Friday, March 25, 2011

E-Publishing: It's Fast! It's Easy! Right? Hype vs Reality (Technobabble Free*)

*assuming you’re familiar with Microsoft Word

So you’re a publishing virgin ready to lose it. Should a publisher that’s easy be your first? And just what does “easy” mean?

Can someone who doesn’t know HTML and XML and ZZZZZZML really just take their Word document and upload it to Amazon or B&N’s epubbing tool and – voila – ebook?

As with most things in life, the answer lies somewhere between yes and no.

It is true you can upload your Word file in practically whatever shape it’s in and the publishing tools will wrangle with whatever formatting is in it and convert it as best they can into a file that’s readable on a Kindle or Nook.

So, yes, in that regard, it really is that easy.

Will the files the tools spit out in the end look exactly like the Word document you painstakingly formatted with the perfect font, the most readable line spacing and the ideal space between section breaks?

In all probability, no.

Fickle is the word I would choose for how the tools interpret your formatting.

Just as you have to either know your grammar or have your manuscript edited by someone who does so your ebook won’t look like an amateur effort, you’ll need to learn at least a little bit about how the actual publishing bit works or risk a likewise amateur-looking book.

For Extinct, I spent hours handcoding and doing stuff that didn’t really matter in the end. I did it because of the advice I’d gotten from people who code for a living. Yes, a professional who cares about quality will turn out a lovely product. But there are a lot of professionally published ebooks that only have the minimum necessary to look professional. Using Word, you can turn out a product that meets those minimum standards and stands up nicely. It isn’t difficult, BUT you have to be willing to take the time to create that quality.

For those of you who know how to work with Word, here’s the quick down-and-dirty. There are workarounds for a lot of the issues, BUT you have to have advanced knowledge of more than Word to make some of the workarounds work.

If you don’t understand how to work with Styles in Word, or you don’t understand the instructions below, then you probably shouldn’t be trying to publish a professional-looking book yourself. Seek help or apply yourself to learning how these basic functions in Word work.

If you do know how to follow the instructions below and you check your work periodically through multiple preview readers, then you CAN produce a nice-looking ebook using Word and nothing else. Just put aside a long afternoon to do it.

Multiple Previews

I tested my documents using Calibre, the Kindle and Nook apps for PC, and the preview tool available as a final publishing step with the Kindle and PubIt tools. There were differences in all the preview readers. I tweaked till things looked good in ALL the readers. For the record, Kindle formatting seemed easiest to get looking consistent. I never was fully confident in what the final product for the Nook was going to look like.


Face: Forget it. The tools don’t recognize anything except their default fonts. You don’t have a choice. So it doesn’t matter what you use.

It also means you can’t set up really cool-looking chapter heads in Word and expect them to look really cool in a reader. (Well, you can using images, but that's more advanced stuff.)

Size: Since readers let their users scale the size to what’s easiest on their eyes, you can’t dictate exactly how big your fonts will be. You can expect the reader to see a relative size difference, but that relativity is fickle.

There’s probably some formula for how the tools set up that relativity, but I don’t know it. Stick with 12 point for your body text and 16 or 18 point for your chapter heads and the result will probably be OK.

Bold/Italics: If you use the bold and italics functions in Word, they should translate just fine.

Caps: The tools do not recognize the CAPS or SMALL CAPS functions under Font in Word. So if you’re just using Word to publish and you’re not coding, you can’t have any small caps. And if you want something in all caps, you have to hold the shift key down and type it in all caps, not convert it with the Font function.

Special Characters

The tools recognize most of the standard special characters in Word, including curly quotes, em-dashes and ellipses. Do a search-and-replace on special characters to make sure they’re all consistent in your document. For instance, change all your double dashes (if you’ve used them) to an actual em-dash. Did you use a real em-dash and put spaces around it sometimes and sometimes not? Now’s the time to replace all instances with the same consistent style. House styles vary on the way to handle sooo many gray areas of grammar and punctuation. Don’t over-worry these things. Pick whatever way you’re comfortable with and be consistent in how it’s done in all the books you publish and it’ll be fine. Most readers (the ones NOT emailing you and complaining about your choice of styles) won’t even notice – or care. Promise.

Line Spacing

Use your paragraph controls to influence how much space appears between lines. Normal single spacing will work just fine. In fact, the tools are a bit fickle about this too and may or may not honor your spacing wishes.


The tools have an automatic indent. You can use your paragraph function to apply the spacing amount for the indent.

Do not use the tab key to create indents!

Important: If you don’t specify an indent, the tool will automatically indent. For instance, you probably don’t want the paragraphs on your copyright page to indent. You’ll want them flush left. If you just type them into your doc, the tool will indent them.

