will be come increasingly marginal.

The fact how long this stand-off is lasting already, is a clear indication that Hachette is unwilling to bend, and clearly underscores who the real bully is. They could have agreed to Amazon’s standard publishing agreement for weeks now and would have continued to sell books, but they refuse to do so, expecting Amazon to make special arrangements for them. That is not very rational in anyone’s mind, and shows that Hachette is not even trying to resolve the problem, particularly when every blogger and journalist seems to be all too happy to support their sensational truth-contortion.

Hachette is acting like their jockstrap is pulled too tight. They seem to have this inflated opinion of themselves that makes them believe that they look all potent, yet at the same time they are too proud to admit it hurts. And hurt it does, but if Hachette is determined to self-destruct, I’m all for it. Whatever floats their boat. Amazon does not need Hachette, but Hachette most definitely needs Amazon to sell their books.

So what is the real conflict between Amazon and Hachette, actually, once you peel away the vitriol. In my experience, in cases such as this, there is always a backstory. Something that happened long before Amazon reverted to what could be considered flexing their muscle.

What Amazon does is very clearly a reaction. A response to something that happened before and left them little choice but to go on the offensive. Since the previous discussions and negotiations that have taken place between the parties are not being disclosed, we may never know what went really down, but I think it is not too far fetched to imagine that Hachette was not happy with the status quo and tried to force Amazon to comply with its wishes, guided by the sense that as one of the largest international publishers they could somehow force Amazon’s hand. What they failed to see was that Amazon could not care less about Hachette. It makes absolutely no difference to Amazon whether they sell Hachette books or not. With millions of other titles available in their catalog, Hachette is a mere speck on the map.

What’s even worse is that Hachette quite obviously forgot that Amazon controls the channel. Amazon sells the majority of books worldwide and as a result they control the terms. Like Wal-Mart, they do not negotiate with their suppliers. They have standard agreements that tell vendors what they need to do and what is expected of them, and if the vendor feels he can’t agree to these terms, Amazon won’t sell your products. It is as simple as that, and it is the vendor’s choice—and consequence. If a publisher like Hachette thinks they can manhandle Amazon, they’ve clearly got another thing coming—as we are witnessing right now.

Does that make Amazon evil? Not at all. If anything, it only shows once again, how removed publisher like Hachette are from the realities of being a book publisher in 2014. What we are witnessing is a decision on Amazon’s behalf to protect their business, to ensure they remain the most successful online store with the highest customer approval ratings on the planet.

Hachette, by comparison… not so much. How anyone could see Hachette as the good guy in all of this is inconceivable to me. It is not like the publisher has a track record of good behavior. In fact, this is a publisher stuck in an antitrust suit, currently being subject to a court order to renegotiate terms with retailers because they have been found to have artificially inflate prices. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Naturally in a stand-off such as this there is collateral damage, and in this case it’s the authors published by Hachette whose books are currently unavailable at the largest book store in the world. However, for these authors to simply claim that Amazon is evil because they are responsible for lost sales, is really not looking the facts in the eye.

Some of these authors complain that the loss of revenue destroys their livelihood. I am not entirely unsympathetic to this, but it is a problem we are all facing on a daily basis, so my answer to those authors is, if your livelihood depended on your Hachette book sales, perhaps you signed the wrong contract. You should have asked Hachette for proper guarantees, instead of giving them carte blanche and assuming they would always act in your best interest. Isn’t it rather naïve to be under the illusion that Hachette has any interest in protecting an author’s best interests? This is a company that has, for generations, made a business of bullying writers out of royalties, squeezing every cent out of their creative pool that provides the actual content for their business—meaning the authors—and then having the audacity to pretend it is all warranted and good business. Sorry, not following here… missed a turn somewhere.

