The Blurbery, Part II

I know I said the next post would be about wuxia, but time makes fools of us all, right? The reason is I had something come up that needed dealing with quickly and the long reason is … well, it’s pretty much the same reason: something came up. See how I used a colon there? That makes it a longer reason.

As I am wont to do, I leapt into action to meet the problem head-on.

bollywood

Some people think one gun is enough. Those people are wrong.

Back in April of 2015 I wrote a post on writing blurbs. Wrote about writing descriptions about other writing. Whoa. Very meta of me. At the time the blurbs for Henchmen and Arise were basically crap and I decided it was high time I figured out how to do it correctly. The Internet, being the wonderful place that it is, had a wealth of information about writing blurbs so after tearing myself away from porn and cat videos I did some research and figured out how to write a decent blurb.

Sales didn’t exactly skyrocket but they got better and I felt better so everything was better.

Well, it was anyway.

Well, it was anyway.

Then I finished The Clock Man and was faced with a whole new problem. Like the doof I am sometimes, I decided to power through without thinking it all the way through. See, the thing is, writing a blurb for a novel that tells exactly one story turns out to be a wee bit different from writing a blurb for a book with a bunch of stories.

Here’s the original blurb for The Clock Man:

“Enter worlds of magic and dragons, martial arts and mayhem

A woman waits in a plain white room, wondering why she’s there and what’s about to happen.
A man and his talking gun hunt the bogeyman.
A family finds its house is haunted and sets out to trap the ghosts, but what if the ghosts aren’t the real problem?
Far underneath a city, the figure of a man rests. For decades he’s remained perfectly motionless. Last night he moved.
In a world of magic, martial arts, and dragons, one man controls the flow of magic. Now his daughter wants him dead.
Zapp Blander always dreamed of being a hero. When a man named Jack shows up, Zapp might just get his chance.
She was designed to choose which slain warriors got to go to Valhalla, but Kara has developed her own ideas.
The bogeyman of New Mexico is beaten and fed what should be a simple task: Kill the boy.”

Shut_up_and_take_my_money

Wonderful, yes?

In a fit of mediocrity last night I swapped a couple stories around and set about rewriting the blurb. This is what I came up with.

Felix Crow is a legend in his own mind, a fallen cop in a dangerous city full of thugs and magic. He’s become a kind of alcholic fixer of problems, a man both haunted by his own past failures and simultaneously okay with them. After waking up in a dumpster one morning, head splitting and covered with lo mein noodles, Felix gets the worst opportunity of a lifetime. All he has to do is kill the most important person in the world.
In a world filled with martial arts, mayhem, magic, and the odd dragon, Crow will find himself in the fight of his life against the mysterious Clock Man.

Zapp Blander dreams of a better life, a life filled with action and adventure the likes of which would make Doc Savage proud. He soon finds himself in the presence of a strange man with a fantastic car. Zapp is given a choice: stay and clean up brains, or risk his life in pursuit of a magical thing that could shift the balance of the universe.

Wilford Saxton finds himself in the posession of a gun that can talk to his mind. His job is gone, his life as he knew it is over, and his body is forever changed. The gun drags him to a small town in New Mexico where he’ll get a chance at redemption. All he has to do to rebuild his life is learn how to work with gun, survive Cuba, New Mexico, and hunt down the bogeyman.

A scream pierces the night. Parents stumble downstairs to find their child shaking and pointing down a dark hallway, certain he saw a pair of ghosts. At first the child’s parents are dismissive until they meet the ghosts themselves. Desperate to remove a perceived threat, the family tries to find a way to trap the spirits. But a pair of ghosts might not be the worst thing that can happen.

For decades the body of a man has lain dormant and unchanging on a stone altar far underneath the city. He’s been watched and monitored, secrets slowly stolen from his body and turned into weapons. The whole time the man’s body has been completely still. Last night a finger twitched, then the shadows started moving. The people studying the body don’t realize it, but the God of Dreams is about to wake up. And he is not happy.

Kathryn Devereaux got a message at work to show up to a particular room at a particular time with an adominition to not be late. Now she sits in a plain white room where time doesn’t work like it’s supposed to and wonders what’s going on. Her job – designing demons – was strange enough, but the room is in a whole other league. When a man with a sheaf of papers shows up and starts asking questions her day gets a whole lot stranger.

Valkyries were designed to choose warriors for the final battle. They were strong, excellent fighters, and – above all – obedient. All except for Kara who has her own ideas about how to choose the dead.

Coco was the bane of Northern New Mexico, a bogeyman who was famous for devouring children. He stalked the night like he owned it, flitting from place to place and following the orders of his mysterious masters to kill and enact vengeance. But even the greatest of monsters sometimes come across something even more frightening than themselves. Now Coco has a new task – something right up his alley. All he has to do is kill a child, but that task proves more difficult than it should be.

tldr

Fortunately, the good folks at IASD set me straight (much thanks to S.K. Sylva, RA, Val, Nico, and Ian) and reminded me that a blurb doesn’t need to be huge. In fact, anything too long will just get overlooked.

I was looking at a story collection blurb as basically nothing more than a composite novel blurb. Therefore, it seemed logical to me to write mini-blurbs for each story. The individual blurbs are okay, not great, but okay. The problem is there’s eight of them. And, contrary to popular belief is eight is not enough; it’s actually too damned much.

So, I picked a couple authors I know had written short story collections – Stephen King and Harlan Ellison – and checked out what kind of blurbs their professional blurbers had come up with.

For Harlan Ellison’s The Top of the Volcano

”Only connect,” E.M. Forster famously said, and Harlan Ellison was canny enough to make that the lifeblood of his achievement from the get-go.

New, fresh and different is tricky in the storytelling business, as rare as diamonds, but, as a born storyteller, Harlan made story brave, daring, surprising again, brought an edge of the gritty and the strange, the erudite and the street-smart, found ways to make words truly come alive again in an over-worded world.

From the watershed of the ’50s and ’60s when the world found its dynamic new identity, to a self-imitating, sadly all too derivative present, he has kept storytelling cool and hip, exhilarating, unexpected yet always vital, able to get under your skin and change your life.

And now we have it. ”The Top of the Volcano” is the collection we hoped would come along eventually, twenty-three of Harlan’s very best stories, award-winners every one, brought together in a single volume at last. There s the unforgettable power of ”’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” ”The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” and ”Mefisto in Onyx,” the heart-rending pathos of ”Jeffty Is Five” and ”Paladin of the Lost Hour,” the chilling terror of ”I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” the ingenuity and startling intimacy of ”Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans…”

These stories are full of the light and life of someone with things worth saying and the skills to do it, presented in the book we had to have–not just a Best-of (though given what’s on offer it may just fall out that way) but in one easy-to-grab volume perfect for newbies, long-time fans and seasoned professionals alike to remind them just how it can be done.”

Stephen King’s The Bazaar of Bad Dreams

“A master storyteller at his best—the O. Henry Prize winner Stephen King delivers a generous collection of stories, several of them brand-new, featuring revelatory autobiographical comments on when, why, and how he came to write (or rewrite) each story.

Since his first collection, Nightshift, published thirty-five years ago, Stephen King has dazzled readers with his genius as a writer of short fiction. In this new collection he assembles, for the first time, recent stories that have never been published in a book. He introduces each with a passage about its origins or his motivations for writing it.

There are thrilling connections between stories; themes of morality, the afterlife, guilt, what we would do differently if we could see into the future or correct the mistakes of the past. “Afterlife” is about a man who died of colon cancer and keeps reliving the same life, repeating his mistakes over and over again. Several stories feature characters at the end of life, revisiting their crimes and misdemeanors. Other stories address what happens when someone discovers that he has supernatural powers—the columnist who kills people by writing their obituaries in “Obits;” the old judge in “The Dune” who, as a boy, canoed to a deserted island and saw names written in the sand, the names of people who then died in freak accidents. In “Morality,” King looks at how a marriage and two lives fall apart after the wife and husband enter into what seems, at first, a devil’s pact they can win.

