Month: February 2012 Page 2 of 3

Ebook Formatting 101 (part 4, Covers)

The ebook formatting 101 series continues.  Read the rest of the posts in the series here.  In the previous post, I talked about finalizing your ebook…but I didn’t talk about covers.  How can you finalize your ebook without a cover?  You can’t, so here’s your post.  As a reminder, this series is for beginning ebook creators.  More advanced creators may find some of the techniques here inelegant and inefficient, but this is as simple as I could make it.

What program, size, and resolution?

In order to make a cover, you need to start with some kind of image-formatting software that allows you to take pictures and throw some type on top of them.  You know what software works great for beginners?  PowerPoint.  Any other kind of presentation software will work, too, as long as it lets you save your images as pictures in .jpg or .png format.

I don’t use PowerPoint any more, for two reasons: 1) I like to do tricks that take more sophisticated software now, and 2) you shouldn’t use PowerPoint-produced images for POD covers.  See the handout for suggestions for more advanced programs.

At any rate, you need to be able to create an image of 100 dots per inch (dpi) at least 750 pixels on the short side and about 1000-1150 pixels on the long side for your ebook cover.  An image of this size can be uploaded to Amazon, B&N, and Smashwords, and it won’t take up too much room inside your file.  This is not an image that you can use for a POD cover; print images should be at least 300 dpi.

You want the proportions of your cover to be roughly a ratio of 2:3.  On a physical scale, this translates to a 6 by 9 trade paperback cover.  For ebooks that are going on an ebook reader, there really isn’t any point to designing a truly square, circular, or oval cover: you will be viewing the book on a rectangular device, most of the time.  If you look through the covers on Smashwords, you’ll see that the square covers just look odd.

Where do I get images from?

You must have the rights to the images you use for the cover.  The easiest, safest way to do this (unless you’ve taken the picture yourself) is to obtain images from a stock photography site; I use Dreamstime (see the handout, coming Monday, for more sites).  Most stock photography sites have a section with free images, too.  Using images you find using a search engine, even if you have the “free for commercial use” filter on, is just as illegal as someone copying your ebook files and using them to make a profit.  You can usually buy a nice cover image from a stock photography site for a few bucks; if you’re planning only to make an ebook cover (and not print), then the lower-resolution images are fine.

How do I design a basic, simple cover?

  • First, create a background of the correct size and resolution.  Note: PowerPoint, no matter what the dpi of the pictures you import, exports images at 72 dpi.  This is acceptable for ebooks but not for PODs.
  • Next, place your cover image on top of the background and size it so that it covers part of background.
  • Finally, add your book’s title and your author name to the area without the picture.

While this type of extremely simple cover doesn’t come across as the most professional type of cover in general, they are perfectly acceptable ebook covers to start out with.

Here’s an example:

I took the picture for this myself.  The text and layout are easily readable, if not sophisticated.  A note about the white background, though: you should add an outline to white backgrounds so they don’t disappear on a white web page (unless that’s what you want).

Another easy way to format a cover, one that looks more professional but is a little tricker to pull off, is to make the picture cover all of the background, and lay your fonts across the picture.

Here’s an example:

The key here is to make sure your font contrasts with the background.  If you select a picture that’s too busy, the font will disappear into the background.  If so, you can put your font in boxes over the picture to make sure the fonts are readable, as in this example:


Generally, you want a very readable font for your cover.  The font should be large enough for you to read at least the title at thumbnail size.  What’s thumbnail size?  See the home page of Smashwords for examples; it’s about the size of a postage stamp.  You can find free or cheap fonts at font sites like Dafont (more sites listed in the handout); make sure you check the rights on each font and pay for them as necessary. Centering your text is a good place to start; make sure to give yourself a margin with no text near the outside of the cover, so the text doesn’t look like it’s going to run off the screen on an ereader (Zombie Girl Invasion has some problems with this near the top, for example).

Other Text

Besides your title and name, what text can you put on the cover?

  • If you have a successful book (especially one with an award) under the same name, mention that.
  • Put up a quote from another author or a reviewer praising your work (it doesn’t even have to be the same book, unless the quote is extremely specific).
  • Add a short tagline: the kind of short, amusing thing you see on some movie posters, like, “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

The other text doesn’t have to be readable at postage-stamp size, but they do have to be readable at computer screen size.

How do I decide what to put on my cover?

