Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ebook Madness: Don't Confuse Ebook Conversion With Ebook Formatting!

I'm getting a lot of emails from authors who tell me this or that company or person is offering to convert their manuscripts into ebooks for some ridiculously low fee, like $50. What the authors don't know is that conversion of a manuscript to an ebook format takes fifteen minutes or less, is mostly an automated process, and will only deliver a quality ebook at the back end if the file being converted has already been properly formatted for the target ebook format. $50 doesn't seem like such a bargain when you realize how little work is actually being done for that fee, and when you know it doesn't include the most time-intensive, labor-intensive, and important part of the ebook creation process: formatting.

The conversion step is no big deal. You open a conversion program, click a button to import the (pre-formatted) manuscript, fill in a form with details about the book (e.g., title, author name, suggested retail price, etc.), click another button to add any required companion files to the project, then click one last button to output the ebook in your desired file format. If the manuscript file you've imported was formatted properly ahead of time, your ebook will look and perform great. If not, not.

The majority of time and effort that goes into creating an ebook is spent on preparing the manuscript for conversion, and creating any required companion files (e.g., Amazon's required active table of contents file for Kindle books). Where the conversion step is mostly automated, the formatting part is mostly manual. This is because every manuscript is different, and the process of formatting a manuscript for ebook publication is primarily a process of minimizing and standardizing formatting. Here's my Kindle book formatting to-do list, to give you some idea of what's involved:

* “Save As” to create Kindle file copy
* Insert cover image on first page
* Remove blank pages
* Remove headers
* Remove footers
* Set margins to 1” all around, remove gutter
* Replace section breaks with page breaks
* Set two carriage returns before each pg break and one after each
* Insert page breaks before each chapter heading, if necessary
* Replace double spaces with single space between sentences
* Standardize body text style
* Turn off auto-hyphenate (Tools > Language > Hyphenation)
* Remove any tab or space bar indents, replace w/ ruler indents as needed
* Set line spacing to 1.5, max 6pt spacing after paragraphs
* Standardize chapter headings
* Standardize section headings
* Remove/replace special characters
* Reformat graphics as needed to 300dpi resolution & optimal size (4x6” or smaller)
* Verify images are “in line” with text
* Insert page breaks before and after full-page images
* Modify copyright page to reflect Kindle edition verbiage
* Add correct ISBN to copyright page
* Insert hyperlinked TOC

I have a different to-do list for each different ebook format, since the requirements vary from one to the other. Obviously, if the author provides a file that already meets most of the requirements above, the job will take much less time and effort than it will with a file for which I must complete all of the items on my formatting checklist.

Just as obviously, it's impossible to know how much work is involved without actually seeing an excerpt from the manuscript. Anyone who's offering to do the job on the cheap without seeing any part of the manuscript is either not intending to do any formatting, or so new to the author services game that he doesn't realize the time and effort demands in creating ebooks are highly variable.

If you can find someone who will do the formatting AND the conversion for $50, and the resulting ebook looks great and functions properly, by all means HIRE HIM NOW! Otherwise, when you're comparison shopping among author service providers, be sure to ask if the price quoted for the provider's ebook conversion service includes formatting and creation of any required companion files.


Jennie Dugan said...

Thank you, thank you, April. I am so glad I found your blog. I've been wondering about exactly that. I have another question, and if you've answered it, can you just point me towards it? If I have my own ISBN, I thought I was able to report sales somewhere on Bowker, but I can't see how to do it. Is there a way to report sales? If I make sales through Amazon or Barnes & Noble, are they automatically counted somewhere? (I hope this makes sense.) Thanks for your help.

nmj said...

Very interesting post, thank you! I have been intrigued about the 'magic' ingredients of conversion for a while now. The Kindle version of my novel had to be withdrawn by publisher, due to some glitches, but has now been fixed & will be reissued soon. I noticed all the asterisks had been removed, is this part of the formatting, do ebooks not 'allow' asterisks? I heard they caused problems with the conversion. I guess thay are removed manually beforehand. I wonder if things will evolve and they will be present in the etext in future...

April L. Hamilton said...

Ron & Jennie:
I'm not sure why you want to report sales on Bowker, since you can simply view your Amazon DTP sales reports at any time, and those reports are updated in real time: every time someone buys a copy of your ebook, it will be added to your sales totals immediately.

As for Barnes & Noble, if you've published via the Amazon DTP, your Kindle book will not be listed on B&N. You must up with B&N as a content distributor, or use a third-party distributer like Smashwords (, or use B&N's own PubIt! service to get an ebook listed there, and it won't be in Kindle format; it'll be in epub, which is the format read by the B&N Nook reader (among others). Both services provide the same, real-time reporting as the Amazon DTP.

April L. Hamilton said...

nmj -
There's no reason why asterisks cannot appear in an ebook, in any format with which I'm familiar.

All ebook formats I've heard of and worked with support the use of any character that can be rendered in HTML, which is the language of web pages. As you can see in my bullet list in this blog post, asterisks are supported in HTML.

However, certain characters must be entered as "ASCII codes" to display properly, particularly in XHTML, which is often used as an intermediate step when ebooks are created. ASCII codes typically take the form of ampersand|code number|semicolon. I can't type one out here because what would display is the character it stands for, not the ASCII code itself. But you can view a bunch of them here:

Anyone doing ebook conversions on a fee basis should know about this.

nmj said...

Thanks for reply, April. My publisher is an imprint of HarperCollins (UK) and I was told there are problems with converting asterisks. However, my curiosity is reignited after your comment. I know nothing of the technology of ebooks.

