Kindle Direct Publishing launches beta of cover creation tool

Article at “The Digital Reader.”

One of the hardest parts of self-publishing is generating a good cover, either for paper books or digital ones. Places like Createspace and Lulu, among others, already have “cover wizards.”

You can certainly get a workable cover out of these “wizards,” but in my opinion it’s worth the effort to learn how to generate the artwork yourself, or at least hire it done. For one thing, there may be rights issues involved in reusing a cover created by a particular format’s “wizard” for another format. For another, you’re never going to get as much originality from a “wizard” as you can from real artwork.

Artwork for paper books, using the “one piece cover” art method, is hard to lay out. A one-piece cover is what you get by basically flattening the book out, or in the case of a book with a dust jacket, by removing the dust jacket and flattening it out. It’s easy to see that lining up the spine, end papers, and everything else can be tricky. Even changing the number of pages can affect this kind of cover design as the spine area gets larger or smaller.

Cover artwork for Kindle (or other e-books) is much simpler. It’s just a single JPG picture with art and title text. Last time I checked, preferred sizing for Kindle covers was 1563 pixels on the short side and 2500 pixels on the long side.

If you’re planning to do a lot of this kind of thing, it may be worth it to invest the time and money in learning Photoshop, InDesign, or other professional publication software. Adobe’s “Creative Suite” isn’t cheap, but it could be a good investment.

The world in a grain of silicon

I mentioned looking up books on Kindle last time. I’ve got one of the older electronic-ink versions, the one with the keyboard at the bottom.

I love it. I write books for children, and while I like the idea of seeing my work published on shelves in hardcover and paperback, I want electronic versions out there too.

My kids gave me the Kindle for Father’s Day a while back, and I wondered what I was going to do with it at the time. But as I started loading my favorites on board, and realized that I could read any of them anywhere I went, it really grew on me. Having accidentally squished the screen once (and gotten a replacement from Amazon), I got a nice metal-reinforced case from Proporta in England (“aluminium”) and it’s held up under a lot of handling since.

I like to read when I eat. I can turn pages by just tapping the side key, and I don’t have to hold a book open with a weight. I can eat spare ribs, and hit the button with my elbow. The Kindle fits nicely in the inside pocket of my jeans jacket, and I can read in a park, in a waiting room, or anywhere else. The electronic ink screen shows up in full sunlight. I can’t read in the dark, but I hear the newer “Paperwhites” have a screen light.

I like electronic ink. I don’t want my Kindle to be anything except a book. I have no desire to get anything more powerful. No movies, no games, no apps, no “Fire.” I also like that the battery lasts for a couple of weeks. If somebody ever comes up with full-color electronic ink, maybe I’d consider that.

My Kindle has wireless, so I can download new books any time I’m in a wi-fi zone. For a bit more money, you can get one that has cell phone access. You can get at Amazon’s library anywhere you have a signal. There’s no charge, and you don’t even need your own cell phone account. You can get a Kindle cheaper if you’re willing to put up with ads on it (no thanks).

I would have killed for this kind of literary access when I was 10. Say what you will about there being nothing like holding a real book, cracking it open for the first time, smelling that great new book smell, and turning the pages. I’d even agree with you. But there’s a lot to be said about carrying a little leather-covered pad in my coat pocket that contains enough books to fill a large room, with many classics available for less money than a fancy coffee drink. Or even free.

My Dad has one, and loves it. I got my wife a free Kindle app for the IPod she carries around (it contains reference books for her pharmacy work). She took to it like a duck to water. One reason I generate e-books of my work is because she likes to proof it that way. She’s reading an old classic now that weighs about three pounds in paperback. I can buy books and send them to anyone I know who has a Kindle (with permission). I just shot a copy of Half Magic to my wife.

There are other e-readers, of course. This is just the one I own.

So what have I got on my Kindle so far?

All of Nero Wolfe. All of Pratchett’s Discworld books. Six Dune books. A bunch of Heinlein. The Narnia books, and a bit more C.S. Lewis. The Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. The Garrett Files. Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. The Complete George MacDonald, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Sherlock Holmes, H.P. Lovecraft, and Jules Verne. Moby Dick. Heidi. Wind in the Willows. Some Gaiman novels. And a few other odds and ends, including Kindle versions of my own books (only one of which is actually on the market).

