This is the second installment of a series of articles. To read the first one, please click here


Why you shouldn’t use a word processor

When I visit message boards for authors on the the Internet I keep coming 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 than they solve.

What I am referring to, of course, is the question that aspiring independent authors frequently 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 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. They are opinions. Someone suggests the procedure because it worked for them, completely ignoring the fact that their own eBooks resulting from said procedure are oftentimes riddled with problems and/or that the way to get there was resembling running a gauntlet of cumbersome obstacles and tests of patience.

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

Do not use a word processor file as the source of an eBook.

As you will see in a moment, word processors are not very good at what eBooks do and are therefore the wrong tool for the job. It’s like trying to hand someone a spoon to dig out a swimming pool. It is certainly possible, but at what price?

In life, the proper tools will always make your life easier, because tools are designed for a specific task. They will perform this 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 create eBooks straight out of a word processor document.

I can already hear you, getting all giddy with the question why I suppose a word processor is the wrong tool, and I think it is time for me to finally answer that question.

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 cleanly and efficiently as possible, allowing them to simply dump their thoughts onto a computerized sheet of paper. 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 will help to keep writers focused on the task.

That is the job of word processing software. However, as computers became 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 developers know as “feature creep.” It is a phenomenon that has cropped up across all branches of software development and describes the situation when more and more features are being added to software for nothing but their own sake. If you take a look at today’s word processing packages you 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 — that 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 after year they have encroached upon 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 DTP features in word processors are usually completely worthless. Problems ranging from ridiculous sixteen linked-up textbox limits to unpredictable text flow behavior and errors, make them pretenders in the truest sense of the word, rather than contenders.

I am rambling, I know. So why am I telling you all this? To put it simply, because these days word processors try to do too much and obscure too much as a result. From the point of view of a book editor, 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 handling 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.

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.

The first line created the indentation using a tabulation character, the one generated when you hit the TAB key, 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 characters.

Three very different approaches to achieving the same thing. Make a mental note, if you will, which one you think is the best way to achieve first-line indentation. We will talk about it in a bit more detail later on in the series.

This is but a small exploration of the problems inherent in that little screenshot. If you look at the extra line spacing, you are looking at 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 your keyboard. To set apart the second from the third paragraph, however, we have once again applied style formatting instead, which tells the software to automatically insert extra line spacing of a certain size 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. Naturally, the problem can be avoided by using the same way throughout your entire document, but let’s face it, in the real world, very few people are as rigorous 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 can’t easily see existing formatting errors in the word processor, we are always teetering on the edge of hidden defects using this methodology.

I could bore you with countless other examples where things can go horribly wrong, but since you are reading this, I assume you already figured that out yourself and 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. What is needed, is a different approach, and I will tell you more about that in the next installment of the series.


Take pride in your eBook formatting
Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart VPart VIPart VIIPart VIIIPart IX

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


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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I have gotten quite some response on my first entry in the “Take pride in your eBook formatting” series, according to my blog counter, inspiring me to make sure to bring you the next installment shortly. It is nice to see that so many people seem to take an interest in the subject matter, especially since the technical side of eBooks is so vastly overlooked. I mean, companies like Smashwords actually actively discourage authors from creating proper eBook files by not allowing them to upload individual files and instead forcing their Meatgrinder upon everyone, a technology that – in its current state – does nothing to improve eBook quality and typically makes things incomprehensibly worse. It honestly boggles my mind that Smashwords insists on using their own technology, broken as it is, instead of allowing authors to upload their properly optimized eBook files to their servers, especially because it would solve many problems for everyone, including Smashwords themselves. But I guess corporate pride is something you just can’t go against, especially not if it is truly the only halfway tangible asset a company has. But enough of that, I’m not here to diss other companies. Not on this day.

No, I’m here to tell you that I just finished “His Majesty’s Dragon” and am in love with it! How could I have overlooked this series for so long, I wonder? How come this book is not on everyone’s lips and hasn’t already been turned into a movie? Since Hollywood seems to struggle finding new ideas – or why else would they remake every film in their library, even the ones no one’s ever cared about – how come a story like this has been left untreated so far? It is a book for all ages and even my 10-year old son already claimed interest in it.

