Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The words out of their mouths,Part 1: How to punctuate dialogue

The first day of class is always exciting. 

"Come in, come in," I greeted my students.  "There are plenty of seats.  Make yourselves comfortable."

One young woman wearing a Chicago White Sox jersey asked, "Is this the writing class?"

"It is."

She took a piece of paper out of the back pocket of her jeans and squinted to read it.  "I just registered this afternoon.  Is that okay?"


I had had some of them in previous classes.  Jo Bernardi, petite and blonde and looking about ten months pregnant, eased herself into a chair in the front row.

"When's the baby due?" I asked her.

"Next Monday," she sighed.

"That's five more days.  Think you'll make it that long?"  Rosa Jankowski, another familiar face, grabbed the spot next to Jo. 

With exhaustion evident in her voice, the mother-to-be said, "I'd be happy to give birth tonight, right here.  Anything to have it over with!"

The third of the repeat offenders was Hank Abrahamer, all six-foot-six of him.  He took the desk at the end of the second row so he'd have room to stretch out those long basketball player legs.

"If I didn't know any better," he drawled with a glance in Jo's direction, "I'd say you was gonna have a baby."

Jo laughed, but with a grimace.

I had ten names on the roster, so with the late registrant that put eleven in the class, which was just one shy of the limit.  In addition to Jo, Rosa, and Hank, Lind Bosley was another student I'd had before, but the rest were first timers.  We might have a good group or we might have a bunch of duds.  One just never knew.

Okay, aspiring writers, let's get to work.  I can't even begin to list all the self-published ebooks I've looked at that drive me up the wall because the authors don't know how to punctuate dialogue.  One of the most effective ways to tell a story is through dialogue.  Not only do your characters impart information directly through what they've said, but they also set the scene with their actions.  Well-written dialogue is much much more than just the words the characters speak.

First of all, go into your word processing software -- which is probably MicroSoft Word -- and turn off smart quotes.  This will ensure that you don't have any backward-facing quotation marks. 

"Come in, come in," I greeted my students.  "There are plenty of seats.  Make yourselves comfortable."

This starts with the narrator "I" saying something, and the use of the speech tag "greeted" indicates the way in which she says it.  But because she's greeting "my students," the reader also gets the information that the speaker is some kind of teacher and the people she's talking to are students.  Because the actual dialogue portion is tied to the speech tag portion of the sentence, the two portions are joined with a comma, but because the speech tag section effectively ends that part of the sentence, a period follows. 

The quotation begins again, with a capital letter because it's a whole new sentence, and then ends.

Unless the action involved is closely tied to the dialogue, always start a new paragraph when the dialogue is completed.  Never have more than one speaker in the same paragraph.  Never.  The occasions on which you would do so are so rare as to justify the "never" command.  Just don't do it.

Punctuation that is tied to the dialogue goes inside the quotation marks.  In other words, that second comma indicates the end of the dialogue "Come in, come in," so it goes inside the marks.  The period after "students" relates to the speech tag portion, so it stays outside. 

One young woman wearing a Chicago White Sox jersey asked, "Is this the writing class?"

Because this character isn't given a name, the reader gets the impression that the narrator doesn't know her.  But because the text has already stated this is a classroom and the narrator is a teacher, identifying this second speaker as a "young woman" allows the reader to discard any notions that this is, say a kindergarten or grade school class.  Also, because of the apparel the student is wearing, this is a less than formal situation.

The comma indicates the end of the speech tag portion, so it goes outside the quotation marks.  And because the dialogue portion is a new sentence for the speaker (even if not a new sentence for the writer), it begins with a capital letter.  When it ends as a question, the appropriate punctuation stays inside the quotation marks.

"It is."

This short bit of dialogue responding to the question doesn't need a speech tag.  There are only two people identified at this point, so the speaker for this little line is presumed to be the first-person narrator.   It doesn't need a speech tag, which would be longer than the dialogue anyway.  Leaving the speech tag off, in this case, allows the reader to read that quick response just as quickly as the narrator would have said it, thus keeping the flow of the story moving right along.

She took a piece of paper out of the back pocket of her jeans and squinted to read it.  "I just registered this afternoon.  Is that okay?"

Imagine that this is a scene in a movie.  The student walks in, asks the teacher a question, the teacher answers, and then there's a pause while the student gets out the piece of paper.  The objective of effectively written dialogue is to simulate that kind of action.  The student makes her second comment and asks her second question after she has taken the paper out of her jeans (which is another descriptor to plant a visual image in the reader's mind).  That she has to squint to read it tells the reader yet something more about the character, but without stopping the action to give a freeze-frame fashion show description of her.

The action part of this mini-scene does not include anything that describes how the speaker speaks, no speech tag.  Therefore, the action part ends with a period.

Wrong:  Walter stirred more salt into the soup, "I should have had a little garlic."
Right:  Walter stirred more salt into the soup.  "I should have had a little garlic."

Wrong:  "The barn burned down six months ago," she looked at the blackened timbers.
Right:  "The barn burned down six months ago."  She looked at the blackened timbers.

The reader's eye does register the intricacies of punctuation, so that the more accurate yours is, the easier the reader will be able to sink into the story.  Proper punctuation will allow the reader to hear exactly what you want her to hear.

Amazon formating update #4A -- Disappearing words

Just when you thought it couldn't get any more bizarre, it does.

The book is A Bride for the Highwayman by Bridgett Farrell.  When I began trying to read it, there were obviously chunks of text missing.

As you can see (I hope) the text begins with " the entire county of Cumbria."  Something is missing, and from the basic appearance of what's on the Kindle for PC screen, one could logically assume that the underlying digital file is incomplete.  Well, that's one of those assumptions one should not make.

Altering the size of the font on the display suddenly makes more words appear!

Readers might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the author who self-published this book uploaded the wrong file for the Kindle for PC.  But self-publishing authors know that only one file is uploaded for the Kindle Direct Publication process, and that same file is then displayed on the various Kindle devices, the Kindle for PC, the Kindle for Mac, and the Kindle Cloud Reader.

