I almost didn’t write this article. I was almost going to leave “well enough alone.”
I am a book editor, and the way I work is to provide my authors with any assistance that I am capable of giving them. So rather than limit myself to doing only editing, I will bring my skills in book production, image processing, project management, even web page maintenance in support of a book that I have edited. And in fact, I am often willing to expand my skillset in order to provide as much assistance as I possibly can.
I guess you could say that I have “pride of ownership,” even if I’m not the author of the book. With the authors I choose to work with, I end up caring about the quality of the finished book almost as much as they do… sometimes even more. Let’s face it: I’m a perfectionist with a big heart.
A lot of my work with clients is spent in quality control, naturally over my own output and our work together, but often over conditions that I do not directly control. And nothing could have triggered my Mama Bear protective instincts more than an experience I had with an author who had chosen to publish her book through an imprint which is a division of a well known writing organization in partnership with Author Solutions. If you have been following the story of Author Solutions, you know that there can be problems working with that conglomerate. I’m writing this article to say “Buyer Beware!”
My client had chosen to engage with this self-publishing imprint prior to meeting and hiring me to edit her book. I found out towards the end of the project that she had paid them over $10,000 to publish her book. It was quite a complex project with lots of pictures, quotations, sidebars, and lists of various kinds. The editing took a long time, with numerous passes. In my “holistic editing” approach, I don’t limit my services to only a few passes. I do whatever it takes to complete the project to the highest possible standards. A lot of developmental editing was required, and an Index. So I knew this book as if it were my own.
I managed the whole process of submitting the manuscript to the publishing imprint, and I offered to review the proofs. Several weeks went by before I was engaged again. My client didn’t bring me into her first decisions in the design consultation; I gladly handed that process over to her and her own tastes. When I saw the final design, the fun began!
Endless Proofs, Endless Errors
We had a standard design for the “sidebars,” which were really separate paragraphs like blockquotes with different formatting. Without going into the gory details, it took four reviews for them to finally format them in the way that we had instructed them to do all along. Every proof came back with the wrong formatting. I had to fill out a “modification form” each time to submit changes, and no matter what I wrote in my instructions (standard typographical terms, by the way), they kept getting it wrong. I eventually had to create a Word file showing them an approximation of how we wanted the paragraphs to look!
Then there were the lists. We had established a unique format in two columns for some of them that had no bullets or numbers. Each list item began with a lowercase letter, with no line spacing between them. If any of the items ran longer than two lines due to the columnar layout, they failed to indent the second lines, essentially making them look like separate items. This made the lists difficult to use due to poor readability. I had to go through every single list (essentially another editing pass) and carefully look for each item that ran to two or three lines and carefully insert each instance into their modification form — page number, line number, words to indent — a monstrous task. This, despite the fact that in the original manuscript we submitted, we showed examples of these two-line items with indents.
I started out years ago (before personal computers) doing phototypesetting for a variety of publishing organizations — magazines, newspapers, graphic design studios. When I was doing that type of work, it was the publisher’s job to format the material appropriately, using a standard specified style. It was NOT the writer’s or the editor’s job to instruct the publisher how to handle each and every line. Lists such as this would have been spec’d with the second line of long items to be indented. The phototypesetter would have KNOWN how to handle them whenever that situation occurred because of that one spec.
Then came the Index. This “publishing company” mishandled the first- and second-level index entries that I had carefully typed out, reversing them in some cases. Not only that, they didn’t understand that when an index entry runs more than one line, you need to indent the second line for readability. They also didn’t understand pagination concepts, like not leaving a primary entry on one page with its secondary entry on the next page. This is standard publishing formatting. The only thing they seemed to understand about indexes is that you put them into two columns, and you put letters of the alphabet over groups of entries starting with the same letter. Other than that, the way they formatted this Index was completely amateurish, even to the point of making the font size smaller in a few instances to fit a long entry onto one line! I was completely shocked by the unprofessional Index they produced.
Using their modification form, I submitted corrections after carefully going through the entire Index (this amounted to yet another additional editing pass). I gave them specific instructions on how to handle column and page breaks, because it would have been difficult to predict the cascading effect once a couple of changes had been made. (I gave them a single spec to cover all instances.) I figured, “Okay, they should know how to handle this situation when it arises.” I was wrong. They failed to follow my carefully worded instructions. Whoever these people were who were formatting this book, they didn’t seem to have the faintest hint of an ability to make informed typographical decisions. They seemed to think it was okay to just slap the text down on the page helter-skelter and not give a care to how it flowed.
Working on this Index took five reviews to get it all correct. They actually inserted new errors after making corrections! By the time I had gotten to the end of it (the project AND my rope), my client could tell you how upset I was. I had never in my life experienced a professional situation in which the so-called professional organization was so thoroughly inept. It’s one thing to guide inexperienced folks on how to lay out pages or handle lines of text, such as when you’re working with newbies on volunteer projects. I can have infinite patience with people who don’t have my skills and don’t need to have them. It’s quite another thing when you’ve paid (or your client has paid) a rather large amount of money to produce a professional, beautiful publication and the results are so drastically bad.
Ebook Production: My Version
So okay…. deep breath. The project was finally done. I moved on to other authors and other projects. The book was published (not without a few more glitches, but not the subject of this article), and I left my client in the hands of the publishing imprint. I don’t actually know what all was promised to her and how the services were delivered, but part of the package she purchased included ebook production in addition to the printed book.