I’ve told you the how but not the what. The most sophisticated software in the world can’t tell you what to put on your cover.  It’s a complex subject, but I’ll give you some basic tips:

  • If you can’t read your cover at postage-stamp size in black and white (as on some ereaders), the best design is useless.
  • Look at a lot of other covers in your genre to get a feel for what people expect, like tramp stamps and a headless woman (urban fantasy cover), a ship and some stars or planets (deep space SF), or a man on a horse, preferably with a gun (Western).  Notice fonts (and font sizes), colors, photos vs. illustration vs. basic shapes, where the title is placed, how many quotes and blurbs are used, etc.  Are there people on the cover? Are they doing things or standing around?  That kind of thing.  Make a list of what generally appears on the covers of books of your type.
  • If you know of any potential cross-marketing opportunities (like selling a science fiction book that features beer to beer-lovers), you can also study books that would appeal to your other market.  See the Alien Blue cover below; I pulled inspiration from a cover for a book on craft breweries in the U.S.
  • The most important thing to convey with your cover is your title; the second most important thing is genre.  Unless you’re a famous writer, in which case the most important thing is your name.
  • If possible, come up with a relatively consistent scheme for creating covers; the more consistent you are, the more recognizable and familiar your covers will be for your fans.
  • Do not in any way, shape, or form attempt to make the surface of your ebook cover look three-dimentional by using Word Art or other 3D shading.  It just looks cheesy at postage-stamp size on a flat computer screen, and that’s usually the first thing a potential reader will see (see the examples of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series; the print covers had 3D titles, but the new ebooks that Tor released have a flat font–that’s why).
  • If you’re not familiar with image-editing software, try to avoid putting one image on top of another at first; it will probably look a kid’s cutout until you figure out how to do it more or less properly.
  • Scroll through the covers at Smashwords to see a variety of what other indies have been doing, both good and bad.
  • There is no shame in copying good design…as long as you don’t copy it exactly and have permission for your art.
  • Unless you can pay for custom art, you will probably have to make some compromises between accuracy and spirit when it comes to your book cover.  Readers bitch about inaccurate covers…but they don’t buy books from unknown authors whose covers don’t reflect the spirit of the book (or, if they do, they probably don’t come back for more).  This is another place where it’s a good idea to surf the Smashwords covers in your genres to see the compromises that other designers have made.  Make a special note of covers that make you read the blurb to see if you might want to buy the book; the things that tempt you to buy a book will probably tempt others, too.

A cover is a marketing tool–that is, it tells reader what to expect from the book.  A good cover will appeal to the people you would like to read that type of book…and it should almost warn off the people who don’t want to read that type of book.  If you don’t like zombies, you already know to stay away from Zombie Girl Invasion, even without reading the title.  Don’t worry about making your cover (or your book) appeal to everyone; if you do, you’ll get some unreasonably bad reviews as the wrong audience picks up your book.  Don’t worry about being original; if you figure out how to accurately describe how your book fits in with your genre (that is, you capture the spirit of the book with your design), you will have an original cover–not too original, but just original enough, which is what readers generally want.

Always keep in mind that you can change your covers later.  No matter how much you hate your first covers, like all things ebookish, they aren’t permanent, and can be updated for free.  POD covers can be a different story.

And finally, you can do some really fun, sophisticated-looking stuff on your own, too, as you get more experienced.  Here’s my latest cover–contrast it with my first one, A Fly in Amber. Both stories are about booze, by the way.



Ebook Formatting 101 (part 3, Formatting, Finalizing, Uploading, and Validating)

The ebook formatting 101 series continues.  Read the rest of the posts in the series here.  In the previous post, I talked about formatting a template for ebooks in order to save time and reduce errors.  As a reminder, this series is for beginning ebook creators.  More advanced creators may find some of the techniques here inelegant and inefficient, but this is as simple as I could make it.  Beginners will still need to do the homework of learning how to use their specific word processing program to do a few tricks.

Now that you have your template set up, it’s time to crack open your edited, 100% complete story and turn it into a simple ebook.  In order to do this, you first should get rid of problem formatting, then reformat the story with formatting less likely to cause issues.  For beginners, this means wiping out all your formatting  (or “nuking”) and adding the formatting back in.


Nuking is short for “using the nuclear option.”  When I was working as a technical writer/editor, we used this term the same way people do for ebooks, so I suspect it’s been around for a while.  If you think you’re confused when your word processor starts to change page numbers, indents, numbering, etc., imagine how your ereader feels.  People who aren’t too familiar with using Word on a technical basis should nuke their work before they try to format it.  More advanced users can go to the Smashwords Style Guide for other options.

To nuke your file, open your manuscript file and a new file that has no formatting in it–no page numbers, no headers or footers, no titles, nothing.  Completely blank.  Copy everything in the manuscript file and paste it as unformatted text in your blank file.  How you paste your document as unformatted text will depend on your software; you’ll have to look it up.  Generally in Word, look for a “Paste Special” button and select for unformatted text in the options provided.   You will end up with no bolds, no underlines, no italics, no big fonts, no hyperlinks, nothing.  This is exactly what you want, if something of a pain to reformat.

Save your file under a new name.