April L. Hamilton said...

nmj -
Perhaps the asterisks in this case were put into the book as graphics instead of typed characters? This might be done when the asterisks are being used as a graphic element and are printed in a size larger or smaller than the rest of the text.

Ebooks can display graphics of course, but in cases where text must wrap around a graphic (such as would be the case for drop caps at the start of chapters), this can be problematic in an ebook conversion.

Unknown said...

I loved your post! Most people do not know what goes into formatting a document for conversion into epub or mobipocket. I know for my conversions I also have a checklist and then after I've converted the document I check all the Table of Contents do a scan of the entire document to make sure nothing broke during the conversion.

April L. Hamilton said...

Sharon -
Yeah; as it turns out, "conversion" is the least of the job. ='/

sueneu said...

Thanks for posting this! There is a lot of confusion about the difference between conversion and formatting and design. I'm sure as eBook consumers get more savvy, they will prefer well-crafted books.

April L. Hamilton said...

sueneu -
I hope you're right. Not long ago, I came across a really horribly formatted Kindle book (using Amazon's 'read a free sample now' feature) that was so messed up, I felt it was truly unreadable.

I contacted the self-published author and, as tactfully as I could, urged him to remove the book from sale and have it properly formatted---and not necessarily by me, I didn't even mention that's a service I provide---before putting it back on sale. I never got a response, and the book was never removed from sale so I assume it's still out there in its unreadable state.

At the time I previewed it, the Kindle book didn't have any reviews posted but the same book in print format had numerous positive reviews. I warned the author he might be on the receiving end of some 1-star reviews on the Kindle edition purely on account of the poor formatting, and that these would dilute the positive reviews he'd received on the print book to date. But apparently, he was concerned about it. Maybe he doesn't know that the reviews for all editions are displayed when *any* edition is viewed on Amazon. ='/

kinoshi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Nice post. According to me, ebook conversion and ebook formatting are diffrent from each oyher, conversion means is that someone is going to feed your Word doc into a bit of software which will grind it up and spit it out as a converted manuscript.ebook formatting involves a thorough knowledge of html and css. As a very basic guide, html governs the elements of the page, css governs how those elements will look, where they should be on the page and how much space is in and around them.
convert pdf to mobi

Unknown said...

I would easily and willing do eBook conversion AND formatting for $40 to $50 depending on the length of the work. I'd only charge more if I had to create jpeg of a number of tables for the client and create a 100% professional product - by which I mean not using an automated program at all but turning the file into an HTML and then creating the ebooks in the formats required.

It seems to me that this should be a normal action? For those technically knowledgeable it isn't that hard. Sure there is a little bit work involved and it can be a little tedious but even so. I saw the prices that CreateSpace charge to convert to mobi only and have seen one or two of their "products" - that is overpriced especially as I think the authors don't get the mobi files themselves.

Am I seriously undercharging? My Site

April L. Hamilton said...

Yes, you are most definitely not charging enough to either do a thorough job or earn a living wage, though I'm sure you don't realize it.

Let's assume you begin with an MS Word file containing 300pp, which is the typical length of a typical novel. Let's say you charge your higher end estimate of $50 to do the formatting and conversion.

You can take $22.50 right off the top for self-employment taxes, leaving you with $27.50. But you still have to pay income tax on that income, and even if we assume you're in a very low bracket, say 25%, you're losing an additional $6.88 in income tax, which means you're really only earning $20.62 for the job---and that's before taking out your expenses, as you should be doing before figuring your net income.

Your electricity, internet access and software aren't free. Neither is the cell phone you probably use sometimes for communicating with clients. But I'm fairly certain you're not taking these items, or the taxes, into account because if you were you'd realize you're barely earning minimum wage on each job.

Getting back to those 300 pp...let's assume you spend two hours reviewing the MS Word file and making your formatting changes. Even if you use a bunch of scripts or other automated processes to do the formatting changes, you MUST at least LOOK at every single page to be sure you haven't missed anything that needs to be reformatted to be ebook -compliant. Two hours only allows your 120 minutes total for the job, or 24 seconds per page to review each page AND make any additional formatting changes as necessary. If the MS Word file you've been given is filled with lots of funky and inconsistent Styles and/or formatting, the job will take even longer but again, you have to at least look at EVERY SINGLE PAGE to know if this is the case.

At this point you haven't even done the actual conversion step, or the (absolutely necessary) step of reviewing the converted file---again, if you're doing the job right this means looking at EVERY SINGLE PAGE---yet. Let's allow another 15 minutes for the conversion, since most of that work is done with automated tools, and another 5 seconds per page to review the converted file, which comes out to 25 minutes more: a total of 40 additional minutes, or 67% of an hour.

If you find any irregularities in the converted file you'll have to go back and revisit the formatting work and then repeat the conversion and review steps, but I'm sure your $50 price point doesn't take that possibility into account, either.

So in reality, if you're doing as thorough a job as you should be (by which I mean you're looking at EVERY page both before and after the conversion), it should take you a minimum of 2 hours and 40 minutes to complete a formatting + conversion job on a 300pp manuscript of a novel. It takes considerably longer for a nonfiction book with many images, tables, figures, charts and the like.

Since I've already calculated you're only making $20.62 cents total for the job after taxes, and at the minimum you should be spending 2.67 hours on the job, that works out to an hourly rate of $7.72 per hour---and again, that's AFTER taxes but BEFORE expenses.

If, on the other hand, you're NOT reviewing every single page both before and after the conversion, then I'd say your work isn't thorough enough.

Unknown said...

Thanks very much for your very detailed response - I will need to re-look at my pricing! I had only been looking at it as a way to earn a little extra income and not from a "minimum wage" point of view.