Beautiful Formatting

Posted by: Joshua Unruh 1 year, 7 months ago

Formatting. Would I be too dramatic in declaring it the bane of the self-published author’s existence? It is literally the first thing you have to do if you want to publish your book. And if the book is formatted poorly, it could kill any interest before a single word is read. So you have to format. And you have to format well. But how? And with what? Will it cost a fortune? What are my options? Read on to find out…

When the ebook revolution first started, it was a radical change in the reading experience. For those early adopters, the convenience of e-reading more than made up for the peculiarities of formatting that early ebooks often offered.

In those days, it was commonplace to see shoddy scan jobs that left 1s in place of Ls and Is, to see one chapter running right into the next without a page break or even meaningful whitespace. A functional Table of Contents was a rarity, even though all the e-reading devices depended on one for basic navigation features.

Now that the market has matured and ebooks are competing for the attention of mainstream readers, those little peccadilloes become serious problems. Today's reader expects a beautiful ebook. But as many of you know from personal experience, making a beautiful ebook can be extremely challenging.

 Technically Correct…The Best Kind of Correct

For one thing, there are the technical hurdles to jump over. Ebooks are actually really simple in concept. An ebook isn’t so much a file itself as a collection of files bundled together. Some of those files contain metadata. Metadata files manage the cataloging and navigating of the book, allowing a properly functional table of contents that takes you to Chapter 2 when you click the Chapter 2 link.

The other files are content files which tell the ereader how to format and display the content. The place where this gets complicated is creating an ebook compatible with the sheer volume of ereaders and apps, not to mention how many generations of each are available.

Most digital stores do a scan when you upload your file to make sure it fits the standard for ebooks. If there’s a problem with even one character inside one of the files inside the container file that is your ebook, the store will likely reject it.

However, for those of you committed to going it alone on formatting, there is a standard for ebooks, and your manuscript can be checked with the free epubcheck tool online. It’ll point out any problems and where they occur within your ebook.

 What Kind of Polish Makes a Clean Ebook?

A clean ebook is one without any of the extraneous bits from the program in which it was originally written; code which can cause the ebook to fail its epubchek. Many writers are using Calibre for their initial conversion to epub from Microsoft Word (a notorious creator of extraneous bits of code). And if Calibre can convert Word, then it can convert almost any document into an ebook. Calibre’s downfall is in aesthetics. It creates a serviceable ebook, but not a beautiful one.

Another approach is to write the book from the beginning in a program with built-in epub conversion. Scrivener is a popular example. So is Pages. As a writer, though, I can tell you that using one of these programs would require a major change to my writing process. Also, there’s still a good chance that epubcheck could spit back errors in it.

And even if you pass your epubcheck, that’s only given you a publishable ebook, not necessarily one that readers will find competitive. For instance, a baseline feature readers expect of ebooks is functional navigation. The simplest example of this navigation is jumping from chapter to chapter using the device’s menus rather than flipping through “pages.” Some of the programs I mentioned above can add this, but not all of them. And it may not be simple either way.

Only the Beginning…

All of that is just to get a functional, minimally useful epub. We haven’t even touched on style yet.

There are industry professionals who can do things with layout and interior design that readers expect (even if they never consciously notice any of it). But these tweaks sometimes seem like jealously guarded secrets. There’s no easy-to-find list of industry best-practices for things like endmatter content, scene- and chapter-break indicators, special indenting for the first line of a chapter or new section, and a million other things besides.

And that’s assuming you work with fiction. Nonfiction has a completely different base style you can look up and get lost in without any help from me.

Beauty in Simplicity

Or you can just use Draft2Digital’s simple and powerful ebook conversion software. Seriously, just upload your Word document or text file or whatever it is you use into our converter and see what comes out. I’d be willing to bet you’d describe the output as beautiful.

It’s not perfect. We know that. Sometimes our amazing customer service team has to dig in personally and help you. And we don’t already know every single one of those best practices I mentioned above. But when we learn a new one, we always integrate it.

Every book we produce will pass epubcheck, though. We guarantee it. If it works for us, it’ll work for all the devices of the digital stores we distribute to--including some customized digital-store-specific stuff we’ve picked up over the years.

You see, our goal isn’t to give you a “technically correct ebook.” It’s not even to give you an ebook that’s competitive with other automatic book conversion tools. Our goal is to go head-to-head and win in a battle between our automated conversion tool and professional, dedicated formatting services. I’m not sure we’re there yet, but I’d be willing to bet on it.

And if you don’t think it’s possible that we could be even that close, take the challenge. Sign up for an account with us. Run a book in any supported file format through our converter, and see what happens.

If it hits a hitch, check in with our customer service. And if it honestly doesn’t do something you feel it ought to, let us know about it. We’ll add it to the future development plans. You’ll be helping us in our goal while we help you with yours: a beautifully-formatted ebook with no extra work beyond writing it.