Saturday, July 27, 2013

Why should things be easy?

Frustrated Artist, photo by CortneeB, used with attribution, cc license

I've noticed a slew of posts on G+ from authors looking for information on making their manuscripts into eBooks and sharing their frustration that it's a difficult process. Having struggled with that learning curve myself, I get that. I do.What I don't understand is the sense of outrage that the process isn't simple.

Why should everything be simple?

Writing a book isn't simple. Creating a world, characters, plot, constructing sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters--none of that is easy. Achieving 'the end' is an accomplishment worthy of celebration. And that's not even counting the work of revision and editing.

So why should designing the physical and electronic book be easy? It's still a process of creativity and design. Why is it that we live in a culture that seems to crave assembly-line goods at the cheapest price? If something is worth doing, it's worth doing well and that means either taking the time to learn to do it well or paying someone else to do it well.

Typography is a technical skill and an art. I appreciate the knowledge that goes in to creating a beautiful book. While an eBook doesn't lend itself to all of the same kinds of typography, there are design choices that make an eBook easy to read and lovely to look at. It's not something I expect to come automatically at the press of a button.

One of my hobbies is creating ceramics--both throwing on the wheel and handbuilding. I've been taking classes for 6 years and only this year, have been able to sit down at the wheel and create what I have in mind, consistently. If I took into account the cost of the classes and the time at the studio, if I were to sell my work, I'd have to charge something like $30+ a coffee mug to cover my expenses. I can most likely go to Target or Wallmart and buy a ceramic cup for $5. But that cup is likely to be generic and mass produced. Which is not bad or evil. It's just not a piece of art.

One of my side-jobs is to format eBooks. I sometimes do print books as well, but my typography skills are definitely not as good as a professional typographer. It's not a simple process, even though I've automated some of it. I spent a lot of time and effort learning how to get it right. This is a copy of my process that I posted on G+ earlier in the week. You may find it useful or educational.

TL;DR: This is a detailed description of my process for creating print and eBooks from a manuscript. Doing it right (ie, not settling for a generic looking book) takes time, patience, and knowledge.

So for those of you curious as to what kind of work goes into formatting a book for print and eBook conversion, on Monday evening +RJ Blain  sent me her manuscript for The Eye of God as an rtf file. (Outputted from Scriviner.) I finished with both parts of the work this evening (Thursday) .

The Print Book:

But even before I was ready to physically manipulate the file, we had a conversation about what look/feel she wanted for the book. That included choosing a typeface, the trim (book) size, heading and scene break styles, and body paragraph and initial paragraph styles.

For the font, she chose Garamond which is a slightly old-fashioned and elegant serif font that matched the feel of the story. She had a strong preference for simple over complex initial paragraphs, so we chose to place the first word of each chapter in small caps and no-indent. She also did not want a dropped cap. For the scene changes, she wanted a glyph rather than a space or a typographic mark and I was able to find a freely available line drawing of a sword.

I added the sword motif to the chapter headings as well.

Once the basic stylistic decisions were made, my real work began. I saved a copy of the manuscript and set it up with the correct paper size, orientation, margins, and default styles. (Yes, I work in a word processor. It's not the best tool for desktop publishing, but it's the one I'm most comfortable using and with a solid group of styles, I can create professional looking book files.)

~I set the chapter titles as headings.
~I added the sword glyph as chapter decoration and scene change mark
~I set the initial chapter paragraph style
~I set the following paragraphs as the default style

Then I scrolled through the document looking for pages with awkward scene or chapter breaks. I needed to ensure that no scene ended at the absolute bottom of a page or that no chapter ended with a single line alone at the top of a page. In order to fix the layout, I needed to play with individual page settings, font spacing (kerning) and line spacing (leading).

In fact, I played with several combinations of font size and leading until I found a good compromise between readability, page count, and widow/orphan control (those pesky abandoned lines). This needs to be done BY HAND, not by the program.

That work took me the better part of 2 full days. It would have been finished sooner, but I also did a final copyedit pass, which I don't usually do when I format/convert manuscripts, but Rebecca asked nicely. :)

Once I had a file I was satisfied with, I exported it as a pdf and paged through it several times more. Looking carefully, I was able to spot areas that needed to be tweaked and re-exported.

The eBook:

I have a workflow for eBook creation that uses freely available, open source programs as automation tools as my starting point. I combine the initial output with additional editing tools to hand tweak and alter the CSS (cascading style sheet) used to create a backwards-compatible, elegant eBook.

I've outlined the start of that process in my illustrated creative-commons guide. (  It starts with the manuscript saved as an odt (open office) file and imported into calibre.

I use calibre to convert the file into an epub. This automates the creation of my CSS stylesheet from the initial document styles. (Yes, this can all be done by hand in html. This is faster for me.)

I examine the first file in my browser, in iBooks, and Google play on my tablet and note what I like and don't like about the look/feel of it.

Then I open the epub in Sigil, an epub editor and hand-tweak the stylesheet until I get the output I like. This may entail changing indents, spacing and placement of headers, checking for size and placement of the scene change glyphs, etc.

Once I have the epub that works, I make a copy. I change the  metadata to indicate that this will be a MOBI edition, along with the correct ISBN,  and import that epub into calibre as a new source for converting to mobi.

(I do this because I have found kindlegen to make errors in its conversion that breaks the metadata table of contents.)

The eBook took one full work day to get right.

I take the time it takes because I'm a perfectionist when it comes to creating books. After spending months or years writing something, revising it, and editing it, it deserves to go out into the world looking its finest.

So if you've been wondering where I've been this week, wonder no more. :) And The Eye of God is a cool story!

No comments:

Post a Comment