Thursday, April 22, 2010

How To Format For Kindle

The Newbie's Guide to Publishing Book. Now available on Kindle for $2.99.

I’m a pretty tech savvy guy, but when I decided to turn my blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, into an ebook, I knew I was in over my head. This was a hefty project, weighing in at 370,000 words. Besides getting it properly compiled and formatted, I also wanted a linkable table of contents. Though I know my way around HTML, I simply didn't have the skills to do it on my own.

So I turned to Rob Siders for help. Rob did a terrific job putting the ebook together. It was an incredibly difficult and complicated task to format this ebook (and he did it twice--once for Kindle, and once in pdf available as a freebie on my website) so I asked Rob if I could interview him to describe the process.

Rob, tell us a little about your background.

Rob Siders: When people ask what I do I always answer, "I write books that nobody ever, ever reads: software manuals!"

The long answer is I'm a technical writer who writes and produces at least a dozen computer how-to books every year for a Denver software company. Each one of those books, then, gets ported to one electronic format or another, whether to PDF (for offline use) or to XHTML (for online use). My days as a professional writer, however, stretch back to 1999.

Beyond that, when I'm not being a husband and new Dad, I'm currently in the muddy middle of writing novel number two.

Joe: Is Kindle difficult to format for?

Rob: Heh heh. You'd think it'd be a piece of cake… upload your book and let Amazon Digital Platform do the rest. But anytime you take your native document and try to automagically convert it to something else then you're sort of going on faith, hoping the thing that emerges on the other side resembles what it once was.

The Kindle conversion, presumably because it's a new tool, chokes on some of the things that Microsoft Word just does, like tabs, page breaks and curly quotes. We hardly think of those things as advanced formatting. So, as it goes, the more complexity you have in your document's formatting, the more fits Amazon's automated conversion is going to give you.

Take, for example, The Newbie's Guide to Publishing Book. It's a thousand pages with a table of contents, some pictures, and a bunch of hyperlinks. These are things Word does well and with ease. Click a button, and voila! You have a table of contents! Type a URL and Word makes it a clickable link. Want those pictures? Easy. Just copy and paste them.

But these things just kill a Kindle conversion.

What's more is that the Kindle format's file output is a very rudimentary version of HTML, which isn't that difficult to learn or work with, but when you're talking about a novel-length manuscript… that's a lot of code to sort through if you need to clean things up. And odds are pretty good that you will need to clean things up.

To give you another example, TNGTP's table of contents is almost 900 lines of HTML code after conversion to the Kindle format. The whole book is more than 30,000 lines of HTML code after conversion. It's an inelegant way to look at your work.

Joe: Do you have any tips for newbie writers trying to upload their ebooks?

Rob: Absolutely… keep your source document simple. As you know, formatting a manuscript –– wide margins, double spacing, 25 lines per page, and name, title and page number in the header –– is a great practical presentation to an agent or editor you're trying to attract to your book. After all, you want to look like a pro even if you're not. Especially if you're not.

But, again, that kind of stuff causes problems with Amazon's converter. At minimum, you should have two versions of your manuscript: one with as much rich formatting as is needed to present to agents or editors, and one that's relatively barebones for Kindle (even then be prepared to do some futzing with it before you click the Publish button).

Joe: If a newbie is looking to hire someone to help them format, what are some of the things they should look for? Questions they should ask?

Rob: Well, there's a guy in Denver who's really top-shelf! But seriously, if I were looking to hire someone for something like this I'd want someone who's experienced and who understands what my needs are. I'd also want someone who's accustomed to deadlines and who can turn out professional results.

Joe: How much do you charge for a Kindle conversion?

Rob: It really depends on the size and scope of the project, but budget a couple hundred dollars for fiction. Double that for non-fiction or picture books, because of the advanced text formatting, tables of contents, and image optimizing.

Joe: How should people send you their manuscripts?

Rob: Microsoft Word files are best, but I can convert PDFs, too. If all you have are hardcovers or paperbacks or paper versions of your manuscript, I can handle those conversions, too. It just takes a little longer and costs a bit more.

