E-book Design: It’s a Thing

When I first started reading electronic editions of books, they were all in the public domain, made available through Project Gutenberg. I didn’t give much thought to their aesthetic value—I wanted the texts. I used many of them to replace battered paperback Penguin Classics that I had been dragging along on many moves over the years. It didn’t really matter if occasionally the scanning process messed with the font, or if an illustration was unreadable. It was free, after all. It was saving me a box or two per move. It was clearing up space on the bookshelves for the first editions by my favorite writers that I still like to collect.

But since I got my first iPad, I have gradually begun to open my mind to actually purchasing e-books. There are times when someone on the Internet recommends a nonfiction book, for example (in other words not the kind of book I like to collect in paper editions) and rather than make a mental note to look for it next time I’m out, I just go to the iBook store and download it. Often the e-book price is slightly lower than the physical edition would be, but not always. Either way, these books are not free, and they are not provided by volunteers, like the ones from Project Gutenberg.

But they have as many—sometimes more—glitches as the free books. It appears that no one at the Big Five NYC publishers has ever heard of e-book design.

I might not have thought much about this if I had not published my first novel in an exclusively electronic format. My book had a cover designer and a book designer. Maybe some readers out there are not familiar with the concept of book design, but think about it. Someone decides what fonts should be used in a book, what size the margins should be, whether there’s a running header at the top of each page and what it looks like if there is, where the page numbers go, how and where italics are used, how to present block quotes, what internal text boxes (think about charts or side bars, for example) will look like. Someone indexes books that require indexing.

No one seems to be doing that—or at most they are half-doing it, half-heartedly—for the electronic editions of books initially released in paper by big publishers. Instead, every single e-book I’ve bought has been riddled with mistakes that make it clear not much is happening besides a quick scan and an upload to e-book vendors. The first e-book I ever bought had an index with page numbers but no links. Page numbers are meaningless on an e-reader, where the text size can be changed by a reader, shifting the entire book’s pagination. So I paid money for a book with an index I couldn’t use. E-book versions of paper books frequently have hyphens in the middle of words that appear (or can appear, depending on a reader’s text size preference) in the middle of page, where they need no hyphenation. This is a sure sign that the book was not designed to be electronic, but simply scanned from a paper version that required a hyphen because its type was set for a particular physical page. Text boxes, side bars, and charts are sometimes unreadable, especially when the font size is increased or decreased (but sometimes altogether, regardless of font size).


Note “She supposed” about halfway down the page. In this larger font it is hyphenated. In the smaller font (right), it appears in the middle of the page and is not.


Bonus! E-books can cheaply incorporate color. This is usually prohibitively expensive in print. I was pleasantly surprised when I got the galley of my e-book and noted this detail.












My own book—and others I’ve seen that were produced to be exclusively electronic books—are absolutely beautiful inside. They are designed for the font to shift. They are designed to be read and make visual sense on a multiple e-readers. If they have indexes, they use internal links, not page numbers. Sometimes they have external Internet links that will take a reader directly to a cited source or to more information.

Some of you may remember that I decided to self-publish another of my novels. I produced both a paper and an electronic edition of the book. The two editions required completely different design processes and considerations. When something is going to be printed, it has to be perfect in its static final state. When something is going to be electronic, it requires a mobility in design that will translate well on different e-readers at different font sizes. E-books also allow for some design features that are trickier in print.

Now that I have noticed this difference, I am aghast that big publishers feel okay about scanning a print book, slapping a price on it and uploading it for sale. If a self-published writer did such a thing they would be rightfully criticized—possibly in condescending tones—by readers and other book critics. It is egregiously unprofessional. Selling a scan of a paper book and asking people to pay for it strikes me as roughly equivalent to stapling together a raw manuscript and asking a brick-and-mortar bookstore to stock and sell it.

Why don’t big publishers put their paper books through a real, electronic-specific redesign before selling them as e-books? I’ve done it. It takes a day or two. Someone who does it a lot could probably do a couple books per eight-hour workday, honestly. It would cost very little if anything. It is a job that screams “entry level” or even “unpaid intern.”