I know what your next question is going to be, and here's the answer:

Yes, there it is, the Amazon Kindle "Look Inside" preview of A Bride for the Highwayman.   Back to the standard Times Roman font that was changed to Arial for the Kindle for PC application.  And the missing text is all there.

Once again, I address this to the authors who like me are self-publishing with Amazon's KDP program.  What are they doing to our books?  And why?

Amazon formating update #4: What are they doing to our words?

Well, I spent another 90+ minutes on chat with someone from Amazon trying to fix this problem with how Kindle books display on the Kindle for PC app.  This is the third such chat, and it yielded no solutions, but more problems.

To recap and bring the situation up to date.  As of today -- Wednesday, 25 July 2012 -- I have at least three Kindle books that display with sufficient problems to make them unreadable.

Danger at Mellin Cove by Rena George
Embrace the Wild Dawn by S.K. McClafferty
A Bride for the Highwayman by Bridgett Farrell

In addition, Norma Beishir's Angels at Midnight displays in an awkward arial font with indented block paragraphs that makes it difficult, though not impossible, to read.  The "Look Inside" version looks just fine, and per one of the chats I had with Amazon, that's because all of the "Look Inside" previews are done in Times Roman font, regardless what font is used in the document.

I had been told several times, both in chats and in emails from Amazon, that the solution to all these problems was to uninstall my Kindle for PC application and reinstall using the latest version.  I resisted doing this because I did not want to lose the content I had already downloaded, nor did I want to go through the hassle of redownloading the 636 books and samples of books I had in my Kindle library.

But I did not want the problem to continue, so I backed up my files and, when I finally had the free time, contacted Amazon through chat again to go through the process of installing a current and correct version of Kindle for PC.

The process actually takes about ten minutes.  First, the existing applications (at one time there were six active on this computer; more about that later) have to be deregistered with Amazon.  That didn't take but a few seconds.  Then the application itself had to be uninstalled through my computer's control panel.  This took a minute or two.  Once it was removed, the current version had to be downloaded from Amazon, installed on my computer, and then registered again.  I did this while I was logged in and chatting with the Amazon service rep.

At the time, I had 635 files in my Kindle library, a combination of books and free samples.  When the reinstalled, reregistered Kindle for PC app booted up, my library showed 982 items!  Almost every item I had downloaded was now duplicated, and there appeared to be no rhyme nor reason as to which ones weren't duplicated.  Needless to say, the service rep I was chatting with had no idea how this happened, and he/she quickly transferred me to someone who was supposedly specially trained to deal with that problem.

The first thing the next person told me to do was deregister, uninstall, reinstall, and reregister the Kindle for PC app.  Even though I told this person I had just done that not two minutes earlier, she/he insisted I do it again.  Thus, I spent another 10 minutes or so repeating the procedure.  And it did no good.  In fact, there were now more duplicates than before, with the total now reaching 999 items.  During the course of the ensuing chat, one of those items disappeared, but I do not know which one or why.  The service rep insisted he had done nothing to remove it.

 I cropped this screen to make the numbers more readable and to show the duplication of Embrace the Wild Dawn but that necessarily leaves off the rest of the duplications.

At this point, the chat became rather heated, with the service rep now insisting the problem was more than he/she could handle and it would have to be turned over to a specialist, who would then get back to the rep in "2 to 3 business days" after which I would be contacted in "3 to 4 business days."  Of course, none of that addressed the original problems, which had to do with the way the books were displaying!  Frustrated and angry, I then gave the service rep a brief rundown of all the problems, which were then supposed to be passed along to the specialist, blah, blah, blah.

After spending well more than 90 minutes and accomplishing nothing, I walked away from the laptop and went back to my day job on the desktop computer in the other room.  It wasn't until three or four hours later that I came back to the laptop to shut it down.  I shut down the Kindle application and the other programs I was running preparatory to turning off the computer.  But at the last minute I wanted to grab one more screen shot so I rebooted the Kindle for PC app.

And all the duplicates were gone!

As of this morning, they remain gone. 

Obviously, these screen shots do not show date and time and you will simply have to trust me (or not, if you so desire) that what I'm telling you actually happened the way I'm reporting.

So, this morning I check the Kindle freebies at and I see a few things I'd like to download.  I do the OneClick thing for one of the books and I get a message that I've already downloaded it.  But in fact I hadn't.  The book's page, which would normally have shown that I had downloaded it and on what date I had done so, showed nothing.  However, when I went to my Kindle for PC app, there it was, and eventually I would discover that I had only purchased it today.  So I have no idea what's going on with that.

When I went to try reading the book, I discovered whole chunks of words were missing.  Whole lines.  Not whole sentences, just lines.  Or something. So of course I checked the "Look Inside" feature and all the words were there just the way they're supposed to be.  Apparently it's the Kindle for PC app that's screwing up again.  So I sent an alert to Amazon, and I got back the usual 'bot reply:  Delete and redownload the book, and if that doesn't work, make sure I have the latest version of the app installed.  We know this routine by now.  I haven't replied to them on that.

Frustrated with that particular book, I went to one that I had downloaded just a few days ago, Secrets of Seacliff House by Stacey Coverstone.  What I opened was all in an unpleasant -- but not really "ugly" courier font.  Double-spaced courier font.  Could I read it?  Oh, yeah, I can read it, but ever since the complaints about Firefly, I find that font really does matter.  I want my Kindle reading experience to be as close to reading a paper-and-ink printed book as possible; I don't want to feel I'm reading someone's type-written manuscript.

Of course, the next thing I did was to go to the "Look Inside" preview, fully expecting to see everything converted to a nice neat professional Times Roman font.  WRONG. 

So, now, what was it that Amazon chat-person said to me?  All "Look Inside" previews are converted to Times Roman?  NOT.  NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT.

Okay, I have to take a break.  My day job is calling and it still pays the bills so I have to give it my full attention at least for a while.

But before I go, I just want to impress on all you self-published authors, or those who are thinking about maybe self-publishing with Amazon:  This is all about US.  Not me, not you, but all of us, and about our readers.  We know Amazon is the 800 pound gorilla.  We know they dominate the market.  What we don't know is what's happening to our material between the time we upload it and the time it reaches our customers.  Our customers, not just Amazon's.  We don't know how many readers gave up on a book and an author because of formatting problems she/he knew nothing about.  We don't know how many readers complained about problems, and how many just shrugged it off and put that author in the "Do Not Buy Again" category.