To me, “His Majesty’s Dragon” was the perfect marriage of C.S. Forrester’s “Horatio Hornblower” series and something like Anne McCaffrey’s fantasy stories. I found it amazing with which ease Naomi Novik managed to create an alternate history the is larded with dragons – mythical fantasy creatures, let’s not forget – and makes it all seem so real. The events ring absolutely true and when she talks about the battle at Trafalgar and how dragons tear into the tall ships, burning their sails with their fiery breath, there is not a moment at which I ever felt cheated. In Novik’s world this rings absolutely true, and suddenly the battle between France and England becomes so much more potent. When Napoleon is launching an invasion upon England, leading up to it with a nasty trick that leaves the English seriously weakened, suddenly the reality sets in that with the aerial support of his magnificent dragon corps, he actually does have a chance of success.

I remember that I stopped reading at that point for a minute and began to think to myself through the consequences if Bonaparte really had succeeded in an invasion, and I began to wonder if, perhaps, in Novik’s alternate history version this would really happen. How would the world in which Temeraire and Laurence live look like if suddenly they found themselves on the side of the conquered. The possibilities were endless… but I won’t tell you how Novik masterfully deals with it. You will have to read it yourself. And read it, you should!

The story begins when an English ship of the line defeats a French one and finds among the prize a dragon egg. The egg is about to hatch, but unfamiliar with the proper procedures, the ship’s captain, Laurence, is the one person the dragon speaks to, allowing only Laurence to harness him. Through this process of harnessing the dragon, a bond is created that will last a lifetime. Laurence names the dragon Temeraire, and as the animal’s master, Laurence has to leave the naval services, a thought he does not like, and become an airman, part of a group of people who get little respect from the general populace or the rest of the military. He has to go through rigorous training with Temeraire to prepare the dragon as well as himself for a life of the King’s air force. Very quickly, it becomes obvious even to Laurence that Temeraire is not an ordinary dragon. Extremely smart – and better at math than Laurence himself – Temeraire not only looks and thinks differently than other dragons, he talks different languages, too, and before long, a specialist identifies Temeraire as an exceedingly valuable, rare Chinese breed.

As the bond between the dragon and the captain grows, the two become inseparable and prepare to go to war against Bonaparte’s army. It is an adventure for both of them, the young dragon with boundless energy as well as the hardened seaman who finds little of his naval experience has value once in the air.

I found it impossible to put “His Majesty’s Dragon” down. It pulled me in like few books do and I am glad it is part of a series. That way I can continue visiting the world of Temeraire even though I am finished with this one book. I can’t wait to continue with the next one, “Throne Of Jade,” but before that I have decided to read Scott Nicholson’s “The Red Church.” It is a book I’ve wanted to read for quite some time and since I consider Scott a friend, I think it is about time to give this book its well-deserved turn.

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Take pride in your eBook formatting

To me, one of the key elements that sets apart a professional eBook release from that of an amateur has always been the technical presentation of the book. Sure, anyone can write a document in a word processor, run it through some export tool, use a fully automated conversion utility or peruse the services of an online service, but the sad fact of the matter is that none of these approaches typically results in, what I call, production-level digital books.

So, why are people using them? I have spent a lot of time thinking about this and observing how other authors approach their eBook publishing, and the more I examined it, the more I have noticed that there are generally two reasons for it.

The first reason is that many authors simply don’t know any better. They write their book, complete it and look for the fastest, cheapest and easiest way to deploy it. Don’t be one of those authors! It is a sad testimony in my opinion, and certainly not a valid excuse. You have labored over your book for months, maybe even years, you have read and re-read it countless times, cleaned out typos and grammatical errors, massaged the style and worked on the structure, grinding away in the wee hours of the night alongside holding a daytime job and maybe having a family. You did not get here just to break the first cardinal rule of book publishing:

Don’t get sloppy on the home stretch! It will reflect poorly on your work.

