Thursday, December 2, 2010

Ebook formatting: Stuff every writer needs to know

It doesn’t matter if you plan on personally formatting your book for the Kindle and other ebook formats, or go through a traditional publisher. There are some things that are unique to ebooks that a writer must be aware of or not even a professional formatter can save you.

1. Chapter Titles vs. Numbered Chapters.

In the printed book this is totally a matter of style, a totally artistic decision that the writer has to ponder, “Do my Chapter Titles help tell the story?” if yes then go with Titles, if no then go with numbers. Some famous authors mix it up use both titles for major breaks in the story and numbered chapters for breaks in the action.

In an ebook, the Table of Contents is the major navigation tool and the first thing someone sees when they buy your book. If it looks like this:

Table of Contents
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

It won’t turn the reader off, it just won’t impress them. It is more impressive if it looks like this:

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The meaning of life
Chapter 2: The Pope Elopes
Chapter 3: The question that can’t be answered

In the era of ebooks if you are thinking about titles vs. chapter numbers you should go with titles as long as they don’t distract from the story.

2. The White Stuff

People have complained on the Kindle that White space, the area that isn’t text, looks horrible. This is the opposite of writing for websites, as a huge block of text looks very intimidating. Personally with printed books I like the pages to be broken up and have multiple paragraphs. I hate it when a single paragraph goes on for over a page.

Because of my experience writing for websites and my dislike of long paragraphs I tend to break up my writing into several short paragraphs, probably too many. The “rules” for paragraphs are the loosest of any grammar rules in the English language.

From Wikipedia:
A paragraph (from the Greek paragraphos, "to write beside" or "written beside") is a self-contained unit of a discourse in writing dealing with a particular point or idea. Paragraphs consist of one or more sentences.

The universal rules for going to a new paragraph are:
a) A non-sequitur, literally meaning, “Does not Follow”. “He looked longingly into her eyes. The cat exploded.”

If the action suddenly switches a new paragraph is needed.

b) Dialog: “Hi,” he said. “Hi,” she said. “Do you live around here often?” he said. “Only on the 6th Sunday of every third month,” she replied.

Not breaking that up gets really confusing, really quickly.

In revising a manuscript for an ebook beware of too much white space and look at your paragraphs to see if the paragraph break is really necessary and if in doubt leave it out. The exception being if your entire chapter is one long paragraph or if you are using the paragraph structure to enhance an action scene.

3. Weird quirks

Kindle still has a few weird quirks like it doesn’t handle subscripts and superscripts, so while writing whenever possible remember to write out things like 1st, 2nd, 3rd as first, second, and third. This task is tougher with word as it loves superscripts and puts them in whenever it can even when they aren’t supposed to be there.

Obvious Disclaimer

This post isn’t intended to be a technical guide for formatting an ebook, just a few observations that writers need to take into account when writing or revising a manuscript. If you self-publish or have a traditional publisher handle your book a good deal of your royalties will come from ebooks, so these are things to keep in mind.

If you’ve written a book I highly recommend that you go to the Kindle store at Amazon and try formatting it for the Kindle. They allow you play around with your draft version as long as you like as long as you don’t hit publish. Even if you don’t plan on self-publishing it through them eventually someone will have to format it for the Kindle and if you can see the process behind it you can make your book easier to format into an ebook. Which will make it more attractive, which will sell more copies.

By Darrell B. Nelson author of Invasive Thoughts


Stephanie Barr said...

I wasn't sure how to respond to this one. On the one hand, I've actually put my books on my ereader (which can read both word and pdf files - I've made them both ways). It's a good way to review them.

On the other hand, I didn't do it for the readability aspect and haven't given it much thought.

You were right on the chapters. I do get a kick out of books where the chapters mean something (even though I haven't made chapters links with the novels I've put on the book). But, then, I like to title my chapters.

I've never paid any attention to the "white space" though. Does the kindle separate the paragraphs with a space or just indented like a regular book (Sony's ereader does the latter)? I guess that would be different.

Project Savior said...

I'm just starting to play around with the formating, unfortunately I don't have a Kindle to play with. From what I can see from the previewer (which is a piece of crap) It starts paragraphs with an indented tab, like a regular book. But I've read the gray background of the e-ink makes the white space stand out. I don't know if that has been changed with the newer versions. It stood out for me because my style/weakness is to write small paragraphs.
The titles only really stood out for me because the book I am formating for it has 12 titled sections and 155 numbered chapters. It doesn't look awful on the preview, it just doesn't look great. In a normal book it would just have the 12 sections in the TOC.
Between these two things I'm looking at a major re-write to make it pretty for the Kindle, or ebooks in general. I picked the worst of my books, format-wise, to start learning.
But like everything else once I finish these lessons will stick with me and my future books will be easier to format for ebooks.