I’m just getting started. I don’t have H. G. Wells in there yet, or Shakespeare, the Lewis Space Trilogy, or the Oz books, among many others. I only have the first Harry Potter book. I wish all the favorite books of my childhood were available in this format, but a lot of them are. I’m a kid in a candy store with a shopping cart the size of a dump truck. I tell my family to get me Amazon gift certificates for every holiday.

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His grip on my shoulder tightened. “We have books here bound in the hides of echidnes, krakens, and beasts so long extinct that those whose studies they are, are for the most part of the opinion that no trace of them survives unfossilized. We have books bound wholly in metals of unknown alloy, and books whose bindings are covered with thickset gems. We have books cased in perfumed woods shipped across inconceivable gulf between creations–books doubly precious because no one on Urth can read them. 

“We have books whose papers are matted of plants from which spring curious alkaloids, so that the reader, in turning their pages, is taken unaware by bizarre fantasies and chimeric dreams. Books whose pages are not paper at all, but delicate wafers of white jade, ivory, and shell; books too whose leaves are the desiccated leaves of unknown plants. Books we have also that are not books at all to the eye: scrolls and tablets and recordings on a hundred different substances. 

“There is a cube of crystal here–though I can no longer tell you where–no larger than the ball of your thumb that contains more books than the library itself does. Though a harlot might dangle it from one ear for an ornament, there are not volumes enough in the world to counterweight the other. All these I came to know, and I made safeguarding them my life’s devotion.” 

– Master Ulton, the Curator, from Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer.

Magic, Nesbit, Eager, and Lewis

No, not a law firm. It’s like this:

I was looking in my bookstore for a kid’s book under the “E’s” (a whole different story). I didn’t find it, but I did find Edward Eager’s Half Magic. I like to re-read books that were favorites when I was a kid myself, so I picked it up.

While some books in this nostalgia category don’t stand up to the passage of time, I’m happy to say most of them do. Many even deliver entirely new insights and enjoyments to my now (somewhat) adult mind. Half Magic is one of them.

As a bonus, there was a new connection. The children in the book discover a new author at their library, E. Nesbit, and she becomes their favorite (Edward Eager readily acknowledges his debt to this children’s author).

The connection is that I’d just finished C. S. Lewis’s On Stories. In it, Lewis gives many examples of what he considers good writing, and Nesbit is one of them. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never read Nesbit, even as a kid (To be fair, the small libraries I frequented may not have had her work, and until I got to college in the city I don’t think I ever saw books for sale anywhere except at the corner drugstore).

It’s not as odd as the Tolkien-Lewis connection I made today reading The Horse and His Boy (which contains a “prancing pony” named “Bree,”) but it’s a nice one.

Of course, I looked up Kindle versions of Nesbit today. 25 books for $3.95, all in the palm of my hand. Click. Got it. More on Kindle in the next post.

Roger Mantis “placeholder” cover

My wife (my best beta reader) is going to be proofing my second book, Roger Mantis, after I added new chapters. Now she’s gone all high-tech and everything and wants to proof it in Kindle format on her IPod. My Kindle InDesign plug-in gets crabby if you don’t include a cover image in the output so I whipped one up in Photoshop. The background is the school baseball field in my home town.

Roger Mantis placeholder cover

Yeah, it’s an obvious Photoshop.  I didn’t want to pay for the mesh model to do a decent 3D rendering of Roger, and I haven’t figured out how to “rig” a figure in 3DS Max anyway.

Yeah, it’s a Minnesota Twins cap. I don’t have a photo for the fictional “Highland Falls Falcons.”

And yeah, the cars in the background aren’t from 1977, either (my eagle-eyed wife spotted that instantly in my first printout).

Geeze, it’s just a dang placeholder cover, okay?

Embedding fonts on Kindle

I loaded a test version of my Zorya manuscript onto my old keyboard Kindle.  I used the same process I’d used before:  imported my basic Word file into Adobe Indesign, made the proper format changes, added a table of contents, and then used Amazon’s Kindle converter plugin for Indesign to create the .mobi file.  Then I just mailed it to my Amazon Kindle e-mail address, and in a short time it showed up on my Kindle.