If you’re anything like me, an author you’re not familiar with has one shot to prove himself to you. I will never again touch the book of an author who has made a bad impression on me by delivering a broken eBook that is clearly sub-par. I can forgive many things in a book if I so please — stilted language, poor pacing, logical errors, uneven style, even the occasional typo. However, one thing I cannot forgive is poor eBook formatting, particularly if it is to the point that it becomes distracting from the actual reading experience, and sadly I have seen too many of these in recent memory.

I started reading books as a form of entertainment 35 years or so ago and to this day I have not once found a printed book that had formatting problems! Every book that goes to print is practically flawless, except for a typo, perhaps, or print issues such as ink blotting or somesuch production-line flaw. However, I have never seen a book where the font size suddenly jumped, where the font face suddenly changed, where indentations were all over the place or where paragraph adjustment switched from justified to left aligned halfway through a paragraph.

Since the dawn of eBooks, however, these things have become prevalent, and, what’s more worrisome, is the fact that too many authors this seems to be completely acceptable. To me that notion is ridiculous and disconcerting, and no writer who is worth their salt should ever be caught publishing an eBook that is not equally flawless as the longstanding tradition of print books has dictated.

You may frown upon traditional publishing houses and their supposed arrogance all you want, but most indie authors would still do well to take a few lessons from these dinosaurs. Among many other things, at least, they know how to produce and package a product for sale and do not discount professionalism as a sales point at the expense of instant self-gratification.

If you are a self-publishing writer and want to be taken seriously, spend a little time getting acquainted what digital eBooks actually are. Learn how they work, how they originated, what they can and cannot do. You might be surprised how many cool features you can actually add to an eBook with the proper background information and some of these capabilities may truly enhance your books. Sure, some of the features are not very useful for most types of books, but, just as an example, did you know that you can actually embed video content in eBooks?

The second reason why many authors never take the time to create proper, optimized eBooks is that they are perhaps intimidated by the process. It is a technical process, to be sure, but it is nothing to shy away from or to be afraid of. All it requires is a very basic sense of structure and sequencing, things we’ve all been taught since first grade and that we have down pat.

Let’s be realistic, for a moment. This is you, a smart and intelligent person. You have written a book. You have mastered the spelling of millions of words. You have internalized grammar rules and overcome countless stylistic challenges over the course of putting your book together, not to mention that, most likely, you had to plot it all out properly to create a dramatic arc, or to create a stream of conscious that readers can follow.

By comparison, creating professionally formatted eBooks is as easy as burning a marshmallow over an open fire.

Over the next couple of weeks, I will post different installments on this blog to show you how you, too, can get to state-of-the-art, professional-looking eBooks that work perfectly on any eBook reader in the market, taking the guesswork out of creating your final product. Stay tuned…


Take pride in your eBook formatting
Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart VPart VIPart VIIPart VIIIPart IX

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


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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Anatomy of a synopsis

One of the most challenging moments in the writing of a book and its preparation for publication is the creation of the synopsis or flap copy as it is often called also. The reason is easy to understand. It is a short blurb that will make all the difference whether a prospective reader will actually find the book interesting enough to continue and pay for it. Right after the cover the flap copy is easily the most important driver to turn curiosity into an a sale.

Publishing houses usually have dedicated copywriters to compose these flap copies for them. These writers are specialists in squeezing a maximum of intrigue out of a few sentences. Make no mistake: copywriting is an art upon which many millions of dollars can hinge.

Naturally, when the time comes for me to compose flap copies for my books I always try to spend some extra time on it. While creating the copy for “Terrorlord,” the latest volume in my “Jason Dark” series, I thought I’d put all of my resources to work and ask a few of my closest writer friends to chime in and help me massage the text.

Here is what I started with.

Conjured up from the bowels of the abyss by ancient spells, the Terrorlord has only one desire — to open the Seven Gates of Hell and unleash upon mankind a terror beyond imagination. He will do what it takes and kill anyone in his path remorselessly.
To save mankind from the horrors they don’t even know is upon them, the Geisterjäger Jason Dark and Siu Lin have to confront the evil darkness themselves and stop the Terrorlord before his reach is growing too far and his powers become unfathomable.