Is it a problem solely with my Kindle for PC app?  Is it a problem because there's some exclusive glitch in my HP laptop's software?  Do you really believe that? 

I didn't think so.  Neither do I.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The truth is not a bad word

You know who you are.  I don't need to cite your names or post your book titles or link to your blogs.  Most of the rest of us know who you are, too.  Or at least we know who some of you are.

You're the authors of badly written books.  And you need to face that reality.  Oh, I'm sure you won't, but you need to.  For your own sakes if no one else's.

Some of you are new to this game, but others have been around for a long, long time.  I know this because I've seen your manuscripts before when they were entered in RWA contests.  My last RWA membership lapsed in 1998; some of the books that are being digitally self-published now, in 2012, were contest entries in the late 1980s.  They've been around.

These are the books that never won a major contest, never found a traditional print publisher.  Maybe they collected a lot of rejection slips, with or without suggestions for improvement.  Maybe you revised them based on critiques; maybe you didn't.

Then there are the books that have never been evaluated, never entered in a contest, never subjected to a critique group or any other analysis.  Never been sent to an agent or editor, and thus never rejected.

And there are probably some that fall in between:  They've been critiqued by friends or rejected by a couple of agents or. . . .something.

But old or new, experienced author or novice, you know the routine:  You've written a book or two, maybe more, and now that it's so easy to put your books into digital print, you do so.  You get some stock photo art and create a cover, then upload your MSWord file.  Presto!  You're published!  Woohoo!

You launch with greater or lesser private fanfare on Amazon or Smashwords or Nook or Kobo.  Friends and family, who think it's terrific that you've done this but who know nothing about writing or publishing, post five-star reviews.  Maybe you post a few yourself, under other account names or even under your own name on Goodreads.  (I saw one author the other day who had posted three separate five-star ratings for one of her own books on Goodreads.  Not reviews, just ratings.)  If you're ambitious enough, wealthy enough, and/or greedy enough, you buy a few more five-star reviews.  Or you swap reviews with other writers who are just as eager as you to get those ratings, because after all, ratings equal exposure and exposure equals sales and. . . .

Wow!  Look at all the people who think you've written a great book!  The royalties will come pouring in now, won't they!

Excuse me, honey, but none of those people count.  Not one of them.  If they're a friend or family member, they are automatically biased.  If they're you under another name, you're out and out lying.  If they're paid shills, they just plain don't count.

Even if you send your book to an "independent" review site, unless that site is recognized in the reading community as unbiased and fair, it doesn't count.  The awards and recommendations of a site that only gives five-star ratings don't count.

The only thing that counts is the truth.

And the truth is, your books suck.  They're bad.  They're really bad.

Oh, did that hurt your feelings?  I'm sorry your feelings are hurt, but as a reader, I'm not in charge of making sure you feel good.  My job is to read the book; your job was (past tense) to write one that I would enjoy.  You didn't do your job.

Now, let's back up here.  You can't defend yourself here, since it's my blog, and you're probably about to have a stroke at this point, but that's not my concern either.

There are books that a lot of people don't like which are not badly written books.  I for one can't stand anything written by Hemingway.  Nor do I like books that have depressing endings.  I will go out of my way to avoid horror stories, or those with graphic descriptions of violence.  And I'm invariably traumatized by a book in which an animal dies.  (This is one of the many reasons I absolutely can't stand and will never defend Judith McNaught's A Kingdom of Dreams: The heroine is such a spoiled twit she disregards common sense and is directly responsible for the death of the hero's beloved horse.  She never expresses remorse, never apologizes for it.  I hate that book with a passion.)

That's an entirely different kettle of fish -- a book can be very well written and still not be to the reader's personal taste.

I'm talking  about the badly written ones.  The badly published ones.

I'm talking about the books whose authors defend them on the basis of those five-star reviews, insisting that the reviews -- even though they are not legitimate reviews -- are necessary for sales and no critic has a right to deprive the author of potential sales. 

Say what?  Honey, your book has to earn its sales, and no one owes you anything.  No one owes you kindness in their reviews.  Hell, no one even owes you a review at all.  No one owes you a critique that will help you improve the book.  No one deserves your excuses or your protestations of hardship, your whines, your rants, your angry responses and sock puppet comments. 

And no reviewer ever, ever, ever deserves a personal threat from you.  Not ever, not under any circumstances whatsoever.

Bad books are just bad, and that's a simple truth.  Do some of them eventually sell a few copies?  Yeah, sure they do.  Some may even sell a lot of copies.  But that doesn't make them any less bad.

So, what qualifies a book to receive a "bad" rating?  The writing.  If the writing is bad, the book will have a very difficult time succeeding.  And if an author defends a bad book, or denies that it is bad, the author cannot improve.

1.  Bad technical skills -- spelling, grammar, syntax, word usage, punctuation.  These are as basically basic as you can get.  If you can't punctuate dialogue, how can you give your reader an accurate sense of what your characters are saying?  If you don't know how to use the right words, how will your reader know whether you mean demise or surmiseproceed or precedeFray as a noun has a similar meaning to struggle, but fray as a verb means something very very different from the verb struggle.  They cannot be used interchangeably.

2.  Bad story skills -- plots have to be consistent with an internal logic.  Do you know how to construct a cause and effect chain of events from opening to resolution?  Are your characters consistent?  Do they have sufficient internal and external motivation and conflict? 

3.  Bad research -- check your history. Check your geography.  Even if you are writing a paranormal or fantasy, you can't ignore facts unless you provide some logical explanation, either explicit or implicit.  Review your own personal anatomy and make sure human beings can do what you have them doing in your book, especially the love scenes, for the goddess's sake!

4.  Bad formatting -- how many times do we have to go over this?  Readers do not want to read badly formatted books.  You simply cannot expect readers to do your work for you.  You just can't.  And you have no right to complain when readers bitch because you didn't format your book properly.  That's your job.

