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eBook advice column

Dear Kindle Owner:

I'm an author, and I don't understand the fuss about ebooks. Why should I care about ebooks? I love seeing my books in the bookstore, and I stare at my laptop screen for hours every day, so I like reading paper pages. Amazon is a Greedy Gus! I have no interest in ebooks, and you can't make me care about ebooks.

            (signed) A Midlist Author

Dear Author:

It may seem presumptuous for me, an aspiring (no sale yet!) writer to give advice to you, a published author, but this isn't advice on writing, it's advice on reading.

Read a book or two on an eReader.

Seriously. I know that print is not going away any time soon. I know right now ebooks are only about 3 to 4 percent of the market. But a year ago they were about 1 percent; they are growing so fast, they have the publishing world in a snit. And more than that, people who buy dedicated eReaders buy lots of books. In many cases, they were avid readers to start with, but no one I have talked to reports buying (and reading) fewer books once they have a Kindle (I only know one Sony owner), and most report buying substantially more. The book market has been stalled lately, and these are folks who can kick start it into a growth market for a change. You want them to read your books, and you want them to buy your books.

You can get a free Kindle for PC app or Kindle for iPhone or (as of today) Kindle for Blackberry. I believe Barnes and Noble also offers a free eReader app, although I don't know much about it. There are tons of free books in the Kindle store, and presumably in the B&N store. If you download one and read it, you will have some sense of why ebooks lovers are both enthusiastic and annoyed. Without the e-ink screen and wireless connection of a Kindle, Nook, or Sony Daily Edition, you won't see all the reasons for their enthusiasm, but if you read an ebook, especially one converted and made available for free, you will understand the frustration of ebook readers when they encounter run together or flush left paragraphs, badly hyphen- ated words, and occasionally diacritical marks that show up as garbage (Nuñez becomes Nu&^%^%ez).

You should also download a free sample of your own books, if they are available, not only to check their formatting but to see where the free sample ends. I downloaded a free sample of a paranormal romance yesterday. I'm sure the sample size is some kind of percentage or byte limit for the file as a whole, but this sample had so many pages of "praise for this author" and "other books by this author" that by the time I got to the first page of real text (and it was a prologue!) I was at 62% of the sample. I never did see Chapter 1 or get to meet the protagonist. eBook readers rely on free samples when deciding whether to buy books by unfamiliar authors. I did not buy that book partly because it was still an unknown quantity.

I can hear my friend mindyklasky speaking up about now. This, like so many other things, is something the author has no control over. Quite true. But most likely, the editors are too busy to check the formatting of your ebooks, and also to see if the free sample ends at a good spot. If you check for yourself and find problems, maybe the publisher can do something about them?

It's worth a shot.

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( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 19th, 2010 04:23 am (UTC)
Nice post as always, Karen.

Allow the curmudgeon to say harumph! to eBooks for a few moments...

"Harumph! Harumph!"

There, now that's out of my system, I wonder if the poor eBook editing and sample section issues are due to a lack of understanding about eBooks? When eBooks were a miniscule part of book sales, sloppy work could be slid under the table. Now that the format is something that people will actually have to work at, these little errors multiply in magnitude.

Feb. 19th, 2010 01:07 pm (UTC)
You are correct that publishers don't have a clue. I happen to work at a large legal and regulatory publisher-- boring stuff no one reads because they want to-- in the systems support end, so I can recognize where a lot of these errors come from. We dealt with them all more than a decade ago.

Problems with paragraphs happen when the conversion isn't robust enough to allow for variations in how paragraphs are identified-- or it's not imposing a uniform paragraph style. Likewise, if the conversion doesn't account for the way foreign characters are identified, they will either disappear entirely or come through as garbage.

Bad hyphenation comes from using a file that was tweaked for print purposes. Someone inserts a hard hyphen into a word when they don't like the way the software is hyphenating it. At that point, there is no way a conversion can get rid of the hard hyphen.

It's all in the workflow. What we did was to create an SGML repository of our data, which we can output in any format needed-- print, CD, DVD, web, all form the same data. We actually predated the rise of XML, which is now really a better way to go because there are so many tools for dealing with it.

p.s. you are allowed as many harumphs as you need.

Edited at 2010-02-19 01:18 pm (UTC)
Feb. 19th, 2010 03:35 pm (UTC)
Good to know that I'm allowed those harumphs; even though I'm not that old. (I'm still a decade away from the AARP sending me membership materials, and if I concentrate really hard, I'll keep being a decade away.)

Essentially, what you're telling me is that manual edits -rather than letting the software make the selection- are what messes up a lot of eBook conversions. If they got the software hammered out, it would also be a boon to publishers who then don't have to manually edit formats for hardcover, then trade, and finally mass market. One of those "pay a bit more up front for long term gains" investments that a lot of corporations aren't very fond of.
Feb. 19th, 2010 01:05 pm (UTC)
Feb. 19th, 2010 01:08 pm (UTC)
Thank you!

I should add that The Inferior free sample did a god job of hooking me, mostly because you start in media res with some action and the protagonist center stage.

Edited at 2010-02-19 01:18 pm (UTC)
Feb. 19th, 2010 01:19 pm (UTC)
Why thank you! Where you pick your sample from can indeed be very important. The beginning isn't always the best choice IMHO.
Feb. 19th, 2010 01:21 pm (UTC)
I am curious. Did anyone ask you about the sample, or do they just programmaticly set it up
Feb. 19th, 2010 01:25 pm (UTC)
Nobody asked me about the sample on amazon, no. I think the publishers are the ones who make it available and by coincidence, this one was exactly the same length as the one I made available from my website.
Feb. 19th, 2010 01:30 pm (UTC)
Now that is odd! I wonder if they picked a spot or if there is just an algorithm applied? I suspect an algorithm just because so many books have inadequate samples.
Feb. 19th, 2010 01:31 pm (UTC)
I suspect you're right, but who can tell? I often get my free samples from an author's web-site and convert them myself.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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