Ebook mistakes to avoid

I’ve been looking at quite a few ebooks on my Kindle recently. Some novels, some non-fiction; some by large publishers, some by small self-publishers. I’ve also made an ebook myself – more on that soon – which has given me a more informed perspective.

In terms of formatting, the larger publishers tend to be solid but sometimes slightly clunky. They’ve got staff who have come up with processes and templates that work. The stuff by small self-publishers is highly variable. The quality of writing is highly variable too, as they don’t have editing automatically built in to the process.

I’ve found that if I’m thinking of getting an ebook by an author I don’t already know and trust, the Kindle store (and iBooks) feature of downloading the first bit as a free sample is really valuable. Though that’s left me in limbo a few times, for instance with novels where I like the ideas they’re developing but the writing isn’t smooth enough – do I read the rest or would it be too annoying?

Here are some tips based on what I’ve seen recently.

Quality control: writing. You’ve got something you want to say. Great. The other half of the equation is having the skills to write it. (In fact a lot of writing advice points out that good ideas are ten a penny, and it’s the execution that counts.) I’ve seen non-fiction samples that make the author look like a rambling fool. Deliver the message badly and the shutters will come down before it can get across. Be honest about your writing skills, and get whatever level of editing help you need. For goodness’ sake, don’t publish a book telling other people how to write or publish that’s badly written and badly formatted. I’ve seen it, and my response … didn’t make that author any money. That book says: “… forgive me for repeating myself again: ALWAYS PUBLSIH QUALITY WORK! DO NOT PUBLISH JUNK!” I think it then went on to suggest making ebooks in hours with text recycled from elsewhere, but I couldn’t be sure.

Quality control: layout. What I’ve found by making my own ebook is that the format is very simple, but making it look good isn’t. This isn’t made easier by the varied interpretation of the same file’s formatting in different reader software. If you’re feeding a Word document into someone’s automatic conversion process, bear in mind you can’t control what the end product looks like – other than making your source document as simple and clean as possible, after a careful read of their guidance. If you want the layout to really look good, someone needs to give it more attention. Things like paragraph spacing or indenting (not too little or too much, so paras are distinct but not disconnected), heading size, and bullet formatting were things I tinkered with a lot.

Italic text. It’s harder to read. If you use big chunks of it you’re making the reader experience worse. If you need to set text apart, find another way – and I know that’s tricky for the ebook format. You probably need to do it with headings.

Break up your paragraphs. Have you ever read that you should do this more when writing for the web than you might for print? For ebooks, even more so. A Kindle screen is quite small, and you don’t need a very long paragraph before it turns into a wall of text. For people who read on smartphones that’s more important still.

What’s up front? Because your sample is such an important marketing tool, pay attention to what’s in your early pages. I was just reading a non-fiction sample that had a bit of dramatic tension because I wasn’t sure whether the guest foreword writer would finish before the sample cut off. They did, but we only got a couple of pages of the main text by the actual author. So if you have a foreword, make it a short one. Similarly with the blurb pages about credits, copyright, acknowledgments, etc. If it’s not essential, you can always include it at the back of the full book. Some people say the contents list is not good at the front. I like it, because I can see your structure and the topics you’ll be covering. But don’t list every last subsection. This stuff gets more important the shorter your ebook is, because 10% might only be a few screenfuls.

Dialogue. This seems to be a particular issue for novels. You have to make characters’ utterances read like real people. I just read a sample where one of the main characters is writing to another a lot. She’s an operative in a secret agency but comes across like an Enid Blyton character, with early 20th century speech patterns interspersed with modernisms. It’s possible that she’ll turn out to be much older than she seems, but I think it’s just writing skills that haven’t caught up. Suggestion: read it out loud to yourself – and like a conversation, not a stage performance.

(In fact, as the whole book is like talking to the reader, watch the tone and style of the whole thing. Assuming the reader doesn’t know you, what does the cartoon of you in their head look like? Elderly aunt? Airhead hippy? Heartless yuppie? Friendly mentor? Where and when does that voice seem to be coming from?)

Going international. If you’re writing about locations and people who are a different nationality to yourself, you’re magnifying the job of making it ring true. The way society runs is different. The way people talk is different. You need to immerse yourself a bit. Read their books and websites; watch their TV; make friends with some natives and get feedback. I just read a novel sample set in London. One of the characters used the term “lame” for “not very good”; and a bank PIN was six digits (it’s four). Jarring features that make me wary of the reading experience of your full book.

It’ll be really interesting to see how this field develops as it matures – the formats, the skills, the tools available. If you’ve got experiences to share, as a writer, designer or reader, please tell us in the comments!


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