Neil Clarke on Producing Ebooks

One of the workshops I attended at Capclave 2013 was “Producing Ebooks,” hosted by Neil Clarke. Neil is eminently worth listening to because he knows what he’s talking about. He’s the founder and editor-in-chief of Clarkesworld, a monthly online magazine that he started in 2006, which is also distributed via ebook subscriptions.

Each month, a new issue of Clarkesworld appears. Readers can peruse it online for free, or subscribe for a small fee (currently $1.99 per issue) and receive each issue automatically as an ebook. The fiction stories from each year of the magazine are collected and published in anthologies, which are available in both print and ebook form. Additionally, Neil provides contracting services to produce ebooks for other publishers. So, Neil knows a thing or two about the practical aspects of producing ebooks.

As one might expect for a workshop like this, the audience encompassed every skill level possible when it comes to publishing ebooks, from advanced web developers like me to newbies who didn’t even know HTML. Neil did his level best to ensure that everyone went home with knowledge that they could use.

For me, the biggest lesson was that ebooks are simply HTML. My career knowledge of HTML and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) applies directly to the production of ebooks.

Here are some of Neil’s technical tips about producing ebooks, focusing mostly on the HTML aspects:

  • Keep the CSS simple. A minimalist approach to designing an ebook leaves the most power in the hands of the user and provides the fewest opportunities for device differences to mar your ebook.

  • For an ellipse, i.e. – the standard “three dots in a row,” use periods with a non-breaking space between them (a non-breaking space is represented as “ ” in HTML). There is an ellipsis construct in HTML, but some devices don’t support it, so it’s best not to take chances.

  • The right indent is not currently supported by many ereaders, so it’s currently advisable not to use it.

  • When editing, regular expressions will be your friend. For those who aren’t familiar with them, regular expressions are patterns that are used in searches. For example, searching for “Ne*” would search this current article for all words that begin with “Ne”, allowing me to cycle through the hits and double-check that I’ve spelled Neil Clarke’s name correctly.

  • There are some interesting problems with readers and word wrapping. Here we have the HTML for a reference to Neil’s magazine in italics:

          Neil is the founder of <i>Clarkesworld</i>, an online magazine.

    Note how the comma appears outside the closing italics tag. With some ereaders, it’s possible for word wrapping to place the comma on the next line, which is generally considered a rookie mistake in epublishing. It’s best to include the comma within the italics to ensure that word wrapping doesn’t cause problems. This same issue occurs with bold tags and, sometimes, with quotes as well.

  • External links can bring special problems. Some sites like Amazon.com don’t like outgoing links in your ebook. They especially don’t like outgoing links to competitors like Barnes & Noble. Your ebook can be rendered unavailable by an eseller if they don’t like the links you’ve included. Avoid links to competitors. Minimize other links within your ebook. Be prepared to defend the validity of the links that you have included if the eseller balks at making your ebook available.

  • Internal links within an ebook are fine, especially for the Table of Contents.

  • The title attribute on h1 tags are used to produce the Table of Contents. By default, the header text will be used unless the title attribute is provided.

          <h1 title=”Stranger at the Gate”>I. Stranger at the Gate</h1>

  • Neil recommended 150 – 200 dpi (dots per inch) for ebook covers, unless the cover basically just featured stock art.

  • If possible, try not to start with text copied from Microsoft Word or saved as HTML using Microsoft Word. First, Microsoft Word documents contain some characters that are problematic in HTML. Second, when Microsoft Word is used to save documents in HTML, the resulting HTML tends to be: 1) really nasty and ugly, and 2) sometimes contains constructs that really only work reliably in Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer. If you must convert from Microsoft Word to HTML, there are many web sites that do this. One reasonably good one mentioned by Neil was word2cleanHTML.com.

  • The Adobe ePub reader is absolutely awful according to Neil. Interestingly, this makes it a good test platform, because if your ebook looks good using this ereader, it’ll probably look correct on most other ereaders.

  • Don’t underline links. When links aren’t active, it misleads people into thinking that they’re still active when they’re not.

  • If you’ve had Microsoft Word anywhere in your workflow, remember to search your document for constructs like an <em> tag followed by a space and then a </em> closing tag. This is a common remnant from Microsoft Word.

  • Neil on the “indent the first sentence” vs. “no indent” debate regarding organizing text in ebooks: “Personal preference.”

In his two-hour workshop, Neil touched on a number of other subjects related to producing ebooks. He noted that the ePub format was something of a standard for ebooks. If you could produce your ebook in the ePub format, then there were numerous tools that could convert it into other formats as needed.

While Neil used some commercial products such as InDesign for his own work, he understood that many people didn’t have an extensive budget for purchasing tools. He listed Sigil as a solid, open source tool for producing and manipulating ebooks, particularly in the ePub format. Scrivener was also mentioned as a relatively low-cost commercial tool that a lot of writers were using ($45 based on my research, but with a 30-day “try before you buy” option). Neil said that he’d also heard good things about draft2digital.com but hadn’t tried them out (they convert documents and publish them to esellers for roughly 10% of the money earned by the ebook).

Calibre was another open source tool that was mentioned for converting between formats. It’s also good for examining the metadata associated with ebooks. Neil noted that it was an excellent choice for converting an ePub file into a Mobi file (the format used for Kindle ebooks). Another free tool was validator.idpf.org, an online ePub validation tool provided by the International Digital Publishing Forum.

InDesign is considered to be the gold standard for producing ebooks. It’s not cheap, and it has a steep learning curve.

Interestingly, Neil was not a fan of SmashWords, an eseller that has carved out a niche with short stories, and has added services to distribute those stories to other esellers.

One thing that struck me as amusing was Neil Clarke stressing that PDF files (Adobe’s ubiquitous Portable Document Format) were not ebooks. They were representations of what a document would look like if printed. While I can see his point, I’m not entirely sure that I agree with him. I’m a practical guy…if my ereader can present it to me, then it’s an ebook. Or, to put it another way, if it quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck.

Overall, it was an excellent workshop, filled with useful information. Neil did a good job of trying to make sure that 1) everyone left the session with a solid idea of what it took to produce professional quality ebooks, and 2) everyone had been exposed to tools that could help them in their endeavors. He also promised to provide the attendees with sample HTML and CSS code that he uses in ebooks (which he recently published in his own blog entry, Capclave Ebook Workshop).

I’ll leave you with one last quote from Neil Clarke:

“Minimize the automated processes. Give your ebook the time that it needs to look right.”
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1 Comment

  1. Raybuck Jaimes
    Posted January 30, 2014 at 11:00 AM | Permalink

    Excellent information on a very good topic. I personally must spend a while mastering far more and understanding far more in self-publishing. Appreciate your fantastic information.

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