Magnificent, eerie, utterly compelling, these stories comprise one of King’s finest gifts to his constant reader—“I made them especially for you,” says King. “Feel free to examine them, but please be careful. The best of them have teeth.”

Stephen King’s Night Shift

“More than twenty-five stories of horror and nightmarish fantasy transform everyday situations into experiences of compelling terror in the worlds of the living, the dying, and the nonliving.”

I particularly loved the one for Night Shift: short and to the point. But, let’s face it, this is Stephen King we’re talking about so the blurb could have been nothing more than “King’s newest collection. Buy it” and it would have sold like hotcakes.

wewantsit

A few examples do not research make, though. I started searching for more pointers. There are a ton of resources for a single novel blurb, but resources for  story collections seem a bit rarer. I did find a few, including one from Tam Francis that had some interesting pointers and another from Owen Adams that was a little lighter on the details but had some useful pointers, especially about how it’s perfectly okay to talk yourself up on your Amazon author page. I intend to add the phrase “the laws of physics do not apply to Eric Lahti” on mine.

Booksoarus had some good pointers, too. In the final analysis, though, it doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot of consensus about how to handle collections of stories. There seem to be two major fields of thought on the subject: highlight each story with a mini blurb or write a paragraph that describes the theme and the feeling of the book. As someone else said “The story is the roller-coaster while the novel is the theme park.”

Take that a step further and you could argue that the story is still the roller-coaster while the collection of stories is the theme park. Maybe that’s not the best analogy in the world, but it works for right now.

The problem is how to get the theme out of a collection of stories. The Clock Man consists of eight stories ranging in length from about 7,000 words to around 32,000 words (I know, 32k is a bit long for a short story, it’s a novella), There’s a hefty degree of interlocking in the stories, especially if you’ve read Henchmen and/or Arise, even if all the stories stand on their own. A common thread is an element of magic and an element of horror. It could also be argued that the stories – as the talented S.K. Holmesley put it –

“…extraordinary stories are a mixture of humorous satire, irony and the macabre, in which the stupidities and hypocrisy of conventional society are viciously pilloried.” – S.K. Holmesley

I like the idea of things being viciously pilloried. In fact, more things need to be viciously pilloried. And put in stocks.

I’d tried the single line approach to each story, but it didn’t do much, so I’ve decided to go for a paragraph approach and highlight the major themes (viciously pillorying things, magic, and horror) and the general feel of the book: somewhat lighthearted but still scary as hell in places.

One thing that really sticks out, though, no matter who you talk to is this: “Take a good deal of time to really perfect the book description”

And that is truth. After the cover, the blurb is your last chance to get someone to read your book. If the cover blows chunks no one but your friends will read it. If the blurb is equally bad, you’re dead in the water.

I used the King and Ellison examples, along with some other theories and some back and forth with Ian D. Moore from IASD and came up with:

Eric Lahti creates eight brand new tales of magic, mystery, horror and just plain mayhem. From the dusty shelves of a forgotten gas station to a graffiti tagged alleyway on another planet come a series of quests, epic battles, and good old fashioned mystery interlaced with the paranormal.

The Clock Man and Other Stories shows the world as seen through the eyes of the bogeyman, a talking gun that knows far too much, and a man eating a fried tarantula. Read it with a friend or read it alone, but be sure to leave a light on.

What do you think?

Print Is Dead, Long Live Print p2 – Making a Cover for Createspace

Making an eBook cover isn’t hard.  It can be tricky to make it look good, but it’s really not all that difficult.  If graphic design isn’t your bag, there are plenty of cover designers out there (myself included).  If it is, and you enjoy making covers building one for CreateSpace isn’t overly difficult.  There are some technical issues you’ll need to deal with, though.  An eBook cover is usually something like 2500px by 1563px or some variant thereof.  If you take the height and multiply it by 0.6252, you’ll get the width.  Then it’s just a matter of finding or creating cover art, laying out the text, and doing some basic cleanup (size checks and whatnot) in GIMP or Photoshop.

A print cover is bit different.  You have to worry about bleeds, margins, the physical size of the spine and things like that.  It’s not that a print cover is really all that different, there’s just more to it and you have to be cognizant of where your elements lie in relation to where the ink is going to fall.

I’ll be going through this step by step using the cover for my upcoming collection of short stories.  I use Inkscape to do my layout and GIMP to do my image editing.  At this stage, the image work is done and it’s all about the Inkscape.  If you don’t have a copy of Inkscape, you can get one here.  If you need a copy of GIMP, that can be found here.

This post will cover the following steps.

  • Getting the cover template
  • Setting up guidelines in Inkscape
  • Importing images
  • Layout and design

Just like the last post on formatting your manuscript for CreateSpace, this looks complicated but it’s really not all that difficult.  It can be tedious and step-intensive, but it’s not difficult.  Set aside some time, make the cover, and step back for a day or two.  It’s those times that you step back that allow you to think about what you’d like to see without it staring you in the face.

So, step one.  Getting the cover template.  Don’t skip this step.  As I said earlier, print layout has some technical issues that simply don’t exist in eBook cover design.  Notably, there’s no standard size for the spine of a book.  You can assume you’re working on, say, a 6 inch by 9 inch book and the front cover and back cover dimensions won’t change.  The spine, however, is a variable.  The size of the spine is dependent entirely on the number of pages in your manuscript.  Then there’s also the issue of bleed lines (the point past which images will bleed off the sides).  If you put text past a bleed line you’ll likely never see it when the cover is printed, so it’s important to be aware of exactly at what point elements start to bleed off the cover.

Fortunately, CreateSpace has your back.  They’ve created a bunch of templates that will let you lay out your cover and have a pretty damned good idea of exactly where folds and bleed lines will hit.  Grab a template from here: Createspace Cover Templates.  You’ll need to know the formatted size of your manuscript (I’m using 6×9) and the number of pages in the text (the Clock Man is right about 300).  Download the template, unzip it, and you’ll have two files: a png image and a pdf file.

I’m going to start by importing the png image into Inkscape and setting up the Inkscape document dimensions.  To do this, find the dimension of the image in pixels (mine’s 5700 x 3900, but a lot of it is white space), and tell Inkscape how big the picture is going to be.  Go to File -> Document Properties and set the image dimensions.  Make sure to select pixels as the unit of measurement – my copy defaults to millimeters for some odd reason.  You don’t have to click OK or anything, as you move from field to field, the image will resize.

Inkscape document setup properties. It usually pops into the upper right hand corner.

Inkscape document setup properties. It usually pops into the upper right hand corner.

BlankSizedDocument

Inkscape with the document resized

With the image size set, press the minus sign a few times to zoom out so you can see the entire workspace.  Now we’re going to load the template file.  Go to File -> Import.  That will bring up a run-of-the-mill select file dialog.  Locate the png image you downloaded from CreateSpace and double click it.  This will bring up another dialog box asking you how to import this thing.  There are three questions: Link or Embed, Image DPI, and Image Rendering Mode.  Link or Embed means does your Inkscape file link to the template or is the template actually part of the Inkscape file?  Embedding puts the whole file in with the rest of your Inkscape file, meaning if you open your cover on a different computer the template is still there.  If you just link to the template and open the Inkscape file on a different computer you might not be able to find the template.  I usually embed.  Embedding makes for a larger file, but it’s less of a hassle if you use multiple computers or want to send the file to someone else.

ImageImportDialog

Bitmap image import dialog. I usually embed, pull the Image DPI from the file, and select Smooth (optimizeQuality).