Reviewers are going to leave negative reviews if you publish a badly written book.  The readers and reviewers don't know you and they don't care about your excuses -- or your precious feelings.  You published a badly written book, so now suck it up and either fix it or write a better one.  But don't you dare accuse the reviewer of anything other than telling you the truth.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

My words are mine, but they are not me

Sometime after my first book, Legacy of Honor, was published, someone remarked to me how vividly I had described the heroine's experience of being so cold during the Russian winter after Napoleon's disastrous invasion.  I said I remembered very well writing that scene, and that to get all the sensations, I merely stepped out the door into the dark night of a sub-zero northern Indiana midwinter.  I knew what that cold felt like.

My experience.  My words.  My book.

But not me.

When Firefly was going through the editing process at Pageant Books, my editor wanted to change a scene in which the heroine Julie looks out her window to watch the rising sun light the mountains to the west.  The editor wanted the sun to light mountains to the east, and I literally had to draw her a picture to show how the rising sun casts its light from the east to the west.  You know what I mean, don't you?  Well, so did I, from having spent many an early morning watching the sun come up and light Saddle Mountain in Tonopah, Arizona to the west.

My experience.  My words.  My book.

But not me.

There's a scene in the book now titled Secrets to Surrender in which Viva protests Rio's intentions to sell a mule.  Although his arguments made perfect sense, she is emotionally attached to the animal and resists selling her.  I bond to animals -- and sometimes to possessions -- instantly and I felt her sense of loss even though I, as a human being and as an author, knew it's only a story.

My experience.  My words.  My book.


I make jewelry from rocks.  Remember my saying that I watched the rising sun light Saddle Mountain?  My husband and I used to go out to far western Maricopa County, in the area dominated by Saddle Mountain, early in the morning and spend all day collecting rocks that were then sliced and polished and wrapped in precious metal wire to make jewelry.

In order to sell my jewelry -- which I do -- I have to let it go.  I have to stop owning it.  And when someone buys it, it becomes theirs.  It's not mine any more.  It's not me.

At an art show many years ago, a potential customer was looking at one of the small ironwood bowls my husband had made.  The customer asked if it would make a good ashtray.  We were honest and told him it would probably burn, since it was, after all, wood.  Duh. 

And so he didn't buy it.  But what if he had?  What if he had used it as an ashtray and burned the hell out of it?  What if he put salad in it and ruined the finish?  What if he got pissed off and burned it?

Well, I wouldn't want to know about it, but once he bought it, it was his to do with as he wanted. 

If an author can't separate herself enough from her work that she takes criticisms of it personally, then she really needs to get out of the business.  I just can't stress this enough.

You are going to get bad reviews.  It will happen.  I can guarantee it.  Somewhere along the line someone will not like your book.  Maybe a lot of people will not like your book.  It's even possible that no one will like it.  You may have written a really terrible, really bad, really shitty book.  It's possible.  And you are too close to it to know for sure. The only people who can tell you that are people who aren't you.

No one can guarantee your success.  It will happen, or it won't.  No one owes it to you, and no matter how hard you try, you can't make it happen.

You are not your book.  You are not the sum of all your books.  You are you.

Let the book go.  Let it live on its own, or die on its own.  If you didn't do the best you could, then you should have, and it's not the reviewers' fault that they didn't like it.  It's your fault.  If you did the best you could and they still don't like it, then there's nothing you can do about it.

The only thing you can do is walk away from it.  Go on to the next book.  Make it better.

But you cannot make it you.  You cannot make you it.

And if you can't understand that, if you don't want to understand that, if you refuse to believe it, then you are probably in need of more help than I can give you.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

And yet another update: Your words, my words, and Amazon

Okay, folks, this saga just goes on and on and on, with no resolution in sight.  And yes, this is in progress and will be updated as I get more information.

A second lengthy online chat with an Amazon service representative on Friday, 13 July 2012, yielded more misinformation, but it did not provide a workable solution to the problem.

Amazon is still saying that the problem with the formatting of Norma Beishir's Angels at Midnight as it appears on my Kindle for PC is caused by my Kindle for PC and that the only way to fix it is to de-register all the various Kindle for PC apps that have somehow appeared on my laptop computer, uninstall them, delete all of my Kindle content, and start from scratch.  This would involve redownloading 628 books.

When I tried actually installing the Kindle for PC app on my desktop computer, guess what happened?  ALL THE OTHER KINDLE FOR PC APPS also appeared.  Worse, however, was that some 54 of my downloaded books DISappeared.  Or so it seemed.  The suggestion I made to Amazon -- and documented in the chat log -- was that it looked like the 54 missing books could very well be free samples that I had downloaded, and some of them were for books that were no longer available on Amazon.  I had no desire to lose those free samples, at which point the Amazon rep told me there was nothing they could do about it.

In fact, she had no clue what she was talking about, because it turned out those missing books were NOT the free samples.  I still have no idea why there is a discrepancy of 54 books between my Kindle library as it shows for the Kindle for PC that I downloaded to my desktop computer and the Kindle for PC app on my laptop.

So I spent a good portion of yesterday -- Saturday, 14 July 2012 -- making sure I had back-ups of all my Kindle content.  Don't ask me how I did it.  You don't want to know.  At least not right now.  I finished that project this morning, which involved deleting and redownloading approximately 25 of the 627 books already on the device.

No one seems to know why that was necessary.

Sidebar update:  It appears, but it is not confirmed, that an update to the Kindle for PC app was made sometime in March 2012 and this may have caused all existing Kindle content to require the delete-and-redownload process.  Again, this is what appears to have happened, but I have no confirmation.  For some reason or other approximately 25 of my Kindle books had not been redownloaded at that time, and they required that process in order to facilitate the back-up process.  All of my Kindle content has now been backed up.

But with everything backed up as securely as I could make it, I decided to try downloading a new book.  On today's free list was Danger at Mellin Cove by Rena George.  I downloaded it and opened it in my Kindle for PC.  And the formatting was screwed up.

Although it's not easy to see on this screen shot, the problem is so bad that I cannot read the book:  At the beginning of each line of text on the left margin, about half of the first letter is missing.  The first letters of indented lines are fine; only the very left edge is affected.  And this goes through the entire book, making it unreadable.  One has to stop at the beginning of each line to figure out what the missing letter should be.

