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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Charles Stross Hates Microsoft Word

Author Charles Stross has produced an excellent blog post about Microsoft Word called “Why Microsoft Word Must Die.” It’s dead-on accurate, with in-depth commentary that betrays Stross’s technical origins — he was a computer programmer before he was a successfully published writer.

As someone who has produced a lot of large documents in my time, I personally hate Word’s Master Document and outline features, which have never actually worked well enough to use for production purposes, and which have never been improved in twenty years. Microsoft Word really is a lowest-common-denominator product.

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Akismet: Preventing Comment Spam

Tools for Writers: Akismet Plugin - for Preventing Comment SpamI’ve been getting so much comment spam on my WordPress blog that I needed do something to resolve the problem. I was, quite frankly, spending way too much time reviewing comments (and getting increasingly irritated every time I had to do so), and not doing some of the things that I wanted to be doing. When I went to Scotland for vacation this past December, I accumulated more than 2500 comment spam messages. Buried in that batch were some real comments that I wanted to approve for inclusion on the site, so I actually had to scan through all of them.

My solution for this problem is the Akismet plugin. You download the plugin, activate it and then get an API key from Akismet. Once you’ve added the API key to your configuration, Akismet tests each incoming comment and filters out most, if not all spam, into your spam folder.

It’s been awesome.

I recommend the Akismet plugin to anybody who operates a blog. By now, this should include all writers, whether traditionally published or self-published.

The most popular plugin version of Akismet is for WordPress, but they support around 20 different blogging platforms, so you should be able to integrate Akismet into most viable blogging tools. The service is free for personal use, but they do request a modest amount of money if you’re using it professionally or on behalf of a business. They even allow you to set the price that you pay based on the value you feel you’re getting from the tool.

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Toastmasters, a Tool for Writers

Tools for Writers: Toastmasters for training in communication and leadershipIf you’re a writer, I think you should consider joining Toastmasters. It’s one of the most effective tools you’ll find for honing the skills you’ll need as a professional writer. But, I hear you saying, Toastmasters is for improving public speaking, not writing. What’s it going to do for a writer?

Well, do you think speeches, especially good ones, just happen by accident? No, they’re written. Even better, you practice them in front of a live audience that’s been trained by Toastmasters to critique them effectively. So, you’re writing and you’re getting critiqued. By people who are serious about their analysis.

Additionally, have you considered that a significant part of a writer’s career involves marketing yourself and your stories? This has only become more important in today’s turbulent publishing industry. Traditional publishers are looking for writers that already have a “platform” — the poster child for this situation is John Scalzi, who was a well-known blogger and speaker before he became a published writer. And if you’re going the self-publishing route, it’s even more important to market yourself effectively.

Are you ready to be a panelist at a convention? Do you think you could handle being interviewed on video? Can you impress an audience with an effective reading of your own material? What about that one-minute elevator pitch for your novel?

Toastmasters can help you by:

  • Encouraging you to write.

  • Enforcing discipline on your writing. — Have you ever tried to write something complex and meaningful in 600 – 1200 words? That’s the typical length of a 5 – 7 minute Toastmasters talk. It’s hard, which makes it a great writing exercise.

  • Improving your public speaking. There’s far too many ways that this can be useful for your writing career to even list them here.

  • Boosting your confidence. Toastmasters is all about stretching your limits. When you learn how to do things effectively that you could never do before, you have no idea how uplifting and liberating that is.

I also make sure that I write down my best speeches. Many of them have become blog entries on this site (or on my technical blog, KeenerTech). The end result is that I have built up a varied selection of what I consider to be pretty good content. These talks span a wide range of topics, such as my personal musings about my technical career, inspirational talks, and intricate fables that exercise my storytelling capabilities. Some of these talks have been videotaped, so people can read or view my talks.

Here are the talks that I have available online (not counting the hardcore technical talks for software developers that are available on KeenerTech):

  1. The Match: This is what I consider to be my best talk. It’s a 9-minute historical story in second-person narrative. It’s also available as an online video.

  2. At the Crossroads: My Icebreaker, my first speech for Toastmasters in June 2010. It helped get me my current job, because the technologist who interviewed said “I knew exactly who you were” from the blog entry that I created from my talk.

  3. Islands in the Mind: An inspirational speech with a Toastmasters slant. Also aimed at writers, since one of the major threads is about a writer.

  4. Philosophy 101: An inspirational speech for the Ashburn Toastmasters Holiday Party (on video).

  5. The Finest Legacy: My 2012 speech for the International Speech Contest — which got me a 2nd place trophy in Area 45. This is the text of the speech, with a link to the video as well. It’s about my Dad, science fiction and the hidden impact of science fiction on the real world. I still get approached by people who remember this speech fondly.

  6. Going the Distance: A three-minute Area Governor speech for a club visit. Promotes Toastmasters contests.

  7. The Apple Falls Down: Perspectives on Global Warming: My 10th speech in the Competent Communicator manual, with both text and a link to the video. All about the perils of global warming.

If you’re a writer, try out Toastmasters. It’s one of the best tools available to you, and the membership cost is negligible (around $9 per month, but you can visit some meetings for free). You’ll be surprised at how much Toastmasters can help you with your writing career.

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