Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Should Authors Waste Time Learning Digital Formatting?

If I were to give advice to beginning authors, what would I say? Would I tell the budding writers to sit down at their computers and tap out their daily word count? Would I encourage them to create great stories and get them up on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, Apple iTunes, and the other digital publishing sites as quickly as possible? Heck, no. My first piece of advice is this: Learn the formatting ropes.

What? A writer should first learn all the tech behind digital publishing? What kind of cockamamy (variant: cockamamie) idea is this? What does it have to do with creating a successful career as an author? Oh, so, so much!

For one thing, every digital publisher decides what types of files it accepts. Barnes and Noble's Nook Press works with epub files, but the Word documents that are acceptable have to meet its standards. Amazon Kindle uses mobi files, so an author has to format the manuscript in an acceptable form that will work with its program. Smashwords is notorious for its meat grinder, which chews up and regurgitates the manuscript in all digital formats. Unfortunately for many self-published authors, things can get scrambled along the way. And so it goes with other digital publishers.

As an author of mystery series, I normally work in Word 2003-2007. I'm producing chapters with simple headings. Most of the digital publishers will take my document and correlate the material accordingly...as long as I don't accidentally skip a line or have an extra space here or there....Yes, everything you type as an author matters when you're dealing with digital formats. It may look absolutely spectacular as a PDF file; it may even look great as a Word document. But the minute you try to put it into another digital format, you're up a creek. Why? Hidden formatting issues.

In fiction, you can sometimes get away with those technical glitches, although it's not really fair to your readers. What shows up on one person's screen may not show up on another's -- after all, we're not just dealing with the specific digital formats we use, we're also trying to work with the specific brands of e-readers our customers are using. That can cause problems and put a damper on how our work is displayed.

But the real trick is to master non-fiction in the digital publishing world. My career as a mystery writer may include describing a shooting scene. Bullets may whiz by one character or another. But as the Practical Caregiver, I have to worry about whether bullets will mess up my manuscript and reconfigure the work I produce. Adding things like sub-sections and numbers can be tricky. Want to add a footnote? Oh, heaven help you!

And it all boils down to formatting issues. How can I produce a manuscript that will work in all these different digital formats with as little tweaking as possible?

Think about it. You've written your masterpiece and you believe it's a real winner. You have your Word document. Do you really want to go back as an author and have to now format it for each digital publisher according to its standards, or do you want to start out with one document you can alter slightly to accommodate the requirements of each digital publisher?

By now, you're probably thinking that the easiest thing to do is just hire someone to do that for you. After all, how much can it cost? You might be surprised. Self-published authors already have a lot of other expenses to worry about. Are you going to hire a copy editor, a line editor, a social media promoter, a cover illustrator, or any of the other experts normally involved in assessing an author's manuscript and producing a product ready for the public market? The out-of-pocket expenses for an author can be staggering for a book that hasn't yet shown a profit. How will you pay for all that?

So, what kinds of formatting issues does a self-published author come up against? Believe it or not, one of the most common ones is font. How many beginning authors make the mistake of dressing up their manuscripts with fancy fonts and adding color highlights? Did you know that Amazon allows chapter headings to feature different fonts than the main body of text, and even a couple of different colors? It takes time to select a "good-looking" font for Kindle and work through the chapter headings. What happens when an author takes that same manuscript and tries to upload it to Smashwords, the distributor that will send your manuscript out to iTunes, Library Direct, Baker and Taylor, and many other retailers? Disaster. The fancy font that looks so great on Kindle isn't acceptable on Smashwords. That means reformatting the entire manuscript back to its "plain Jane" self.

This is why starting from scratch and using a format that will work across the board with as few changes as possible is an author's best bet. But in order to do that, you need to understand how Microsoft Word and other similar programs work. How do you discover the hidden formatting? How do you find those little technical glitches that are ruining your manuscript when you download it to a specific digital retailer? How do you turn off the self-correcting features that wreak havoc with your spelling? What happens when you have a word spelled correctly, but Microsoft Word disagrees with you?

Did you know that different digital publishers have different grammar and spell-check programs? What's acceptable at one is unacceptable at another. You'll go bonkers trying to please everyone unless you have a solid manuscript that's been vetted in several grammar and spelling programs, checked against the major dictionaries (Merriam-Webster, Cambridge, Oxford, etc.), and rechecked according to current norms. Want an example of one thing that makes me bananas? Is it smart phone, smartphone, or Smartphone? Well, Smartphone was the manufacturer's original identifier for the brand. Currently, you will see it written as smartphone in major newspapers. But it's a smart phone that's been morphed, both in its capabilities and in its spelling. As technology rapidly changes and we get new words bandied about, you will have to sometimes defend your choice of spelling. Slang is slang, and just because people insist it's spelled this way and not that, it doesn't make it so. Cockamamy can also be spelled cockamamie. Both are acceptable. Try explaining that to an adamant reader who insists otherwise, as I once did.

So many authors too often turn to the Internet and fellow authors for technical advice. Do you imagine this is a good idea? Well, let me tell you about all of the manpower hours I have wasted by taking really bad advice from people who thought they understood the technology involved in self-publishing. Some self-appointed experts insisted they knew the secrets of producing viable manuscripts. I followed their advice, only to discover they did everything the hard way and the wrong way. They didn't really understand what they were doing. The proof was in the pudding. They missed steps and faked results. The only way I was able to get the job done was to go back and learn how programs like Microsoft Word actually work. The more I understood about Microsoft Word, the easier it was for me to do my own formatting and make it work for me.

Sometimes even the digital publishers get their own technology wrong. The best case in point? I When you are ready to format a paperback book, you will have to use a template provided by the printing company. You're fine as long as your book only has as many chapters as the template provides for, but the moment you go past that point, you're going to have to expand the template to accommodate your manuscript. That template has automatic numbering of pages. The minute you change things around, you also change the numbering. Imagine having pages 32-45 come after 126-137. It happens when you don't understand the technology behind producing a manuscript for publication or when the template is poorly constructed by someone who is not technically literate. When you understand the process, you can spot the problem more easily and correct it. You're no longer at the mercy of the folks who like to charge an arm and a leg to fix what you could fix if you understood digital files.

Unless you have unlimited funds at your disposal and you don't mind wasting time and energy, recognize that your book isn't just a Word document you type up. It's a digital product that has to work across many different devices.

Writing a book is so much more than just choosing words that form sentences. You'll also be editing that masterpiece, and re-editing it, and re-editing it....A lot of hard work goes into writing a book that's worthy of being read. Whether you're telling a tale or offering instruction, what comes out of your brain and goes into the digital file has to make sense. Training with the technology will actually help you with you.

The best book in the world can be lost in the big digital jungle. Smart authors never want to be rescued from their own digital dramas. We'd rather spend our days writing masterpieces.

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