Here's the "Look Inside" version:

As you can see, this version has indented paragraphs, and all the letters are clearly visible.  Not at all like the version that showed up on my Kindle for PC with its indented block paragraphs and chopped off letters.

The  first thing I did was report this to Amazon via the book's page.  I explained what the problem was and that it was through the entire book.  About an hour later, I received a stock message from Amazon asking me where in the book the problem was and what the problem was.  As you can imagine, I was not particularly polite in my reply, since that is exactly what I had already told them.

About two hours later, I received another canned reply from Amazon informing me that due to the formatting error, Danger at Mellin Cove was being pulled until the problem could be fixed.  As far as I've been able to determine, the book has not been pulled and the problem has not been fixed.  Again, the problem doesn't show up on the "Look Inside" preview. 

Update:  16 July 2012:  Danger at Mellin Cove was briefly unavailable in the Kindle edition.  It is currently available for $1.54, which may be a conversion of the UK price.  I don't know. 

In the space of a week now, I've discovered two self-published books that are not showing up correctly on the Amazon Kindle for PC application.  I already know about the problems that cropped up with Firefly and which I now have no real way of verifying if all is well.  There was a huge and very nasty brouhaha in the Amazon "Badly Behaving Authors" thread a week or so ago because of another book that didn't show correctly on all devices; it was actually removed from circulation and some changes made, but that book, Wisteria Falls, remains not-quite-right on my Kindle for PC.

Self-published authors should not have to purchase every single variety of Kindle device in order to be sure their product is being published correctly.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Amazon formatting, part 2: Why the form of the words matters

For those who stumbled here without knowing what happened, here's the technical background on what Amazon's Kindle program appears to be doing to at least some of the books that are published via the KDP program.

Now, the next part of the discussion is, why does it matter?

Presentation of a digital book is important.  It's important for the reader, because the proper presentation makes the reading experience far more pleasant.  In fact, a poorly presented book can be virtually unreadable.  Readers notice.  Reviewers notice.

As I've already documented, I got negative reviews on Firefly for formatting errrors.  I learned subsequently that there may have been nothing I could have done.  Certainly I now know that neither the KDP preview nor the "Look Inside" may have provided an accurate picture of what the final product would look like.  And as I documented with the Smashwords edition, the various programs produce very different results from the same original document!

Many, many, many authors have received bad reviews because of the bad formatting of their products on Amazon.  How many of them, however, had no way of knowing what their product would look like?  How many of them were ultimately victims of an Amazon product that did not faithfully reproduce what the authors believed was a clean document?

Many readers have been turned off independent, small-press, and self-published authors because their products just don't look as good as a traditionally published book does when it is converted to digital.  And while the problems with competent writing and proofreading still have to be resolved by the authors, Amazon should not be contributing to a problem that may ultimately be costing them sales.

More later.  Yes, I'm publishing this blog serially, because I don't want to wait until I "get around to it."

Another update: Is Amazon messing with your words?

I am going to publish this in an incomplete form because I want to get this information out as soon as I can.  The basics are here now, and I will be providing the balance over the next day or so.  Unfortunately, I have to devote some time to my day job.

At the moment, Thursday evening, 12 July 2012, I'm so angry I can scarcely type.  And considering my day job consists of transcribing recorded interviews and I'm several hours behind on today's work, I'd better get my fingers back under control.

I just spent an hour and a half "chatting" with "Shiela" at Amazon.  She may be a real person, or she may be a cleverly programmed bit of software designed to answer customer questions.  I don't know for sure.  But here's what happened.

This morning, while I was at my favorite coffee shop, I downloaded the free Kindle edition of Norma Beishir's Angels at Midnight.  I already have a print copy of the 1989 edition, but I'm trying to clean out some of my paper books and this looked like a way to eliminate one more.  After downloading, I popped open the Kindle for PC app and sat back to read for a while.

Unfortunately, I couldn't read it.  The formatting was totally messed up.  I went back and checked the "Look Inside" preview on the book's listing to see if I had missed something, because what I was looking at on my Kindle for PC was totally unlike what I'd seen in the "Look Inside" feature.

Here's what I saw when I looked at the preview:

Standard Times Roman font, indented paragraphs, just like one would see in a "real" book.  Since Norma Beishir is a long-time publishing professional, this was nothing less than I expected.

What showed up on my Kindle was something entirely different!  Arial font, double spaced indented paragraphs, it was horrible! 

So I reported the formatting problem to Amazon via the book's page, and not too long after that I got an emailed reply from Amazon with directions on how to fix it:  Remove and redownload the book, and if that didn't work, make sure I had the current Kindle for PC installed on my computer.

By the time I got that reply, I was at home on the main computer and couldn't access the laptop where my Kindle app resides, so it wasn't until this evening that I got around to trying that fix.  Ultimately, it didn't work -- the Kindle version was still horrible.   I first did the remove and redownload of the book.  Then I installed the latest update to the Kindle for PC app.  Still no change.  I deleted the book and downloaded it again.  No change.

And so I got on an Amazon chat with a technician to fix it.

Guess what.  It can't be fixed.  Period.

The first solution "Shiela" offered me was to de-register and re-register my Kindle for PC.  That would involve removing and re-downloading all 626 books I've already downloaded.  Since some of those books are no longer available at Amazon and I didn't want to lose them,  this was not a preferred option.

As it turned out, it wouldn't have worked anyway.

When I told "Shiela" I wasn't willing to do that just to fix a formatting glitch on one book out of 626, she went to find another solution.

The second option involved her checking to see if the file had been properly formatted.

After putting me on hold for several minutes, she came back and told me she had checked the document as Beishir intended it, and that's what I was seeing.  In other words, best-selling author Norma Beishir is uploading documents to the Kindle Direct Publishing platform that don't look any better than what the most rank amateur SPA does when she/he uploads a badly written short story.

Somehow or other, I just didn't trust this answer.