I thought it was pretty good but I would soon learn that I clearly made some cardinal mistakes.

The first comment was that there was clearly too much hyperbole in the description to the point that it became detrimental. Someone else also suggested that it was lacking depth. What is a Terrorlord, the question arose, and the consent that the description lacked a true emotional hook.

I could see all these points and reworked the text to this.

Conjured from the bowels of the abyss by ancient magic, the Terrorlord has one desire — to open the Seven Gates of Hell and unleash the horrors of the undead upon mankind and devour our world in his evil blackness.
Reliving the nightmares of his youth where an encounter with the Terrorlord left him scarred for life, Jason Dark must once again confront the powerful gatekeeper from Hell before his reach and power spiral out of control.

I did not elaborate further on the explanation of the name “Terrorlord” because I really felt that the name was enough to paint a picture, particularly if you take into consideration the cover artwork that would accompany the book. Take a look at the image to the left and judge for yourself. Apart from that, however, I definitely tried to make the synopsis stronger than before and to relay a bit more information – too much information, perhaps.

The comments on this one were that the first sentence in particular was too convoluted, running on with too many verbs – opening, unleashing and devouring. Yes, I could see that. It was a bit clumsy, indeed.

Complemented with the standard boilerplate second paragraph that provides information regarding the time period and setting of the story, I finally decided to go with the following text.

Conjured from the bowels of the abyss by ancient magic, the Terrorlord has one desire — to open the Seven Gates of Hell and unleash the horrors of the undead upon mankind.
Reliving the nightmares of his youth where an encounter with the Terrorlord left him scarred for life, Jason Dark must once again confront the powerful gatekeeper from Hell before his reach and power spiral out of control. With the help of Siu Lin, the ghost hunter will have to put an end to the Terrorlord’s dark reign before he can devour our world in his evil blackness.

This is the ninth volume in a series of gothic horror adventures where Jason Dark, a fearless and resourceful ghost hunter, follows in the mold of a Sherlock Holmes combined with Randall Garrett’s Lord D’Arcy. Written by Guido Henkel, the designer who brought Germany’s famed “Das Schwarze Auge” series to computer screens, this series is filled with enough mystery, drama and suspenseful action to transport you to the sinister, fogshrouded streets of Victorian England. Your encounter with the extraordinary awaits.

As you can see, I hope, creating a powerful flap copy is not as trivial as it may appear at first. Even though I may have ended up with a decent enough synopsis through this process, part of me truly wonders what a professional copywriter would be able to come up with.

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What’s your reading speed?

The other day I read a review of one of my “Jason Dark” books on a blog and it struck me that the reviewer remarked upon the length of these dime novels. He mentioned in his review that it was a short read that took him about an hour to complete. At first I did not think much of it but it stuck with me and a little later I thought about this passing remark a little more.

What bothered me was the fact that it takes me considerably longer to read the books as well as the fact that I would consider a book that offers a mere single hour of entertainment too short. Since I decide upon the price of my dime novels based on the entertainment value I attach to them, the $2.99 sticker price of a “Jason Dark” volume could be considered too high… or maybe not.

The stories in the series are usually around 23,000 words long. If someone reads such a story in an hour it means he has an average reading speed of almost 400 words per minute. If this means nothing to you let me just say that that is pretty fast. I wager that few people can actually read at a speed remotely close to that, especially if you take into consideration all the factors that play into this. In addition, it means that the reviewer read either with full concentration for the entire hour, or that his actual reading speed is even higher but sprinkled with moments of distraction that bring down the average speed. Be that as it may – it remains impressive.

Reading consists of three factors – the speed at which you read the words off a page, the comprehension of the material read and finally, the retention of it, which gets overlooked all too often. This means that even though someone might be able to read the words really fast, he may not be able to pick up the entire meaning of the text – skimming it rather than taking it in really – and in addition, the text that has been read might be forgotten in no time at all.