Oh, look! Someone took the time here to helpfully let readers know the index doesn't work and to point them to the search feature in their e-reader. How much harder would it be to add links, so, you know, the index actually works?

Oh, look! Someone took the time here to helpfully let readers know the index doesn’t work and to point them to the search feature in their e-reader. How much harder would it be to add links, so, you know, the index just works?

Not doing it feels like a slap from the publisher. It is disrespectful to the reader and implies that all the publisher really cares about is the extra money they might make by putting the book into another format. But those of us with dedicated e-books know that good e-book design is as necessary as good paper book design. We would just as soon forgo a final proofread of our manuscript as we would real internal book design.

I’m not sure what to do about this problem besides complain. Right now I’m planning to leave reviews of all the e-books I’ve bought that have these problems (which to a greater or lesser extent, is all of them except the e-books I’ve bought that are exclusively electronic). I am not getting what I pay for if the index doesn’t work, or the information in the text boxes is unavailable to me. It’s disappointing, because the convenience of e-books is really appealing, even to a bibliophile with four thousand paper books, like me.

Since getting my first e-reader, I have come to see the potential for a Brave New World with all kinds of access to all kinds of books for all kinds of people. Unprecedented access is already here. Even more is possible. But come on, publishers, show a little respect. Step up and take as much pride in your electronic product as you do in your paper one. Then you’ll have me for a customer, hook, line and sinker.


I am sorry to report that I have not been writing much of anything since finishing that big push with my writing partner in February. (But we did finish! The project is currently in waiting mode while others make decisions about it. If there is news on that front, I will certainly let you know.)

I caught some horrible winter nastiness in late February and didn’t really recover for about eight weeks, after which…I fell ill again with something else entirely. So it’s been a Netflix heavy spring for me, rather than a writing heavy one. But I have high hopes for the month of May in which I mean to get a lot done on that science fiction project I told you about long, long ago (in a galaxy far, far away? Feels like it!)

I have some old friends who are absolutely certain that my terrible immune system is passed down to me cosmically from a former incarnation in which I was a consumptive suffragette who wrote scathing political op-eds to Boston newspapers from my sick bed, dictated to my devoted romantic friend-slash-secretary.

The older I get, the more plausible this explanation seems.

But I have done a couple of small creative projects. It is my intention to start producing e-book covers for other writers of small budget but high standards. The reason I want to do this is because I made the cover for “Jump” and had so much fun doing it, I wanted to do more. So I solicited a couple of friends in need of covers and have been practicing on them. You can see the results here and here.

I intend to keep practicing on gullible desperate  indulgent friends in need of covers until I have a nice little portfolio of different genres of covers and then I will start charging modestly for the service. If you think I would consider you a pal, and you could use a cover, let me know. I’d like to try some different genres to get a broader range of experience.

Meanwhile, anybody read anything good lately? I’ve mostly been plowing through some nonfiction that would probably only be of interest to me, but what’s new and good in the fiction world these days?

Free! Free!

I wrote a short prequel to Jack and as of today it is free for download at the Musa Publishing website. Here’s a teaser excerpt from the story:

Annabella’s head swam. She felt as trapped as a fly in amber. “I thought you wanted to marry Mrs. Banks,” was all she could say.

“I admit it. I did intend to marry that woman, but when I saw you…I knew that you and I had something special in common.”

Annabella was shaking her head.

“Now this rumor has reared up, I fear marrying anyone in New York is out of the question. I do not intend to ever be Edward Landrieu again.” He stood and lit another cigarette.

“I apologize for shocking you,” he walked again to the fireplace. “And I apologize for rushing you. But I am afraid I will need your answer within a day. I have two tickets for Friday’s steamer to Liverpool and I will be on it with or without you. The child of course, will remain here.”

