Self-publishing writers have too many choices!


It constantly amazes me, this ability the human brain has to make choices – and the vast number of them available to those of us in the developed world.

Professional cover designer Dane Low put up a video of the process of creating a cookbook cover over on Joel Friedlander’s blog today. A billion choices out of a sea of images.

Mine wasn’t that elaborate, and yet it took me three months (and I promise to show it first here when I’m a bit closer to publication – one wants to save the Ta Das! for when they will do some marketing good).

I had several goals for the interior formatting of my first book, Pride’s Children:

  • I wanted to make it as simple as possible to do updates – like fix typos.
  • I wanted to avoid as much hand-coding as possible – because that always takes a lot of time, and sometimes that effort makes me settle for less than I really want. Plus it’s a really great way to introduce typos.
  • I did NOT want to spend a lot of time doing the things Jaye Manus recommends on her blog for writers who work with Word (sorry, Jaye!), as I’d long ago tired of using Word for writing fiction and keeping it looking good, even though I’ve mastered styles, and have used them successfully before to make the manuscript look the way I wanted it to. Note: I still use Word all the time for other stuff, like letters.
  • I wanted to set up a uniform look for the two other books of the Pride’s Children trilogy.
  • I wanted to make the READING experience as transparent as possible for the reader, so I don’t want anything that might get in the way of a reader choosing her font, or font sizes, or other text-flow options.
  • I wanted it to look, as much as possible, like a ‘real’ (ie, ‘printed’) book. You know, like the old ones on my bookshelves?
  • I wanted typographical niceties: indented quotes set in a slightly smaller type-size, navigational headings, ALL CAPS and no indent to start paragraphs, a decent table of contents.
  • And I wanted it to be a good model for the eventual printed version, not a completely different animal.

In other words, my standards have been set by all the books I’ve read in my lifetime, and I want all those features in my books.

Scrivener to the rescue

When I bought Scrivener (several years ago now – where DOES the time go?), I did it partly because of its ability to create an ebook from your text in both .epub and .mobi formats – regardless of how you typed the stuff in.

A look through my source files in my .scriv project file shows a shocking number of different formats. It would have taken me either a lot of paying attention to keep it looking uniform as I wrote in Word, or a lot of processing at the end – a word-processing file per chapter seemed as much as I could manage at a time, and combining files to make a whole book is WORK in Word.

None of this is to say anything at all about other writers’ workflow or software choices.

But with my usually fogged CFS brain, the command to self to KISS was imperative: I can focus on things intensely for a while sometimes, but don’t do nearly as well when I have to keep it up over months and years.

So. I’ve spent the last two weeks learning Compile in Scrivener (the word they’ve selected to mean: put all this junk together into a unified document), feeding it my text, and adjusting the Compile options until it looked the way I wanted it to.

I have it down to the target: I choose Compile, click ONE button, and I have a new ebook instantly, which will open properly in my Kindle viewers or Adobe Digital Editions, and complains not at all when I make it reformat the whole thing for one tiny change. Three chapters takes under 5 SECONDS.

Yesterday, I repeated the process over THIRTY times. It took longer to VIEW my results than to create them, a very welcome reversal of the usual way it goes.

Post-production – refining after using Scrivener

I worked hard at it – you should see my marked-up copy of the Scrivener manual!

But I managed to set up the formatting in all but ONE detail to be automatic. That detail is the RIGHT INDENT.

I want to use right indents paired with left indents to set off sections of the text (a movie, an email, a quotation used for an epigraph). Scrivener (and, to be fair, the Amazon Kindle Publishing Guidelines) does not support a right indent. Per se.

But it occurred to me that changing the MARGIN settings for indented paragraphs (as long as the change is relative from the margins, in ems, and not a hard-coded number such as 0.5″) would serve just fine.

So I set up Scrivener to create paragraph types with LEFT INDENTS.

NOTE: the above sample does NOT show this post-processing step; this is what it looks like straight out of Scrivener.

HTML, CSS, and formatting for ebooks – easy version

I had no real desire to learn HTML, and had no idea what a CSS (cascading style sheet) was, but I plunged into Paul Salvette’s book on formatting (The eBook Design and Development Guide) and Ed Ditto’s (How to format…for Kindle…in one afternoon), both of which I bought ages ago and hadn’t even opened, because I knew this day was coming.

