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Fearless Self-Publishing Part 1: Every Keystroke Matters

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This article is part of a series by Writing Bloc written to help indie authors put their best work forward when self-publishing.

Disappointment with ebook appearance? We’ve been there.

When Writing Bloc released our first anthology, Escape!, on January first, I couldn’t wait to download the ebook to my Kindle and read the finished product. We had worked hard and twenty different people pored over the manuscript to produce the final draft, so it was time to enjoy the fruits of our labor. When we uploaded the finished product to Draft2Digital and Amazon, we were confident and proud of what we had accomplished. So many eyes, so many corrections. The final product had to be perfect. I was beyond excited.

So imagine my surprise when the first story looked all wonky on my Kindle. The cover, copyright, and table of contents pages were all fine, but the manuscript was the bread and butter, and it just looked odd. The paragraphs all started at different places in their indentations. The line spacing felt strange. The quirks and problems in this “final product” were off enough to distract from immersion in the story. What had gone wrong?

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The problems weren’t even consistent throughout the book. Some stories came out perfectly aligned. Others only askew in a few places. Then the last story was just as jagged-looking as the first. Seeing as how we all spent months making this book gorgeous in its editing, I was frustrated with this digital publishing experience. And honestly, I blamed the format. I’m not the biggest fan of ebooks. I will read them, but generally I much prefer holding a printed book in my hand. As our next step was to format the paperback version (which is available now!), my concerns hit a fever pitch when approaching formatting. If a print book comes out looking strange, then you really can’t blame the medium of delivery unless the ink itself is smeared across the page. I combed through the manuscript as I prepared the print version, and soon enough, I found that the problem with the ebook wasn’t the technology at all, it was the way we told the technology the book should appear.

Look out for invisible problems

Writing in the modern age is much more than the words and letters you put on the page. It’s actually a little more musical than that, if you’d like to think of it that way. Music isn’t just the sounds, it’s also the silences. Writing in the digital age is definitely not just the words, it’s all the keystrokes. A few extra keystrokes caused our ebook to look off in many places. The problem is now solved, and after I solved it, I immediately thought I should share what I learned with the independent author community as soon as I could. Mostly because I’ve seen similar problems in other self-published manuscripts, and like so many other readers, I blamed the ebook itself. No matter who is receiving the blame, the end result is that the reader experience is worse for each and every error in a final product.

Specifically to Escape!, the problem was all the different styles of writing. We had twenty different authors from varying backgrounds contributing to the manuscript, and as it turned out, we had many different styles of starting a new line and indenting a paragraph. First, let me tell you the “right way”. If you can get into the habit of starting each new line of your story by simply pressing ENTER-TAB, then you will save yourself a ton of hassle down the road when you go to format your manuscript.

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This might seem like a silly thing to worry about, but it will turn out to be a big deal when publishing your book. Ebooks are just mindless computers displaying information exactly as they have been told. To your e-reader, all you have written is a series of keystrokes. It doesn’t really care about words or grammar. It’s been told to display something based on the information it’s been given, and hitting the space bar several times is different than one tap of the tab key. Pressing enter when you just want the same paragraph to continue on the next line means something completely different than just writing your sentences back to back.

Your published ebook is meant to be dynamic

Despite my distaste for ebooks, I realize their benefits. They have the ability to alter text sizes for different visual abilities. They can change the font for reader preference. Links to websites, blogs, and other works with which the author wishes to associate can be plugged directly into the script. Pictures can change placement and size depending on screen size. And the final product can be read on something as small as a cell phone and as large as a television screen. With print, what you see is what you get.

So when you’re producing the final manuscript for your ebook, remember that you aren’t actually giving your publishing program of choice your final product, you’re giving it the starting point for how you generally want your ebook to appear when readers open it. You don’t have control over what words will and will not wrap around a paragraph because you don’t know how large every reader will make your text appear. You don’t have control over how far your paragraphs indent because you don’t know how large of a screen each user will have. While formatting, you will have access to simulators (most often displayed as a “Preview” button) that will give you a general idea of what your final product will look like, but these simulators don’t cover everything. The best thing you can do is make your manuscript as clean and well structured with as few keystrokes as possible. Make sure your links work. Make sure your pictures are the right quality. These are things you have control over. But also make sure your paragraphs are consistent in their formatting. And keep it simple. ENTER for a new paragraph. TAB for an indent. One space in between sentences. Nothing more.

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Another good, sneaky double-check is to publish your ebook and not tell anyone. Then, download it yourself, or better yet, get a few beta readers with different e-readers to download it, and then search for errors in formatting that would distract your reader. If you find nothing, then congratulations! Tell the world about your ebook! If there are errors, go back and fix them, repeat the process with your betas downloading an updated ebook (by removing the old version from their device and downloading it again). Once it looks great, then you can go on selling your ebook with confidence.

The video below is a great place to start with how to format and upload your book to Amazon, as it points out a few tricks for keeping track of your keystrokes and spacing:

No matter what, take your time. No one becomes a bestseller overnight, so the publication day isn’t something to rush. We here at Writing Bloc want to make the indie publishing experience as great and painless as possible. In that spirit, we will continue this series, giving you any tips and tricks we’ve learned from our own experience and mistakes. Is there anything you need help with or have questions about? Let us know in the comments.

Thank you for reading!

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Michael Haase
Writer, blogger, musician, and generally happy fellow. Follow me on Twitter at @authormikehaase
http://talltalestold.com

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