When I opened the book, the font looked thin and spidery, and hard to read. I checked the Kindle’s display control panel, and noticed a line I’d never seen before: “Published Font: On/Off” I switched it off, and the text popped in nice and clear.

I checked a few purchased books, and none of them had that line in the control panel. Then I checked Castle Falcon, the one I’d published to Kindle before. The “published font” line was there, and it was switched off! I turned it on, and got the same spidery font. Yipes. That version is out there on sale.

I went back and made new Kindle files of both books using the plug-in, and this time switched off “embed fonts.” Tests of the results show they display nicely, and there’s no “published font” toggle confusing things.  I uploaded an update of Castle Falcon to Kindle Direct Publishing, and will try to get Amazon to tell purchasers the update is available.

So, if you’re making your own Kindle books, I recommend not embedding the fonts unless there’s some special reason they have to be in there. For most of us who are just writing regular normal-text books, the Kindle reader default font ought to work just fine.

Nook version done (finally)

The “formatting tweaks” took more tweaking than I thought (I won’t bore you with the messy details), but I fired off my EPUB version of Castle Falcon to Barnes and Noble this morning. I’m interested in how the book’s online web page will look.

As I said before, the hardest part of e-book publishing is coming up with a file that does what you want it to when it shows up on someone’s e-reader.

A quick summary of programs I found helpful:

Adobe InDesign is great for formatting real paper books but it’s expensive. If you’re a student, you can get it a lot cheaper. The Kindle Plugin turns out reliable Kindle files, but I found that InDesign’s EPUB save function had some bugs. Your mileage may vary.  Most people will get more use out of methods of converting Word files and the like, and unfortunately I didn’t do a lot of that so I don’t have much advice in that area.

Calibre is a great program for dealing with e-book files on multiple levels. I used it to create good EPUB files by simply converting my final Kindle files. It can do a lot more, but that one function was what saved my bacon.

Sigil is another editing program for working with e-books. Although I only used it for one minor formatting issue (losing my “coding virginity”) the program would be excellent for those familiar with HTML and working “under the hood” on e-books.

You can find book viewers (Kindle or EPUB) for any computer or almost anything that has a screen. If you don’t actually own an e-reader, this is critical for previewing your final files. All of the readers are free.

Kindle viewers can be found here.

Nook (EPUB) reading apps can be found here.

Now maybe I should get back to actually writing books…the one part of being an author that’s even harder than creating e-book files.

Footnote aggravations

Since the last entry, I found some serious problems with the footnotes in my EPUB version of Castle Falcon.

Unlike the Kindle conversion plugin for Adobe InDesign, InDesign’s built-in “save as EPUB” function has no mechanism for driving my Pratchett-style humorous footnotes to the very end of the book (essentially converting them to endnotes).  The only two choices I have are to have the footnotes right at the end of the paragraph they appear in (blech!) or have them show up at the end of each chapter (blech squared!)

What’s so bad about that?  Well, if you’re doing your job right as a writer (or at least trying to), the end of a good chapter should be a nice punch line that really makes your reader want to find out what happens next:

“Suddenly he turned around, and there was the creature he’d been hunting, right behind him.”

Now, imagine that snappy fadeout with a humorous footnote (from a completely different part of the chapter) tacked right after the last sentence on the page:

“Suddenly he turned around, and there was the creature he’d been hunting, right behind him.”
[12] Everyone else in the family believed that anchovies on pizza were a crime against nature.

On the smooth road of carefully-planned plot development, your reader has just tripped over a nice big cement block.

So if InDesign couldn’t get my notes back to the end of the book where I wanted them, what could?  (No doubt the EPUB wizards out there are smiling indulgently right now, going over the dozens of complex code modifications they’d use to fix this, but keep in mind I’m quite new at all of this.  Besides, I really don’t like working with code.)

The next thing I tried was starting from an original Word manuscript and importing that into the PubIt! converter online.  I spent a lot of time wandering around that particular dead end.  The footnote links in the resulting EPUB were at the end of the book all right, but they didn’t work properly.