Sometimes I wish I could read faster – I am a fairly average speed reader – and I’ve been thinking about checking out some of the programs on the web to learn that, but I am honestly afraid that it might affect my comprehension and retention, which I do not wish to sacrifice. In addition, I simply don’t know where to start and how to go about it, but it is something on my mind.

If you want to find out what your own reading speed is, check out this website for a short test. I think it is not really representative, as the sample might be too small and generic, but it will nonetheless give you an idea where you are.

http://www.readingsoft.com

I just took the test a minute ago and my result was a reading speed of 247 words per minute at 100% accuracy, which means it would have taken me at about 2 hours to read the “Jason Dark” story – though I know from real life that even that is not correct, as it typically takes me 3 to 4 hours to read one of the volumes, if not more, given all the real life distractions surrounding us.

In regards to the reviewer mentioned in opening, it is unfortunate that the impression might have been created here that the stories might be excessively short – more like short stories, which they are not. For a casual reader of the review on that blog who might not be familiar with the fact that this reviewer is an incredibly fast reader the impression is undoubtedly one that the books are a whole lot shorter than they really are. A dime novel with 64 pages in print, it will typically offer the casual reader a few hours of enjoyment and with that in mind $2.99 might be the proper price point for them after all.

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The problem with “‘Salem’s Lot”

While I haven’t had as much time to read lately as I wished I had, I’ve been able to complete Stephen King’s “’Salem’s Lot” the other day. I used to be a huge King fan 25 years or so ago but have sadly lost interest in his writing after a number of consecutive books I read of his were becoming overly tedious for me to work through – namely “Insomnia” and “The Stand” come to mind.

I remembered that “’Salem’s Lot” used to be one of my favorites so I decided to reread the novel after all these years to see how I felt about it. It was an interesting experiment and the result was very different than I expected. I expected to find the book as great as when I first read it. Sadly that was not quite the case. From the beginning I noticed that even in this story King’s penchant for overly inflated prose came through. In fact, to my surprise, the entire first quarter of the book is dedicated solely to exposition. There is absolutely nothing happening and the reader is presented with details that, I felt, were absolutely redundant. Discussing the history of the Lot is all nice and good, but do we really need to know who owned a particular parcel of land 50 years ago and that the guy liked to be in his drink watching the sunset over a brook that meanders down a particular piece of forest before it reaches another parcel of land that used to be owned by this guy who once crashed his horse carriage in a barn because… Well, you get the drift.

All of this really didn’t do much for me and neither did the last third of the book which is made up of seemingly unrelated stories and events that have only marginally to do with the main plot and could easily have been omitted. Some of the material is interesting to read – other parts are not – but overall they add little to the main story of the book and somehow reminded me of deleted scenes and alternate endings you would find on DVDs, or maybe simple writing exercises to elaborate on the overall world of the book.

By the same token, I do love the main plot of “’Salem’s Lot” and think that King has an incredibly cool story on his hands there, but as so often, I really think he lets the way he is telling the story get in the way with the story itself. I don’t want to diss the book but “’Salem’s Lot” would have been a much more enjoyable read, in my opinion, if King would have tightened up his prose and would focus a little more on what is relevant. But at the same time, I have to wonder, of course, who am I to criticize Stephen King? Honestly, I don’t have an answer to that, but I know what I like and I can tell when a book bores me.  “’Salem’s Lot” did both…

Recently I’ve discovered a new series for me to read – that is, it is new to me. It is Naomi Novik’s series of Temeraire books. I stumbled upon it by accident, browsing the shelves at Barnes&Noble. The cover intrigued my and the flap copy immediately got me intrigued. Any book that mixes dragons with Napoleonic naval adventures is instantly getting my attention. As a result I looked into it a little more and found out that it is an entire series of books, at last count up to six volumes. With that in mind, despite reading the most current entry in the series I decided to start at the beginning with “His Majesty’s Dragon,” which now graces my Kindle. So far I do like it a lot. Novik has a very easy, fluid style that makes it very fun to read the book and lose yourself in the story. I have really high hopes for this series…

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