Publishing School

E-books Are Not Print Books: Why Formatting Matters

Ever since I started formatting books for clients, I’ve had to answer a lot of the following types of queries (note that these are amalgamations of questions I’ve gotten, not direct quotes):

“I already spent $500 on having my paperback interior designed and I really love it. You can make my e-book look just like my paperback and use all the same fonts, right?”

“I want to convert my PDF to .mobi and .epub but I need it to keep the same landscape three-column layout and have everything laid out just like in the PDF.”

“We can skip formatting and you can just convert this Word doc to .epub.” [Later…] “OMG this looks terrible! Why doesn’t this look the way it did in Word?”

If you’re planning to publish an e-book, here’s something you should know right off the bat:

E-books are not print books.

I know that might seem like I’m stating the obvious, so let’s try phrasing it a different way:

E-books are an entirely different medium than print and what works for print books (including PDFs, which are made to be printed off) will not work for e-books.

I’ve understood this for a long time now, but only fairly recently did I really come to understand why. I mean, some of the reasons were obvious: for one thing, things like font choice, text size and page orientation are determined by the end-users’ (i.e., the readers’) device settings, and it’s impossible to override these settings.

But here’s the part I didn’t get, and that I think most people don’t realize:

E-books are not really books; they’re actually websites.

Until earlier this year, I used Scrivener to format both my and my clients’ e-books. It was pretty simple; I just copied and pasted the client’s book (or, in my case, wrote the book in Scrivener), fiddled with some formatting settings until it looked right, and then exported it as .epub and .mobi files. This produced nice-looking e-books and that was enough for me. I didn’t care to understand exactly how it all worked; all I needed to know was that it did.

Then I read Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran, and upon his recommendation I checked out this e-book formatting tutorial by Guido Henkel. That’s when I realized exactly what an e-book is, and why it’s such a terrible idea to simply upload a Word doc to KDP and let their publishing ‘bot convert it into a .mobi file.

That tutorial is nine pages long, so let me break down and simplify the main takeaway (although if you have time, I encourage you to at least skim through it so you’ll understand exactly what goes into making an e-book; and of course, if you prefer the DIY approach or are on a budget that necessitates it, you should definitely check it out):

  1. E-books are a compilation of HTML/CSS documents — i.e., websites.
  2. Exactly what you’re able to accomplish in designing an e-book with HTML/CSS is limited (compared to what you can do with a modern web page) because e-reader devices and apps don’t support CSS–that is, the code that tells the device how things inside the HTML tags are supposed to look and behave–to the extent that modern web browsers do.
  3. Whenever you create an e-book–no matter what method you use–the first thing that happens is that HTML and CSS code get added to your book, and then this new HTML document then gets compiled into a single .epub and/or .mobi file, which can then be opened and read in e-reader devices.

Item #3 is the rub, and here’s why: automated programs are terrible at generating HTML and CSS, and they always have been. For one thing, they’re incapable of making design decisions or recognizing design errors. They also add unnecessary code that bloats file size, causes weird symbols to appear, and often breaks the layout of a page. Even if it looks okay in one device (like a Kindle), chances are very high that another device (such as a Nook) will have difficulty parsing the code correctly, so you can’t be sure that it will look good or even be readable for everybody (and that’s a surefire way to earn your book a string of negative reviews; nobody cares if your story or information is good if they can’t actually read the book they paid for).

You would never (or at least, you should never) design a web page in Word, save it as HTML, put in up on the web and expect it to look awesome in Firefox, Chrome, Safari and every available version of Internet Explorer. Neither should you create your e-book in Word, convert it to an .epub file and expect it to look great in your Kindle, your best friend’s Kindle app on her iPhone, your mom’s Nook, your dad’s tablet, etc. The only way to really be sure is to have both the HTML and CSS be written by a human being.

E-books are not print books.

I’m repeating myself because it bears repeating. Back in the early days of web design, people tried to apply print concepts to web pages. The concept of putting important things “above the fold” hung on for years past the point where web surfers cottoned to the fact that web pages don’t have any folds. Just as web pages aren’t print and don’t play by the same rules, neither do e-books. You need to let go of any notions of how you want your book to look in print and plan accordingly.

Of course, there are a few hacks that will let you come close to matching the look of your print layout, depending on how elaborate your print interior is. For example, if you use a decorative font, or a symbol or flourish for chapter headings, those can be rendered as image files and embedded throughout your file; but even then, you run the risk that it won’t display correctly across a broad range of devices and apps, page orientations, text-size settings, screen sizes, etc.

Three Elements of Good E-book Design

There are three things you should concern yourself with first and foremost when designing and formatting your e-book. These are readability, usability (i.e., is it easy to navigate, can I change my device settings and still read it okay, can I find my place easily), and responsiveness (that is, is it readable and usable across a broad range of devices, screen sizes and orientations). Believe me, your readers don’t care nearly as much about what your e-book looks like as much as they care about these three things.

If your .mobi or .epub file has all three going for it, then you’re golden. If not, you need to go back to the drawing board, and remember (yes, I’m saying it again):

E-books are not print books.


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