Posted on 2015-May-14
Why Hire a Formatter?
It has recently come to our attention from fellow formatters about comments within the indie community that formatting is easy and should be done yourself. Nothing wrong with this--many people prefer to do things themselves. However, if it weren’t for professional authors hiring out contractors, BB eBooks would be operating a roller-skating disco in Bangkok or something instead of doing formatting work. This attitude has been around since when I started learning formatting in 2011, and I don’t stress about it too much—honestly the loss of author income due to Kindle Unlimited is a much more serious threat to our business model. There is some software on the market (both free and commercial) you can use to make eBooks such as Calibre and Vellum. Some folks, particularly hobbyists looking to publish one novel, prefer the DIY approach, but the fact of the matter is most successful people will hire other people to do work for them due to time constraints and their desire to focus on more important business matters within the industry.
If making eBooks was as simple as a one-click solution, I would have a 4-hour work week instead of an 80-hour one (that would be sweet). Inspired by Jaye Manus’ excellent discussions of workflow, I decided to post a simplified version of what we do in our shop. We’ll examine the intake of a standard novel, written and edited in Word, and the final product will be EPUB and MOBI eBooks for various vendors. Let’s get started!
1. Establishing Structure in the Manuscript
All books, even simple novels, must have some underlying structure. For novels this is typically chapters, plus major headings in the front and back matter (About the Author, Acknowledgments, etc.). For non-fiction, it gets a bit more complex with different levels of subheads. This step is critical and will determine how the final eBook is packaged. Our team goes into Word and properly tags all headings.
2. Locate Specialized Text
Text messages, emails, love letters, and other types of content that must stand out from the narrative are properly tagged in Word by our team. Additionally, if the author wishes to use special fonts on certain types of content, we make sure to tag for further action.
3. Tagging Formatted Inline Text
Using a script we made, we tag all specialized inline text (e.g. italics, strikethrough, bolded, hyperlinked, etc.) to ensure that this is preserved as the author and editor intended in the final eBooks. Hyperlinks are injected with the proper URLs as well.
4. Ripping to a Text Editor
Since word processing and DTP (Desktop publishing) programs are not suitable for properly adding XHTML markup, we need to get everything into a text editor. This ensures 100% compliance with our stringent quality control measures and avoids the hidden quirks of word processing and DTP software. Many formatters use programs like Jutoh and Sigil to apply markup, but we go with a text editor because it allows us to run complex scripts on the content.
5. Tidying White Space
Most editors and authors don’t pay too much attention to unnecessary white space—nor should they because writing and editing use completely different parts of the brain than formatting. However, things like random tabs, double spaces, blank lines (except for scene breaks as mentioned below) have got to go since they will wreak havoc on most eBook reading software, causing an undesirable reading experience. We use a special script that removes unnecessary white space.
6. Adding Scene Breaks
Some authors prefer to use *** as a scene break and some prefer just a blank line (done by hitting the enter key twice). Regardless of author’s preference, scene breaks must have separate markup applied so they do not appear as regular narrative.
7. Applying Structural Markup
eBooks are based on the web standards of XHTML 1.1 (for EPUB2) and HTML 5.0 (for EPUB3). This means applying heading tags to denote structure. This concept has been around forever in terms of technology (i.e. the 1990s). For novels we usually use h1 for the title on the title page, and h2 for chapter headings. For non-fiction this gets a bit more complicated (going all the way down to h6). This step is crucial so that the eReading software can understand how the book should be displayed to the reader.
8. Applying Specialized Markup
Special content such as emails and love letters that need to stand out from the narrative have special markup applied to them. They are later stylized with CSS (see below) based on the author’s preferences, including embedding fonts.
9. Tidying Punctuation
This step involves a series of complex scripts that fix things like turning an ugly double hyphen “--” into a proper em dash “—”. This is also the step where straight up-and-down quotes and apostrophes are turned into the proper “curled” quotes. Straight up-and-down quotes look terrible in an eBook and signify a certain level of amateurishness in eBook production. Additionally, left-handed single quotation marks that should be apostrophes are corrected in this step, such as love ’em rather than love ‘em. Microsoft Word is notorious for making apostrophes face the wrong way.
10. Adding Typographical Elements
In this step, our team applies typographical elements so that the eBook feels like literature rather than an email from a colleague. Many of these “techniques” have a long literary tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, even though eBooks are obviously very new. We commonly use enlarged caps at the beginning of chapters and small caps at both the beginning of chapters and after scene breaks. We often add in dingbats/printer’s ornaments to replace scene breaks and around the chapter headings. This is generally done based on the author’s preferences and to complement the cover design.
11. Applying Vendor-Specific Hyperlinks
We can apply vendor-specific links (usually to product pages for the author’s other books) so that the Amazon links will only show up in the Kindle MOBI, Nook links for the Nook EPUB, etc. It is a bit labor-intensive, but adds a lot of value to the eBook because authors can earn affiliate income. The way we do it is to make them all in a single source document (along with the entire eBook). This ensures that if a typo needs to be corrected down the road, we only need to change it one place and repackage the eBooks (see below) rather than change each eBook for each vendor.
12. Optimizing Images
Any images (including the cover) are optimized for use in eBooks. It is a terrible misconception that eBook images need to be high-res like print... they do not. Large image assets cause undesirable lag on eReading devices and can potentially cost the author a fortune due to the dreaded Amazon delivery fee. Our team redoes all images in Gimp to ensure a good balance between quality and size.
13. Adding a Table of Contents
All eBooks require a Table of Contents to be in compliance with industry-standard specifications. We make one in the content itself plus a special “meta” Table of Contents. All hyperlinks are tested to make sure they go to the correct location within the eBook itself. More on the Table of Contents here.
14. Adding Metadata
eBooks are required to have metadata embedded in them, even though all vendors require you to enter your own. We usually get the metadata from the title and copyright page (for example, the book title, author name, copyright info, cover designer, etc.) More on metadata that goes into an eBook here if you’d like us to add in something specific.
15. Adding Design
The style sheet is what gives your eBook’s interior design a bit of personalization. Here we usually embed fonts for chapter headings, text messages, and the title page. We usually do this using open-license fonts to try to match the cover. However, any special requests from the author are also followed.
16. Quality Control
Many businesses strive to provide a consistent and predictable customer experience and BB eBooks is no exception. We have extremely stringent quality control standards that go beyond just making an eBook “work at the different platforms.” By ensuring we maintain these standards, clients receive consistently formatted eBooks that have the exact same design. This is important for authors who write in series and are branding themselves. We use a program that actually checks for a laundry list of potential issues not noticed by authors and editors including punctuation errors (space before a comma), “broken” paragraphs (caused by accidentally hitting enter in between a paragraph on the manuscript), and even chapters that are numbered incorrectly (e.g. Chapter 6 and then Chapter 8). The chapter order gets messed up a lot, so don’t feel bad if it happens to you.
17. Minimization, Packaging, and Validation Checks
The final step is to take all the image assets, fonts (if any), content, and stylesheet and create the eBooks for the different vendors. Many of the different eBook vendors have “quirks,” so the code is actually slightly different in each eBook. Additionally, we use a minimization algorithm we developed to ensure the source XHTML and CSS is as small as possible to help our authors save money due to Amazon’s dumb delivery fee. We do this with our own proprietary software. The industry-standard EPUBCheck is run on each and every eBook to ensure validation. We have only shipped an invalid EPUB twice by accident (both customers got a discount for our ineptitude!).
Please let us know if you have any questions or concerns, and thanks so much for reading.
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