I then asked why the "Look Inside" preview was fine, if the actual document wasn't?  Again, I was on cyber hold for a long time, and finally the answer came out:  ALL BOOKS are converted to Times Roman font for the "Look Inside" preview, regardless what they look like in actuality.  When I pointed out that there was no such disclaimer, "Shiela" gave some rambling nonsense but eventually agreed.  She said someone in another department would be informed.  And that was pretty much it.

Now, remember the suggestion that I de-register my Kindle app and re-register it?  Well, that proved to be more than a little bit problematic as well.

The original email from Amazon after I reported the problem said to delete the book and redownload it.  I tried that, and it didn't work.

The second part of that email said to make sure I had the most current Kindle for PC version.  The email contained a link to the Amazon page to do that.  I tried that, went back to the new version of Angels at Midnight but the problem persisted.  The font was still Arial and the paragraphs were still double-spaced.

I then tried deleting and redownloading the book again.  Still no improvement.

And I know I'm repeating myself here, but I want to make sure I'm not leaving anything out.

In the process of doing this, however, I discovered that somehow or other I had four versions of Kindle for PC on my computer and on my account.  I have no idea where they came from, but I did know that I had set mine for automatic updates.

"Shiela" informed me that updates require that the existing Kindle for PC app be uninstalled and the new one installed.  But I had personally never done that manually, and so I asked if it had been done automatically via the "Tools" button.  Her answer made no sense.

Shiela:For updates, we need to uninstall and re-install the application.8:52:22 PM

Me:That didn't answer my question: Do I have to de-register, re-register, and redownload 626 items when you do an automatic update?8:53:23 PM

Shiela:If we will re-register an application, we will be needing to re-download the books. There is actually no automatic updates for Kindle application for PC.8:55:02 PM

Me:Then why does it have a box to check for automatic updates? And how did I get all of these applications on one computer if I only installed it once?8:55:42 PM

Me:(Oh, by the way, the box for automatic updates cannot be not checked.)8:57:39 PM
I will post the entire conversation on another post so anyone who wants to can follow the entire conversation.  What eventually came out of it was this:

1.  All "Look Inside" previews of all books on Amazon are displayed in Times Roman font, regardless what the actual book will look like.  Neither readers nor authors get an accurate view this way.

2.  There is no disclaimer anywhere on Amazon that explains the "Look Inside" preview may in fact be significantly different from the actual product.

3.  The Kindle for PC application may or may not be automatically updated by Amazon.  The button on the program for opting out does not operate, leaving the user to believe that automatic updates are, well, automatic.  At least one service rep has stated, however, that Amazon does not automatically update the Kindle for PC application.

4.  I currently have four installed Kindle for PC applications on my computer.  Earlier this morning I had six, because I have managed to deregister two of them.  At no time when I downloaded the "newest" version last night did Amazon ask me if I wanted to replace the existing application.

If you've stayed with me through all this, you're probably wondering why this matters.  Well, check out the next blog post and you'll find out why.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Update: Those very expensive words

Well, well, well, well, well.  You learn something every day.

Or at least you ought to.

Over this past week-end, I began the process of publishing Firefly via Smashwords.  The exclusive listing for Amazon's Kindle expires on the 17th of this month, and I wanted to make sure I had sufficient time to check out the various formats offered by Smashwords.  After uploading what I believed was a "clean" copy of the file, I checked it using Smashwords' own applications.

This is a screen capture of a page from the Amazon Kindle version as it appeared via the Kindle for PC app, the copy that I downloaded when the book was offered free in April:

As I think you can see, the bottom line on this page reads: 
She was a good cook, she smiled proudly to
Now, here's the same passage as it reads in EPUB format via Smashwords' conversion:

Again, that line is down toward the bottom, and everything looks fine.

The third downloadable version I checked was the Smashwords Kindle/mobi version.

That stopped me cold.  Where did that screwed up font come from???

What I discovered on going through the entire file was that every time I used italics, the font changed from Times Roman to "ugly" courier for the entire paragraph, then switched back to Times Roman. 

I also discovered that the original Table of Contents I put into the Firefly file for Amazon, then revised for Smashwords but ultimately removed prior to uploading to Smashwords is still present.  This is, of course, a MicroSoft Word .doc file, which is what it has to be to upload to Smashwords.  And to Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing platform.  I will have to go back through the file to find out where this TOC formatting hides and remove it.  Even though it actually functions as a TOC, I don't want it there.

The next thing I checked was the "preview" from the Kindle Direct Publishing platform.

Again, the single word is italicized, but nothing else.  This was exactly what the file looked like when I uploaded it originally.   There was nothing to indicate that the whole thing would appear on some customers' devices in "ugly courier."  The screenshot of the Amazon Kindle version above is, in fact, from this same original upload and not the later "corrected" one.  That's why I had no idea it would download in another format.

Here's yet another version, the "Look Inside" sample from the Amazon offering:

Once again, just the one word is italicized, the way it should be.  And this is from the current, updated, supposedly "clean" version, yet it now has lost its right justification, which shows on all the others!

This is how the various digital publishing software packages transform the author's file, and this is why it is so very very important that the author check each and every version.  Sometimes there may be absolutely nothing you can do.  But if you can do something and you don't do it, it's no one's fault but your own when a reader complains.

At this point, I'm not sure if the complaints about the "ugly courier" font on the reviews for Firefly on Amazon were because of something I did or something inherent in the Amazon software or something in the hardware devices the readers were using.  I do know that I've done whatever I can think of to make sure the version readers download is as close to what I want them to see as I can get it, but obviously it's not as perfect as it needs to be.  So I'm going to keep working on it.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Which of these words don't you understand?

As often happens, reading someone else's writing sparks my own thoughts, and I suppose that's not unusual in a community of writers and readers.  Writers were, after all, readers first and still read.  Readers read what the writers have written.  There will always be cross-pollination.

So I'm going to start this rant with a link to Sunita's original blogpost here which was further disseminated via Dear Author here and explain that the subject is titled (by my predecessors, not I) "When I bought your book, I didn't sign up to be your beta reader."