Formatting Your Text

Now, format your nuked story with the following steps:

  • Remove all tabs.
  • Remove all spaces at the beginnings of paragraphs.  Your paragraphs should start flush left at this point.
  • Make sure all returns are hard returns and not line breaks (a hard return will mean that your new paragraph will indent properly; a line break means it won’t).
  • Make sure your word processor is set for curly quotes and not straight quotes (you will have to determine how to do this on your individual word processor), then do a find and replace for single and double quotes.  (Inches and feet marks should be primes, or straight quotes, which you can insert as symbols.)
  • Remove all multiple spaces; there should be only one space after a period or colon for ebooks; if you don’t, some words will not end up flush left within paragraphs.
  • Find all your dashes and make sure that breaks in thought are formatted with an m-dash and all spans of time/number/range are formatted with an n-dash; insert these as symbols.
  • Change all … to actual ellipsis characters; insert these as symbols.
  • Make sure all special characters are inserted into text and sub/superscripted if necessary.
  • Don’t add page numbers, headers, or footers.  If they somehow ended up in your text, remove them (the ereader will add them for the readers according to its own settings).

Finalizing your Smashwords version

Open a copy of the template and save it with your story title (with_underscores_between_words),ending with .Smashwords.1.doc (The_Best_Story_Ever.Smashwords.1.doc).  Copy all of your story and paste the updated text (you do not need to format it as unformatted text a second time; you’ll lose your italics/bold again if you do) exactly at the {Text} marker in the Smashwords file, which will cause the paragraphs in your story to automatically be formatted in the Text style.  All your paragraphs should be indented properly.

Now scan through your story’s Smashwords file and format any section breaks with the Centered style (***) and do any other formatting you like (like formatting the Chapter headers with Chapter style and setting any bookmarks/TOC entries you want).

Do a search for { or } and make sure you have updated all {} areas marked in the template.

Insert the cover at the beginning; I recommend no larger than 750 by 1150 pixes, 100 dpi.

Finally, proofread your document and make sure you don’t have any errors.  Save the file!

Finalizing your non-Smashwords version

Save the file, removing .Smashwords.1 and changing it to .Other.1 (The_Best_Story_Ever.Other.1.doc).

Remove the text “Smashwords Edition” and “return to and” from the front matter. Make no other changes.

Save the file.  That’s it.

Uploading and Validating

You can now upload your file to Smashwords (using the Smashwords version), Amazon (using the Other version), or Barnes and Noble (using the Other version).

Use these links:

Note:  don’t ask anyone else to do this; you might be exposing personal information.  A walkthrough is available via Novelists, Inc. (NINC), in the middle of this awesome binder they created.

Once you have the document uploaded at each site, you will need to validate the ebook by scrolling through it, looking for issues on every page.  You will also need to test all links.

  • In Smashwords, you can’t do this without putting your book up for sale, which you’re just going to have to get used to; people will probably not buy your book until you announce that it’s out.  Note: The PDB version is almost certainly going to come out so screwed up that you can’t stand to look at it; either deselect the PDB option when uploading the ebook or learn to live with it.
  • For Kindle, use the Enhanced Preview option.
  • For Nook, you have to buy a copy of the book in order to test the links.  However, if the links work on the Kindle version, they should also work on the Nook version.

If you make any updates, make sure to make them to both files and update the file version!

Smashwords will tell you what position you are in their queue and usually takes less than an hour to upload.  Kindle and Nook will tell you that it takes about 24 hours, but it’s usually less than that–overnight.


If you are not trying to format anything more complex than the styles I gave you in the template post, then you should have no issues.  If you have to format something more complex than that (bullets, poetry, drop caps, etc.), you may have issues.  Most of the advice I provide here comes from the Smashwords Style Guide, which has a good troubleshooting section.  The thing to remember is that you want to meet the standards for the Premium Catalog for the sake of looking professional at all three sites; if you have problems on one site, you’re more than likely to have problems on all three.

However, .mobi/.azw files for Kindle have some known conversion issues.  For some reason, Kindle conversions are more buggy and less likely to translate your .doc files the way you want them to.  Some issues I have run into with .doc files converted to .mobi/.azw on both Kindle and Smashwords for Kindle are:

  • Inconsistent handling of bullets (like this list).
  • Inconsistent indents.
  • Alignment shifting to the left when links are clicked.

Workarounds for the first two are available, but won’t be an issue in most fiction (although you might end up with tabs for your non-tabbed paragraphs).  Workarounds for the third are not available, as far as I know.  To find workarounds–because they’re scattered all over the place–do a search for them, like, “Kindle ebook bullet issue.”

If you get to the point where you’re doing a lot of workarounds, it may be worthwhile into finding out how to submit files in .epub/.mobi format, which takes longer and has a separate learning curve but gives you more control.  If you’re interested, I recommend starting with Paul Salvette’s tutorials, which I found clear and easy to understand.  But that’s a more advanced topic.

Next time: Basic tips on ebook covers.



A Fly in Amber

This was my first ebook, the one that’s been up the longest.

Now available at Smashwords,, and Barnes and Noble.

A Fly in Amber

by DeAnna Knippling

Three bottles of the Shackleton Scotch have returned to Scotland over 100 years after the failed Antarctic expedition. But how do they taste?

This is a story about a 100-year-old Scotch and why I was one of only two men to taste it.

In 1909, explorer Ernest Shackleton tried to reach the South Pole but failed.  Oh, his expedition made it the furthest south of any expedition at the time, but they had to abandon the trek due to lack of food and other supplies, and Roald Amundson took the prize instead in 1912.  On the reason why he gave up, Shackleton told his wife, “I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion.”

