It wasn’t too long ago that the Kindle version of Neal Stephenson’s newest book Reamde had to be replaced. The reason? Customer complaints about errors in spelling, grammar, and formatting. After spending $16.99 to download an e-book, readers were justifiably miffed that it was riddled with mistakes. We imagine this resulted in large numbers of return requests (a customer can “return” a Kindle book, which means it’s deleted from the device’s archive). What we can’t imagine is how a publisher—in this case, William Morrow—could let it happen in the first place. The physical book would never go to print without being thoroughly proofed and formatted; why are some e-books held to a lesser standard?
When the publisher makes a mistake like this, it’s hardly the author’s fault, but they still get flurries of one-star reviews—which stop potential sales in their tracks. The problem has become so pervasive that one editor, Rich Adin, has even started an “E-book Hall of Shame” to call out bad formatting.
Some of us, however, do have the control and the responsibility over how our e-publishing looks. If you are one of the growing number of authors who self-publishes to Kindle, there is no excuse for bad formatting. The William Morrow example is rare; most “unreadable” e-books come from the ranks of the self-published. Browsing the Kindle Indie store, we often find virulent one-star “This stinks!” reviews for authors guilty of poor proofreading/formatting. (I won’t call them out here for pity’s sake.)
Keep in mind that these reviews are not about the plot, or the characters, or the premise of the book. They are about the presentation: the hasty, slopped-together final product. Harsh to hear, especially when it could have been easily remedied by some professional treatment.
Little mistakes will always work their way into a final book; even Harry Potter has them. Most of us agree that the occasional typo can be overlooked, if it’s even noticed in the first place. However, our brains are designed to “hiccup” at too much irregularity. If a book has uneven indents, wonky margins, an inaccurate Table of Contents, or large numbers of punctuation errors, it undermines the reading experience. It would be like vanilla ice cream where the black specks of vanilla bean are replaced with chunks of black pepper … Just awful.
You, the writer, have spent countless hours perfecting a manuscript. That labor of love should be properly clothed to go out into the world. Also, a well-formatted e-book is a matter of courtesy for your readers (you know, those mysterious throngs of people who are going to make you rich someday). When a customer buys a book, whether in a bookstore or on their iPad, they do so in the good faith that the production value is high. You’re allowed a lot of creative license in your plot and your writing, but not in the formatting. When a person pays money for something, it needs to be done right. Typos might still creep in, but a badly-formatted book is nothing but carelessness.
There are some free services, Smashwords for example, that take your Word document, run it through a program, and eject it out the other end in the various e-book formats. At first this seems like a good deal. When we first got into e-publishing, we tried to follow the “Smashwords style guide” on Microsoft Word … and ended up wanting to throw our computer off my balcony. The final product was unclean. There was weirdness in those margins, italics where there shouldn’t be, no italics where there should … you get the drift. And Smashwords takes a percentage of your royalties. It’s a far better investment, and kinder to your readers, to either hand-code that e-book yourself (not too hard if you already know CSS basics) or pay someone who knows what they’re doing.
If the idea of turning your novel into HTML intimidates you, The Editorial Department works with several professional e-book conversion companies who do good work at a reasonable rate. E-book production standards are one of the few things keeping a talented, professional, self-published writer up out of the muck of the Internet. For the sake of your story, make it look good!