One of the most frustrating aspects of creating an EPUB is getting it to display half-way decently on all reading devices/apps.

It feels as if this will never happen.

EPUBs are, of course, HTML documents. Different browsers display HTML differently, and it can lead to nightmares, getting websites to display nicely. The same is true of EPUB devices/apps. That’s why a writer needs to check their EPUB on every device and app they have access to.

Let me illustrate.

Here is the first pages of my novel on the Nook app, displayed on my desktop.

Here is the same two pages, on the Adobe Digital Editions, again, on my desktop.

Neither are how I would like it to display, but the ADE is much closer. The Chapter heading picture is centered horizontally, but needs a margin at the top. The dragon ornamental is centered, though the large gap at the bottom needs fixing. The initial letter is larger than the rest of the text, and perhaps I can get the gap to disappear below the first sentence.

The Nook, showing the exact same file, does not center the pictures, does not include the initial letter, and has a space below every paragraph. I managed to get it to left justify by choosing the display option “Publisher’s Settings”, but it ignores the paragraph indents despite this.

So, how do you go about fixing this? If it is the exact same EPUB, how does a writer manage to make it look decent on multiple devices/reading apps when the display can be so different? (For instance, I had to start over on my formatting because, suddenly, the document starting displaying with a 2pt font on high-res devices. WHY? Still not certain.)

The answer, unfortunately, is that you can make it look OK, but there will be many trade-offs. Yes, some of those trade-off will get you bad reviews. And, yes, if you look at professionally-coded books on different devices/apps, they will look different as well. Scene breaks can look huge/small, the chapter headings can take up random amounts of space, etc. If you have pictures, like I do…good luck to us.

This can be very frustrating to authors, whose primary talent lies in writing stories, not code. Unfortunately, there is no best solution. Some pay for the service of having their book coded and call it good, but results vary (and beware of scammers). Others use Smashwords, where you upload your Word document and they will make an EPUB for you (and results vary). Some use the free online editor through Reedsy or make an EPUB from their Scrivener doc (and results vary). There’s also software like Calibre or Jutoh that are specifically designed to create EPUBs (disclosure: I use Jutoh–and yes, results vary). Or, if you are really a glutton for punishment, you can try InDesign, the industry standard for book creation.

I did purchase a template (InDesign), but quickly realized, while it made the For Print version look nice, none of my pictures lined up properly when I used it for EPUB creation. InDesign has an exceedingly high learning curve, and its forums are pretty worthless (“read a book”, “take a class”, “know exactly what you’re doing before you ask a question here”) and the scant, not-snobby advice I found never translated to an EPUB that displayed my pictures properly in a reflowable format (which is hardly an uncommon problem, no matter the software used).

If you have the money, paying someone to create your EPUB is the least annoying option (even with the back and forth). Most charge extra to work with pictures, so that option is not a good one for someone with illustrations (this includes scene breaks or drop-cap images, BTW). Or, just publish with Amazon. Getting my book to look right, even with the pictures, was a breeze compared to the weeks I’ve spent trying to get a non-WTF appearance in my EPUB.

Indie Writer Frustrations

As I sit here, banging my head against EPUB code and attempting to center scenebreaks and chapter heading images, I wonder about standards.

EPUB is industry standard for publishing ebooks. That would be wonderful, if everyone actually followed it. For instance, Amazon has mobipocket, their own proprietary ebook format. The code I used for creating my first two Kindle books did not exactly transfer over to my EPUB version, especially since I used ’em’ units, and other sellers prefer pixels. Very fun, going back through and deleting all my style info so paragraphs don’t have spaces between them and the first sentence has an appropriate indent. It hardly matters, if one ebook reader renders it properly, when it looks terrible on a couple others.

An added difficulty is how e-readers of all types rarely display EPUBs in the same way. I have attempted to code the display size of images for different resolutions, with little success. Most devices and apps cannot read or implement that code. Just getting a quote to offset on multiple devices is a monumental task in some instances. I understand completely, why less stubborn people throw up their hands and pay someone to create their EPUB or mobipocket for them–and then get disappointed when the final product doesn’t look much better than what they managed.

Much of this is due to the reader optimization controls most devices and apps have. Readers can change the size of text, whether the display is landscape or portrait, etc. This obliterates most of the formatting authors want to put in place. (As a side note: I find it very frustrating to read through help articles that decry authors for not hiring someone to format their work properly, then turn around and applaud how readers can format their own reading experience through device and app choices. It’s incredibly difficult to design something well when your readers can randomly break that design to suit their own tastes.)

Some Advice

As a new writer looking to publish, I did have an idea how I wanted my books to look, especially since I planned to illustrate my novels (and that turned into quite the headache, formatting-wise). My advice to others? Create the best looking ebook you can, but realize, no two readers will have the same experience with the text. Changing the text size and the device resolution changes the experience. Reading devices are limited in their font choices, and, as in the case of Kindle, even if you embed your font, reader choice will override its use. It’s going to be rare, that you can get your ebook to look how you want, unless you use images for headings, and making those images play nice with formatting can be a nightmare.

While formatting is a pain, I wouldn’t recommend ignoring it. In the early days of my search to find a software program to help me create ebooks, I read a blog post where the author pointed out how many established writers have ugly ebooks. Don’t stress the look, he said. Your writing is what counts. Perhaps, if you’re a well-known author. If you’re just starting out, bad reviews on how your ebook looks will work against you.

More advice! Ebooks are not physical books. Left justify text with a ragged edge. Make certain you have a good way to visually tell your reader they’ve reached a new chapter–like a large chapter heading, or a small design (know, though, that most e-readers are incapable of displaying windings and such. If you use an awesome flower design font, chances are it won’t show up for your readers. If you use a picture, make certain it’s square. Otherwise, you’re going to get a white border around it and if someone is reading your manuscript on a dark or colored screen, the border will be painfully obvious).

Don’t make your indents huge; 2-3 letters long is fine. If you want to use a drop letter, my advice is to save that for the print version, and either bold the first word or use an initial letter (where the letter is larger, but shares the same baseline). Devices and apps have a terrible time displaying drop letters. It really isn’t worth the time to try and get it to look right. Hopefully, in the future, this will change (of course, the linked article was written in 2016, so things aren’t progressing that fast).

Some professionals dislike an unadorned space for a scene break, but oftentimes this is the easiest way to create one. As stated above, windings and non-device fonts can prove troublesome, and you really don’t want that “there should be an image here” square to meet a reader’s eye. Another option is to use asterisks. It is a simple way to define the space. And make certain NOT to indent the paragraph after a scene break.

I hope this is helpful. And if you like my writing and my artwork, please support me on Ko-Fi.