That plus myriad other sources taught me just enough to be dangerous adventurous enough to get the free Mac text editor TextWrangler, and actually look into the files generated by Scrivener, to see if I could find the needed modification

To do this you first Unzip the .epub file (I used a tiny Applescript program ePub Zip/Unzip 3.0 I found online at here from instructor Fred Chasen – anything you have will work as well, I’m sure, but the web makes it appear you need to spend big bucks to get something to unzip and zip your epub files, and you don’t.)

* * * * * * * * * * *

WARNING – It would have saved me a LOT of time had I known the following:

You can examine the files packaged into an .epub, but not into a .mobi produced by Kindlegen.

* * * * * * * * * * *

IN the CSS files, which are quite clean (to my uneducated eye – they didn’t look THAT different to what Paul so carefully constructs in his book), I found the line showing the LEFT INDENT (as a LEFT MARGIN setting ALREADY!), and merely duplicated the number into the slot for the RIGHT MARGIN, replacing the 0.0 that was already there, marking the space for me, and that was my only change (so far).

Put the changed CSS file(s) back into the .epub bundle (ePub Zip/Unzip again – give it the folder, it produces the epub and vice versa), and you are back to where you started, but now the CSS files have the right AND left margins set for those indented paragraphs! And in a way (I think/hope) that will not affect your Kindle and Nook experiences.

I haven’t gotten so far as to test these things on actual ereaders, because that requires the additional step of sideloading the .epub or .mobi files into the devices, which I know how to do, but is not a step you want to do over and over while chasing formatting changes.

IF I have problems after the extensive testing required, I will update this post or write another.

Kindlegen rocks!

Fortunately, this didn’t turn out to actually matter, because, once you have the .epub file doing what you want, you just DRAG IT INTO KINDLEGEN, and Kindlegen turns a perfectly good .epub into a proprietary format which currently packages TWO kinds of Kindle ebooks, one for the newer Fire models (using the latest bells and whistles) plus one for the older models), with absolutely NO effort from you.

I work exclusively on the Mac, and had to start up Terminal, drag Kindlegen’s icon into Terminal, drag the .epub file into Terminal, and voilà, almost instantly a file appears with the same name as the .epub file, but with a .mobi extension, and YOU ARE COMPLETELY DONE.

So, another success for the one-click approach to ebook changes.

And that’s how the rabbit got IN the hat

Note that the file above is NOT EDITED; I just threw in the same beginning of Chapter 1 as is currently on the blog. There are minor formatting changes I’m going to do to it (mostly, reduced the number of sections set in italics, to go with what I have in the later chapters – which were revised more recently).

Comments very welcome on suggested changes, impressions of the results, anything you can think of – I’m getting closer, and the decisions’ surrounding concrete is starting to set. Specific question: I use bold in this version in the SCENE HEADINGS – is it helpful – or annoying?

I can still fix things later (isn’t the modern world fabulous?), but I’d like to go to press (hehe) with as many things finalized as I possibly can AHEAD OF TIME.

And no, I didn’t intend to write such a long post this morning, but it seemed necessary to share the process, which had a few fillips different from what I’ve seen – and gives me a very quick way to change things from now on (IF I actually know what I’m doing). I’ve been VERY busy learning, but didn’t have much new to say until I finished!

24 thoughts on “Self-publishing writers have too many choices!

  1. donnainthesouth

    Thanks so much; looks good! like the bold and the look of “real” book – but – been wondering, especially when you said you used to program; you mentioned something about how much hard all this would be for someone who hadn’t; glad for the little I did take but never really actually did it so, yes, been difficult, maybe making it harder on myself because was working with people who were having me use Word and learning Styles; have been to Scrivener but nobody ever mentioned actually buying it and using it; all ever other been told or encouraged, etc. to get were the Adobe products, which, by the time really needing it – wish I’d gone ahead and gotten it earlier before – had all been bundled into the whole Creative Suites, as I understand, have to buy it all now, and then actually even more as I understand is not really even a product you can actually literally, physically buy, just a virtual download but even beyond that think it’s more of a lease type thing, not even something you can just buy and be done with it. And I didn’t know anybody even still used .mobi format. And you actually have a paper manual?! or did you have to print it out but still, I’ve gotten the idea they don’t really even have them that way for anything anymore, that you just have to kinda find out what you need to know, at least that’s the way it’s seemed to be for Word – so is Scrivener better in that regard still? do you know….? And then do you happen to know if you can get a text editor (guess, assuming you can) for Windows rather than Mac – maybe that’s my problem and what is Kindlegen?


