Wednesday, December 28, 2011

E-book Formatting 101

First off, I hope everyone had a great holiday. I know I did. And my baby daughter sure enjoyed herself. She's a little young to understand exactly what's happening, but she likes looking at all the pretty lights all over the place and she loved opening up gifts. Of course, she was more fascinated by the wrapping paper than the actual presents, but I guess that's just how it goes at fourteen months old.

So we moved a week before the holiday, and I had a few days without Internet. Of course I had plenty to do otherwise, with all the packing, lugging, dragging, cursing the heavens, hauling, sobbing, unpacking, screaming "When will it end?!", and all the things that go into moving into a new place. But at the same time my prose productivity shot up. I wrote 1K words on a brand new short story, 1.5K on another, and 3K on another. This is great output for me. Sadly, none are yet finished, but two are close. Soon. Very soon. The two nearing completion are horror tales, my first venture into this genre. One is psychological horror, and the other is sci-fi/horror. The third is a science fiction comedy with absurd science. But it's fun, short, and sweet, so I don't think the wonky technical aspects (of which there are few, and which are a joke more than anything else) are too important.

I also tweaked Fountain's description and learned how to format e-books. That's right, with a couple of nights of work, in a matter of hours, I taught myself how to create a professional-looking e-book. Two days ago I re-uploaded new, improved versions of Fountain to Amazon and B&N, with a nicer-looking title page. I also corrected a few typos, a couple of paragraph issues in the early chapters, and added some pretty cool effects to the formatting.

A mere week ago, I had no clue how to format e-books. But I think it's an essential skill for an indie author--especially one just starting out--to have. And it's easy to learn. I started with Guido Henkel's guide to e-book formatting, which I suggest reading in full before you try writing any HTML code. (Did that last sentence intimidate you? HTML code--gasp! Just a week ago, it would have scared the Hades out of me, but now I scoff at it.) The most telling phrase from Guido: "You're smart enough to write a book, you're smart enough to learn to format you're own e-books." Guido really lays it down in easy-to-grasp language, with only the occasional bit of technical jargon. I skimmed over the spots I didn't understand my first pass through the Guide. After that, I dove in and wrote some HTML code and went back numerous times for reference. By the end, I understood in full everything he was talking about. You'll need two programs: Calibre, which is an ebook converter, and an HTML editor. I chose Notepad++ as my editor. It's interface was easiest to navigate. For me. That doesn't mean it will be for you, though. Look around; there's a few options out there. Here's a couple hundred at Another useful item to keep on hand is a list of HTML code for special characters. Here's one.

Start with trial and error. If you save your file as an .html file in your editor, you can click on that file on your computer and it will open up in your web browser, looking almost exactly as it will when someone fires it up on an e-reader. (Note: Your chapter breaks will not be visible in the browser, but if you put them in place properly, they will be there in the e-book.) If something didn't work or doesn't look right, just go back to your HTML editor, change it, and click your file again. Play around with it. Just make sure you save your clean .doc file before copying and pasting it into your HTML editor so you can go back and start over if need be.

The only major issue I had was getting line-breaks to appear in my EPUB file. When converting from HTML to EPUB in Calibre, they refused to show themselves. But with a little ingenuity I fixed the problem. If you run into the same issue, drop me a line and I'll tell you what I did. It's a simple fix.

By no means do I now consider myself an expert at e-book formatting. But I know the basics. And it didn't take long to learn them. And now, anything I choose to publish, I can do all the formatting myself. And next time around, now that I've learned a few things, it will take far less time to create that e-book, and maybe I'll have picked up a few more cool tricks by then. In the end, it's time and money, saved.

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