Image DPI is the dots per inch.  This isn’t the dimensions of the image, it’s the resolution of the image.  You can have a huge image (5900 x 3700) but if the dpi is only 72, it’s not going to look good.  DPI refers to the amount of pixels packed into the image.  Anything under 300dpi should not be used in print.  I’d actually argue that anything under 300dpi shouldn’t be used in design period, but that’s just me.  Make sure “From File” is selected.  This will allow Inkscape to use the native resolution of the image.  Image rendering mode is immaterial for our purposes – we’re not going to keep the template in place when we export – but it pertains to how Inkscape pulls in images.  You’ve got None, Optimize Quality, and Optimize Speed.  When I pull base images into Inkscape I always select Optimize Quality.  For the template, you can leave none selected.  Click OK and Inkscape will chug away at rendering the image for you.  When it’s done, you’ll see something like this:

ImageImported

Template image imported into Inkscape.

Resize the template using the arrows around the selected image. NOTE: if the arrows point out, you’re good to go.  If they curve that’s for rotating the image.  If you’ve got curved arrows at the corner, click the object again to get regular arrows.  If you hold down Ctrl while you resize, Inkscape will keep the image dimensions in tact.  If you don’t hold down Ctrl, you’ll just wind up stretching the image instead of scaling it.

With the image resized it’s time time to start putting in guide lines.  These are the little lines that layer over the top of an image to tell you approximately where things are.  You can pull guide lines onto the screen by clicking inside of either ruler (top or left side) and dragging.  Position the lines along all the lines of the template image so you’ll be able to see what you’re up to even after you start putting elements in the drawing area.

GuidelinesInPlace

Whole lotta guide lines, but they’ll come in handy.

The guide lines around the image above are references to various parts of the template.  The extreme outer lines mark the end of the cover.  As you move in toward the center of the image you’ll get the bleed lines; don’t put any text outside of those.  The next closest ones are the main cover area; anything inside those lines is fine.  Likewise the spine has fold lines and there are lines for the bar code box.

To make things a tad easier, we’re going to add a new layer on top of the template and lock the template layer.  To do this, look on the extreme right hand side of Inkscape’s window for an icon that looks like three pieces of paper stacked on each other.  This will add the Layers dialog to the rest of the dialogs.

LayersAdded

Click the plus sign to add a new layer.  Call it whatever you like.  You can toggle back and forth between the layers by selecting whichever one you want.  To lock the template layer, select it, go to Layer – Lock/Unlock Current layer.  That will lock the template layer so you don’t accidentally move it.  Then select the new layer and work with it.

Now we can start importing the cover elements.  The eBook cover for The Clock Man was already partially done, so I just copied and pasted the artwork and did some image fiddling.  I then imported the back matter image just like importing the template image.  Size both images until they work for the positions you need them in.  Again; the imported images often pop in much smaller than they really are.

The next step is put some color on the spine.  Look for the rectangle drawing tool in the toolbar on the left.  It looks like a little box.  Click it and your cursor will change.  Click and drag to draw the rectangle between the front cover and the back cover.  I used the eyedropper tool to change the color of the rectangle.  To use the eyedropper, select the object you want to recolor (the spine rectangle in my case), select the eyedropper tool, and click on any color in the image.  Bam!  The object gets the new color.

Let’s put some text on the spine.  Select the text tool – it looks like an A.  Click anywhere on the document and start typing.  Likely your text will be really small; remember you can zoom in and out by using the plus (+) and minus (-) signs.  You can resize text exactly like you resize everything else.  Once the text is entered, select the select tool (it looks like an arrow).  Click on your text and you’ll get the same arrows for resizing.  Remember, Inkscape is a vector program.  This means all the elements are nothing more than bits of math hiding under the scenes, so you can resize as much as you want without pixellating things.  Your imported images, however, are still bitmaps; resize those as little as possible.

So, here’s my name.  I typed it in, selected it with the text tool and changed the font to Impact.  Now, I just need to rotate it.

RotatingText

Me!

If you see regular arrows when you click the object, just click it again and you’ll get the curvy arrows.  Dragging one of the curvy arrows will rotate the image.  The sideways and up and down arrows skew the object.  Here’s my name rotated.

TextRotated

Me falling down.

Now, just drag it into place on the spine, resize as necessary, and you’re good to go.  In this image, the title has already been added to the spine.

RotatedTextInPlace

In place.

To add the back matter, we’re going to do something a bit more fun with the text tool.  Rather than just clicking, we’re going to click and drag, drawing a box with the text tool.  The advantage to doing this is it gives you a bit more control over multiple line text blocks.  This comes in handy when you’re adding larger amounts of text like a blurb or an “About the Author” block.  So, select the text tool and draw a box that will fit nicely on the back cover.  Start typing.  Formatting text blocks in Inkscape works an awful lot like formatting text blocks in Word or OpenOffice.  Select the text you want to change and you can reset the font, the weight, the size, and so on.  One thing that’s different is a text block is just an object, you can resize it just like any other object.  If you run out of space in your text block, select the text block with the text tool and look for the little circle on the bottom right hand side.  You can use that handle to resize the text block without scaling the text.

TextBlock

It’s that little red dot on the bottom. Click it and drag to resize the text block.

You can edit the block by clicking it with the text tool, selecting whatever text you want, and changing it.  With the text selected, the text formatting bar at the top of the screen shows so you can change fonts, kerning, leading, and all that other fun stuff.  The first block can be your regular blurby back matter and the second one can be your about the author.  Go wild.  Just make sure you don’t put anything over the bar code box.  Put it all together and you can come up with something like this.

It still needs some work, but it's functional for blog post purposes.

It still needs some work, but it’s functional for blog post purposes.

To clean everything up I’m going to export the whole kit and kaboodle and a png image and fix the borders in GIMP.  Exporting is easy enough.  Locate Inkscape’s Export PNG Image dialog on the right hand side of the screen.  Click the Export As button to tell Inkscape where to save the file, select all the objects you want to export, put a check mark in Hide All Except Selected, and click Export.  This will produce standard png file that can be edited as a bitmap.

Don't forget to reset your field calibrations.

Don’t forget to reset your field calibrations.

Now, take that png file and open it in GIMP.  There are some border issues to take care of so I’ll use some guide lines (they work the same in GIMP as they do in Inkscape) to figure out what to remove.  The gray spine box was sized correctly, so a pair of horizontal lines aligned with the top of the spine box will give me the correct sizes.  Select the image using the guide lines as guides, then go to Image -> Fit Canvas to Selection.  Voila, the extraneous border parts are gone.

LoadedInGIMP

Guide lines are your good buddies.

When it looks good, go to File -> Overwrite [Whatever the file name was].  Congrats, you now have a cover.  The final step is to save it as a high-quality PDF (File -> Export as, select Portable Document Format) and you’ll be ready to go for CreateSpace.

And there you go.

See, that wasn't so bad

See, that wasn’t so bad

Print Is Dead, Long Live Print – A Quick and Dirty Primer on Createspace

eBooks are everywhere.  They’re on your tablet, your Kindle, your Nook, your phone, your computer, anyplace you want to read them.  eBooks are easy to create, easy to distribute, and have managed to shake the traditional publishing industry in ways it would have preferred to not be shaken.  There’s only one small problem with eBooks: some people prefer real books.

Reading is wholesome fun

Reading a book is wholesome fun

Indie authors who exist solely in the digital space are completely missing a lot of marketing opportunities.  If you want to have your books sold in a bookstore, if you want to do a book signing, if you want to leave copies of your book lying around your workplace, you need to get that sucker printed.