The workaround is simple. Highlight all your text and set the paragraph indent to something kind on the eyes, such as 0.3 or 0.35 inches. Then, wherever you don’t want an indent – on the copyright or acknowledgement page, at the beginning of a section or chapter, wherever – set the cursor before the first character and backspace to get rid of the indent.

Paragraph Spacing

This is an important one! This is not just the space between actual text paragraphs but the space between the chapter head and the body, between section breaks, and anywhere else vertical space is required.

The first thing to know is that the tools usually won’t honor space created by a paragraph break. So if you type in your chapter head and then press the Enter key four times to create space before you begin your first chapter, the result will be that you get your chapter head followed immediately on the next line by your chapter text.

So use the Paragraph function in Word to create space before or after.

Except: Don’t expect all tools to actually render the correct amount of space. Pop in 48 pts (or the equivalent of four lines of space) and you’ll be lucky to get an extra line of space in there. This was one of the MOST frustrating aspects to deal with and I wound up spending a lot of time adjusting the spacing in the Word doc, uploading it through the tool to preview it, then going back to the Word doc for more adjusting. In a few instances, I had to live with a compromise when I really would have liked to have seen more vertical space.

Chapter Heads

Set up a Style for these. I did not use Word’s standard H1 heading because I’d read where others had some issues with it. I simply set up a new header style and used it consistently.

Use a page break immediately before a chapter head, then use whatever style you want for the head, such as:

  • Size: 16 or 18 pt
  • Bold or italic; Type it in all caps if you want it to be all caps
  • Flush left, flush right or centered
  • Space above and space below (although don’t count on these spaces rendering exactly the same in the final result)

Headers / Footers

This is easy. Don’t use them. At all. No page numbers. Nothing.

Page Breaks

Use the Insert Page Break function in Word. Two reasons:
  • The tool won’t recognize multiple instances of line breaks.
  • The tool uses the Page Break as a cue in creating the Table of Contents.
Table of Contents

The TOC gave me fits, but that’s because I was trying to include an inline Table with the names of each story and its author and have the tool point to a short teaser above the chapter head. A custom job.

For a standard novel that has a one-line chapter head, the default TOC is fairly straightforward.

You have a choice as to whether to include an inline TOC. An inline TOC is one that appears after your copyright page and acknowledgements and is functional, where a user can click on the chapter they want and be taken right to it. This is actually a more custom feature and probably one you won’t use if you’re just starting out.

Of course you want that ability for a reader to jump straight to a particular chapter, but the publishing tool also produces a default TOC that someone either sees in a window on the reader and/or can quickly access when they want to use it.

Just be sure to use a page break right before your chapter head and a nice style for the head. The tool builds a separate little file for the TOC automatically and sticks it where users can use it.

Note: You have little control over how the default TOC appears in the reader. Mostly, it will be a simple, ugly but functional list of whatever you’ve named your chapters with, such as:
  • Chapter [1,2,3, I, II, III, etc)
  • Clever Chapter Name
  • 1. Clever Chapter Name

Cover Image

Use a JPG. Different publishing tools ask for different minimum and maximum sizes. Size the JPG file so it fits the first page of your Word file (US Letter, A3, A4 -- doesn’t matter which) without any twiddling and you should be fine. BUT you do need to know how to do this properly. Get help if you don’t know how.

Front Matter

Add your title page (Title, Author, Publisher), copyright page and any acknowledgement/dedication page(s). Look at other ebooks from large publishers or print books to get an idea of what to say and how to format these pages, then use the tips above for applying styles, not indenting paragraphs, compromising on vertical spacing, etc.

See, You CAN Do It (Maybe)

And that’s about all there is to producing a nice, serviceable ebook using only Word that will look as good as what some of the pro publishers are putting out.

If you’re someone comfortable with Word and you have quick questions about the process, I’ll be happy to answer them. Please understand, though, that if you’re a Word novice, you really need to get a manual or take a class and practice this stuff on your own. And, if you want someone else to format the book and publish it for you, you’ll need to find that someone on your own as I don’t have anyone to refer you to -- nor do I want to be hired to do it because, well, I have beasties to attend to and stories to write :o).


Wilkins MacQueen said...

Dear Divine Miss Phoenix,
AAAAAAAAAAggghhhhh! I'll spend weeks going over your post. I applaud you. Man alive. Quicksand.
I appreciate your truth in this.

Orlando said...

Awesome post, I love to be told exactly what I will have to do to accomplish something. This does just that. The details are wonderful. I don't know if I would ever do it on my own, in fact, I know I wouldn't after reading your post, but it's this kind of information that helps us make those decisions. Someone like me would have to pay to have it done for us, and that is something else to consider.

David North-Martino said...

This is great! Thanks for the information. I'm hoping to need this info in the near future. : )

Sylvia said...

This is a great reference! Very detail-oriented and easy to follow. Brilliant.