Smashwords: Invisible Goofies and Blue Meanies

(Part One in previous post)

Okay, so there I was. Smashwords had simultaneously translated my book to multiple e-book formats and put it up on Smashwords for sale, and I discovered that all of the text in the book was bright blue. Not just text that’s okay in blue, like the links in the table of contents–everything.

Now when you publish at Smashwords, you get put up in the “new book” section on their main page, held up in front of all the rest–for about a minute or two.  Forget “fifteen minutes of fame,” I had maybe ten, and my e-book was printed in blue ink.

If I fixed it, I could upload a new version immediately. But what was wrong?  None of the styles I was using in the document said “blue color” on the font. It was the usual “automatic” for color, which for years has basically meant “black.”

I changed the font colors for all the main text styles I was using from “automatic” to “black,” trying to force it, and uploaded the file again.  When the Meatgrinder translation came back, the text was still blue.

A frantic search through the Smashwords FAQ got me this question: “My entire book is in red font (or some other unintended color) in HTML, EPUB and MOBI. Why?” Their answer involved digging deep into the Style menus, to where the “all styles” list hangs out. I discovered there was a whole bunch of weird styles stuck in my document, many of which I wasn’t using at all.

One of these unused styles was “Body Text,” and the color was blue! I deleted it. I also deleted a red one just to be safe. This time when I uploaded the Word file and downloaded the e-book translations, the text was the proper black color. Whew.

Just another example of the infamous “Invisible Goofy,” my name for a setting or formatting glitch that never shows up in an original document, but causes havoc when you convert the file to another form or transmit it somewhere.

Minus ten points to Smashwords for making me fix this mess while my book was already “live.” Although I understand why they do it that way, it’s like standing up on a billboard fixing a big typo while everyone’s down below looking up at you and taking pictures.

But, plus fifty points to Smashwords for some really robust customer support documentation. I found out all sorts of things about formatting Word for EPUB that I never knew before, and they seem to have answers for even the most obscure issues.

Castle Falcon is awaiting review for wider distribution to other markets, but I’ve already sold one copy off the Smashwords page. Since I didn’t have to pay a nickel to do all this, I’m already money ahead!

Invisible Goofy and Blue Meanie

And now, Smashwords

At the suggestion of a fellow writer, I decided to look into Smashwords to distribute Castle Falcon to some venues I don’t have yet (like iBook and Kobo).

The Smashwords site was simple enough. They have an e-book conversion engine they call “Meatgrinder.” It translates a Word file (.doc, not .docx) into multiple versions, including EPUB, Mobi, LRF, PDP, and others.

The annoying catch is that you have to sign up with them to publish before they let you use it. I’d gotten used to being able to tweak my conversions at places like Amazon before actually tossing the book out there for publishing, so having the “conversion” and “publish” step be simultaneous was a little sporty for me. I’m guessing this is because Smashwords doesn’t like the idea of their fancy conversion engine being used to create all these nice e-book files and then have people download and run off with them.

The first step was creating a Word file that was formatted properly as input for Meatgrinder. This was new for me, because I’d used Adobe Indesign and special plug-ins to generate all my previous printed and e-book files. I won’t go into the details, but the free Smashwords Style Guide was immensely useful for someone who’d never created a Word e-book file before.

I spent an evening on the Word file, tested the hyperlinks for Table of Contents and Endnotes, grabbed a .JPG of my cover (a requirement), and then filled out the online form to sign up for Smashwords.

I uploaded the Word file and cover file, and watched as Meatgrinder did the translations in front of me. It was kind of cool to watch each file version in the list turn green and say “completed.” I was done, and published. All in one go.

There were a few more things to clean up. I priced the book the same as my Kindle and Nook versions. I added some information to my Author Page, like a bio, my website links, and a couple of other things. I went to the Channel Manager link on my Dashboard, and opted out of distribution to Amazon and Nook. I added an ISBN number, which is required for distribution to Apple and Sony (I still have a supply of my own, but Smashwords will supply one with them as publisher for free).

When things settled down, I downloaded samples of the various files from my new book page to put in my reader software and make sure everything worked. The formatting on EPUB and Mobi was just fine, except for one thing:

All the text through the whole damn book was blue.