Getting a book printed used to be an arduous affair.  In fact, if you wanted to see your title in print you used to have to go through a publisher or have a large chunk of change lying around to pay a printer to print and bind your text for you.  That’s all changing, though, through a magical process called print on demand services.  I wrote a post nearly a year ago about the basics of how print on demand works; today we’re going to take a look at what you’ll need to feed to CreateSpace in order for them to make you a physical copy of your book.

Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

  • A manuscript that you want to print
  • A cover for that manuscript
  • A copy of Microsoft Word or some other program that can handle creating and editing .doc files
  • Some free time
  • A CreateSpace account

I’ll be covering dealing with the cover next week and registering for an ISBN number and actually publishing shortly after that.  For right now we’re going to focus on the intricacies of getting the manuscript ready to go.

First, take a deep breath and realize this isn’t rocket surgery.  Keep a backup of your manuscript in case of catastrophe and a glass of scotch ready to go.  This only looks intimidating.  You might have to fight with Word a bit, but it’s really just following steps.  The scotch is for when you’re done.  Or when you get frustrated.

Or do you really need an excuse for scotch?

A buddy of mine has this advice on scotch: if it starts with Glen or Loch and you can't pronounce the name, you're probably in the right area.

A buddy of mine has this advice on scotch: if it starts with Glen or Loch and you can’t pronounce the name, you’re probably in the right area.

Before we dive fully in, there are a few things to keep in mind.  This isn’t an arduous process, but it can be tedious and time-consuming.  There’s a reason preparing documents for print used to be handled exclusively by experts but thanks the wonders of technology and the fact that a novel is a fairly simple thing to layout it’s something anyone can do with a bit of trial and error.  Also, you need to keep in mind that with eBooks a reader can change things like font, spacing, margins, colors, and so on.  That’s not going to be the case with printed text.  If you have an excellent story but you think the Papyrus font is what you need to tell it in, you’re not going to sell very many copies.  Do some research and keep things simple: people want to read a book, not be blown away by fancy layout.  The design needs to emphasize readability.

I’ll be using screenshots of Henchmen here as examples – partially because I just went through this process redoing both my cover art and updating my text.

Step one is to decide what trim size you want to go with.  Industry standards vary somewhat, but you’ll probably want to stick to something common.  Traditional paperback books fall into a range of around 5″ x 8″ to 6″ x 9″.  It goes without saying that a smaller book will likely have more pages than a larger book.  This is important because the number of pages in a book effects its per unit price.  The price to print each book is pretty high, so lower printing costs equals better royalties for you.  For instance, Henchmen was 74,210 words long.  At 6×9 that gave me 197 pages once it was formatted.

CreateSpace conveniently has a calculator (look on the royalties tab) you can use to determine your royalties.  At 6×9, 197 pages, charging 6.99, I can expect to make $0.97 per copy sold through Amazon.com and $2.37 per copy sold directly through CreateSpace.  At 5×8 I got 267 pages.  Charging 6.99 per unit I’d get $0.13 per copy through Amazon.com and $1.53 per copy sold directly through CreateSpace.

Yes, the 5×8 is smaller, but has more pages and that’s what CreateSpace uses to calculate the cost.  The larger book is cheaper than the smaller book.

Almost no one buys directly through CreateSpace, so $0.97 per unit it is.  You can fiddle with the sizes and prices, but the standard seems to be 6×9.  Anything beyond that and you risk getting weird looks from people.  Non-fiction, manuals, and things like that might require different sizes and prices.

So, onto step one.  You can get a template directly from CreateSpace or set up your own layout.  I just grabbed one of CreateSpace’s templates and used it.  If you are going to create your own template, set your paper size to 6″ x 9″.  To set your paper size in Word go to the Ribbon Bar (that thing across the top that has all the tab.  Yes, it has an official name: the Ribbon Bar), select Page Layout, go to Size, and look for More Paper Sizes at the very bottom.  Click that and it will take you into you document setup.

PageSize

While you’re there, you may as well set the margins, too.  Look for the Margins tab and set the margins that work best for you.  Mine came straight from Amazon’s template so they should have the official okey dokey.  I used top, bottom, and outside at .5″, inside at .75″.  Note: you won’t see inside until you specify Multiple Pages with Mirror margins.

Margins

Now you’re ready for the easy part.  Open your manuscript, select everything, copy it, and paste it into your new CreateSpace document.  Doubtless all your hard work on formatting will need some work in the new document.  Get all that set and remember one key thing: this is exactly what your reader is going to see.  They can’t override your fonts or change your line spacing.  Look at books you like to read and start mimicking how they’ve done it.  Keep the fonts simple: Times New Roman, Garamond, things like that.  I used 12pt Garamond, justified, single-spaced, with a .3″ indent on the first line for paragraphs.  Print some stuff off, read it, hand it around and let others read it, whatever it takes to get a good idea of readability.

Once the formatting is back where it should be it’s time to wrestle with page numbers.  This is where you start dealing with Headers and Footers.  Again, keep it simple and realize Headers and Footers are straight out of Hell.  Word’s page numbering features are nice but there’s still one little bit of nastiness you need to take care of before you can start putting in page numbers.  The problem with page numbering is it’s a very literal process.  If you just double click at the top of your document (which takes you into Header/Footer editing mode) and add some page numbers with the Page Number drop down you’ll wind up number the text from the very first page.

This is usually considered bad form.

We’re going to break the document into sections to make the page numbering work.  If you’re in Header/Footer mode click on the Close Header Footer button on the Header Footer Design Tools part of the Ribbon Bar.  Most books have only two or three sections and only one of those really needs pages numbers.  Henchmen was broken into three sections: Opening Matter, the novel itself, and some closing matter that consisted of a brief thanks and a preview of Arise.  Of those sections the only one I wanted numbered was the main part of the novel.

To set up sections decide what will constitute a section.  Title page, copyright information, also by, contents, and dedication made up section one.  The novel itself made up section two, and the final matter made up section three.  Once you’ve got that squared away click to get the cursor right at the end of the text at the end of a section.  Select Page Layout and look for Breaks.  In breaks look toward the bottom for Section breaks.  Select the one that works best for you (continuous works quite nicely and doesn’t insert unnecessary page breaks.  Keep doing this until you’ve got your sections.

SectionBreaks

All we just did was tell Word that the document consists of multiple sections.  This is important, as far as we’re concerned, because it will let us use page numbers on only some parts of the document.

Now, for the fun part.

Double click anywhere at the top your manuscript and that should dump you into Header Footer editing mode.  Make sure Link To Previous is NOT selected.  If it is, the page numbers you set here will be copied into the previous section.  That kind of defeats the purpose of making sections.  Select Page numbers and start with Format Page Numbers.  The key thing to do here is make sure you don’t continue numbering from the previous section.  Select you number format (1,2,3) and, in the page numbering section, make sure to select Start at 1.

PageNumberFormat

Another thing to remember is books have facing pages.  Look for a set of check marks that say Different First Page, Different Odd & Even Pages, and Show Document Text.  Different First page just means the first page of the section won’t have a page number.  Different Odd & Even pages means you can set the page numbers in opposite corners.  Show Document Text just shows the document text.

Make sure Different Odd & Even pages is selected.

PageNumberOptions

Now you can actually add the page numbers.  Select the Page Numbers drop down and pick something that looks good.  You’ll likely have to edit it, so don’t get too wrapped up in how the samples look.

PageNumbers

If all went according to plan you should have page numbers starting at one and going to whatever page ends this section.  If not, highlight the page number on the first page of the current section and delete it.  That’ll get rid of the others and you can start over.  You’ll note they’re kind of ostenatious, though, with all their fancy underlining.  You can reformat these just like any other thing in your document.  You’ll have to do this twice, once for the even pages and once for the odd pages.