Annabella drew a long breath. “In that case, Mr. Landrieu, I am afraid that—”

“That is not all.” He cut her off. “If you decline my offer, I have written a detailed letter to Mrs. Sterling about my suspicions concerning your past. Mrs. Banks may be an outsider who fails to see the impropriety of keeping you on, but Mrs. Sterling will counsel her wisely in this area, I am certain. You will not get a character reference from anyone in New York for a new position, I assure you.”

Annabella stared at him.

“Please forgive me, dear girl.” Mr. Landrieu looked almost truly concerned, but he went on smoking. “I do hate to be so ugly about it. But you must realize that you cannot go on deluding these people forever. Your child—she is growing and soon enough you will need to find a decent place for her. Why not give her over to someone who can provide her with an education and employment?”

Annabella’s face grew stormy. “You cannot be suggesting that I give my own child to strangers?”

“I know a home right here in the city where good Catholic sisters raise girls like yours to live productive, happy lives.”

“Catholic sisters? An orphan’s home?”

“Annabella, there is no place for that child in our scheme.”

Our? She had agreed to nothing.

Mr. Landrieu raised an eyebrow. “You can stay here and perish on the sword of your motherly duty—taking her down with you no doubt—or you can leave her in the best of hands and come with me.

Download it for any reading device here.

Get Your eBooks Autographed?

Well indeed. And it doesn’t even mean using a sharpie to sign your iPad. There’s this nifty website that will allow you to request an inscription from a writer and you can get an electronic picture of it and their signature. A real signature. Signed with a computer mouse (or in my case, a finger), but still. Kinda cool. I signed up for it. See?

Eden is Back

edencover - Version 2As promised, if a bit later than promised, R-rated  Eden is now available in ebook (only kindle or kindle apps for now) form for $2.99 US. Hopefully a paperback form will be coming soon, too.

Now that I’ve edited it as much as I’m going to–at least for the foreseeable future–I’ve also re-opened the pay-what-you-like (including nothing) PG-13  Eden blog.

So, enjoy Eden at whatever cost you choose!

I Can Go Anywhere

If you don’t remember Reading Rainbow, featuring Kunta Kinte, Geordie Laforge, LeVar Burton and a bunch of little kids doing book reports for PBS, you had a deprived childhood.

But never fear! You can make up for it now, because Reading Rainbow is now available in app form.

readingrainbowI know, I sound like an advertisement, but really I’m just excited to have found this app for my kids.

The app itself is free, but you have to pay to subscribe to what is essentially a bottomless pit of kids’ books. You can keep up to five books at a time downloaded in your virtual “backpack.” You can return them and swap them out for other books any time you have Internet access. The app has a fun “island” theme, where, once having chosen some topics of interest, you can visit these islands and find books there that suit your favorite things.

It costs $10 per month or $30 for six months. I just went ahead and signed up for the six months, because while $3o may sound like a lot for an app, what it is is six months of unlimited picture book access. I couldn’t buy the five picture books in the backpack for $30. So I consider it a major bargain.

And look, I hear you out there going “libraries!” And I see your wagging fingers. But electronic books and electronic access to books are a good thing too. And while a physical trip the physical library is undeniably a good thing, so is the ability to check out and return books from the kitchen table when a trip to the library is just not in the cards. And frankly, my kids are really hard on books. This way, I don’t have to worry about torn pages (a dropped iPad is another matter).

I do want my kids’ primary association with the word “book” to be a thing made out of paper. But I’m not sure if it really matters–I am even less sure if it will matter when they are older. Mainly, what I want them to do is love reading and love books. And access to so many books can never be a bad thing in my opinion.

What do you think about kids and e-books?

27 Thoughts on Book Piracy


This is my daughter, Selina. She is not really a pirate (yet).

Here are 1-25.

Yesterday, Chuck Wendig wrote a lengthy post at his blog on book piracy and his complicated feelings about it. He summed these feelings up by generally being against it, while expounding on the many ways in which even being generally against it are nuanced in his mind.

Then, he unofficially declared today to be the day of talking about our feelings about book piracy, so here I am.

