Biting the Formatting Bullet

I didn’t publish anything last year, and for too long I was afraid that this year would be just as unproductive. I have one novel completed that I had planned to publish last year, but it didn’t happen, a victim of ebook-formatting despair. Formatting for Smashwords and Kindle was always a hassle, with my books looking completely different, depending on whether they were .mobi, .epub, or .pdf. They also displayed differently in different readers. I finally decided that I needed to give up my faith in my own formatting and turned to Scrivener’s Compile. After days of wrestling with too many details of the program, most of which were poorly explained, and failing to get the damned thing to set up a TOC the way I wanted it, I just gave up, my manuscript a worse mess than I could have managed on my own.

If that was the last book I was ever going to write and publish, it wouldn’t have mattered. But it wasn’t and I needed to find a workable solution. One well-known program for creating ebook files didn’t work at all, another was too complicated, and another worked for some people and not others.

It had become obvious that I needed to start using styles, which I hadn’t been doing. But that didn’t solve the problem of live links for the TOC, or converting the source text to the ebook formats. I can’t afford to pay someone to do any of that for me, and even if I could, I refuse to pay someone to do what I should be able to learn to do for myself.

I knew that the core of all ebooks is HTML. I also knew a few basics of HTML, so I was mildly interested whenever someone would say that the way to go was to convert your text to HTML for total control. But I’m not good at any kind of coding, and wasn’t willing to dive deep into HTML. Until now. What got me to change my mind was an excerpt from Guido Henkel’s new book, Zen of eBook Formatting, plus a somewhat confrontational discussion about his formatting methods, on Kindleboards. His much earlier blog tutorial on the subject hadn’t convinced me, but the combination of that discussion and the excerpt did. HTML was the way to end formatting frustration.

So I bought the book and started reading. By the time I reached chapter three, my fears about HTML (and CSS) being too complicated to learn were assuaged. Yes, there’s a learning curve, and the material is the kind that takes a lot of repetition for me to understand and absorb. But I could see my way clear to it for the first time. I learned that CSS isn’t the fearsome and mysterious thing I thought it was, and the number of HTML tags that ereaders will accept is actually fairly small, so I probably won’t have to go much deeper than what I already know. Best of all, once I have HTML under my belt and can use it fairly easily, my books will look exactly as I want them to, on every device, in every ebook format.

A new self-publishing adventure begins.


6 thoughts on “Biting the Formatting Bullet

  1. I’ll forever be in awe of your managing to learn html – though not in the least surprised; I can just manage to put up my short stories on the web using Word ’07 and the Smashwords Style Guide. But the results remain variable on different devices, and I can never get the little flourishes I’d like, such as a dropped cap for the first word of every story, etc. etc. I know just enough to understand the total control using html can give, so I take my hat off to you for conquering it. Looking forward to the next book, Dani

  2. Well, I’m in awe of you being able to struggle through Word and the Meatgrinder without going completely nuts. But let’s see how far I get. The book isn’t the most clearly written one that I’ve ever used to learn something, but I hope the following chapters will clarify what’s still mysterious. One thing that annoys me is that even though he uses Scrivener for his own writing, he used Word to illustrate styles. I just hope I don’t have to invest in another book, which would be Paul Salvette’s. We’ll see.

  3. I hope this turns out for you as successfully as hoped, rather than being just a door that opens into another confusing maze. I’ll look forward to hearing which it turns out to be, and good luck.

    1. That’s my fear, as well. But I’ve already learned a couple of useful things, so it can’t be all bad. And yes, I’ll be reporting back.

  4. UGH I HATE FORMATTING! Really, I dread it so much. I used the free trial of Scrivener for a bit, but importing from LibreOffice did not go smoothly or consistently (like un-italicizing everything in a 400 page manuscript – something that could be fixed, but I always had to remember how >_ .epub/.mobi in Calibre seems to be the easiest way to reliably shift formats, but it’s not really meant for writers. Wish there was a better way. I used to use HTML (didn’t Kindle require it at one point?) but I’m so lazy! 😛 Maybe I’ll have to check out that book….

    1. I’m with you on the hating. I’d rather go through a dozen editing drafts than get the darned thing ready for publishing. I’m actually editing this weekend instead of reading, so I can’t say much about the book yet. I’ll probably get back to it this evening and see if I can’t get into a couple more chapters.

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