Highlight the page number, go to the Home tab and format it however you deem fit.  Then do the same thing for the opposite page.  You should wind up something that looks like this.

PagesNumbered

If it all looks good, congrats.  You’re almost done.  The last thing to do is put in a Table of Contents (if you want one).  Go back to someplace in the first section, insert a page, and find Table of Contents on the References tab.  Select the one you want and drop it into place.  Format it however you want.  You can also build a TOC from scratch if you want to.  It’s not difficult (I did it), but it is beyond the scope of this post.  If enough people ask, I’ll put together a post on how to do it.

If all looks well, you’re done.  Go over the document with a fine-toothed comb.  CreateSpace books aren’t as easy to update as Kindle books so make sure it looks exactly like you want before you publish it to CreateSpace.

Questions, comments?  Leave a note and I’ll be happy to get back to you.  If I missed a step, let me know and I’ll get it added.

Leading, Kerning, and Tracking. Oh, My.

There are good indie book covers and there are bad indie book covers.  I pray regularly none of mine show up on Kindle Cover Disasters.  I’m also hoping I don’t wind up on Wired’s Reviews of Indie Books; they seem to take joy in poking fun at the Indie author world.

The thing is, Kindle Cover Disasters and Wired both have some valid points.  There are some crap covers out there.  There are some terribly written books out there.  But there are also brilliant stories and wonderful designs; people in the indie world are pushing boundaries and redefining the publishing world.  Needless to say the traditional publishing world is less than enthused about this turn of events; they had a lock on publishing and were quite happy to tell us what to read and what format it would be available in.  The world is changing now.

I can’t really help with the writing side of things other than to say, “Find a story and tell it.”  Heck, I can’t even really help with the design side of things other to show off a few tricks I’ve picked up over the years.

A little while back I put up a post about choosing the right font for the job.  The post was ostensibly about Comic Sans, but there’s a very important lesson hiding in the background: your font can make or break your cover.  Comic Sans catches a lot of crap but that’s just because it’s used in so many places where it doesn’t belong that people have begun to see it as a bad font.  This is double plus ungood logic.  The utilization of a thing – especially when it’s not being used for what it was designed for – does not determine whether or not that thing is a good thing.  After all, it’s just a font.  If you were to try off-road racing in a Lamborghini you might come to the conclusion that they’re terrible cars because you just bottomed out on the first bump; but that’s not what Lamborghinis were designed to do.

Well, except for this one, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.

Lamborghini_LM002_Gen1_Type129_1986-1993_1988_frontleft_2013-03-17_U

Ever wonder where Hummers got their looks from? LM002.

So, choose a font that looks right.  Read up a bit on fontography, experiment with various fonts, and always – always – pay for the fonts you use in your design.  Spend a bit of time reading about design and see some examples of what can be done and you’ll save yourself a lot of headache later on.  How Magazine is a pretty good resource and I’ve been known to peruse them from time to time.  Even a Google Image Search for best book covers will show you give you some great ideas.

Let’s say you’ve got your font picked out and you put something together and it still doesn’t look quite right.  It’s that little tingle in your design senses telling you “This is nice, but it could be better.”  That’s where playing around with your typography can work wonders.  Take, for instance, this.

HenchmenArialPlain

Henchmen in Arial, default kerning

This is the title for Henchmen in Inkscape‘s default Arial font.  The word just lays there a bored hooker.  The font in this case is partially the culprit.  There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Arial; it’s a great font.  It just doesn’t have much oomph when it comes to titles.  You can use Arial Bold or Black or any of the other myriad variants on Arial, but it’s still not the greatest font for what I intended.  So, stage one is to pick a more appropriate font.  After some serious futzing with fonts, I settled on Impact for Henchmen and Arise.  This is where it kind of comes down to your preferences; I like Impact, some others don’t.  You’ll never please anyone so go with something that looks good.  I felt Impact had the weightiness I was looking for.  For Henchmen and Arise, it’s a perfect font in my mind.

HenchmenImpactPlain

Henchmen in Impact, default kerning

It still needs a bit of work, though, to make it really pop.  This is where adjusting the kerning and tracking can come in handy.  Kerning and tracking adjust the amount of space between letters and can radically alter the feel of a word.  The two terms describe basically the same thing, it’s the application that separates them.  Kerning adjusts the space between two letters, tracking adjusts the space between a string of letters.  Here are a couple examples of tightly and loosely kerned text.  I guess if I wanted to start getting technical, I’d say tightly and loosely tracked text, but the end result is pretty much the same.

HenchmenImpactKernedLoose

Henchmen, Impact font, loosely kerned.

HenchmenImpactKernedTight

Henchmen, Impact font, tightly kerned.

The amount of white space between the letters does two things: it adjusts the legibility of the word and it adjusts the darkness of the word.  Of the two examples, the tightly kerned word is darker and harder to read, but has a more desperate or rushed feel to it.  The loosely kerned text is much easier to read, feels quite a bit lighter, but also has a more sterile or menacing feel to it.  Your results may vary on how the word feels to you, but you can’t deny the two examples have a markedly different feel to them.

You can even vary by letter, which is really what kerning refers to, the previous examples are technically tracked.

HenchmenMixedKerning

Henchmen, Impact font, mixed kerning

Mixing the distance between the letters  yields a very different feel.  In this case, I adjust the kerning to call out the MEN part of the word.  Add a touch of color (red would work) and you get a two words in one.  That would pretty much go against the grain of the book since a couple of the major players are women, but it’s a nice example.

HenchmenImpactMixedKernColor

Henchmen, Impact Font, mixed kerning, colored.

The final design I came up with was an attempt to harken back to some older bolder designs.  I stuck to Impact, loosened the tracking slightly, and slanted the text.  The end result, while it may not appeal to everyone, is simple and bold; two things I like in a design.

HenchmenGuyRevBSmall

I’ve redesigned this cover so many times I forget which revision this is, four or five, I think.

Since I wanted Arise to have a similar feel to Henchmen, I went with a very similar design and immediately ran into a problem: Henchmen has more characters than Arise so the design looked all wonky.  The solution?  A wee bit of tracking changes in Arise allowed me to keep a similar feel without having the title completely overrun the cover.  When I kept the same tracking in Arise I wound up with a huge text block when I scaled it up.

AriseGuyRevBSmall

Note the tracking differences in Henchmen and Arise. Arise is spaced wider, but not so much it looks too off.

That’s kerning and tracking.  Sure, most of the examples were tracking more than kerning.  Kerning can be used to make a line of text seem strange, or pull out a hidden word, or just to make it look like the word is falling apart or exploding.

Clever kerning can also be used to imply movement

Clever kerning can also be used to imply movement

But what about leading?  What the heck is that stuff?  Well, kerning and tracking are horizontal spacing; their good buddy leading handles the vertical spacing.Again, just like with leading and kerning, it all comes down to controlling white space.  Most of the time we tend to think of this as line spacing in blocks of text, but leading can be really useful for design elements as well as large blocks of text.  Take this for example:

Arial, 1.25 line spacing

Arial, 1.25 line spacing

Again with the Arial.  Again the text lays there like a bored hooker.  In this case, though, the problem isn’t necessarily the font; it’s what’s being done to it.  Arial works pretty well for things other than titles and headlines.  Times is kind of like that, too.  Just like with kerning and tracking, leading changes can have a drastic effect on the text.

WrongThingPlainArialTightLeading

Tight leading: .85

 

WrongThingPlainArialLargeLeading

Loose leading: 2.5

The leading numbers are based on baseline heights, which are derived from x heights.  X is considered a standard letter, so the term x-height is used to refer to the baseline height.  The default leading was 1.25, meaning 1.25 x the X-height.  The tight leading is set to .85 and the loose leading is set to 2.5.