In abandoning the expedition, Shackleton and his crew left behind Scotch (five crates) and brandy (two crates) under the floorboards in a small hut in the Antarctic.  The Scotch was made by Mackinlay and Co., a distillery founded in Leith, now a borough of Edinburgh.

Shackleton, an Irishman, had asked Mackinlay to provide the Scotch necessary for the expedition, and the company kindly obliged.  The crates were discovered in 2006 but couldn’t be removed due to being frozen in ice.  It wasn’t until 2011 that three bottles of Rare Old Highland Malt Whiskey had been delivered back to the current owners of Mackinlay & Co., distillers Whyte & Mackay.

Whyte & Mackay decided to try to analyze the blend and try to recreate the Scotch as a publicity stunt–the original recipe had been lost.  It wasn’t just a bottle of Scotch, see, it was the chance to prove that even the Irish liked the spirits of the Scotch better than their own stuff.  Of course Whyte & Mackay had to do it.

Because of the bad record-keeping at the time, they had no idea what kind of whiskey it would turn out to be, light or heavy or smoky or even blended.  The stuff was shipped up to Invergordon, where the company’s laboratories were.

So where did I come in?

Ebook Formatting 101 (part 2, Formatting Your Template)

The ebook formatting 101 series continues.  Read the rest of the posts in the series here.  In the previous post, I talked about why ebook formatting is what it is, where to publish, and what file types you need (as a beginner).  As a reminder, this series is for beginning ebook creators.  More advanced creators may find some of the techniques here inelegant and inefficient, but this is as simple as I could make it.  Beginners will still need to do the homework of learning how to use their specific word processing program to do a few tricks, mentioned below.

<strong><em>Formatting Your Template</em></strong>

To save on repeat projects and to isolate potential problems, start out by building yourself a template.

In order to format ebooks, you have to remember that ebook files tend to end up as cleverly disguised modified web pages–so you have to set up your formatting so it’s as similar to the markup people use on web pages as possible.  When coding for web pages, formatting tends to be applied to individual words, paragraphs, or sections.  See the < and > stuff on the header of this section?  That’s what the codes for bold and italic look like.  (I realize that most people reading this blog know this; bear with me, this is a talk and will reach an audience that includes people who don’t–I may have to do a slide to show that.)

It turns out the best way to do this is to format your work by word, by paragraph, or by section using styles.  On a web page, you define a style, or a set of traits for formatting (e.g., italics, margins, justification, etc.) by assigning it a name like “title” or “centered.”   Then you label each paragraph with that style.  Most word processors are set up to do styles, too.  How you do it will depend on the program you’re using, so research your own program.

Here are the styles that I set up for ebooks:

  • Title: 14-point Times New Roman, centered, bold, 14 points extra line spacing before and after the paragraph. (When setting font size as points, don’t go above 14, or an ereader may reset it for you.)
  • Front: 12-point Times New Roman, centered, bold, 12 points extra line spacing before and after. (For “front matter,” or author name, copyright info, etc., at beginning.)
  • Chapter: 14-point Times New Roman, centered, bold, 14 points extra line spacing before and after, insert page break before. (Note: do not call this style “Headers”; the conversion engine may be overhelpful and override your style settings.)
  • Text: 12-point Times New Roman, justified, .2-inch first line indent, no extra spacing before or after. (For story text.)
  • Notes: 12-point Times New Roman, justified, no indent, 12 points extra line spacing after only. (For non-story stuff, like author notes.)
  • Centered: 12-point Times New Roman, centered, 12 points extra line spacing before and after. (For Table of Contents, dedication, and section separators, “***”)

Once you have your styles set up (and you don’t have to follow my choices exactly), it’s time to set up a template (without your story in it).  Make sure the file is a .doc file.  To create a template, add your front and back matter (everything that isn’t the text itself) and format it in a named style. I provided the styles that I use for each line, but you don’t have to match them.  Put all information that varies from book to book in curly brackets {} so, right before you finalize the ebook, you can search for { or } to make sure you updated everything.

Note: Do not actually type “(Title style)” after {Title} in your template; just format {Title} in the Title style that you set up.  You won’t need to add bolds; they’re already in the styles that I had you set up; you will need to add some italics.  You don’t need to add the dashes; those just mark the beginning and end of the template.