Joe: What are your predictions about the future of ebooks? Are we heading to an era where publishers are no longer needed?

Rob: Oooh. These are tasty ones. Back in the 90s, before I was a pro writer, I ran record stores for a small, Midwest-based independent chain that doesn't exist now. This was an interesting time to be in that business: everyone was expanding as CD sales fueled enormous growth. Labels were signing anyone who wore a guitar. But I remember as plain as day having three interactions, at different times, during that tenure.

The first was in 1993-ish. I was running one of the company's college-town stores. The campus was completely connected through a VAX system, which was the same system our stores used. The systems were closed to each other, of course, but they were basically using the same technology. One afternoon at a manager's meeting, I mused at how great it would be if the students could search our catalog database and place a special order or hold for a CD from a campus computer lab or their dorm rooms. The other managers looked at me like I had three heads.

For the second interaction, jump forward to sometime in 1996. A customer wanted a CD we didn't normally carry and asked whether I thought had it. I didn't own a computer at that point and had never seen the Internet (let alone the Amazon Web site), but I'd read enough stuff in the record industry trade magazines to know what she was talking about. I remember feeling threatened by her question.

The third interaction, in 1998, was with an employee who worked for me. He raved to me about the mp3 format… its compression, its virtually imperceptible loss in fidelity, and how you could, if you knew where to look, download off the Internet for free just about anything we carried in the store. I went home after work and learned more about it and quickly understood that the industry I loved was about to get clobbered.

Now, back to your questions… I don't think we're in any serious danger of losing analog books anytime soon. There're too many people like you and me and your readers who really love books. I'm talking deep, soulful connections to books and the stories they contain. In that respect, music lovers and book lovers are truly cut from the same cloth.

But the parallels between the publishing biz now and the record biz a decade ago couldn't be clearer. And it's not just the pervasiveness of digital products and their associated devices. It's also the way in which the Internet allows producers, artists, whatever you want to call them, to make their work available to people and then build a following. There's a place for publishing companies and record labels, but producers and consumers can go around them now in ways that evolve faster than traditional companies can. The band Panic at the Disco got discovered on MySpace. Comedian Dane Cook used social networking to catapult himself from the club circuit to Madison Square Garden. New York Times best-selling horror novelist Scott Sigler got there by first serializing his books and releasing them as free podcasts. Of course, these people have extraordinary results. But, like you, they promote the hell out of themselves, then and now, without necessarily relying on a giant corporation's money or help.

I think, even though it's been underway a while, we're just beginning to see the publishing industry's clobbering. They're fighting it like the music industry did (and continues to do in some ways). But, until they figure out how to adapt, it's a fight they're going to lose.

Joe: Thanks for your insights, Rob, and for the great job you did with Newbie's Guide.

If you're an author with a backlist and want to get your work up on Kindle, even if the only thing you have is a paperback copy, I suggest contacting Rob. And if you've tried uploading to Kindle yourself and got frustrated because your book looked like crap, Rob can help with that, too.

Visit him at and tell him I sent you.

And if you find my blog helpful, feel free to pick up a Kindle copy of The Newbie's Guide to Publishing Book. If you don't have a Kindle, download the free Kindle for iPhone app. If you don't have an iPhone/iPod/iPad, you can get Kindle for Blackberry, or Kindle for PC, for free.

You can also get the free PDF of this ebook at If you feel guilty about getting 1100 pages of my blood, sweat, and tears for free, there is also a Paypal link for donations. Whoever donates the most will have a character named after them in SHAKEN, the seventh Jack Daniels book, being released this winter. I can't say who the publisher is yet (I signed a non-disclosure agreement), but I'll be making the announcement soon.

Depending on the turnout, you might win with just a fifty cent donation. Who knows? So donate early, donate often.

(The savvy among you might realize I'm doing this as another experiment. Micropatronage, or crowd funding, is a way for artists to make money while releasing work for free. How much money? We'll see...)