The tightly leaded lines lose white space, and that creates a darker effect.  The loosely leaded lines feel lighter.  Same text, same font, different results.  It’s even possible to drop the text on top of itself and use color to differentiate the lines for the eye.

WrongThingPlainArialTightLeadWithColor

A little Christmas-y for my tastes, but it works as an example.

With a bit of experimentation, you can combine tracking, kerning, and leading.

Tracked and leaded.

Tracked and leaded.

The font was changed to Arial Bold, I used bold italic and color changes for wrong and right.  Suddenly boring old Arial takes on a new feel.

So, step one is to choose a good font.  If I switch the above text to Comic Sans, I get crap.

Holy bad font choice, Batman!

Holy bad font choice, Batman!

But this isn’t what Comic Sans was meant for.  Comic Sans had a very specific intent in mind when it was designed and fancy design wasn’t it.  If you have to pay for a font, do it.

Step two is to adjust the tracking and kerning.  You’re creating or removing white space and the effect on the text can be dramatic.

Step three – and this one doesn’t apply to book covers as much – is to work with the leading.  Again, you’re creating or removing white space.

Once you can combine all those elements together, you can make the text on your cover much more exciting.  Don’t settle for just throwing some text on top of a picture and calling it good.  If you’re going to take the time to modify and enhance the background image, shouldn’t you also take a little time to play around with the text?  Remember, the cover is the first thing people see.  If the cover sucks, no one will read the book no matter how good it is.  I’m far from blameless here, too.  The first few Henchmen covers were crap.  Live and learn and see what can be changed to make it better.  That’s one of the beautiful things about indie publishing; if you feel like making changes you can just do it.

In the end, choose the right tools for the job.  Spend as much time choosing your fonts as you do your images.  Keep the Lamborghini for GT racing (except the LM002, those things are boss and bodacious.) and use a dedicated rally car for off-road use.

BTW, I use Inkscape when I’m working with text and GIMP when I’m working with images.  I’ve tried doing text work in GIMP and Photoshop and found it to be more of a pain than it was worth.  If anyone’s interested, I can put up a quick explanation of how to do that.

Resources:

Some really bad book covers

More bad book covers

More technical description of kerning, leading, and tracking

Another description of kerning, leading, and tracking

Scrap That TOC Post From Earlier

Back in May I posted a quick and dirty primer for making a table of contents.  It was just my way of doing things and I wanted to share it in the hopes that it might help someone.  Last week I was putting together a final collection of short stories for distribution to Smashwords and had to follow their model of making a TOC.  It was much easier.

Don’t do it the way I posted about earlier; that’s old and busted.  The new hotness is actually easier to work with and produces better results.

The way to do it correctly is this:

1). Use whatever you want for your chapter headings.  I still use Word’s Heading 1 style because it throws the chapter title into the navigation pane and that makes editing easier.

Head 1 sample

2). Highlight the chapter heading in your manuscript and select Insert in the Word ribbon (that thing at the top that replaced easy to understand menus) and click Add Bookmark.

Insert Bookmark

Repeat this process for each chapter header.  Note: you can name the bookmarks whatever you feel like.  Make them something easy to remember.  I used the chapter name (or a variant) with no spaces in the name.  Spaces are bad, mmkay.  Don’t worry, no one will be able to see them but you.

3).  Type out your Table of Contents and style it however you please.  That’s one of the major drawbacks to using Word’s Table of Contents generator: it’s brutal to clean up the formatting.  This way is nice and easy and you can make it look however you want.  Once you’re done, highlight each chapter and go Insert on the ribbon bar and click hyperlink.  Make sure to select the Places in the Document button on the left.  Select the bookmark you created earlier and click okay.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Create Hyperlink

4). Voila.  Note, Smashwords is still trying to get epub submissions (you still have to submit a Word 2003 or 2007 doc file) to work and a lot of your formatting will go out the window as soon your book hits a Kindle (or other tablet).

Sample

This example is from the Kindle preview tool that Amazon built and is showing how the mobi file will look on an e-Ink device.

Simpler, easier, faster.  I believe you can do the same thing with Libre Office and Open Office.  Ditch Word’s TOC generator and do it the easy way.

HTML & CSS: Your BFFs

Go read my post on ebook formatting before you begin; this is a follow-on post that focuses on HTML and its good buddy CSS.  If you’re already up on formatting, you’re all good to go.  You definitely don’t have to format the same way I do.  Everyone has a process flow that works for them.  If you don’t have a process flow or want to see a bit more about formatting, check out the post.  If not, no worries.  Carry on.

Once you’ve finished writing your novel or story the journey is only partway over.  You’ve got edit it, format it, make the dreaded table of contentsmake a cover, and get the file ready for publication.  There are services and people out there who do most of this for you but for those of you who like to get your fingers covered with digital dirt the following links will at least get you started.

The post on formatting goes through a lot of the process of formatting and getting the file ready for publication, but there are a few more tricks that might come in handy.  If you’ve never designed a web site you might not be familiar with the twin heroes of web design: HTML and CSS.  The HyperText Markup Language and Cascading Style Sheets work together to define the look and feel a website.  Think of them as extremely lightweight programming languages even though neither of them technically fall into the realm of programming.

For instance, this is programming:

la.alertID = rdr.IsDBNull(9) ? Guid.Empty : new Guid(rdr[“AlertID”].ToString());

This is HTML:

<p>I’m a tag!</p>

This is CSS:

p{font-family: sans-serif;}

i-was-told-there-would-be-no-math

Don’t worry.  Things are only strange until you get to know them.  As the Skipper says, “An enemy is just a friend who hasn’t betrayed you yet.”  To get your head around HTML and CSS you don’t need to understand programming at all, especially since this post is focusing on HTML and CSS for eBooks.  Once you hit the realm of web sites the complexity increases dramatically, but an eBook is a pretty straightforward thing.

So, why worry about HTML and CSS in a post that’s supposed to be for authors?  The simple answer is this: an eBook is really nothing more than a very basic website and your eReader is really nothing more than a cut-down web browser.  In a lot of ways it makes an enormous amount of sense to use web technologies for eBook publishing.  They’re established technologies that most developers have already wrapped their heads around and it makes for portable data, which was what the Internet was going for all along.

The HTML code defines what’s in your book and gives it a basic breakdown of what’s a paragraph and what’s title and so on.  The CSS code takes that information and tells the browser how to render it into something that looks decent on a screen.  You don’t have to code out the whole thing from scratch.  If you’re using a modern-ish writing platform like Word, Scrivener, OpenOffice, LibreOffice, or any other number of tools, the program is creating the HTML and CSS for you as you type and format.  All you need to worry about is tweaking the occasional HTML tag or CSS instruction to make things perfect.

If you’re still worried about the idea of coding, don’t fret.  Here, have a kiss from a giraffe.

giraffe-kisses

See! All better!

So, you’ve got everything written and formatted and converted to an epub file, but there are those nagging little things you want to change.  For me, it’s always the damned Table of Contents.  Others might see the epub rendered and want to change some things on the fly.  In order to do that, you need to have a basic understanding of HTML and CSS.  Since an eBook is just a website, I’m going to eschew the complicated stuff and just put together a simple site with some text and then do some basic formatting.

Here’s a simple HTML file with no CSS references in it.  Okay, so there’s one, but it’s commented out and I’m lazy.

HTML1

and here’s a CSS file that I’ve already done some work on.

CSS

And this is what the page looks like in Chrome.

Yuck. Gross.

Yuck. Gross.

So, let’s link up the HTML and CSS files.  Conveniently, I’ve already done this.  If you look back in the HTML file up in the <head> section, you should see a line that looks like this:

<link href=”stylesheet.css” rel=”stylesheet” type=”text/css” />

This links the HTML file to the CSS file.  Now we can make changes to the CSS file and the changes will … cascade to the HTML file.  Meaning any time the browser sees a thing with a particular class name (or a particular type of thing, like an <a> tag), it looks back to the CSS file to figure out how to render it.  If there is no set of specified rules about how to render something, the browser just uses some default values.