{Cover} (Centered style)

{Title} (Title style)

Byline (Front style)

Copyright © {Year} by Byline (Front style)

Smashwords Edition (Front style)

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. (Notes style)

{Dedication} (Centered style, italics)

*** (Centered style)

Table of Contents: (Front style)

{Chapter links} (Centered style)

Read More! (Centered style)

Author Information (Centered style)

Cover and Image Credits (Centered style)

Publisher Information (Centered style)

*** (Centered style)

{Blurb} (Notes style, italics)

{Text} (Text style)

*** (Centered style)

Read More! (Chapter style)

{Insert cover of promoted work; I suggest making it no larger than 500 pixels, 100 dpi per side} (Centered style)

{Title} (Front style)

Byline (Front style)

{Blurb} (Notes style, italics)

{Text–first section of text} (Text style)

*** (Centered style)

Author Information (Chapter style)

{Insert author photo, suggest no larger than 500 pixels, 100 dpi per side} (Centered style)

Author bio. (Notes style)

Website and blog: Link (Notes style)

Twitter: Link (Notes style)

Facebooks: Link (Notes style)

Buy books at: Link (Notes style)

*** (Centered style)

Cover and Image Credits (Chapter style)

Images (Centered style)

{Credits} (Centered style)

Cover Design (Centered style)

{Credits) (Centered style)

*** (Centered style)

Publisher Information (Chapter style)

Publisher information, if you are set up as a publisher (Notes style)

Website and blog: Link (Notes style)

Twitter: Link (Notes style)

Facebooks: Link (Notes style)

Buy books at: Link (Notes style)

*** (Centered style)

And that’s the end of your template.  You still need to insert the links and update the Table of Contents (TOC).


To format web links: use your word processor to insert the links (using some kind of Insert Web Link tool, depending on your processor), making sure the link addresses start with http://, as in  Usually, if you open the web page itself and copy the link from your address bar, your word processing program will paste it with the http:// at the beginning.  You must double-check this, even if the link works when you click on it.

To format email addresses:  use your word processor to insert the links, making sure they start with mailto:, as in  Again, you must double-check this, even if the link works when you click on it.

To format TOC links: At the chapter headers, insert a bookmark using your word processor (using some kind of Insert Bookmark tool).  A bookmarked Chapter 1 will not seem different; no underlining or color change will appear.  The bookmark itself is invisible.   At this point, you will only need to format the following bookmarks: Read More!, Author Information, Cover and Image Credits, and Publisher Information headers.  You will need to have at least three TOC links if you are going to have a TOC at all; otherwise, you will get errors from Smashwords when it checks your ebook for the Premium Catalog, which means Apple, Sony, Kobo, etc.

I recommend skipping bookmarks for the Chapter Headers except on short stories or on books where the header for the chapter is interesting or clever, like “Chapter 1: In Which Our Hero Saves an Unusual Kitten.”  Paging past ten pages of “Chapter 1,” “Chapter 2,”…”Chapter 47” is a waste of your readers’ time, and yours, because your readers probably won’t use the chapter links anyway (ereaders open the ebook file at the last read location).

Note: Do not format the bookmark to include the entire chapter heading:  “Chapter 1: The Beginning.”  If you do this, the first line that appears at the top of a reader’s ereader screen after clicking it will be the line after “Chapter 1: The Beginning.”  Instead, select one word in the middle of the chapter heading, like “The” and bookmark only that word or a few letters from that word; when someone clicks the TOC link, they will end up with “Chapter 1: The Beginning” at the top of their ereader screen.  Also, label your bookmarks consistently, or you will waste time trying to remember what you called them.  “C1” should suffice.

After you have formatted all the bookmarks in the back matter (Read More!, etc.), go up to your TOC at the beginning of the ebook and insert a link to each bookmark (generally, you use the same tool as you did to insert the web links, but there will be a sub-option to Insert Bookmark or Insert Location within Document instead).  Each bookmark must have a link to it, or Smashwords will give you errors at the Premium Catalog check.

Once you have your links done, your template should be done.  Save it in several locations with all your information completed as much as possible.

Note: if you check your links before you use the conversion engine on MSWord (which you should do), you may need to remove some hidden links.  Under your bookmarks tool, check for a box that says “sh0w hidden links” or similar.  Even if it’s checked, uncheck and recheck it; delete any weird-looking links that appear.

Next: Formatting, Finalizing, Uploading, and Validating

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Ebook Formatting 101 (part 1)

I’m giving a talk for Pikes Peak Writers at the February Write Brain on February 21 at the Celebration Place (Citadel Mall).  As usual, I’m developing my ideas as blog posts, because hey, you always gotta come up with ideas for for blog posts, and I often get good comments on stuff to add when I put up the posts first (hint hint).  Although I have to admit that the handouts for the talk will probably be printed before the posts for them do.  I’ll just do Ebook 101 posts until I get through them, so pardon the interrupted Editing series for now.

I’m not going to talk about whether or not you should indie publish, just about how to put together ebooks, and just how to put together ebooks for beginners.  More advanced users (e.g., people who know web design, graphic designers, etc.) are going to get pointers toward more advanced topics later (probably next Friday), which I’ll provide as part of the handout at the talk.  So when commenting–keep in mind that the best way for you might not be the easiest way to start out with.  Comments welcome, but this is intended for a very new, somewhat skeptical audience.  My goal is for people to go, “Okay, that I can handle.  It’s not what I’m used to, but it’s not that complex.”

Where to publish and what files types you’ll need

I’m assuming that you know nothing about ebooks, other than that they exist.  So what are ebooks?  Ebooks are books that can be read electronically; they come in multiple formats.  Formats are really file types.  If you’re going to publish ebooks, you need to make sure you are providing the formats that your readers need.