Next time: Invisible Goofies and Blue Meanies.

E-mail query hazards (the Invisible Goofies)

I got a rejection back yesterday, the normal polite variety, but the editor added a friendly and cautionary note about the screwed-up formatting of my e-mail.

My original query was copied on the bottom of her reply, and boy, was it ever screwed up. I’ve had issues in the past with e-mail queries, usually involving line spacing problems at the other end. This time not only was the line spacing wrong, but all the apostrophes and quote marks in the query and writing sample had magically transformed into spaces, which was a new one on me. The result was almost indecipherable, especially the dialogue sequences.

I’m aware that most agents and editors don’t have the time to pass friendly corrections back to authors. This one was a welcome exception, thank goodness. I have six queries out now. How many of them ended up at the other end looking like they were typed by archy the cockroach? For all I know, half a dozen agents are out there now looking at gibberish and not telling me!

Well, nothing to be done about that now, but I’ll be more careful in the future. My own fault–I got lazy, and didn’t rigorously follow my own rules.

Formatting E-mails:

Almost all agents want to see e-mail queries now. This is almost a complete reversal of what things were like only a few short years ago when hard copy was the rule, and only a few agents took e-mail. When you write a letter and print it on paper, you can be pretty sure it’s going to show up on the agents desk without all the spacing and fonts mysteriously changed. Not so for e-mail.

Formatting is tricky. If you copy something into an outgoing e-mail from a word processor, almost certainly something invisible and goofy is going to be copied over too. Even if you compose the e-mail directly in your e-mail program, if you get too fancy about formatting the same kind of “Invisible Goofy” errors can sneak in. Sending test mails to yourself is a good idea, but not foolproof. The gibberish e-mail I sent to the editor transmitted just fine to my own address in tests, and still looks perfectly normal sitting in my “Sent” file.

Here’s how you go about making sure you have a “clean” e-mail, or at least as clean as possible (my example uses Microsoft Outlook, but most e-mail programs should have similar functions):

– Compose the e-mail, query, synopsis, writing sample and all into one e-mail. Almost all agents will want to see these things in the body of the e-mail itself, not an attached document. There are very few exceptions, and they’ll mention it on their websites.

– If you must import text from another application, use “import as plain text” when you can. In Outlook, this is done under the “Paste Special” function, which has a line called “unformatted text.” This will take any complex formatting and fancy fonts and paste it in as plain text.

– When you like the look of what you’ve got in the composition window, play it extra safe by converting the entire e-mail to “plain text” format.  This will strip any remaining Invisible Goofies out. Yeah, your nice formatting, including italics and boldface, will disappear with them. In Outlook there are three format options in my New Mail composition window under, well, “Options.” They are “Plain Text,” “HTML,” and “Rich Text.” Picking Plain Text on this menu does the stripping job.

– Now switch the e-mail format to HTML, or whatever the simplest step above Plain Text is in your particular e-mail program that allows access to things like italics and boldface.  I don’t like “Rich Text,” which has the highest level of formatting flexibility, but in my experience also has the highest probability of slipping Invisible Goofies into your e-mail query.

– Edit your e-mail inside the composition window to restore things like italics and boldface that were stripped out. Refer to another copy of your query, synopsis and writing sample to make sure everything you really need gets back in there. If an agent likes the writing sample double-spaced, you can fix that in the composition window too if the format command to do it is available. Be careful restoring your basic formatting, but it’s better to have an italicized word sneak through as plain text than to have all your apostrophes turn into spaces.

The resulting e-mail should be okay to send.

Yeah, it’s a pain to strip a long e-mail down to Plain Text and then go to HTML (or whatever) and rebuild just the few format bits you need. Remember I said I’d gotten lazy–I’ve just been copying old queries from previously-sent e-mails into new ones, and it seemed to work just fine, but that’s just what I did to create the recent Mystery Mess, so there you go.

When in doubt, do it the hard way. Twenty minutes more of your time may save you from looking like a dork at that big agency you’re trying to impress.

Invisible Goofy