Writing, publishing, geekdom, and errata.

Real-Life Conversion Problems: So You Want to Make an eBook?

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Just to get this out of the way in case DAW's lawyers decide to get persnickety:

The following falls under Fair Use principles (critiquing).

This post is part of So You Want to Make an eBook?. I'm releasing this book in sections on my blog, but when it's all finished I will offer the whole thing as a single eBook. Everyone who donates toward its production (use the coffee cups to the right, note that it's because of this effort) will get a free copy of this eBook. You can find all the posts here.

I often get asked why I make a big deal about doing this stuff by hand. Why don't I let a program do it? They're getting better, and are usually "close enough".

Let me show you why.

I've been reading Patrick Rothfuss' book The Wise Man's Fear and, predictably, loving it. But this isn't a review of the text so much as a review of the eBook. (Note: I am reading the ePub version; I don't know if the same issues exist in the Kindle version.)

I actually hesitate to post this, simply because I know that Pat's a perfectionist, and it shows in the quality of his writing. Let me stress this: Patrick Rothfuss is such a master of his craft that he makes it all look easy. But authors don't paint the covers or do the eBook conversion. So let me stress this: Don't bother Pat with this small issue. I've already sent him an e-mail, but he didn't do it and can't force the issue. Okay? Okay.

These aren't big issues - but they're noticeable and break you out of the story. Especially with something as good at Rothfuss' work, anything that breaks you out of the story is noticeable. Talking to one person who'd read the thousand-page (yes, you read that right) book already, one of the first things they mentioned (besides "I can't wait for book three!") was:

"Yeah, they messed up the eBook conversion in a few places."

In a thousand-page book, the few errors (so far I've only run into three (and a formatting issue), two of which we see here) were noticeable enough to be mentionable. Wow.

First, though, a bit of silliness. Wanna guess what 257 kilobytes of the ePub file is made up of?
Screenshot-1.png

That's right. Section break graphics. Rather than just having one line and calling it 210 times (we'll learn how to do that right later in the series), there are 210 scanned images of lines from the book. Basic, simple straight lines. Wow, right?

They used (I think) an Adobe product to create this eBook - probably InDesign - and that's actually what caused these errors to occur.

Take a look at this section of code. (You can click any of the images to embiggen.)

Screenshot.png

You can see right away why I hate smart quotes - they aren't standard characters like regular quotes. But there's some even stranger characters that will be at the root of our real problem.

Screenshot-2.png
Screenshot-3.png

This is in a different (and a bit smarter) text editor. It renders the smart quotes appropriately, but we've still got those weird boxes up there. So let's look in a real eReader...

Screenshot-4.png
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These are from Calibre's built-in eReader, which happens to render this exactly the same way that my Sony eReader does. Weird question mark looking things. I mean, I can tell that they're supposed to be quotes of some kind, so it's not really a big deal, but why is it rendering strangely?

It's the way InDesign obfuscates embedded fonts. It's probably a mistake - someone missed where a few quotes weren't in a standard font and those few characters got embedded... and won't render properly on all eReaders.

So that's a pretty straightforward actual error... but sometimes the problem can simply be thinking about the digital text as being the same thing as the print version. Look closely at these three images:




Sure, that first bold character (or perhaps a substituted drop cap) along with the first row of small caps looks good in print. Where you can control the font size. That is not the case with eBooks. Only one of the three above looks "right" - the other two kind of look silly.

At this point, I'd be done with the converting program.

Computers are just smart enough to do what we tell them to do, not what we want them to do.

You have to make sure your eBook always looks good. The way to do this is to let the text be what impresses your readers, and lose all the fancy tweaks, fonts, and other bullcrap. All those things are simply "wrappers" for our story.

When you realize that the text is the key and the book/eBook/stone tablet is just the "wrapper", then you can start to see the limitations (or lack thereof) that the wrapper puts on you.


This post was part of So You Want to Make an eBook?. I'm releasing this book in sections on my blog, but when it's all finished I will offer the whole thing as a single eBook. Everyone who donates toward its production (use the coffee cups to the right, note that it's because of this effort) will get a free copy of this eBook. You can find all the posts here.

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