The most common formats are:

  • .pdf (Portable Document Format), an open document exchange format created by Adobe.
  • .txt (plain text format).
  • .epub (electronic publication), an open XHTML/CSS-based format set by the International Digital Publishing Forum.
  • .mobi (from Mobipocket Reader, an early ebook software provider purchased by Amazon), an XHTML/CSS-based format, can be used by Kindle.
  • .azw, an XHTML/CSS-based Amazon proprietary format.
  • .rtf (Rich Text Format), a word-processing format that is not Microsoft proprietary, although they did develop it.
  • .doc, the Microsoft-proprietary word-processing format and currently the only way to upload files to Smashwords.

I advise beginners to use the following formats:

  • .doc

I advise non-beginners (and people who know web development) to refer to the advanced users section of the handout.  If you do not have Microsoft Word, you can do the equivalent actions in another program that allows you to save as .doc files (Like Open Office).

With a .doc format (in two versions, a Smashwords version and a non-Smashwords version),  you can post files directly to Smashwords, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.  By posting a file to Smashwords, you can indirectly post files to Sony Reader store, the Kobo Reader store, the Apple iBookstore, and the Diesel eBook Store.

Smashwords says that you can also post to the Amazon and B&N bookstores; however, I advise against it.  Amazon and Smashwords aren’t actually sharing books at the moment and haven’t been since last July.  Amazon will probably be your biggest source of sales, so you don’t want to wait until they work out the bugs; you should post directly to the Amazon store.  B&N and Smashwords are sharing books, but B&N will probably be your second-biggest source of sales, and they only report sales to Smashwords every month or so, and it takes even longer to get paid.  Initially, watching your sales numbers will be very addictive, and you will probably be very frustrated with the wait.

So, in short, I recommend beginners to post to the following sites:

Note that Amazon and B&N have separate names for their ebook-publishing sides.

From manuscript to uploadable file

Your manuscript should be as perfect as it is possible to make it.  The #1 complaint about independently-published ebooks is that they are not professionally edited.  Personally, I think writers’ collective lack of editing skills comes from being treated as precious little jewels who need to have their hands held throughout the process so their tiny little brains don’t get distracted from writing…while they get screwed over financially.  But I acknowledge the truth of it: most writers (not you guys, obviously) have this attitude that grammar is for prudes and commas are for lesser mortals, and even the most detail-oriented writers have difficulty stepping away from their work.  At any rate, get someone knowledgeable to look at your manuscript and tell you whether you need editing help; if you do, trade fairly for that help.

The .doc file you start out with is not acceptable to use to publish your ebook.  Do not upload an ebook using any old file; your readers will get a load of buggy crap that they can’t read.

Why is this?  Because most ebook files are not simple word processing files, but actually simplified web pages (more or less), and the conversion software at Smashwords, Amazon, and B&N will read certain things in your word processing file incorrectly as they try to make word processing files do what they were never meant to do.  In fact, what looks like an ebook file is really a hidden zipped folder…but that’s an advanced topic.  Just take it that ebook file conversion is tricky to do from a word processor file, and you need to give it all the help you can.

What this involves are basically two stages:

  • Get rid of (“nuke”) everything that will screw up the conversion, and
  • Format the text in a way the conversion engine can understand.

Next: Formatting your template.

Editing for Indie Writers: Preparing for Beta Readers

If you’re just jumping in, you can start the series at the Intro.  You might also want to see my outline.  New entries every Wednesday.  All the series posts are here.

Chapter 3, part 1:

So now your synopsis is done.  If you threw yourself into writing mode instead if being over-rational about it, then you may see a few areas that you want or need to change.  This is the time to come to peace with those changes (you may want to look at the section on how to handle beta-reader changes to help you decide whether to make the changes or not, but I haven’t written that yet): the last thing you want to do is hand something off to a beta reader with the caveat that…well, honestly, that it’s totally pointless for them to read the book now, because you’re going to change something that might totally invalidate their opinion.

But what are beta readers?  It’s a phrase that comes from software testing.  The beta testing phase “…generally begins when the software is feature complete.” (Wikipedia, Software release life cycle).  In writing, beta readers can be friends, family, critique groups, online writing groups–whatever feedback you can get, by hook or by crook.  And your book should be a complete, cleaned-up draft before you give it to them.

Readers are precious, and beta readers doubly so:  do not waste their time.

Here are the things that waste time:

The fact is that your average beta reader only has so much time and attention span: if you have 1001 typos or missing commas, you’re going to use up all that attention on getting feedback on your commas.  You do not want beta readers to worry about commas; you want to use them for telling you:

  • Whether they finished the book, and if not, where they lost interest.
  • Whether they liked the book, and if so, where they got sucked into the story.
  • Who their favorite character was and why.
  • Did the villains work?  How about any romances?
  • If there’s a mystery, when did they figure it out?
  • Any inconsistencies they spotted.
  • Any frustrations with the book.

