The Old, Mean, Re-formatting Blues

After working on a computer everyday for more than 25 years, I usually feel pretty confident tackling software issues.  I’m a real, nuts and bolts kind of guy anyway, so fixing whatever comes up is really second nature for me.

Well, today I have to be honest – I’ve been laid pretty low by the need to reformat my first book manuscript for wide, e-book use.  Most of the problems I’m experiencing are my own creation. I only have myself to blame, so along with the mea culpas, I’ll share what has led me to the re-formatting blues, so you won’t need to go there yourself.

Sales of E-books, in a range of formats, have increased steadily at a rate eclipsing paper books consistently this year.  The growth figure I recently read in an interview with Smashwords founder, Mark Coker, is 58%.  58% is a number too large to ignore.  Now personally, I’ll probably never read more than a couple of pages online – I’m old school when it comes to pleasure reading.  But, as every writer should know, potential markets can’t be ignored if you intend to sell your books.  So, it’s time for the old guy to embrace some new ideas.

If you’re happily writing away and converting your documents to e-book-useable formats without a care, then you may only find this week’s column mildly entertaining.  If you’re like lots of other writers, pretty set in your work habits and the software you use, then read on…but don’t do as I’ve done. It’s not pretty.

Word Processors are Not Equal

I’ve been working with my trusty, old word processing program for more than 15 years now.  I really like it.  There aren’t any real bells or whistles to annoy or distract me, and for chapter-based writing, the organization has always been very workable.  I’m speaking of Word Perfect.  Now, I’m not a luddite – I keep it updated and use most of it’s rich feature set.  I produced my first book’s print design using it, short stories, articles for press and online media, pitch letters, advertising copy, business correspondence, and the results look good, and read well.  No problems at all.

I just didn’t see them coming.  MS Word is the preferred word processor in use today.  Believe it. For those who grew up in the Microsoft era, there has never really been any other choice.  I’ve always used MS products grudgingly.  I don’t like the cute icons, spinning symbols, or (what I consider) really arcane menu layouts and placements.  I like my basic WP, but all that has had to change.

When in Tome… 

E-book formats like MS Word files for conversion. Many of the E-book formats can be proprietary, and they usually include a wealth of flexibility in how their content may be read on screen.  This is a very important concept, which requires your manuscript to be quite a bit less “linear” than your print manuscript.  Herein lies the problem.  MS Word is set up to format documents — font, paragraph and chapter — using specific elements that are easily understood and translated by most E-Book software currently written.  To put it simply, Word Perfect just can’t get there from here. 

WP, like all word processors, has a wealth of included export algorithms designed for sharing documents among a group of different platforms and software.  It, unfortunately – at least with the current iteration — formats its documents in certain proprietary ways which, when exported to MS Word formats, or Rich-Text formats usually result in unexpected garbage characters, dropped characters, translation glitches and other hair-tearing excercises.

What You See is Not What You Want…

For example, after five separate attempts to upload my exported MS Word files to Smashwords with no success, I sent up a flare for some help.  Mark Coker, personally it turns out, took a look at what I had sent, then summed it up by saying – you’re trying to convert from WP – it really can’t be done.  Select, Cut and Paste the entire document into Notepad (386 pages in trade paperback format, 96KPlus words), supposedly stripping all formatting controls from the document, then import it into MS Word.  Good Luck.

I needed more than that.  I needed a transfusion. After downloading the simplest version of MS Word, with a 60 day trial period, I followed his direction. The document that resulted had gone from a tiny few typos and grammatical/punctuation errors, into a disaster of page-by-page close editing which will require many, many days of hard work.  Here are some of the highlights:

1.  Menus:
It took me two solid days to figure out that the normal menu commands such as Open, Select, Edit, Save, Save As, etc., were hidden under a cute, cartouche icon at the top left.  Like an idiot, I kept running my mouse over the top of the document/tool bar watching as a huge variety of item opened up, usually not what I was trying to find.  Go ahead, click the cute little icon – it won’t bite.  Watch out that you inadvertently leave the “home” page.  Beyond there be dragons.

2.  Redundancies
Unlike my trusty old WP, MS Word is full of command and applet redundancies – you’ll probably find what you want in several places, often at once!  It can get a little confusing.  I might actually have to find a “Dummies” book to learn how to use the program efficiently.  How embarassing! I hope I don’t see anyone I know at the book store.

3. Find & Replace
Probably my favorite function in word processors, after the ability to select and delete entire sections – dispatching all the awful blither into the ether with a single click.  When I saw the awful results of the file conversion from WP into MSW, I first had to stop my hands from shaking.  After a few deep breaths, I thought: No Biggie. I’ll use Find & Replace and deal with it all in a few short steps.  Wrong again.  MSW’s F&R, is not tense sensitive.  At least not in my copy, or with my limited grasp of it’s huge feature set. 

The conversion, among other things, turned all the leading quotation marks in the entire book, in every single instance of dialog, into capital “A”s.  OK, starting with the most numerous instance, I chose to replace the opening of each dialog sentence which began “I….  So I entered “AI” into the Find text box, and “I into the replace box. Click.

Ohmygod! Now every word in the entire manuscript with the letters “AI” OR “ai” in them have been changed to “I.  Like the word ag”In, for example, or the word r”In, or the word refr”In…you get the idea.  F&R had now become my bane, not my buddy.

The rest of the file contained several other cute instances of reformatting-introduced spelling and grammatical errors which has required very careful editing.  Another fun example: all M-dashes have suddenly become capital "B".  There are several more. It’s been more like a complete, page-by-page re-write.  I’m now finished with 20 chapters – only 10 more to go.  It’ll be a hard lesson, but when I’m finished, I’ll have something I should have had from step one any way: an unformatted version of my manuscript. 

Keep it Simple. Keep a copy.

It would have been a simple thing to rename the original, edited, re-written, ready for prime-time file to an easy-to-remember name that implied no formatting.  Instead, I went about my merry way, formatting my manuscript into publication format, including such absolute no-nos (for E-Books) such as drop caps, large bold chapter headings in different fonts, page numbering, footnotes with call-outs and more than three carriage returns to set off chapter headings, which an e-book file will interpret as a blank page! All of these must die for your E-book to live.

Always save an unformatted, current version of your book.  Be sure it also is set up to letter sized page, uses 12 point type and has a 1 ½" margin left and 1" margins all around.  This is what an agent will want to receive along with your pitch, should your desire to be an Indie Author become too much work. Just kidding.

I may not like Courier, but E-Books love Courier.

If you’re going to sell E-Book versions of your work, you’d better get on the band wagon. Like me, learn to love MS Word, Courier, and MS’ other designed for online text fonts. Resist the gnawing temptation to design a good-looking page in favor of a utilitarian ethic.  Learn to enjoy tickling the cute little icons and chasing down the menus.  It’s a new age of publishing and if you don’t learn the new strokes, you’ll sink!  But remember, once you’re in the water’s fine, or at least…wet.

Oh, I should probably add; I wrote the first draft of this article in Word Perfect. I guess some old habits are just too comfortable to change.