Sunday, June 25, 2017

Zen of Ebook Formatting by Guido Henkel

Zen of Ebook FormattingZen of Ebook Formatting by Guido Henkel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is pretty much the bible of hand-coding your e-books. If you want to indie publish and you can't afford Vellum (and a Mac to run it on), or if you just prefer having complete control over what your book looks like, Guido Henkel will teach you how to produce great looking books.

Table of Contents:

Chapter One: The Road to Right
-- Understanding eBook readers
-- Why you should not use a word processor
-- The Road to Right
-- Tools of the trade
Chapter Two: Data Structure
-- CSS
-- Prepping your style sheets
Chapter Three: Cleaning Up the Manuscript
-- The Power of Em
-- Time to clean up your manuscript
-- Fixing up styles
Chapter Four: From Word Processor to Programming Editor
-- Nice, clean and predictable in HTML
-- Paragraphs are the meat
-- Fleshing it out
-- Dealing with special characters...the right way
-- A word about fonts
Chapter Five: General Techniques
-- Centering content
-- Images
-- Image file format
-- Image resolution
-- Chapters
-- Typography and Layout
Chapter Six: Advanced Techniques
-- Chapters
-- Initials
-- First-line capitalization
-- Formatting inserts and notes
-- Image blocks with byline
-- Custom fonts
-- Linking to the outside world
-- Lists
-- Backgrounds and color
Chapter Seven: eBook Generation
-- eBook formats
-- Meta-Data
-- The Cover
-- The TOC in the digital world
-- Calibre
-- More control with XPath
-- KindleGen
-- Error-checking
Chapter Eight: eBooks Outside the Box
-- A Word about Fixed-Layout Books
-- Preparing for Smashwords
-- Going to Print

This book assumes that you've written your book, had it edited, and that it's ready to go into production. This isn't a writing book, or even a book about how to prepare your manuscript for the production process at the level of editing and copyediting and proofreading, any of that sort of thing. This is purely about production -- turning your manuscript into an e-book.

Henkel starts out in Chapter One with a discussion of why good formatting is important and some common problems before launching into the how-to. He explains the format coding you'll be using, talks about what tools you should (and shouldn't) use when coding your file, and shortcuts to make this less laborious.

Chapter Two explains the basics of HTML, what it does and how to use it. I imagine most people who have a blog know at least the basics of HTML, but plenty of writers don't have blogs these days, so this section is useful. It's worth at least scanning, even if you think you know what you're doing. :) This chapter also explains Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), which isn't quite as common a skill. Chapter Two is basically a set-up, giving you the basics before diving in.

Chapter Three is about prepping the manuscript. It explains things like why to use the "em" as a unit of measure rather than the pixel, and how to use Search/Replace to add in things like curly quote and proper em-dashes. Learning how to automatically turn all your italic text into <i>italic text</i> with one operation, rather than having to go through the file by hand (and by eye, and inevitably missing a few) is IMO worth the cost of the book right there, if you're hand coding. Chapter Three provides screenshots of the tools and controls used are included, making it easy to go step-by-step.

Another useful trick Henkel explains is why it's best not to call out specific fonts, and how to go about it if you feel you have to. Print books have an advantager here, from the point of view of the writer and publisher, because a print book can be published to look however the producer wants it to, with whatever combination of fonts and font sizes they prefer to get across the feel or mood they want associated with the book. This isn't always ideal from the reader's point of view, though, as when a reader prefers a plainer or larger font for the sake of readability. Part of Chapter Four shows you how to call out a specific font, with back-up fonts if you want, and how to let the display fall back on the default font called out in the reader's particular device if necessary.

Image files are something I've always found a bit intimidating. I've never played with images much (as you probably know if you've been reading my blog for a while) and even figuring out what to Google to get help can be a headache. Chunks of Chapter Five provide some great explanations, along with sample code to help you get images neatly into your e-book. One trick I particularly like is how to specify an image size such that it'll fit well on an e-reader, a tablet or even a phone. That's something I wouldn't have thought of even researching, but it's a great tool for making your books look professional.

Chapter Six has some cool advanced techniques, such as how to do fancy chapter headers using images instead of just fonts, how to use small caps in the first line of a chapter's text, and how to use fancy initials for the first line of text. Again, this helps your book look more professional (and just cooler), and Henkel gives sample code to show you exactly how to do it.

Another technique he explains here is how to include links to locations outside the book itself. This is great for including, say, buy links to the next book in a series, or links to the page where readers can sign up for your newsletter.

Chapter Seven gets into the meat of producing an e-book file. He explains how to create different file formats to serve different reader communities. He also discusses which formats (which the tools he recommends will allow you to produce) are obsolete and safely ignored. It also explains what meta-data is, what it's for, how it's used, and how it might be used in the future. (Its full potential isn't utilized by vendors yet, but hopefully they'll get their act together soon. I've ranted before about the kinds of searches e-book vendors should be able to do but can't yet, so I won't repeat myself here.)

This is also where Henkel discusses the cover. A lot of writers have problems producing, finding or acquiring a decent book cover. He talks about how a book's cover impacts its perceived value, and how that affects how your book sells. I agree with him that it's worth making some investment of time or money or both to get a decent cover, but only up to a point, at least in the area of time. If you can put a book up with an okay cover now, or a great cover a year from now (because that's how long it'll take you to save the money to get a great cover) then IMO you're better off putting the book up now. It's true that you only have one chance to make a good impression, but you make a good impression individually for each person who comes across your book, and your book will be making impressions -- good or otherwise -- on readers who've never seen it before for as long as you have it up for sale. That said, I agree that a good or great cover is best. He gives some suggestions for how to get a cover you can be proud of. He also discusses how cover art affects file size, and what that does to the loading time and the delivery fee you're charged by the vendor.

Chapter Eight goes beyond the basics, and includes a brief discussion of doing print books. Don't buy this book if you just want to know how to prepare a file for submission to a POD service; there are only a couple of pages here, and it's all theoretical.

On the whole, this is an excellent book for a newbie (like me) who's never produced an e-book before. I know other writers who've had great luck with the instructions in this book, and gone on to publish great looking e-books. If you're looking for help indie publishing your work, this book is a valuable resource. Check it out, and good luck!


Charles Gramlich said...

thanks for the heads up on this. I'm gonna have a look at it.

Angie said...

Charles -- welcome. :)


Suzan Harden said...

Thanks for the tip! A book I definitely need to check out. I know just enough coding to be dangerous.

Angie said...

Suzan -- you're very welcome. Luck!