In the converted Word file the footnote references in the text linked back to the notes at the end of the book, but they didn’t link in the other direction.  Only the last endnote, number 16, linked back to the original page when I previewed a download using Nook for PC.  In Adobe Digital Editions, it was even weirder.  All the endnotes linked backwards to the same obscure page in the book, and that page didn’t even have a note reference in the first place.

At this point, I was almost ready to chuck the whole thing.  I decided to pull up an EPUB file editor to see what was going on in the (gulp) code, and used a program called Calibre which I’d downloaded a while ago.

I noticed then that Calibre comes with a file converter function.  Well, whaddaya know. One of their recommended input formats is Mobi (Kindle), so just for kicks I used Calibre to convert my already-working Kindle file to create an EPUB file.

Wow!  The EPUB file came out with working endnotes at the end of the file, just like the Kindle version, and they linked back and forth properly.  As a bonus, Calibre had converted the Kindle file’s table of contents too (I never created one for the Word file).  The links on this also worked properly, linking each table of contents entry to the proper chapter beginning.

There are still one or two minor formatting tweaks I’d like to do before I’m ready to publish my Nook version at Barnes and Noble, but there’s definitely light at the end of the tunnel.

And now, Nook. (updated)

On Thursday, my 90-day Kindle Direct Publishing Select agreement expires, and I can legitimately put my book, Castle Falcon, out in other electronic formats besides Kindle (this restriction is part of the KDP Select agreement).  I will, of course, keep my Kindle version on Amazon, but now I can spread out a bit.

Step one for me will be producing a Nook version (EPUB format).  Fortunately, as with Amazon and Kindle, Barnes and Noble (the Nook people) have a web page (PubIt!) to gently walk you through the process.

As with Kindle, you need to register online and provide a lot of detailed information. Some people may not be comfortable providing things like bank account information and Social Security numbers, but remember that if you sell books, they will want to pay you, and just like your employers they need that information to do it.

As with Kindle, the hardest part is producing the electronic file of your book. There are a number of methods of producing an EPUB file.  I have the advantage of using Adobe InDesign, which exports directly to EPUB format. There are some tricks to getting things like page breaks, but nothing too profound (I’m assuming a standard book without a lot of illustrations or fancy formatting).

But I expect it’s more likely that people will be sitting at their computer with their manuscript in something like Microsoft Word. Fortunately, the PubIt! upload system can convert such documents into EPUB format. They have a support page here. Their Word formatting guide tells you how to handle formats and other things in Word to make for the most successful EPUB conversion.

Again, I’m not familiar with HTML or other line coding, so I try like hell to avoid it in the publishing process. So far, I’ve managed it (knock on wood).

Once you have uploaded your manuscript and it’s been converted, you can preview it to see if everything is the way it’s supposed to be. There’s an online previewer on the upload page at the PubIt! site. This takes a lot of time, but it’s worth the effort.

If you’re generating your own EPUB files at home, you can also download Adobe Digital Editions to preview your file on your computer.

I’m still waiting for some kind of notification of the official end of the KDP Select term.  I’ll try to post later on with further progress.

UPDATE:

I’ve found out that the online previewer at the PubIt! web page doesn’t seem to work with links like the table of contents or footnotes.  I downloaded my “converted” EPUB file from the PubIt! page and looked at it using the Adobe Digital Editions program, and it worked fine.  Another alternative for viewing EPUB books on your computer is Barnes and Noble’s own Nook for PC program.

As with Kindle, you can get a free e-reading program for almost any device that has a screen. Within limits, of course. So far, I don’t think there’s a Nook reading app for the Kindle, or a Kindle reading app for the Nook.

My KDP has officially expired.  On with the publishing!

“How Amazon Saved My Life”

There was a short piece on the opening page of Amazon.com today by Jeff Bezos (Amazon CEO and founder). He talks about an author named Jessica Park.

Jessica Park wrote an article for Indiereader on how self-publishing worked for her.  Quite well, it seems.

I have to say I’m not anywhere near as down on the traditional publishing industry as she is, but her frustration is understandable.