So, the files are linked, but we haven’t told the individual elements of the HTML file what parts of the CSS file they’re associated with.  That’s why the screenshot of the site in Chrome looks like crap; those are the default ways of rendering HTML in Chrome.  So, we’ll start at the top with the title and work our way down.

To link the title element (Henchmen) to the correct class in the CSS file, I just have to tell the HTML file what class a title is.  Right now the code that generates the Henchmen line looks like this:

<p>Henchmen</p>

That just means its an HTML paragraph.  To make it all purdy and stuff, I’m going to associate that one thing with a part of the CSS file.  All I have to do is change <p>Henchmen</p> to this:

<p class=”BookTitle”>Henchmen</p> and I get this:

Better, but it still needs some work.

Better, but it still needs some work.

If I start hooking up the rest of the elements in the HTML file, like so:

Each tag now has a class associated with it.

Each p tag now has a class associated with it.

I get this:

Site3

Not perfect, but good enough for jazz and government work.

CSS and HTML can do an awful lot more than what I’m showing here.  For instance, check out the CSS Zen Garden sometime.  It’s a site that lets designers use their own CSS files to style the site and it’s an excellent example of what you can do with it.  Obviously, what the talented folks over at the Zen Garden are doing is far more in-depth than anything that will wind up in an eBook any time soon, but it does demonstrate what you can do with CSS.

The rule of thumb in eBook CSS and HTML is to keep it simple, but there are some common CSS settings that will come in handy.  For instance, here’s an example of CSS that Calibre defined for me based on Word formatting when I put Arise together.

.block_5 {

color: black;

display: block;

font-family: serif;

font-size: 0.83333em;

line-height: 1.2;

text-indent: 0;

margin: 0;

padding: 0

}

Most of it’s pretty obvious but there are a couple oddballs.  display:block, for instance.  Block just means start this element on a new line and take up as much screen real estate as possible before wrapping.   For a kind of decent example look at this page.  Each time there’s a paragraph break there’s an extra line added.  Each paragraph has about 1.2 to 1.5 line spacing, but between paragraphs there’s a 2.0 line space.  The paragraphs are likely defined as block elements with a specific line height.  Each time I hit enter, I get a new paragraph with a new block element, those are spaced around 2.0 or so.

A couple other tags that might come in handy are orphans and widows (Thanks to S.K. Holmesley for pointing this out to me).  An orphan is the first line of a paragraph that gets left on page 1 while the rest of the paragraph continues on page 2.  It looks wonky to see just the first line, so you can set orphans: 2; or however many lines need to be left.  A widow is exactly the opposite, it’s the number of lines that have to fall to the next page if a paragraph gets split.  widows: 2; would ensure at least two lines of the paragraph fall on the next page.  If you have a paragraph where you have to worry about both orphans and widows you either have very small pages or may want to break that paragraph up a bit more.

The CSS generated by programs like calibre is basically the same stuff you see here, there’s just more of it.  Every CSS/HTML interaction works exactly the same way.  If you open an epub in Sigil and something looks off, examine the HTML, find out what class it thinks it is and use that information to look up what the CSS is doing.  If you don’t like it, change it.

It’s pretty hard to seriously mess things up with CSS, but it can be done.  Follow the old standard of backing things up before you mess with them and you’ll be fine.

For more information on CSS, check out W3 Schools CSS reference.

Congrats.  You made it through.  Have a picture of a boxer.

Boxer

The Strange and Savage Tale of Comic Sans

These days admitting you like Comic Sans is tantamount to admitting you think Hitler had some good ideas.  I’m not sure exactly how this came about.  It’s very rare in this world that you’ll come across enough people with enough free time on their hands to advocate banning a font.  Sure, Comic Sans is overused and rarely used for its intended purpose, but I don’t think it needs to go away forever and I definitely don’t think it needs to die painful death.  After all, it’s just a font.  You can’t kill a font.  A better way of looking at Comic Sans might be to examine it as a font that’s frequently not used for its intended purposes.

EVIL!  Straight from the 9th dimension!

EVIL! Straight from the 9th dimension!

Here’s a wee bit of history for you: Comic Sans MS was drawn up in 1994 for a little known application Microsoft was cooking up called Bob.  Bob was a layer on top of Windows 95 that was designed to make computers easier and more friendly.  Bob used so many resources it frequently rendered computers inoperable and, therefore, easier to use.  It had a cute little dog that would come out and offer to help you do things.  That dog communicated through speech bubbles, not unlike a comic book character.  The original cuts of Bob had the dog “speaking” in Times New Roman.  Vincent Connare (the man who designed Comic Sans MS) was a font designer for Microsoft at the time and when he was shown what the dog’s speech bubbles looked like, he realized Times just didn’t fit with the feel of the application.  Connare turned to the comic books he kept in his office and made up a font that would look better for the dog’s voice.

Comic Sans MS wasn’t finished in time to be shipped with Bob, but it was added later as part of a font pack for Windows 95.  It has since become one of the most popular – and reviled – fonts ever designed.  Ask any designer what they think of Comic Sans and you’ll get an earful about how terrible the font is.  It’s almost like asking web designers what they think of Internet Explorer.  Ask the average person on the street and you’ll likely find some people who like it and use it regularly.

That, in and of itself, is interesting.  Ask the average person how many fonts they can name off the top of their head and you’ll likely get Times New Roman and Comic Sans.  Times New Roman you can kind of understand; it was the New York Times font.  But Comic Sans?  A font created solely for dialogue bubbles from a cartoon dog in a program everyone has tried to forget about?

It doesn’t make sense, yet Comic Sans is still one of the most popular fonts on the planet.  I guess this just goes to show something or another.

The bottom line is, Comic Sans is just a font.  It’s also a font designed for a very specific purpose.  It wasn’t designed for book covers.  In fact, I don’t think there’s any way you can make a book cover look good with Comic Sans.  Take for instance, these:

jurassic-park-in-comic-sans

I can almost hear Yakety Sax as the dinosaurs eat people.

godfather-in-comic-sans

The basic design is there, but the font just kills it.  And these are a couple of the most iconic book covers ever put together.

Of course, the same could really be said of any font.  Font choice is amazingly important in cover design.  You can have the best layouts and best imagery in the world and your font can cripple the whole thing immediately.  Interestingly enough, if you tried to use Times New Roman in place of Comic Sans in either of those covers they would still look like crap.  That’s because Times, like Comic Sans, has a very specific intended use in mind: newspaper type.  The New York Times no longer uses Times New Roman due to design changes in the paper over the years, but Times New Roman is still widely used for book text.  You don’t see Times New Roman used very often in book covers.  It’s just not that type of font.  Times, like Comic Sans, is designed for strings of text.

In my opinion, Times isn’t a great graphic design font (arguably better than Comic Sans, but that’s still debatable).  Yet no one hates on Times New Roman like they hate on Comic Sans.  This is probably because people have realized what Times is good for and use it there rather than trying to shoehorn it into places where other fonts will work better.

This is what Comic Sans is designed for: Rover from Microsoft Bob.

So happy to destroy the planet

So happy to destroy the planet

This is not:

A good book, by the way.

A good book, by the way.

So, rather than hating Comic Sans, it would be better to realize it was designed for a very specific use and that use was not eBook covers.  If you’re writing an application for kids and want to make something that’s easily accessible and not too intimidating, Comic Sans is your bud.  If you’re designing a book cover, eschew Comic Sans.

