Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ebook Madness: Don't Confuse Ebook Conversion With Ebook Formatting!

I'm getting a lot of emails from authors who tell me this or that company or person is offering to convert their manuscripts into ebooks for some ridiculously low fee, like $50. What the authors don't know is that conversion of a manuscript to an ebook format takes fifteen minutes or less, is mostly an automated process, and will only deliver a quality ebook at the back end if the file being converted has already been properly formatted for the target ebook format. $50 doesn't seem like such a bargain when you realize how little work is actually being done for that fee, and when you know it doesn't include the most time-intensive, labor-intensive, and important part of the ebook creation process: formatting.

The conversion step is no big deal. You open a conversion program, click a button to import the (pre-formatted) manuscript, fill in a form with details about the book (e.g., title, author name, suggested retail price, etc.), click another button to add any required companion files to the project, then click one last button to output the ebook in your desired file format. If the manuscript file you've imported was formatted properly ahead of time, your ebook will look and perform great. If not, not.

The majority of time and effort that goes into creating an ebook is spent on preparing the manuscript for conversion, and creating any required companion files (e.g., Amazon's required active table of contents file for Kindle books). Where the conversion step is mostly automated, the formatting part is mostly manual. This is because every manuscript is different, and the process of formatting a manuscript for ebook publication is primarily a process of minimizing and standardizing formatting. Here's my Kindle book formatting to-do list, to give you some idea of what's involved:

* “Save As” to create Kindle file copy
* Insert cover image on first page
* Remove blank pages
* Remove headers
* Remove footers
* Set margins to 1” all around, remove gutter
* Replace section breaks with page breaks
* Set two carriage returns before each pg break and one after each
* Insert page breaks before each chapter heading, if necessary
* Replace double spaces with single space between sentences
* Standardize body text style
* Turn off auto-hyphenate (Tools > Language > Hyphenation)
* Remove any tab or space bar indents, replace w/ ruler indents as needed
* Set line spacing to 1.5, max 6pt spacing after paragraphs
* Standardize chapter headings
* Standardize section headings
* Remove/replace special characters
* Reformat graphics as needed to 300dpi resolution & optimal size (4x6” or smaller)
* Verify images are “in line” with text
* Insert page breaks before and after full-page images
* Modify copyright page to reflect Kindle edition verbiage
* Add correct ISBN to copyright page
* Insert hyperlinked TOC

I have a different to-do list for each different ebook format, since the requirements vary from one to the other. Obviously, if the author provides a file that already meets most of the requirements above, the job will take much less time and effort than it will with a file for which I must complete all of the items on my formatting checklist.

Just as obviously, it's impossible to know how much work is involved without actually seeing an excerpt from the manuscript. Anyone who's offering to do the job on the cheap without seeing any part of the manuscript is either not intending to do any formatting, or so new to the author services game that he doesn't realize the time and effort demands in creating ebooks are highly variable.

If you can find someone who will do the formatting AND the conversion for $50, and the resulting ebook looks great and functions properly, by all means HIRE HIM NOW! Otherwise, when you're comparison shopping among author service providers, be sure to ask if the price quoted for the provider's ebook conversion service includes formatting and creation of any required companion files.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Write For All You're Worth

On Twitter, I try to retweet links of value to writers. Since I know many writers are constantly on the lookout for paying gigs, I follow @writersjobs and frequently retweet the help wanted ads they post. Mind you, @writersjobs isn't actually placing any of these help wanted ads, they just post links to the ads on Twitter to provide an easy, centralized gig list for writers.

Today, I was disheartened and even a little sickened when this ad showed up:

Ghost writer needed to write 10 blog posts. Will pay $.01 per word for 200-250 word posts. You choose the topic. All 10 posts must be on the same topic. Topic must be legal and PG. Must be original posts - plagiarized posts will not be purchased. Looking for one writer. Long-term projects available for the right person.

Bring on the number crunching...

I think half an hour per post is a pretty realistic estimate of the time involved, if you count the time spent coming up with the concept, writing the rough draft, and editing and polishing. At a penny a word, the maximum-length blog post will net you---wait for it---two dollars and fifty cents. Write one more and you're rolling in five dollars an hour; that's about 40% less than minimum wage, and that's before taxes, too. You can't even argue that this is a resume builder, since it's a ghost writing job: someone else is going to take the credit for your work.

I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.

Look, I know tough times call for desperate measures, beggars can't be choosers, in times of crisis we all wear different hats, and lots of other cliches. But writing is a skill, writing well is a hard won skill, and even people who mop floors and flip burgers for a living are entitled to a minimum wage that's mandated by law. Yet although this gig will obviously pay less than either of those jobs would, the person who's hiring intends to be picky about selecting the "right person" for "long term projects".

The "right person" in this case is a fool who's willing to be taken gross advantage of, but I have no doubt he or she is out there, writing an eager email to apply for the job this very moment. And it's because of that writer that ALL of us, and our work, are being devalued faster than Detroit real estate.

Take a gig that pays minimum wage if you must, but do it knowing you're earning no more than you would working fast food or retail at the entry level---less if you play by the rules and take self-employment taxes into account. If you're good, you can and should command better pay. And "command" is exactly the right word for it.