By signing your current contract, you have allowed a book publisher to corner you, fob you off with a meager 25% or 30% royalty rate, making no guarantees whatsoever, making absolutely no commitment to you, delaying payments as long as they legally can. You signed the contract! It’s your own fault. You forgot one very crucial fact about the industry—Amazon is selling books, not Hachette. Hachette is a middleman, and of dubious reputation to boot, whose business relies one strategic partners. They antagonized their key partner and you are the pawn in all of this. Hachette is counting on you to be upset, you are their muscle—or so they believe. At the same time you have absolutely no way of controlling your destiny. You have signed away your rights without any chance of recourse, giving a bully free reign. So, don’t complain to the world how bad Amazon is. Try to be honest to yourself and face the music. You brought this upon yourself. Just earn from it and make better decisions next time!

But all contracts are like that, right? It’s the industry standard. This must be the lamest excuse ever. Only because authors allow publishers to exploit them doesn’t make it right, and authors could have changed things a long time around. There is strength in numbers and if authors would collectively refuse to give up their rights for a few bread crumbs, publisher would have had to raise the bar and offer better business terms a long time ago. But as it stands, there is always some desperate soul out there who’s willing to sell their book for chump change, just to see his name on a printed book published by an extortionist. Strange, I know, but I tell it how I see it. And the weirdest thing is that big names like Stephen King and James Patterson are actually among those people advocating this practice. Then again, not so strange, perhaps, considering that their publishing terms are much more favorable than yours, and that unlike you, they have the full backing of their publishers.

Meanwhile there is a flood of books coming out from writers who self-publish. They make more money per sale, they have full control over their books, they have full ownership in their books, and some of them even break out and sell millions of copies, managing their own destinies. It is an option that was open to all of Hachette’s authors as well, so once again, if you signed a cutthroat contract that leaves you hanging out to dry in this time of crisis, it certainly isn’t Amazon’s fault.

In addition, Amazon has released a statement on the subject some time ago in which the company even outlined plans to subsidize affected authors, provided that Hachette does the same thing. This put the ball squarely in the publisher’s court and yet, Hachette did not react to it. Instead they bought another publisher, Perseus Book Group, in order to gain leverage in their position against Amazon. Hahahaha! Earth to Hachette—you’re no longer relevant in the book world, and in case you didn’t notice, you are nose-diving!

So far, the overblown reactions to this confrontation have had a very orchestrated feel, to the point that you wonder if Hachette was actually buying off the media to build sentiment against Amazon. Leaked emails that Hachette sent to its authors seem to substantiate this, in which the publisher clearly contorts truths, and hides relevant facts and information even from the heart of its operations, the authors.

So, ask yourself? Who is the bully? The kid who keep pushing others around, posturing, threatening, intimidating, or the kid who eventually stands up for himself and fights back?

zencover I honestly had not expected how much work it would be, putting together my book Zen of eBook Formatting. After all, I had the blog tutorial to build upon, and yet, it took me many months to flesh out the final book, add in all the little details and additions, and tweak it to make sure it is as accurate as I can make it. Part of it had to do with the fact that eReaders have turned into a sea of incompatibility.

eReaders have turned into a sea of incompatibility

While the original “Take Pride in your eBook Formatting” tutorial is still every bit as relevant and applicable today as it was when I first published it a few years back, as soon as you want to go beyond the most basic formatting features, you get caught up very quickly in the morass of device limitations and quirks.

With each new device generation new problems are being introduced, and considering that we are now looking at fifth or sixth generation devices, one can quickly get lost in the maze of dos and donts of eBook formatting.

I am not pointing fingers here because every manufacturer contributes to the problem. Apple with its incompatible ePub implementations in iBooks for one, Amazon for other limitations and countless firmware bugs, Barnes&Noble for a different set of firmware bugs. Each of them making it harder for eBook formatters to navigate these waters and create reliable products.

Switching a font face, for example should be a completely trivial thing. According to the HTML standards which underly both the MOBI and EPUB format, you should be able to switch fonts anytime on a block level. Sadly, this is not true in the world of eBooks.