I added several posts of my own to the Dear Author thread, so I'll only briefly here restate that I think it is very wrong for authors who are digitally self-publishing to engage in this particular practice, which consists of:

1. E-publishing an uncorrected, unedited, unproofread rough draft of their "book" and charging cash money for it, without noting in a prominent way so the reader is aware before purchasing that it is in fact a rough (or very early) draft.

2.  Revising said work based on reviews and/or comments made by people who have purchased said work, such revisions to include but not be limited to fixing typos and other mechanical errors, revising plot lines to improve logical progression, altering characters and/or character motivation, changing the ending to make it more popular with readers, adding or removing significant events from the story.

3.  Re-publishing the work as a new edition and charging new readers for the privilege, with or without notifying previous purchasers that a new edition is available.

Those are the basics.  There are other corollary things the author can do to make the experience even worse, but those will wait for later enumeration.

I'm also going to offer a couple of qualifiers to the three main points, one of which has already been mentioned in #1.

If the author makes it clear that the publication is a work in progress that's one thing.  Then the reader knows that she should not be expecting a polished product.  It's probably still bad form to do this, but at least the author is being honest and the reader can make an informed decision whether to buy or not.

Offering the work for free is not an excuse.  Again, if the author makes clear that the work is unpolished, that's one thing, but merely offering it at no charge without such an announcement is unfair to the reader.  The reader expects that the product, free or not, is finished.  A rough draft is not a finished product.

I can't stress this enough.  The reader buys expecting a finished product, ready to read, to all intents and purposes it's DONE.  In essence, it's ready to provide a reading experience in which the text becomes invisible (see my blogpost about invisible words here) and the reader is immersed in the story.

But what appears to be happening more and more often is that the reader buys something that's not finished.

Here's a review of The Duke's Reform by Fenella J. Miller, in which the reviewer laments:

Spoiler alert: I hate to write a bad review so I will start out with the good. This was a good story. Could have been a much better story. It was poorly told, punctuation and vocabulary and missing words and words added in that did not relate to the sentence they were in combined to make this a very difficult read. When I read a story, I want to read what the author wanted to tell, I don't want to have to guess and fill in the story every other page.

. . .

This could have been a good read if only they had had an editor. The Kindle version has some serious formatting problems with new paragraphs beginning in the middle of sentences, some paragraphs in bold and other in italics for no apparent reason. Commas and other punctuation are just, willy nilly throughout the book. A stilted and unbelievable dialogue. I wanted to like both the H and the h. I really did.

I am left wondering why I read this book to the end except that, I really wanted to like the H and h and I wanted them to have an HEA.

But if you must, get a dictionary and keep it handy, you will need it. This is a long read and by the end I just wanted it to be over
Then there's The Taming of the Hart by Lorraine Burgess which was uploaded to Amazon sometime prior to 22 June 2012 based on the date of the earliest review.  Selected comments from the reviews:

Didn't anyone take a look at this book before it was uploaded to Amazon? This is a good story. It deserves better.

I don't only not recommend it, I caution against it because it literally gave me a headache while trying to read it.

Please use a proper dictionary and check the spelling of even small words like seem and such. It is a large hindrance when the technical parts of writing get in the way of the story.
A few days later the author issued an apology and stated this was her uncorrected version written for herself and she would have a corrected version uploaded "within 24 hours."  Three days later, that corrected version has not yet appeared.

As you can see even in this not-very-clear screen shot, the version Ms. Burgess uploaded contains errors in the very first sentence.  The bold italic font continues through the entire text, sometimes Times Roman, sometimes Arial or a similar sans-serif font.  She claims this uncorrected version was uploaded "by accident," and it's obvious from the text of her apology that she's still having problems with spelling, sentence structure, and punctuation.  None of her friends told her of the problems, which suggests either her friends never looked at it or they weren't skilled enough to recognize them or they chose not to tell her; but none of those explanations explains why she herself didn't take even the quickest glance at what she uploaded.

When she did upload a "revised" version a few days later, most of the problems remained.  A few of the usage and spelling errors were fixed, and it's no longer in Italic font but the bold text continues throughout and it's a mess.  It's a horrible mess.

Now, allow me to throw this out here:  Yes, I uploaded a slightly imperfect version of Firefly to Amazon, an error I related here, and had I purchased a copy and checked it all out, I probably would have discovered the problem.  However, I did at least make sure I hadn't uploaded a version that contained numerous spelling errors.  I also made sure the version that was uploaded was reasonably well formatted, and in fact on my Kindle for PC app, the font was a standard Times Roman, not "ugly courier" noted in the early reviews.  The courier font and font-related glitches only appeared, as far as I'm able to determine, on the actual Kindle device.  It did take some extra finagling for me to get the right version to show up on the Kindle, but at least I did check somewhat before I put the thing live.  Yes, I could have checked more, but as I have learned since then, even purchasing a copy might not have revealed all the problems.

And regardless, I would never have uploaded something that had such appalling errors as "belt of lightening."  Come to think of it, I would never write "belt of lightening" when I really meant "bolt of lightning" in the first place.  My fingers wouldn't let me.

Sometimes these books have many, many, many five-star reviews that rave about how wonderful the book is and how the reviewers just can't wait for the author's next book.  There may be a few that point out errors and only grant one or two stars, but frequently the author (or their surrogates???) counter these negative reviews with staunch defenses of the wonderfulness of the story, or they attack the reviewer personally.  Often the errors cited are never addressed, or even admitted to.  It's as if the authors are in absolute denial of the problems in their books.

When I did my original analysis of self-published books that had garnered a bunch of five star as well as one star reviews, I was specifically looking for titles that had both because I wanted to try to get some sense of whether the five-star reviews had any suspicion of being planted by friends, family members, the authors themselves, or "shills" who were actually paid to write glowing reports whether they had liked or even read the book or not.  As I expanded my data base (if you will) of these titles, I did indeed begin to see a pattern with the works that were original to the digital self-publishing platform.  In other words, the books by authors who had never published in print prior to uploading their books to Amazon.  (And of course the qualifier here is that I had not looked at any other e-publishing format.  More about that later.)