That is, you want them to be real readers, reading a real book.

That means before you send a book to your beta readers you should (in this order):

  • Complete your first draft.
  • Check that your first draft is really complete by following a checklist, writing a synopsis and making changes as necessary, and/or just closing your eyes and declaring it “done.”
  • Spell-check.
  • Read through for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and any other known writing issues, like “using too many be-verbs” or “mixing up past and present tenses” or “head-hopping.”

You should also make sure the document is in standard manuscript format or a reasonable approximation thereof.  Why?  Because it’s standard, and you want to have zee-ro things distracting your beta readers from your story.  If you throw in weird fonts–they’ll talk about your fonts, not your story.  Page numbers missing?  They’ll point that out, rather than the fact that your main character is unrealistic.

Stop any issue that you can stop from coming to your beta readers’ attention.  ANY.  The more professional your manuscript is when you hand it off to them, the more likely you’re going to get the comments you need instead of stupid stuff that you could catch yourself.

Once you have all the issues you can possibly catch yourself caught, then you have a cleaned-up first draft.  Do not send this draft to editors, agents, or self-publish it.  Even if you choose not to have beta readers, there are more things you should do before you go forward (and of course I’ll talk about them later).

Here’s my checklist for preparing documents for beta readers.  As you learn your own personal writing weaknesses (usually from your beta readers), add items to your list.  But here’s what I do:

  • Format entire document in standard MS formatting.  If only sending certain pages, make sure page numbers match the numbers in the main document (because inevitably chapters will be mixed up later, or you’ll have to rewrite a chapter, or…or…or…).
  • Spell-check the document.
  • Check all indents and returns; check for “big uglies,” that is, stuff that makes paragraphs and/or pages look weird.
  • Do a line edit to catch spelling/grammar/punctuation issues.
  • Check opening and openings of chapters/scenes for excess backstory or other blah blah blah.
  • Make sure names are consistent and spelled consistently.
  • Do a sample for excess be-verbs, especially toward beginning of story.
  • Remove instances of “saying things twice,” or describing things more than once.

Names are my bugaboo, for some reason.

Next Week: Integrating Comments: The Tears, The Fears, The Bull@#$%.

Review: Radical Equations by Robert Spiller

In the interest of full disclosure, Bob and I are trading interviews later this week…

In short: Math teacher Bonnie Pinkwater gets caught in a murder mystery centered around a tornado and a dead vice-principal.  Despite being the fourth book in a series, new readers shouldn’t have problems jumping in.  Four stars.

This is a good, solid mystery.  I hesitate to call it a cozy, but I suppose it is: an older woman/amateur sleuth solves mysteries in a small town.   To me, Bonnie’s character always carries out a satisfying rebellion against the educational bureaucracy as embodied by Principal Divine, sometimes getting her licks in, sometimes having to grovel in order to keep her job and to defend her students.  I have a soft spot for characters who defend kids without belittling them, and Bonnie hits the spot.  Fast-paced, realistic, and a little goofy, a good put-your-feet-up and enjoy-the-small-victories kind of book.

Author Interview: Bob Spiller, Math Whisperer

[A bright light shines directly in author Robert Spiller’s face as the mystery Radical Equations is shoved into the spotlight] We haff questions for you…iff you know vat iss gud for you, you vill answer dem truthfully…

1. When you are working out the who-dunnit side of your Bonnie Pinkwater stories, do you use any tricks to keep track of all your clues and red herrings?  Do you have to get someone else to check them for you?  How soon do you give enough clues for the reader to work out the whole tale, usually?

First comes the basic plot: Who will die first, how that scene will be couched. Because each book features a particular mathematician, this drives not only some internal scenes but the title as well. Then comes the outline (which has all the clues and vague references where they will be revealed). This part is hand-written and is fluid and likely to be altered as time goes on. The outline also includes the tentative names of the characters: victims, suspects, sidekick (changes every book). As the clues are catalogued, so also are the red herrings, although these guys will be added to as the book progresses. The outline will only have about half the needed scenes (usually about 66). As I write the book additional scenes introduce themselves in various sections of the manuscript. Usually these include the one or two subplots that are necessary to make the story more than just the solving of the crime. In Radical Equations this was Bonnie’s relationship with the witch Rhiannon and her problems with her lover Armen Callahan. And if things all work out, the reader gets the last crucial clue at the same time as Bonnie. I have to confess, I don’t really have any tricks, but I have folks keeping me honest. I have been lucky enough to be part of some fantastic critique groups.

2.Did you use the puzzle at the heart of Radical Equations to inspire either the crime or the solution?  If not, do you use any mathematical or logical techniques to work out who your villain should be?  How do you pick out your villains?