I liked Chuck’s list and agreed with it on a theoretical level. Theoretical, because I don’t really have any books for sale yet, therefore, while I think I would or will feel a certain way about having my own work pirated, I can’t be sure until it happens. With that caveat, I think I might feel a little less offended than Chuck does, because in some ways, getting my book out there and having it enjoyed is an end in and of itself, as well as a probable boon to my career. Chuck has a good strong fan base right now, so he needs that exposure less than a newbie like me, and perhaps I’ll feel differently someday.

(I reflect here on how my feelings about writing nonfiction for free have changed over the years. For a long while I didn’t mind writing for “exposure.” Now when someone tells me I’ll be paid in “exposure” I sort of want to kick them. My writing is labor and it deserves pay. But I don’t so much need the exposure of nonfiction blogging or other short e-formats these days. may that happen to my fiction someday too!)

Anyway, I wanted to add a couple of things that Wendig did not include on his almost exhaustive list, that I also feel about piracy.


Wendig mentions (I think it’s point #24) that piracy is a cultural thing and to fight it, we must fight the culture of piracy, rather than individual cases of it. In my experience, he’s right, but I also have a thought on whose culture it is.

I have a handful of 20-something friends (it happens when you have kids who need babysitters) and all of them happen to be artists–musicians, writers, comic-makers–and most of them (all of them?) are very nonchalant about their torrents. They shrug and say “stuff ought to be free.”

I tell then that if “stuff” were all free, people who like to make “stuff” wouldn’t be able to afford to make it anymore. They shrug some more (they shrug a lot) and insist that they make stuff–even though they also have meaningless day jobs–perhaps, indeed because their day jobs are so meaningless–and insist that the true Artiste (but they don’t really say “Artiste” they just imply it in their attitudes) will be driven to creation by a fire in the soul and will keep making stuff even for no money at all.

Well. That may be true of 20-somethings with meaningless day jobs, but for lesbian housewives like me, with exactly one hour of brain life between the kids’ bedtime and collapsing in exhaustion, myself, the stuff-making time is precious. It is not something I can afford to just give away based on the fire in my soul alone. The fact is, I have responsibilities to many others and if I am going to spend a valuable, much-tugged-at hour on my soul, well, I better have something to show my family for it.

(My family doesn’t insist on this. But I do. It’s called multitasking. Unless I can make some grocery cash at the same time, I can’t be following my bliss for no reason–certainly not for a whole hour every day or the occasional several weekend hours in a row. It’s also why so many people in my demographic do stuff like knitting or sewing or baking–those are creative pursuits with added value to the rest of the family.)*

People in my generation need to be able to make some money to justify the time we spend making stuff.


One of my 20-something friends (well, most of them, really, but one especially) is poorer than a small poor animal who lives in a poor place. He is also smarter than a six-pack of some of the most privileged college students I’ve ever taught. And he loves to read. He will read a book a day if he has ‘em and he will read anything. So he pirates. He pirates enormous libraries called “200 e-books” with no other information, then asks me which ones I think he ought to read first. Many of these giant, anonymous e-book packages turn out to be in the public domain anyway. These are books that people who aren’t literature professors often call “classics” and that I call “old books”–Henry James, George Eliot, HG Wells, Charlotte Bronte–that kind of thing.

But not all of them are. Some are more recent and might have cost him $5-15 if he paid for them either in e- or paper form. But even if only one of the books he reads per week is one he might have (ought to have?) paid for, and even if it was at the bottom end of that price scale, that’s still $250+ a year he doesn’t have to spend on books.

And seeing as I am (or more accurately, have been) a literature professor, I just can’t bring myself to begrudge him those pirated books.

Before e-books, he used the library. He still uses the library. But he reads, as I said, a lot of books. Maybe when libraries really figure out the e-book thing (or is it e-books that need to figure out the library thing? I don’t know…) this little conundrum will be solved. But until then, I have to say if a reader like him was pirating my books, I think (theoretically) I’d be okay with that.

* Which makes me wonder if I might be able to excavate this enough to add: 28. IT’S A GENDERED THING to this list, eh?