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Saturday, September 27, 2014

EBook Formatting Troubleshooting - Style Issues

Recently I got into a discussion with some fellow writers regarding eBook formatting. Now I don't pretend to be an expert on the subject - far from it - but as I am in the process of finalizing the eBook files for my forthcoming books On Hearing of My Mother's Death and Stories from My Memory-Shelf, I guess I figure I must know a little something about it, especially when it comes to troubleshooting.

Because I had trouble. Oh, I had big, big trouble. When I first started writing about two and a half years ago, I knew nothing about "styles" or the proper way to format a document for eBook conversion - I just started typing. I manually indented new paragraphs and used hard returns whenever I felt like it. When I wanted to change the font, I changed it. These methods work fine for creating ordinary Word documents, but they spell disaster for eBooks.

It isn't uncommon, of course. Many writers are just like me - they know more about writing than about technology and screw up their files just as badly. And often the best way to fix those files is simply to create a copy, eliminate all of the formatting, and start fresh. The problem for me was that these first two books weren't written like novels, in one single file, but were rather compilations of individual pieces that I wrote at different times and at different stages of my formatting re-education. In addition, the structure of each book - particularly Stories from My Memory-Shelf, which features author commentary on the individual pieces included in it - meant that I had already spent a lot of time formatting, and would have to redo all of it if I started over.

So I opted to fix my errors one by one, which worked out fine until I got to one last problem that I just didn't know how to solve. Most of the mistakes were easy enough to find once I did the conversion because they were items I had simply overlooked, but these last few were incomprehensible because when I went back to examine at my original files, everything seemed fine. The file looked perfect. The font was correct, the spacing was correct; there was nothing in the document to suggest that there should be a problem, except that in the converted .mobi file, there clearly was.

Well, I finally started looking at good paragraphs side by side with the funky paragraphs to see if I could spot a difference, and Hallelujah, there it was, a little blip of movement near the top of my screen that caught my eye. Even though I hadn't used styles to begin with, by the time I'd worked my way through this process, the bulk of the document was coded to "Normal." The funky paragraphs were not. So even though I had manually adjusted all of the text to read properly, the underlying code (or whatever's going on down there) was still transferring into the .mobi file under Microsoft's default of Calibri Size 11 with 1.15 spacing, which, I'm convinced, they invented just to make our lives difficult, because who actually uses that?

Now it isn't my intention here to go into all of the details on prepping a file for eBook conversion, because there's an abundance of great literature on that already. I particularly recommend Mark Coker's Smashwords Style Guide , which will tell you almost everything you need to know about proper file formatting. However, you can see how a small but nagging little issue like mine could be very difficult and frustrating to trace when there's absolutely no visible indication that there's an error, and therefore I thought it would be worthwhile to record my process of how I found and uncovered it.

Hence these two videos. I made them using CamStudio, which is open-source software that permits you to record visually what you're doing on-screen, as well as add audio through a microphone. I discovered it when I was leaving my last job, which was incredibly difficult, complex, and involved heavy use of a very obscure software program. Since I was literally the only person on the planet who knew how to do my job, I thought it would be nice to make a library of training videos before I left that could be used as backups, just in case. It took me well over a hundred hours, but what a great resource to leave behind! More informative and way faster than trying to write out procedures, too. And although the software has some practical limitations - I've had errors making recordings that were too long or with too high a refresh rate - it's tremendously useful for a little project like this, where you want to be able to both demonstrate and describe something on your computer. You will notice that if I move the mouse too quickly - I tend to use it as a pointer - the screen blurs because it doesn't refresh quickly enough, but then it settles out again.

I know that this specific situation probably won't apply to most of you who are reading this, but I'm curious - is it helpful? I'm considering making more recordings like this for other common "modern writer" situations like audiobook editing, print book formatting, etc., if those would be useful to people. Apart from the video management, it isn't all that much additional effort - basically I'm just talking my way through my own work - so if there's interest, I'm happy to do it.

You can also access my training and other videos via my new YouTube channel:

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