Secrets of Moonshine, by Denise Daisy is one of those books with a lot of five-star reviews but is still very badly formatted.  Although the author claims she paid an "editor" $900 to turn this into a "squeaky clean" product, typos and punctuation and syntax errors abound.  I feel like telling Ms. Daisy it wouldn't have mattered to me if she had paid $9,000 or even ninety million dollars for that editing job: The book remained a pathetic mess.  Telling the reader that it was edited does not make it so.

Asking -- or worse, expecting -- the reader to fix the errors is grossly unfair.  Remember what that reviewer of Fenella Miller's The Duke's Reform wrote:  When I read a story, I want to read what the author wanted to tell, I don't want to have to guess and fill in the story every other page.

It is the author's job to tell that story.  That is what the reader has paid the author to do, with payment being made sometimes in cash but always in time and in trust.

Many years ago, in an article published in Writer's Digest magazine, authors George Scithers, Darrell Schweitzer, and John Ashmead reiterated what they called "The Ultimate Rule," which was an expansion on instructions laid out by Robert Heinlein.  I personally took that Rule to heart, and I have passed it along, always with attribution, to every aspiring writer I have ever come into contact with.

1.  You must write.
2.  You must finish what you write.
3.  You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
4.  You must put your work in front of an editor who might buy it.
5.  You must keep it on the market until it is sold.

Obviously, with the rise of digital publishing, #4 and #5 are no longer as "ultimate" as they used to be.  And given how my attitude toward traditional publishers has soured, I'd have issues with those orders anyway.

But how does Heinlein's dictum apply to today's publishing scene? 

First of all, #3 specifically refers to the traditional publishing professional who, as the middleman between writer and reader, is trained to acquire those properties most likely to turn a profit for the publisher and is trained to put those properties into publishable shape.  Unlike the random reader who looks at the free sample of a book digitally published on Amazon and who may or may not know anything at all about writing, about editing, or about the factual accuracy of the book and whose suggestions may be completely wrong, at least under the traditional publishing model the editor is probably going to do much more to improve the work than make it worse.  What the shift to digital self-publishing has done is to split the gatekeeper function from that of purchaser by eliminating that editorial middleman.  And that means that the author must now take full responsibility for all of that editorial function, while purchasing is directly in the hands of the final user.

Second of all. Heinlein's #3 never meant the author should complete the roughest of first drafts and immediately start schlepping it around to the top editors and agents.  It does mean that when you have a clean and polished version of your work, stop messing with it and get it out there.  It does mean that you need to develop the professional writing skills that will allow your prospective reader -- whether that is an agent, a publishing house editor, a small e-press editor, or the person who downloads your digital book from Amazon -- to read your story as if it were ready to be set in type.  It does mean only listen to the complaints and criticisms and orders from those who are competent to voice and demand them.

Third of all, the writer must understand what #4 really means in the age of digital publishing.  Again, that "editor" now becomes any potential reader, and just as the traditional publishing industry demanded that the author deliver a manuscript as spotless as possible when trying to land an editor, today the digital shopper fills that role, not as editor but as acquirer.  The author must take on the responsibility that formerly fell to the publisher: making certain that the product is ready for the consumer to use.

Unfortunately, so many of the people putting out digital books are so lacking in even basic writing skills that they should never get past #1.  And they don't understand that #2 doesn't just mean writing "The End" after the first draft is cranked out.  "Finished" means ready for real people to read it.

Essentially, self-publishing means that the author has to take on all the roles of the publisher, and that doesn't mean foisting them off on an unsuspecting and perhaps unqualified reader.  The author must either be qualified to be editor, proofreader, copyeditor, line editor, cover artist, publicist, accountant, and legal specialist, or she must find and pay other professionals to perform those tasks.  Self-publishing is not just uploading a text file to Amazon or Pub-it or Smashwords. 

Nor should self-publishing be a vehicle for authorial deception.  We've already seen too many instances of authors just plain stealing other people's words and trying to sell them.  Whether it's Janet Dailey or Cassie Edwards, Cassandra Clare or anyone else, plagiarism/copyright infringement is just plain wrong.  Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.  No excuse, no defense, no forgiveness.

But also wrong is this ongoing business of posting deceptive reviews to self-published books.  The reader who browses the Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Kobo or Apple catalogue should not be bombarded with bullshit "reviews" that are nothing but the author's friends and family members and paid ad copy writers posing as unbiased reviewers.  Of course your mother is going to give you a good review!  We know that.  As readers, we want to know what other real readers thought. 

However, some authors are now turning to another tactic, and it's not being done to make their books better but rather just to sell them.

Among the intial group of novels I analyzed back in March was one that, as I began to read the free sample, struck me as having enormous potential to be a really, really good book.  Unfortunately, it was riddled with errors of just about every type: typos, wrong words used, historical inaccuracy, bad formatting.  And I noticed that while there were a whole bunch of kind of generic five-star reviews, there were also a lot of one- and two-star reviews that cited those problems. 

Now, if I were an author whose book received numerous detailed criticisms about specific errors, I'd be sure to consider those issues very carefully, research to find out if perhaps the critics were right, and then I would do my very best to fix them.  And as a matter of fact, the few reviews I've received on Firefly have brought up the issue of that Arizona ice cream -- but there's nothing historically wrong with it!  And I addressed that in the Afterword.  No, of course Del and Julie didn't take Willy to the local Baskin Robbins or Coldstone Creamery, but ice cream was not anachronism.

What I wouldn't do, however, is ignore a slew of criticisms and just remove the book from Amazon, then republish it as is on Smashwords, with a new title and a new pseudonym, with no reference to the original on Amazon and no correction of the errrors, which is what I discovered the author had done.  I only noticed it because she republished her book almost the same time I published Shadows by Starlight at Smashwords, and I saw hers as I was checking the status of mine. 

When an author does something like that, at that point the whole operation becomes nothing but deception and a ploy to make money off the gullible.  That, too, is wrong.  It's even more wrong when she chooses a title identical to that of another historical romance and a pseudonym very very similar to that of the author of that book.

Once again, self-publishing means the writer takes on the responsibility of fulfilling all the tasks traditional publishers would have done.  As far as I know, that never included making the reader do the work or intentionally deceiving the reader.

Now, self-publishing authors, what about this don't you get?