Here’s the deal (I’ll get to the Bridges of Konigsberg problem [the central math problem from Radical Equations–ed.] in a second), every Bonnie Pinkwater novel contains a famous—at least in math circles—mathematician. There may be some mathematics used to solve the crime but in truth it is the mathematician who is connected somehow to the crime. In all four of the Bonnie Pinkwater mysteries (The Witch of Agnesi, A Calculated Demise, Irrational Numbers, and Radical Equations) the life of the mathematician helps Bonnie have an AHA moment. As for The Bridges of Konigsberg problem, that did double duty. It connected to the mathematician (who is in turn connected to the crime) but it also was key to the subplot involving a handicapped student.

[Which I thought was perfectly awesome–ed.]

3. Have you ever considered writing a pick-your-own-path book like the Choose Your Own Adventure series using math?  Get the answer right and live…get the answer wrong and it’s crocodiles for you!  In fact, do you have plans to write books for kids? You’re obviously interested in teens and what happens to them, with your math-teaching background and with the excellent characters you add to your books.

As for a Choose Your Own Adventure activity book, what a great idea. There is software out there that keeps feeding a person increasingly harder problems as they keep getting more and more problems correct. So, a person could encounter the first math problem–at, say, The Crossroads of Broken Hearts: Get it right and go onto Adventure A; Get it wrong, Adventure B awaits. As reader/players continue, their adventure is further modified by the answers they give. You’re a genius, Knippling!!

[And so modest, too–ed.]

I have a YA series and a YA fantasy that have yet to see the light of day. I have faith they will, but for now, my next project is the fifth Bonnie Pinkwater book.

4. I know you’ve probably answered this question a thousand times, but…who is the inspiration for Bonnie, and how did you come to write about her specifically?  It seems like you have a lot of incidents with teacher who come into conflict with administration in your books–do you and/or your muse for Bonnie find it cathartic to play those conflicts out in fiction?

My inspiration for Bonnie is a very special math teacher (now retired) who I had the pleasure of working with for 18 years out in Ellicott (the model for East Plains, the town in all my mysteries). She was not only brilliant with a phenomenal memory (which was sometimes a pain in the butt), but had a lot of the quirks that Bonnie has. As for administrator problems, I was more trouble to them than they ever were to me. Every year, in all the places I’ve worked, administrators covered my butt after I would say or do something that would have them shaking their heads. I never had to work with anyone like East Plains’ Superintendent Divine (a.k.a. the divine pain in the ass).

5. What is the best thing that’s come out of writing the Bonnie Pinkwater books?  What’s your favorite fan story?

The fans are my favorite thing. I love getting e-mail from people who love Bonnie as much as I do. My favorite fan story is about a fan from Australia. He read The Witch of Agnesi and wrote me telling me how much it tickled him and how he wanted to read the rest of the series, but was having trouble getting the books in Australia. He and I corresponded for a bit and worked out how he could get the books. What makes this story unique wasn’t the fact he was from Down Under. It was his name, Robert Spiller. What was even more wacky was that like my wife, his wife was also named Barbara. I’m still friends with Robb Spiller.

6. What are you working on now?

The fifth Bonnie Pinkwater mystery, Napier’s Bones. When East Plains High School is excavating for a new baseball field, a twenty-five-year-old skeleton is unearthed, who is connected with an unsolved murder dating back to Bonnie’s first year of teaching. By the way, Napier’s Bones is a math toy used to teach children their times tables. You can buy them online or make them yourself from popcicle sticks.

7. I have to say thank you for solving a math puzzle that troubled me since childhood (my father is both a mathematician and a practical joker with a very straight face).  Where can your fans find you to get a) more puzzles and b) ask you for solutions to the math difficulties in their lives, just as an example, while being teased by the mathematically-inclined practical jokers in their lives?

As for more math puzzlers, every Friday, on my Facebook page there is a new math puzzle—solution on Monday. I invite all your readers to go visit my page and go nuts. This is also a perfect place to ask any math problem that crosses your mind. I would be so jazzed if folks would visit my page and pose a problem for me, or just unburden their difficulties. If they would like to pose a problem for consideration for a weekly puzzler, I would have to be able to solve it and judge its difficulty. However, here is a famous problem (The Towers of Hanoi) I’m considering posting in the coming weeks. Your readers can have a preview.

Consider the child’s toy that is composed of a vertical post with different sized concentric rings stacked on it (usually different colors with biggest ring at the bottom and the rings get smaller as they go up). Picture also that there are three such posts, with the other two empty. The trick is to move all the rings, one at a time, from the post that holds the rings to one of the other posts. There’s only one rule. You can move any ring you want but can never place a ring on top of a smaller ring.

Further consider the following: If you have only one ring, then it takes only one move. Pick up the ring, move it to another post. 1 move.

Two rings: Move the top smallest ring to an empty post, move the bigger second ring to the other empty post, move the smallest ring on top of the bigger one – 3 moves.

Naturally, the problem gets a whole more complicated with the more rings you have. Here’s the question: How many moves would it take displace 5 rings? How about 10?

DeAnna, have your dad work on this one with you.

[I don’t know…I’m waiting for a solution like, “No matter how many rings, it takes seventeen moves” or something like that.  Leg puller!–ed.]

One more thing. Periodically I give hints to the math problem, along with other gems of wit and wisdom on my blog:

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