Paperback Writer

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So, a prospective client will ask for a quote on converting their book to an ebook. We’ll ask for the Word or PDF file to be downloaded to a secure Dropbox folder, take a look at what can be done and give said quote… and then – nothing. No reply. No “That’s great. Let’s do this”. No “Mmm. Sorry, that’s out of my budget”. Nothing. And if you do sometimes wonder what it was that cut off communication, I can guarantee that it’ll be one (or both) of two things:

  • It’s more expensive to create an ebook than they thought
  • Some of the items they want are impossible on an ebook*

Most of our ebook clients are authors and our clients are not stupid. But it’s not their job to know about the technicalities of ebook creation. An authors job is to write, that’s what they want to do. Our job is to produce ebook versions of their work. Now it’s not hard to learn a simple bit of HTML coding and if you are happy with the result you can get on your own, then fair play. But sooner or later there will come a time when that simple bit of coding doesn’t play nice on other ereaders, or conform to Apple’s/Amazon’s standards, or breaks unexpectedly over pages, the hyphens don’t work, the images are too big/small, tables/charts split over pages… well, you get the idea.

So, let’s have a look at what the creation of an ebook can entail and seriously, please dear readers, don’t get the hump if it feels like I’m mansplaining. Even a little knowledge goes a long way, no matter the source.

Keeping it simple, the best format to receive something like a novel is one where it’s already been edited, proofed and can be supplied in an electronic format, preferably Word or RTF. You can supply the work in PDF, but that creates problems. A PDF is an end piece of work and reverse-engineering it back into a workable format for an ebook is, frankly, a pain in the ass. To remove formatting like page numbers, Chapter Headings and levels of styling from a PDF is time consuming.

There are converters that will return a PDF to an Indesign file, but it can be a bit hit-and-miss.

So, for ebook production, just the text with a minimum of formatting. All that is needed are headers, paragraph/section breaks and basic formatting such as bold and italic. Extra formatting will be stripped out, adding to the processing time. Remember, simple is best.**

If I’m unlucky, there won’t be an electronic version of the book at all and to that I’ll ask:- “What age are you living in, grandad? Do they still use cast-iron typewriters that come with hard-boiled reporters and sassy dames in black and white?”. But seriously, if there is just a hard copy we can scan it and use OCR to convert the resulting images to text. Again, this will take time, add to the cost and result in the shame of you, the author, being outed as a technophobe with snappy patter and a fedora.

Finally we can start converting the text file into an ebook (note I haven’t said anything about images. We’ll get to that). This is done per chapter at a time, building up style rules in either Indesign or (if I’m feeling particularly bold) straight into clean HTML markup. A few chapters in, the ebook will be tested on different reader devices because, guess what, each ereader can throw up a particular set of quirks that will need an extra bit of CSS just to make it work.

Here we come to a bugbear of mine – the devices you can read an ebook on. In particular: mobile phones. Even though you can use CSS to be sure an ebook can be read on a mobile phone and be responsive, it’s not the best device to do so. Your mobile phone is for Twitter, emails, the Internet, playing mobile games, taking pout selfies, Tinder and shots of your genitals. Even – at a pinch – for making calls. What it is not for is reading War And Peace on.

In the words of the great Dr Ian Malcolm: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.
With a few chapters in place a sample version can now be sent to the client plus explanation on how to test it on their ebook reader (a Sisyphusian task within itself). Once approved the rest of the book content can be applied – extra Metadata, TOC, copyright page, author bio, etc.

Now, a word on images, videos, sound clips, etc. Putting media items like these in an ebook is no problem. Where such arises is over copyright. If an author wishes for certain media in their ebook, do they have the license to do so? We will source or produce images for the ebook (adding to cost and time) but if the printed version already had images we will need the original files to refashion for online viewing. Haven’t got the originals any more? Uh oh. That means starting all over again. Plus, a word on typography. A lot of people think that fonts are free; they are not. Fonts on an OS are licensed to the creators of that OS, not you.

You can use a huge set of fonts for personal use, but not commercial. Using the default fonts on ereader makes the creation process a lot easier but if you are wanting a particular font you would have to buy a license.

The ebook is nearly ready, but not so fast hotshot. You probably now need a cover. If you have the rights to re-use the original print version – great. But guess what, even if you did it’s probably unsuitable for ebooks as it was first designed for a book at a specific size and print resolution. Therefore a new cover, more time and cost.

Time to submit the ebook to the online services for sale, but this is simply a new level of Hell. Getting onto the Amazon Kindle Store, the Apple iBookStore, Barnes & Noble, and others can be easy or hard, depending on how the wind is blowing that day. Seriously though, we will help a client through this stage if they require it.

In the end, think upon the creation of an ebook as similar to the creation of a website. Both are HTML at their base. But if you’ve ever paid for a really good website, with clean markup, that’s easy to read, with unobtrusive imagery and video plus a working online shop if you needed one; then you’ll know how expensive creating that website will be. An ebook can require less, but it still needs the same kind of time and care.

Finally, it is well worth being reminded what globalisation has brought to the world of paid creativity:- a race to the bottom. A lot of freelance sites have a jobs section and most contain ebook creation. Nearly all are in the $30-$50 range for an ebook. That’s a full ebook, both ePUB 3 and .mobi/KF8, with a cover; and there a lot of starving artists out there who’ll take on the work for that price. This is not a Good Thing™. It devalues our worth as skilled artists and technicians. Sure, we all have to start small and low, gain a reputation, but after a while we should be paid a good and fair price. We’re not monkeys, we don’t work for peanuts and we have a powerful urge to eat sometime this month.

It probably feels like I’ve been sarky in this blog and implied that only the chosen few should be allowed to create ebooks. If so, I apologise. There is of course nothing to stop authors from learning how to do it themselves, except the creeping realisation that it will distract them from the actual task of writing. Having said that, if an author comes to me having created their ebook in Calibre or Sigil and now wants me to sort out the crappy code it has created? I will hunt you down and kill you.

As an added bonus here’s a blog on the creation of an ordinary book. Again, much more goes into it than people realise: Charlie’s Diary

* This probably needs a little clarification. For example, one of the items we get asked if possible in ebook are forms. In a standard ebook, this is a no-no, they just don’t work. But, an ebook created with Apple’s iBook Author will as there are widgets that help to do so. Be warned though, ebooks created in iBooks Author will only work on Apple products. You can export an ebook created with iBooks Author back into an EPUB file, but you’ll lose the forms and widget that helped create them.

** Not that Word helps here. Microsoft Word is the Tomb Raider of the word processor world. Lots of hidden places to find and traps to delay the unwary traveller. 

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