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I LOVE Scrivener. It comes with a pdf manual, accessible easily from the Help menu. Scrivener is cheap – a one-time charge (less than $50 IIRC), and you have the whole thing.

      The Adobe InDesign is not supposed to be good for ebooks; for print, you can lay the whole thing out in Scrivener, and make a few tiny changes between the ebook ‘Compile’ and the pdf one – and keep most things the same.

      I used Word and Styles, a lot, before I switched machines in 2012, bought Office 2011, and found the new Word endlessly complicated.

      For ebooks, if you get things looking the way you want in Word, you have to remove all of that to get a clean file (see Jaye Manus’ blog) before you can RE-style it – seemed like too much work. Scrivener has been far easier. You give up a lot of the WYSIWYG interface, but it isn’t that important, because you have to fiddle so much with what you see anyway.

      I recommend the Ed Ditto book and website – follow his instructions, and your Scrivener will provide a nice ebook easily.

      I am NOT a CSS or HTML programmer, even though I’m learning to look at the code Scrivener produces, and the code other people (like Salvette) tell you to use. I can’t tell if it’s full of junk HTML, like what Word is supposed to produce – and I’m not going to go looking.

      So I need easy. Unless you have something complicated (like with epigraphs as I do), Ed’s book and Scrivener would be very easy, and work right out of the box. That’s what I would recommend now to a beginner (but what do I know?).

      Wait until I try my shiny new .epub and .mobi files on every device I can lay hands on; if there are problems, I’ll be sure to blog about it.


      1. donnainthesouth

        Thanks so, Alicia, not even sure what version of Office we have now; know there were issues and we even used Open Office for a while – seems we had 10 at one time when helping son with school – but do know when I’ve put it on a flash drive and taken it somewhere to someone else’s computer – like a print shop, etc. – seems they never had as late a version as we did and the formatting would just be all messed up from my pc to theirs – and, yes, the new one we have does seem quite complicated; why seemed to get help/advice from an “expert”, but she knew so much she just went in and put in some new stuff but didn’t take out the old so now I’ve duplicates and don’t know how to clean it up; I’m at least hoping this guy on Friday – he said he could – can at least do that much but think may check into Scrivener, especially if you think at that price – this Adobe has always seemed to be at a much higher price range


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Scrivener has a learning curve: be patient with yourself. But, as an experienced user of all kinds of word-processing software since the first MagCard II typewriter from IBM, Scrivener was definitely worth it.

          Depending on how much you’re willing to spend on training, there is a For Dummies book by Gwen Hernandez, and she teaches a couple of very inexpensive online courses – I took two of them, and learned a lot. Google her.

          You can just get a book on it out of your library, or ask them to borrow one for you, and get the basics that way. And I really recommend Ed Ditto’s blog posts on using it to make an ebook (which he refined into a book – not very expensive).

          Adobe is for far more advanced graphics designers than I have any interest in becoming, and with the cloud model, it’s going to KEEP getting more and more complicated – and it’s expensive. If you use it a lot, fine. If you make an occasional ebook, not so fine.

          But what do I know – every writer picks some combination that works. We’re all different.


      2. Gwen Hernandez

        Hey, Alicia! Thanks for the plug. 😉 What a great job you’ve done. Just wanted to add that if you view an EPUB in the Kindle Previewer, it’ll automatically run KindleGen to create a MOBI for you. The MOBI will be saved in the same folder as the EPUB. No need to open Terminal. 🙂 Good luck with the book!


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Hi, Gwen – good to have you visit. I tell everyone about your Dummies book and online courses.

          Quick question: what’s your opinion of justified vs. ragged right in ebooks?

          Using Kindle Previewer – that’s a wonderful hint – I will try that out asap! Thanks!

          I just LOVE the Scrivener ebook generation – today I’ve changed formatting a hundred times in my epigraphs (which are all unique), and each time I accumulate a few changes, I just push the Compile button – and instant new epub. So I have no reluctance to change the formatting and it takes NO time to try things. Even at 160K words, it takes less than 10 seconds to compile the whole – and NO hand coding.

          I’ll get everything okay, do the tiny bit of CSS change I need, put the epub back together, and use the Kindle Previewer. And have both ebooks! Woo hoo!

          I just couldn’t see going back and forth with a formatter, however talented, because I want even the ebook to look the way I want it to (control freak).