Next time you sit down to design a cover, just ignore Comic Sans.  Please.  That’s not what the font was designed for and it just doesn’t work.  Besides, if you put Comic Sans on your book cover, the other designers do get to point at you and laugh.  It’s in the rules somewhere.

Conquer the Dreaded Table of Contents

Edited 09/26/2015: There’s still some fairly useful information in here, but there’s a far easier way to make a better looking TOC in Word.  See my latest post on it here.

There’s a lot of debate in the eBook world about whether or not eBooks actually need a Table of Contents.  The trends is leaning toward short story and anthology collections should definitely have one and novels may not need one.  Personally, I like the idea of a TOC in novels but that’s just because I’ll usually go back and read parts of a book later.  A TOC makes that a lot easier to do.  I’ve also been toying with the idea of adding a last page enty into my table of contents to support people like me who like to read the last page of a novel just to see what happens.

Fortunately, making a decent Table of Contents is fairly easy in Word.  Formatting it is a bit trickier but by no means rocket surgery.  It’s just step intensive and prone to failure.  Before you begin remember a couple things: have a backup of your book and Ctrl-Z (undo) is your friend.  We’re going to start with a raw Word doc (it’s got story titles and the first paragraphs of some of the stories I’m working on) and proceed through making a table of contents and formatting it for an eBook.

If you want to make life easy for yourself, get the whole book done before you even begin tackling this.  I’m not kidding here, you want the whole thing done and ready to go.  The TOC is absolutely the last thing you want to do because any changes in the text will mean you have to rebuild the TOC.

As a side note, this is an image-heavy post but the images are actually useful (unlike most of what I put in blog posts), so check them out.

This whole post springs off an earlier post about eBook formatting that I felt lacked some of the necessary steps to make it really useful.  Before you begin, make sure you’ve got some software handy and a basic understanding of how to use it.

Calibre (a wonderful and free eBook converter)

Sigil (a piece of software that will let you crack open ePub files and modify the HTML inside of them directly)

Kindle Previewer (an Amazon tool that will let you convert ePub to mobi using Amazon’s KindleGen software and see what your final file will look like on a Kindle)

A word processor (I used Word 2010, Libre Office and OpenOffice have similar features and cost much less)

To get started I mocked up a collection of stories and added a couple paragraphs from each one.  This is just meant to represent a normal document.  Your manuscript is probably a bit longer than two pages.  Normally you’d have page breaks between the stories but that’s beside the point and I’m a bit lazy tonight. (Click each picture to embiggen them, or right click and open in a new tab).

The actual stories will be out later this summer

The actual stories will be out later this summer

Not much to see here.  This is just some story titles and some text using Word’s default styles.  That’s okay because this is about the dreaded Table of Contents not the rest of the book.  The rest of the book is actually much easier to deal with.

We’re going to start by telling Word what constitutes a chapter header and, therefore, what to add to the table of contents.  You’ll do this with your good buddy styles.  To be frank, all your formatting should be done with styles, and making your TOC starts with styles.  Mark each story title with a Heading 1 style (you can format it to your heart’s content).  Select the text you want to make a TOC and click the Heading 1 style.  Boom.  Done.

I don't know who decided Word's default styles but they're pretty bad.

I don’t know who decided Word’s default styles but they’re pretty bad.

As you mark things with Heading 1 the navigation panel on the left fills in with data.  You can, like, totally click on those lines and they’ll take you to the points in the document.  Navigariffic.  This is, incidentally, the only formatting I do while I’m writing and that’s just because it makes it so much easier to navigate around the document.

From here, add a new blank page and add a Table of Contents.  This part is pretty trivial because Word loves you so much.

What's wrong with this picture.

What’s wrong with this picture.

Only one problem: eBooks don’t have page numbers because they’re really nothing more than a website running off your reader.  So, we need to get rid of those page numbers.  Should be easy, right?  Wrong.  Why?  Because Word hates you.  If you try to just highlight the part you don’t want and delete it you’ll wind up deleting the whole line and that’s where your good buddy Ctrl-Z comes in so handy.  This is also why you have a backup.

You do have a backup right?

To rid yourself of the hated page numbers, place the cursor right after the the text of the chapter title and press delete once.  This will remove all of the elipses (Are they still elipses when there’s more than 3?  Inquiring minds want to know) and you’ll have something that looks like this: titlenumber.  Leave the cursor where it is and press shift and the right arrow key until the whole number is highlighted.  Then press delete.  Bam!  You’ve got a clean chapter line.

TOCMods

Word looks like it’s highlighting the entire TOC, but it’s really not. This is just to confuse you.

Now, just to get fancy we’re going to put a little blurb under the title.  Don’t move the cursor, just press Enter and type up something.

TOCWBlurb

Great for anthologies!

It’s ugly now, but that can be changed.  We’ll make a couple new styles and do some formatting.  To make a new style, right click anywhere in your text that you want the new style applied to, go to styles and click Save selection as new quick style.  Give it a name (I called mine TOC blurb) and click the modify button.  Now you can tweak the layout and font choices.  Be careful with fonts; Kindles have a limited font set that they’ll display in.  If memory serves, they tend to convert to Georgia, although I’ve good luck with common fonts like Arial, Times, and Garamond.  Don’t go nuts with your fonts and definitely don’t use Papyrus or Comic Sans.

CSS O' Matic

CSS O’ Matic

NewStyle

Style names can be clever but no one but you will ever see them.

NewStyleMods

Modify!

I’ve selected 11pt Arial (the size is kind of immaterial), Italic, with a .5″ indent.  I also made some other styles for the chapter titles and the Contents line.  The style looks okay, not great, but works to show off what you can do.  Again, no Papyrus or Comic Sans.  Also, Old English script doesn’t make things look classy; it makes them look gangsta.

TOCModFinal

So, that works.  Convert it to epub however you wish (I used Calibre) and open the converted epub file in Sigil.  Remember how I said an ebook is really nothing more than a website?  This is what your epub looks like when you crack it open in Sigil.

SigilBookView

Book View

The damned chapter titles are blue and underlined!  WTF?

Don’t fret.  The chapter titles are hyperlinks (<a href …> tags) that link internally to the document.  Default styling for a hyperlink is underlined blue.  Switch it over the code view and you can see what’s going on better.

Code view. Note the highlighted line.

Code view. Note the highlighted line.

Right above the highlighted line is a bit of text that reads <a class=”text_”… This is a reference to your CSS stylesheet class that controls how the book renders.  On the left hand side of Sigil is a list of folders.  If you look in Styles for stylesheet.css and open that file you’ll get the following.  I’ve already scrolled this all the way down the .text_ {} line and done some modifications.  First, I set the color to black and removed the line that did say text-decoration: underline.

CSSMods

Note in the preview pane the chapter title is still underlined.  We can fix that guy’s little red wagon, but you’ll see in the final that it doesn’t do much due to the way Kindles have been coded to render files.  Since our chapter titles are just hyperlinks and hyperlinks are, by default, underlined, we can add a new bit of CSS code to override the default <a> tag behavior.

It's just a few lines.

It’s just a few lines.

Down at the very bottom (or really wherever you feel like putting it) add the following code:

a{text-decoration:none;}

It's just a few lines.

It’s just a few lines.

Now look at your preview.  No underline, yo.  Fo shizzle!

Save the file and open it in Kindle Previewer to convert to Mobi and see how it’ll look on a Kindle.  You should see something similar to this:

KindlePreviewer

The titles are back to being underlined.  Not much you can do with that, it’s just the way Kindles render those hated <a> tags.  In the final analysis, though, this isn’t really a bad thing.  Underlining provides a visual cue to your readers that they can click or tap something and move around the document.

Upload your new mobi file and you should be good to go.

Questions? Comments?  Drop a comment and I’ll get back to you.