Q&A: Guido Henkel (part 1)

As I’ve mentioned before, on more than one occasion, when it came to the finished product (ie my novel) I dug my heels in, got real fussy. Not just the words themselves, but also the cover – my designer didn’t just lob over a PDF and say ‘Take it or leave it, pencil boy’. We had to think about what would work and what wouldn’t. It involved trial and error, until we arrived at something we could both be proud of.

Formatting the interior of your ebook requires the same care and attention. Most readers, I would say, will spot one or two spelling mistakes in a book (I know I do, but then again, that’s what I do for a living). They might even forgive this. However, if you present people with text that doesn’t flow properly, which has breaks in all the wrong places, the game is up. Technology is great when it works, when it behaves itself, but if it refuses there are few experiences more frustrating. And the last thing you want is to interrupt the flow of the reading experience, to remind people that they haven’t been transported to the lands of your imagination, but are in fact struggling with an ebook that thinks it’s okay to break lines everywhere and to have the occasional blank page for no particular reason.

When the time came I knew I couldn’t mess about – I had to think big. I did my research and quickly found someone whose CV speaks for itself – Guido Henkel. His website informed me that he had formatted more than 200 ebooks for a range of clients, which was a major box ticked. I checked out his prices (very reasonable) and dropped him an email, thinking that he would be either too busy or wouldn’t want to deal with little people like me. Wrong – busy he might be, but he was keen to help. Tick. And I couldn’t be happier with the finished product – the text flows perfectly, the pages behave exactly as they should, and Guido even corrected a few more typos that I spotted. Tick, tick and tick.

Now that my perfectly formatted novel is out in the world, I thought that fellow writers – especially those about to publish – might be interested to hear some of Guido’s thoughts on ebook preparation. And just so you know, he was very generous with his responses, so I’ve decided to split the post into two parts.

Everyone, I give you formatting expert and all-round good guy, Mr Guido Henkel.

GuidoHenkel_BW smallHi Guido, welcome. Can you start by telling me a bit about your background and what brought you to ebook formatting?

I am a game developer originally – a designer of computer games and a programmer who had his start in the earliest days of home computing on the Apple II. I’ve been a programmer ever since and have always enjoyed the technical aspects of game development.

A few years ago I wrote and published a series of supernatural mysteries taking place in Victorian England called Jason Dark: Ghost Hunter and began looking into publishing opportunities. It was at the time when ebooks were on the cusp of existence. Amazon had just released the Kindle and made it possible for authors to self-publish their books. I instantly jumped at the opportunity, of course, and fully embraced it, but as I mingled with other authors at the time I also realised that virtually none of them had the technical wherewithal necessary to actually create quality ebooks. Most used a word processor and exported the ebook from there, flooding the market with books that had no proper formatting, didn’t follow common typography and were brimming with technical errors and bugs.

Because of my technical background all of that was second nature to me. Also, in another life I was actually a trained typesetter. That made it easy for me to tackle the challenges and problems from a very different angle than most other authors, creating solutions that were more stable and cross-device compatible.

Eventually I turned that experience into a blog series, and subsequently into the book Zen of eBook Formatting, while also offering ebook formatting as a paid service to fellow authors and publishers.

What, in your opinion, are the main problems that cause ebooks to display poorly, and how can they be overcome?

The main problem is two-fold: not only do you have enormous fragmentation in the market, but, in addition, most authors/publishers do not know how to deal with the problems this creates. Many are not even aware that problems exist.

With ebooks going mainstream, suddenly people are reading books on a wide range of devices, from tiny cell phones to hyper-resolution tablets and desktop computers – and anything in between. Ebook formats were never created with this in mind, and have serious limitations that means it is hard to actually make books look good on such a wide variety of device capabilities and display sizes.

In addition, every device manufacturer uses a different approach to handle certain features. They support entirely different feature sets or code implementations and have firmware bugs in every device, many of which are never addressed.

It takes a lot of technical know-how to understand these differences and to write ebook code that handles all these circumstances and eventualities properly. It is not an easy task and it’s getting harder every day.

To make the problem even worse, distributors such as Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble do not allow you to target specific devices. Therefore it is imperative that you create ebooks that will display properly on every single Kindle implementation, from the very first Kindle to the latest Kindle Fire HD, to the Android cell phone implementation and all the way to the Mac OSX desktop version of the Kindle software reader. Things would be a lot easier if we could make specific builds for specific devices, so that features could be implemented in the best possible way for each device, but alas it’s not possible. So we constantly have to juggle smallest common denominators instead of actually pushing the technology forward.

Now, when you create an ebook you are expected to know and understand all of this, and have the means in your repertoire to safely handle all these differences. Simply hitting an ‘export’ button in a word processor or InDesign will not do the job. They will create an epub file for you, but only in theory, because the resulting file is going to be incompatible with half the devices on the market.

So, in the end, the biggest mistake people make is assuming that it is easy, that the ‘export’ function will do all the work for them. They think it’s straightforward. It is not, and the waters get murkier with every new device and firmware upgrade. For many, the subject quickly becomes too overwhelming and technical, which is fine. You’re a writer, not a tech expert. That’s where professionals like myself come into play, because we are actively working on solutions that we can then use in our client projects.

I think that publishing a book on formatting is a great idea because it puts more control in authors’ hands. It means that whenever they spot any errors or need to make other changes, this can be done quickly and with minimum fuss. What has the reaction to your book been like?

Zen of eBook Formatting has been an extension of the blog tutorial I wrote a number of years ago. I was surprised by the tremendous feedback the series received and how it quickly became the de-facto standard for countless self-published authors to format their books. However, technology had evolved, so it was time to cover the new aspects of ebook formatting and to dive into certain areas in more detail – ebooks have become a lot fancier than they first were, and I wanted to cater to that.

Just like with the blog series, the response to Zen has been tremendous and it always fills me with joy to hear that my instructions have empowered authors and enabled them to create their own ebooks. And not only create them, but fashion them in a professional manner to get a product they can be truly proud of, instead of having to apologise to readers for the countless issues and formatting errors.

Even if they read the book and feel it’s way over their head, it helps them understand some of the intricacies of ebook formatting, as well as the most common pitfalls.

(Part two to follow.)

You can find out more about Guido and his work at guidohenkel.com

GWCY for web SMALL

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