          If I do say so myself, it’s starting to look pretty gorgeous inside.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Gwen Hernandez

          I’m a total control freak too. 😉 I really don’t have a strong opinion on full justification vs ragged right. I think we’re used to FJ in the e-reader, but I read ragged right edges all the time in printed or online works. I’m easy. 😉 Glad you’re enjoying the ease of e-books with Scrivener!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Alice Audrey

    Ok, let’s try this again.

    You’ve had quite the uphill battle on this project. I think I’ll have a little less trouble because I write my books all in one fine each. I’m sure I’ll run into other problems, but hopefully my .txt files will rescue me.

    I’m really glad I get to see you go through the process before I have to face it myself.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      SO sorry your comment got eaten – I hate when that happens.

      It has been – whatever the book needed. Not all books need this level of control, or headings, or epigraphs, or whatever doohickeys I’ve added, and not all authors want to bother with them (yes, they’re a bit of work).

      But I’m enjoying this whole thing, because it took me so long to get to this point – and now I can see the benefits to learning how. The next one OUGHT to be easier!

      Ask – if there are things I can help with. But be advised I’m very black and white: once I find a way that works for ME, I tend to stick with it – in spite of there being many other ways other people use quite successfully.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      No, ma’am.

      I’m setting up today for the final editing push, and, after a bit of attitude adjustment, I’m looking forward to it.

      I haven’t read the whole thing in two years! It’s a testament to either the story or the plotting methods I use that I can remember who is who.

      I love writing – revision is as close as I’ll get this week, but revision IS writing.

      I can’t wait to get to Book 2.


  3. chrismcmullen

    The print format looks very nice. I’ve heard some respected typographers say that they felt it was harder to set ragged right than it was to justify text, but your sample looks quite nice. 🙂


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Thank you. I CAN justify the text on the right, but I’ve seen ebooks with funny-looking hyphens in the middle of lines, and skips in the text, and I’m trying to keep this very clean.

      With the huge number of devices and different kinds of apps on computers people use for reading, the more plain vanilla the text is, the likelier it is to work smoothly. It’s decorated quite a bit already with what I threw in.

      My little bit of rebellion will be limited to the right indent – I do NOT like quotes with a left indent ONLY. They look wrong to me (even if they are safer for text that must reflow).

      And even that one I would have relinquished if necessary.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. chrismcmullen

        Typographically, I’ve come to prefer left alignment, especially with Kindle. I usually justify my books, but not because I prefer it for design reasons. Left alignment seems to be gaining traction with Kindle, so you’re probably safe with it.


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I agree left-alignment instead of full justification looks ‘wrong,’ even though we’re getting used to it.

          But when you consider how many sizes, widths, and heights the text has to behave flawlessly at, it’s better to have a bit of a ragged edge, but spacing that looks correct. On the paper version, the width of the line is fixed, and a good designer will move through the text making tiny hand adjustments if the automatic kerning and hyphenation need a bit of help.

          I can’t stand over the shoulder of someone reading on BART, and tell that person that, if they would just pick the next larger font size, it would look better.

          I think you must use a fair amount of fixed layout options in your nonfiction – the last thing you need is ‘help’ from algorithms in laying out equations, tricky visual puzzles, and diagrams.

          There is a lot that goes into ‘acceptable,’ and a very large amount more that goes into ‘good,’ and there is no perfect. How much time do you have?

          Liked by 1 person

        2. chrismcmullen

          Time. I agree with automatic formatting and design minimalism (though most of my books have too many equations and pictures to fully practice it). I want to spend more time writing. But I appreciate the art of formatting and designers who hand-code to achieve many typographical subtleties.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      The two weeks were HARD weeks, and I used to program supercomputers to do physics, for a living.

      BUT – if you ever want this functionality, and you already have and use Scrivener for writing, you can have someone help you set up the Compile options (really not that many), and then leave you at the one-click place until your content is ready. It helps to SEE what it is going to look like to a reader.

      Too long the traditional publishers and agents required 12 pt Courier double-spaced manuscripts on paper – that means all the formatting problems don’t show, but it also keeps you from visualizing the final product.

      Eh. It’s an option. I like trying them all.


  4. juliabarrett

    As I say to Jaye – in one ear and out the other. I haven’t a clue about this. I avoid any talk of formatting like the plague!


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Thanks for reading along!

      The excitement rises – and I suppress it: can’t work with all that adrenaline coursing around in my veins.

      But I thank you for the encouragement and support – and I both want to slow the process down, to savor it – and get on with it!

      Neither of which will happen: we snails move at the same old pace, if we move at all – it’s a good, safe pace.



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