Typically a code snippet like this should work fine on any device, assuming we have a span style called “newfont” that sets a different font family.

<p>Let’s <span class="newfont">switch the font</span></p>

Sadly, all of Apple’s iBooks devices and software do not follow this standard. Not even a snippet like the following one works.

<p class="newfont">Let’s switch the font</p>

iBooks does not recognize font family settings in <p> and <span> elements, which is completely inconsistent with HTML standards. It is not a mere oversight, however, because Apple has been dragging this problem through all iterations of iBooks, since its inception years ago. One can only wonder what Apple’s software engineers are thinking.

If device manufacturers would stick to the standards in the first place, hacks like these would not be needed

I found that oftentimes I have to double-stitch solutions, nesting different solutions, so that if one doesn’t work there is always a fallback. The work-around to fix this particular problem is to use another block-level tag in order to pass the information to iBooks.

<p>Let’s <span class="newfont"><cite class="newfont">switch the font</cite></span></p>

While this is not the most elegant solution, and purists will scream out at the misuse of the <cite> tag here, the reality of things is that as eBook formatters we currently cannot afford to be purists. We need formatting challenges solved and in this case <cite> addresses a very specific problem. If Apple would stick to the standards in the first place, hacks like this would not be needed.

I found that the same kind of double-stitching is sadly needed if you want to strike out text, as in draw a line through it. It is not a very commonly used text feature, but if you need it, it is imperative that it shows up correctly.

Instinctively you would use the <strike> tag, which has been part of the HTML vocabulary since its inception. <strike>, however, has been discontinued with the HTML5 standard, and as a result there are now eReaders that no longer support it. They require the <del> tag instead, which, quite by coincidence, is not supported by some older devices, of course.

As in many cases, double-stitching the solution is the way to go for me and whenever I have to strike out text, it will look like this.

<p>This is how you <strike><del>strike out</del></strike> text.</p>

Once again, not the most elegant solution, but as you format eBooks, you will have to get used to seeing things such as this more and more often. As I said, with every new generation of eBook devices, the number of these types of inconsistencies will grow and the need to find and apply band-aid solutions will sadly grow with it.

If you want to find out more about basic and advanced eBook formatting techniques, make sure to check out my new book Zen of eBook Formatting, which details all the necessary steps to create professional-grade eBooks.

The past months I kept myself busy completing a new book on the subject of eBook formatting, as many of you may know. I am happy to announce that the book is finally available! For only $5.99 you can now benefit from the years of experience I have had as a professional eBook formatter, learning the ins and outs and the tricks of the trade I have applied to many hundreds of eBooks from New York Times bestselling writers and indie authors alike.

zencoverZen of eBook Formatting is in the same vein as my “Take Pride in your eBook Formatting” tutorial series, but it goes way beyond that, as it is vastly expanded and updated. In the book I am taking readers through the entire workflow that I am using every day for the projects I am working on for my clients. In an easy to understand manner—I hope—I am not only explaining the steps, but also explain why these steps are necessary and why I do things the way I do them. The result is a tutorial-style self-help book that is chock full with examples, tips and coding snippets.

Having formatted well over 500 eBooks at this time, I am covering the entire process, from the basic manuscript cleanup, to the basics of HTML and simple markup, all the way to advanced techniques that allow you to add an incredible amount of polish to your eBooks without necessarily sacrificing device compatibility.

Just to give you an impression of the breadth of subjects I am covering, here is the Table of Contents for you.

Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • 1 – The Road to Right
    • Understanding eBook readers
    • Why you should not use a word processor
    • The road to Right
    • Tools of the trade
  • 2 – Data Structure
    • HTML
    • CSS
    • Prepping your style sheet
  • 3 – Cleaning Up the Manuscript
    • The Power of Em
    • Time to clean up your manuscript
    • Fixing up styles
  • 4 – From Word Processor to Programming Editor
    • Nice, clean and predictable in HTML
    • Paragraphs are the meat
    • Fleshing it out
    • Dealing with special characters…the right way
    • A word about fonts
  • 5 – General Techniques
    • Centering content
    • Images
    • Image resolution
    • Chapters
    • Typography and Layout
  • 6 – Advanced Techniques
    • Chapters
    • Initials
    • First-line capitalization
    • Formatting inserts and notes
    • Formatting emails and text messages
    • Image blocks with byline
    • Custom fonts
    • Linking to the outside world
    • Lists
    • Backgrounds and Color
  • 7 – eBook Generation
    • eBook formats
    • Meta-Data
    • The Cover
    • The TOC in the digital world
    • Calibre
    • More control with XPath
    • KindleGen
    • Error-checking
  • 8 – eBooks Outside the Box
    • A Word about Fixed-Layout Books
    • Preparing for Smashwords
  • Parting Thoughts
  • 9 – Appendices
    • Chart of named entities
    • Resources
  • About the Author
  • Also by Guido Henkel

The key to me, when putting together this book, has been to make it possible for anyone to create an eBook that has a professional level of presentation. Too many authors use shortcuts to create eBook version of their manuscripts, flooding the market with broken and sub-par product that leaves a bad taste in readers’ minds, when in fact, applying a little bit of discipline could elevate them from that riffraff and make their books like a million bucks.

Zen of eBook Formatting is targeted at all those of us, who care about their books, not only the words we wrote, but also that they are presented to the reader in a clean and professional manner that works on as many eReaders as possible. Hopefully, with Zen of eBook Formatting at hand, this goal will be within reach for many more authors.

Grab your copy of the book an Amazon now!

Over the past three years or so since I first published my “Take Pride in your eBook Formatting” series of tutorials here on the site, a lot of people have asked if I would make the tutorials available as an eBook as well. For a number of reasons I never created an eBook on the subject, in part because I simply could not spare the time to put it together. If I wanted to release something like this as an eBook it would clearly have to be cleaned up and expanded upon in order to warrant any sort of price tag attached to it.

Well, over the past few weeks I took a look at the tutorials again and I have finally decided to create an eBook on the subject of eBook formatting. Since my tutorial series has become the de facto standard in the industry and is being used by countless authors to prepare their books for the market, I felt it was finally time to take it to the next level.

As I pointed out above, creating a mere reprint of the blog tutorials is not at all what I have in mind. Instead I have spend these past weeks reworking the instructions to give the entire process a clearer structure, but also to add many of the topics and elements that I did not touch upon in these tutorials. The tutorials were designed, really, to get people started, but with a book I feel it requires a lot more in-depth information to be of any value at all. It needs to be more complete, and as a result, the book will consist of a section with basic techniques that will get you to your first eBook, much the way the tutorials did, but in addition, the book will contain a section with advanced techniques in which I will describe how to achieve certain effects and how to handle certain formatting challenges that pop up every day, but require a bit more explanation and additional skill. Naturally, I am trying to keep it very accessible still to ensure readers can easily follow the instructions and examples.

Over the years I have seen many blogs that touch upon the subject of eBook formatting and some of the posts I came across were frightening—in the sense that they promoted techniques that are highly unsafe. While they achieved the goal for that particular individual, oftentimes the approach was nothing short of reckless, using very specific device capabilities without pointing out to the user that this behavior is not supported by other devices or that it can actually create unexpected behavior and lead to page corruption. Clearly, these authors never had the time to fully explore the techniques they were proposing, or didn’t have the foresight that their suggestion could create more problems than they actually solved.

In my book I have maintained my long-held stance that eBook compatibility is one of the highest priorities. The goal is to create eBooks that look good on any reader out there, whether it is a tiny cell phone or a large desktop computer. I am a professional eBook formatter (Click here for more information if you are interested in my services) and I have prepared more than 700 books for release in the market, by an enormously wide range of authors and styles. Of these 700 books not a single one has been known to cause formatting problems, clearly showing that with insight and forethought, it is possible to create eBooks that are compatible even in a market as fragmented as eBooks.