I then turned my attention to working on my first ebook production for another client, who wanted to publish on the Amazon Kindle platform. Even though he hired me just for editing, I offered to do the conversion to the ebook format. I’ve got tons of production experience in both print and website design, but I had never produced an ebook. So I set out to learn how to do it. I offered to take a commission of sales instead of charging him to do the work, since I would be teaching myself how to do it. I purchased several guides, I learned how to prepare the Word file properly for conversion to HTML, then how to make adjustments in HTML in preparation for conversion to the .mobi format.
I learned the “philosophy” of ebook design, which is that you don’t have as much control over the look of your book. There are certain adjustments you have to make in your expectations about design and layout. Text flows from chapter to chapter without clear page delineations. I learned the kinds of things that Amazon does to your book after you’ve submitted it, what their guidelines and restrictions are, how you can “force” certain design elements by tweaking the HTML (such as inserting page breaks, which DO affect how the text flows), how to validate the HTML, how to test the conversion from HTML to .mobi in the Kindle Previewer on a variety of devices, and the whole process of submitting the files to Amazon. I also learned that you can change the order of elements in an ebook from how they would appear in a printed book. Different technology requires different approaches to how information is presented. The end result of this was that I produced a nice little ebook with clear chapter separations (plenty of white space), nicely spaced paragraphs with no indents, nicely aligned bulleted and numbered lists, a few images… quite a nice little book for my first attempt.
Ebook Production: Insane Version
Then one day, I casually decided to go look at the ebook version of my previous client’s book. I went to her Amazon sales page and clicked the image of the cover to “Look Inside.” Now, granted, her book had far more complex formatting than the simple ebook I produced. But I was not at all prepared for what I saw. This sample, which represents both the ebook and print versions of her book (we need to face the fact that even if someone ends up buying the print version of books, samples are going to influence their decision to purchase), is the one that my client has paid thousands of dollars to publish on Amazon.
Every single paragraph in the sample is stacked on top of the next one with no line spacing and no indents to separate them. Chapter titles and subtitles have almost no white space above them. Quotations are slightly indented in a bold italic font, which I personally think tends to look messy in most fonts, with their attributions in a regular font below, not indented, and no space between them. The “sidebars” are squished between the other paragraphs, no line spacing, with only very tiny indents on each side and no borders. In the printed book, there is a thematic design element placed on blank pages to show that they are intentionally blank. This ebook includes that design element, sometimes more than one stacked on top of each other due to Part divisions, and it simply looks ridiculous squished between the text. To top it all off, the bulleted lists have TWO bullets in front of each item, and the numbered lists have TWO numbers in front of each item!
From the fundamentals that I’ve learned about preparing ebooks for publication, I know that every single one of these problems could be fixed with HTML tweaks. My response to seeing this is to realize that I did more for my simple ebook client, as a beginner, than this professional publishing company did for this client. And this makes me furious! Not only that, I feel obligated to warn other self publishers away from any Author Solutions imprint. (As a side note, at one point the contact person we were corresponding with at this publishing imprint mistakenly used an email signature for one of the other imprints! That’s proof that the companies overlap and they only want you to think that they are a unique company looking out for your best interests, with uniquely qualifying reasons you should choose to have them publish your book.)
Let It Be?
But you know what? I wasn’t going to write this article at first, and here’s why: I told my client about what I had discovered about her book sample on Amazon, describing the awfulness. She wrote back to me that she just couldn’t see what I was seeing. She didn’t even realize that Amazon had put up a sample ebook. She said she had downloaded ebooks via BookStub and Barnes & Noble (Nook) and they looked okay! I sent her screenshots of what I was seeing at Amazon and she was just as shocked as I was. I went to Barnes & Noble and looked at the ebook sample there. Lo and behold… I saw paragraph spacing, nice lists, all the right stuff. I asked my client if she had ever downloaded the Kindle ebook directly from Amazon. She hadn’t, but decided to then do so. She said the Kindle book looked okay, too! (And when I say okay, I mean the very minimal stuff of proper spacing and the like, not miracles.) So I decided to purchase the Kindle ebook myself. Well, I’ll be darned. There were all my minimal design expectations met! Almost….
I decided in that initial moment that I would “leave well enough alone,” as I said at the beginning of this article. I thought, well, for whatever reason, the different versions of the ebook are actually okay, so there’s no point in my calling the publishing imprint to task now. Water under the bridge. None of us is perfect. I don’t know everything about producing ebooks, either.
Then I looked a little further. “Oh, it’s ON again!” When I got to the bulleted and numbered lists? DOUBLE bullets and DOUBLE numbers! Line spacing and such turned out okay, but those ordered and unordered list formatting problems are still there. What’s especially egregious is that now that I can see the entire book, it’s littered with them.
I’ve suggested to my client that she insist that the publisher make this right, and that we are not going to point out every single instance of this problem in the book (both the bullets and the numbers). As a professional publisher, this is on them. And as a professional publisher, these formatting errors should never have even happened in the first place.
We still don’t know why the Amazon Kindle sample “Look Inside” version of the ebook is so bad. That, coupled with the list issues, and the experience I had with reviewing proofs for the printed book, are fuel enough for me to want to suggest to all self publishers that you think twice before ever paying money to any of the Author Solutions imprints to help you.
Barbara Hughes is the owner of The Holistic Book Editor, a service that provides editing and self-publishing assistance for authors of nonfiction who are entrepreneurs, coaches, artists, healers, and any person who is working to make the world a better place and improve people’s lives. Barbara loves music and cats as well as editing, and promises not to edit out the singular they, unless absolutely necessary.