For those who write e-books it’s not so much about thinking outside the square but visualizing inside the rectangle! The significant difference in conformation and appearance between a printed book and an e-reader screen means authors must drastically change the way they organize material and compose pages.
This is quite easy for fiction which usually comprises a chapter heading and text, with perhaps a quotation or two at the beginning of the book or at the head of chapters. It’s quite a different challenge with non-fiction which usually features far more fussy stuff – sub-headings, section headings, lists and tables, diagrams and – of course – photographs.
Even with non-fiction I’ve learned to keep it clean and simple – no long dedications or quotations, no foot-noting at the end of chapters, nothing to fuss up the page and confuse the reader. Even brackets should be used sparingly because none of these things translate well from your written page to the e-reader. For example, if you put a long sentence into brackets it’s likely to run over to the next e-reader ”page” and possibly the one after that, and the reader loses the whole purpose of this sub-text. It’s better to use other punctuation or re-write to express your meaning in some way that doesn’t require brackets to get it across.
In my one and only work of fiction I used several typefaces to indicate both different tenses and the different voices telling the story. This worked well on the printed page but became too confusing when read on an e-reader, and the real sense of it was lost. I would not make such a mistake again.
With non-fiction it’s even more important to do away as much as possible with anything that isn’t plain, onwardly-flowing text, using short paragraphs, indentation, bold-face type, italics and a few simple sub-headings to break it into the visual equivalent of the quick sound byte.
The problem is, we are so accustomed to the “look” of printed books that we find it difficult to move beyond this when writing our own e-books. Thus it’s essential that an e-writer be an e-reader; we need to see how our own books and those of others appear on the small rectangle of the e-reader screen; we need to forget all we have learned, or done, in the past and design our books to suit this new medium.
My first e-book was a re-vamping of a book I’d already had published in print form. I laid it out in the same way, with the same chapter headings and typefaces; the same sectionalisation and emphatic break-outs. And several photographs on each page because what’s a gardening book without lots of colorful plant pix. The result was a nightmare when it came to putting it all in to e-book format to upload to Amazon. The color emphasis used in the chapter headings; the shading effects used in the break-outs, the numerous bulleted lists and other stuff that I (and my publishers) had always used to make a printed page look busy and interesting and engaging just did not work on the e-reader screen – it came across as cluttered and confusing. As for the photographs, while newer e-readers do reproduce color on the screen and this will soon become the standard, still too many photos tend to clutter the e-reader screen and distract from the text, plus it’s a hell of a lot of work to get them all in there!
Basically, we have to accept that with e-books it’s not about creating a work that is a thing of visual beauty, it’s about getting information across. This was a hard lesson for a gardening writer such as myself to understand because in the past the printed books I’ve written WERE things of beauty. And if that’s the kind of work we want to create then we have to stick to the printed medium.
I expect many other writers share my experience and, like me, have had to decide just what our objective is, when we write an e-book. Mine is to communicate my expertise to readers who require it – nothing more. If I’m to do this successfully, I must conform to the exigencies of the e-reader format. And so must you. So here are my seven secrets of writing a good and readable non-fiction e-book:
- Learn to think of how your work will appear on the page of an e-reader, which may be read in two or three different type sizes, depending on the reader’s eyesight.
- Stick as much as possible to plain text and avoid “fussy” matter such as lists, tables, over-use of sub-headings, color and shading effects, borders, break-out boxes and bullet points. Instead, use commas, semi-colons, colons, indents, paragraph breaks, bold-face, capitals and italics to provide necessary emphasis.
- Use as few photographs as possible and only in small sizes. A photograph MUST fit easily on to the e-reader page and should not be so large as to take up the whole page; it should have text above and below it or it will look lost and out of context. Color is wasted on most e-readers so bear that in mind – a color photo with too much content, such as a mixed flower bed, will not re-produce as well as one of a single flower. With my gardening e-books I now have a color title page (used mainly to show the book on Amazon and my website), and at most one picture to introduce each chapter. Plus one of myself on the end title page. Other photos are used very sparingly ONLY if they are needed to illustrate an important process. If I am writing a book on, say, azaleas, I POST LOTS OF PICS ON MY WEBSITE AND REFER THE E-BOOK READERS TO THAT SITE. That way, they can see the photos in glorious Technicolor!
- Don’t put footnotes at the end of chapters. Use endnotes instead, and put any acknowledgments at the end of the book. Acknowledgments can also be put on the title page. On an e-reader screen, footnotes don’t appear nicely at the bottom of the “page” but turn up confusingly and annoyingly in the middle of the text.
- Try to avoid using bracketed sub-text. Think of another way of expressing yourself or use other forms of punctuation. If you must use brackets, do so only with short sentences.
- Be very careful when formatting your e-book that you use the page-break function – and use it in the right places. Many an e-book author had been caught out this way, only to preview his or her book and find chapters or sections running into one another in a breathless jumble.. However, don’t OVER-format or have too many unnecessary gaps between the text – you’ll run the risk of losing your reader.
- Keep it short and sweet. Novel readers may stay to the end of the e-book but non-fiction readers are looking for quick, punchy information. Don’t create a book that comes across like one of those wearyingly huge manuals put out by manufacturers of cameras and electrical goods. Make sure, too – and this is very important – that readers can easily navigate from one section to another, without a long and tedious scroll. A short and snappy e-book can be downloaded to a computer as well as an e-reader, which means you can access all those readers who don’t have e-readers but do have personal computers, tablets, ipads – and cell phones. In my case, I developed a formula for my gardening books that was divided into five short and easy steps. Every book follows the same formula. It works for me and would probably work for you, too.
I had published several books before I switched from print medium to e-writing. It has involved a steep and sometimes slippery learning curve and the number of people (especially gardeners!) who use e-readers is still comparatively small. However, the potential is huge and I find e-writing gives me more control over my product, earns me more money per book sold, and frees me from the tyranny of publishers. If you haven’t tried it yet, do so – just follow my seven secrets and you’ll soon get the hang of it. And feel free to contact me for further discussion.
A colorful cover is important for promoting your e-book, on your website, on sales sites such as Amazon, and elsewhere. You should keep it simple and uncluttered – the one on the left was my second book cover and as you can see I still had a lot to learn. Compare it with the latest book-cover, right