Sunday, December 20, 2015

Adventures in Self Publishing - Whining About Whining About Formatting

I've bought a couple of ebooks that were not only poorly formatted, the publishers knew they were poorly formatted and offered excuses in the blurb or the text itself.

The issue with both these books was the same.  The publisher has a nice little PDF they probably spent a lot of money and/or effort formatting that they used to give their printer.  The physical book came first, and they wanted to get away with just uploading the PDF to Amazon and calling it a day.

The problem is, PDFs don't play nice with Kindle.  They basically act as a series of snapshots of the pages.  To read on on an actual Kindle, you have to zoom in on a quarter of a page, then zoom out and zoom back, and maybe there's a trick to it, but it's basically unreadable.  Phones are worse.  They kind of work on PCs and tablets, but even then it's not always ideal.

The first book was a scholarly work which said in the blurb that they could only have a PDF version because of all the graphs and charts that wouldn't work on the Kindle.  I'm a third of the way through, with no graphs or charts yet.  But at least they were up front.

The second book was from a Fortean small press that doesn't make a lot of money.  I know this because the publisher mentioned it in the actual text of the book.  Several times.  The ebook actually opens with a chapter about how you should have bought the physical book instead.  This time around, the publisher blamed the "limitations in the technology", because evidently nobody has invented a thing that displays both text and pictures.

This aggravates me to no end, because it's bull and they know it's bull.  Formatting a PDF for your galley proof is way, way harder than formatting an ebook, so these folks know better.

There are a few exceptions.  Some things like comic books, travel books, some magazines, things where it's either all pictures or the text needs to be lined up with images.  These books were neither.  There were some pictures, but they stood alone between sections of text.  Nothing mobi or epub can't handle.

Some PDF files you can convert to DOC or copy and paste the text out of.  These are easy.  Convert to text using the nuclear option (convert to a txt file and lose all the formatting), then go back to clean it up and add minimal formatting.

The Fortean book was formatted more like a series of pictures, and one couldn't directly convert the text, not that I tried to hack it into readable shape.  Go back to an earlier version, maybe a DOC file the author submitted, or run it through an OCR program and clean it up.

Neither mentioned footnotes, and those can be a legit pain in the butt.  The only time I've used footnotes in an ebook as a reader was an Alan Partridge book, and they worked wonderfully well.  Just click on the number like a link, read it, and click "back" to return to your place.

Footnotes are simple, but tedious.  Have the footnotes at the end of your book.  Make a bookmark at the note, then a hyperlink from the number in the text.  For added points, you can have a bookmark and hyperlink going the opposite direction as well.  Simple, but if there are hundreds of them it can take a while.

Both publishers could make a case that the ebook version won't recoup the time/cost to properly format it, and they may be right.  In which case, don't release it in the first place.

Having known some graphic design / layout folks, I suspect the issue is one of attitude rather than ability.  To put it nicely, some of them are insane control freaks.  Layout, font, font size, page breaks, everything has to be in their control.  And ebooks aren't about that.  You control what letters show up in which order and that's about it.

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