I am sure it won’t surprise you that many of the techniques outlined in my book will cover the subject of eBook formatting from that angle, offering up safe solutions, or, where no safe solutions are available, at least pointing out the risks and challenges and how they can be minimized by the formatter.

Filled with tips, tricks, techniques, examples, screenshots and plenty of code, the book will hopefully become a one-stop solution for all authors who want to dive in to the technical side of their eBook projects.


Would you like to use my services?

Need help with an eBook project? Check here for more information.

Do you need a cover for your book? Check here for more information.

In need of an author website or blog? Email me at for more information.

We are heading into year six of the digital book revolution and while there have been tremendous advancements in the sector, one thing has not changed a bit. There still is no magic bullet for eBook formatting. It’s not even anywhere on the horizon.

Dragonlance1In a time where eBook readers have become increasingly powerful and capable, and where more authors than ever put their content out in the market, one would think that formatting manuscripts to publish them as eBooks should be as trivial as exporting them from a word processor, but alas, that is not the case. Whether it’s releases from small indie authors or titles from major publishers, I continued to stumble across eBooks that are shoddy at best. Just a few months ago I was re-reading the Dragonlance Chronicles by Hickman/Weiss—a staple of high fantasy literature that has been in print for 30 years now, and yet, the eBook versions are an abomination in many ways. While it is evident that some work went into the books, they are nonetheless riddled with formatting errors that clearly show that no one at Wizards of the Coast took a single look at the books once they were formatted, let away read them before they went out the virtual door.

Is that truly the promise of the digital age? That we have to content ourselves with mediocre quality and sloppy presentations? It is just because it’s easy and cheap to produce and anyone with a computer can do it? Or is it because price points have come down so much, resulting in content creators and publishers no longer caring about the products the way they used to, because it’s all considered shovelware, anyway?

I’ve said it many times, but it is well worth repeating. The formatting of your eBook is every bit as important as your cover and your story. If your book becomes unreadable because line breaks are mutilated, margins jump all over the place, fonts get butchered, graphics become indistinguishable or errant page breaks destroy the flow, you are in trouble. I have put aside more than a handful of books after a few chapters because I found the reading experience too egregious — and I am sure that I am not the only one. (I remember vividly, the first one this ever happened to me was Charlie Courtland’s “Dandelions in the Garden,” for which I paid $9.99 on the Kindle and had to put down after two chapters because every single page was riddled with a multitude of typos, grammatical errors and formatting flaws-all of which the author herself considered a matter of personal taste and absolutely acceptable.)

Sure, the temptation is enormous as a writer. You have finally completed your book after a year’s worth of writing and—hopefully—tweaking, and without a publisher to hold you back for another year, you are eager to put your work out in the market, in the hands of readers. Nothing wrong with that. The problem really starts when you believe that the “Export as ePub” function in your word processor is your road to an instant release.

Kitt PirateWord processors are a great piece of software, but they are designed to write text and to do a bit of layout work, perhaps. All of it with your computer screen or a printed page in mind. Absolutely nothing in a word processor is designed for the requirements of eBooks. The famed “Export as ePub” function was nothing but an afterthought in that software, that has been included because someone thought it may help sell a few extra copies of the word processor or entice the growing army of aspiring digital authors to finally upgrade their software package.
eBooks have very specific requirements, capabilities and limitations, and they are not adequately represented by word processors. Things that look right on the screen or the printed page may not work the same way on an eBook reader.

While it is possible to create a good eBook with a word processor, it requires intimate familiarity with the software’s features. If, for example, you do not know what the difference between a soft and a hard line break is, let away how to create each, or if you do not know how to properly space text and paragraphs, the odds are, you won’t be able to create a solid eBook output. If you’re not familiar with your word processor’s style functions and are not religiously and obsessively using them, or if you do not know how to properly create an automatic bulleted list in your word processor, chances are that you are not ready to export your manuscript as an eBook using the “Export as ePub” feature. The list goes on like this.

I am not here to make you feel bad, because considering how complex word processors are these days, few of us truly master the software. But that’s not the point. You don’t have to, if you’re a writer. Your job is to write a cool story, pack it all up nicely in a suspenseful and engaging way that keeps readers glued to your words. Making sure it fits the technical limitations of an eBook reader is someone else’s job. Or rather, it should be. Someone with an understanding of the technical side of things, and with the ability to whip your writing into such shape that it works on any device. It’s a specialized field of expertise where the experience you purchase will save you countless hours of headache and will protect you from having to deal with potentially countless upset readers and customers.

It may be fulfilling to see your complex layout with text flowing around images and wonderfully elaborate drop cap initials on your iPad after exporting it as an ePub file from your word processor, but have you ever wondered, what the book may look like on another device? An early-generation Kindle, a Nook, perhaps, or the Kobo reader? What about a tiny cell phone or a retina computer retina display? Not all devices that people read your books on are equal. There are huge gaps in capabilities between various devices, and your software exporter cannot—and will not—accommodate them. It won’t even try. It will try to create what the programmer who wrote it deemed best, even if it means that in the real world you are leaving 90% of the market by the roadside.

Even within device families there are enormous capability differences. The Kindles, for example, by far the most popular eBook readers, range from a device that is barely capable of displaying an image (Kindle 1) to a full-blown tablet that can do virtually anything, including play games. Most Kindle devices have serious glitches and firmware bugs that got progressively worse with each generation. I made a blog post about the subject three years ago and it is frightening to see that Amazon never addressed as single one of these “10 Things Amazon should correct in the Kindle”. So, when you format an eBook, you definitely need to be mindful of these differences and idiosyncrasies at all times.

But back to even the general capabilities. Amazon for all the great stuff they’ve been doing for the eBook revolution, has completely dropped the ball on various fronts over the past years, clearly indicating that the company simply looks forward without ever trying to patch up previous mistakes. As a result there is no easy way to bridge these different capabilities in any workable way.

Ideally you would want the ability to create dedicated eBooks for devices with different capabilities, but sadly Amazon and every other distribution outlet does not allow for that. You have to have one build of your book that serves all devices. While Amazon allows a bit of conditional formatting, it is in reality very basic stuff that is so rudimental that it is mostly useless. Therefore you are forced to build your eBooks for a common denominator and you have to make sure it will work on all the devices out there.

No “Export to ePub” feature does that, which brings us back to the point that you should work with people who specialize on that kind of thing. As you may know, I have written an extensive eBook formatting tutorial some time ago, and I am offering eBook and print formatting as services. The truly amazing thing about the tutorial is that over time it has become the de facto standard for the industry and that that even now, four years after I wrote it, it is still valid and applicable in every single aspect. In a world where technology moves at such a rapid pace, it is clearly a testimony to the quality of the underlying fundamentals of the tutorial. Every book formatted following the tutorial still works on every device out there, and it is still the same general process I apply when formatting my clients’ eBooks.

On the IslandIf you would rather focus on your writing and leave the technical aspects of your ebooks to people like me, feel free to send me an email. I have formatted over 700 books, all of which are available in eBook stores worldwide, and many of them are full blown bestsellers selling hundreds of thousands of copies. And among these roughly 700 books, not a single one has caused any problems in the past!

If you want to make sure your readers are happy with the eBook you sold them, and if you want to make sure the books won’t be returned because of weird glitches or formatting errors, feel free to take a look at this page where I am outlining my services and my fees. I am happy to work with all sorts of authors and publishers, big and small, to make sure they can publish their books with confidence.

Forget about the promises of a magic bullet. It does not exist. Instead, take the proper steps to ensure the quality of your eBook from the inside out.

For more information and professional tips and tricks, please make sure to also check out my new book Zen of eBook Formatting, which is now available on Amazon.