Ebook Formatting Woes: Remember Trying to Be Compatible With Netscape? Yeah, That.

My book is done and has been going out for review this week (if anyone wants an eARC, let me know!), which means I am finally through the formatting process.  And, let’s see — do I still have any hair left?

Not because it was all that bad, mind you.  On the whole, the formatting process was reasonably painless — I used Guido’s excellent guide, and I have good knowledge of HTML and CSS already, which made it much easier.  The reason it was so frustrating was that it ended up literally impossible to get perfect thanks to the differences between devices, and for a diehard perfectionist, this kills me.

I very quickly realized the best strategy was to format as simply as possible and make even the least bit of fanciness something that would degrade gracefully if it didn’t work.  But dear Lord, does anyone remember trying to design websites that would still be compatible with IE4 and Netscape Navigator?  I started designing in the late 90’s, when there was still a concern people would be using those godawful dinosaurs, and I remember wanting to put my head through a wall whenever there was that one thing that would break spectacularly in Netscape.  And even the latest IEs were only half standards compliant, so ninety percent of the time I would design a clean page that would open beautifully in Opera and Mozilla (yes, Mozilla — this was before Firefox, I’m old!) and then it would look like a Picasso in IE and I would have to write “if IE” workarounds for half the code because Microsoft couldn’t freakin’ design a browser that bothered to comply with the standards.

Coding for ebooks is almost worse, because as far as I’ve been able to find, there aren’t really workarounds or “if Sony . . .” clauses I can add if I want things to look a certain way.  It’s a good thing I’m down with simplicity anyway, and “degrading gracefully” became my mantra of the month.  But there were two things that had no good solution, and I am still incredibly bugged by them.

No Love for Paul Erdős

My book has a passing reference to the Hungarian mathematician Erdős, who has a double acute accent over the o in his name.  This has an HTML entity — ő — but it’s not a named one, and it broke for at least one of my formatting checkers.

What to do!  I appealed to Absolute Write, Twitter, and my RL friends.  Do I Anglicize his name?  (Ick!)  Do I use a common misspelling, such as the umlaut over the o?  (Also ick!)  Do I leave the character and accept that it will break for some people?  But — but — but my readers!

I ended up leaving the name spelled correctly — in my informal poll, about half the people thought I should Anglicize it (possibly with a note in an afterward) and about half the people said I should leave it, but nobody had terribly strong feelings and everyone agreed it was a hard choice.  What decided me was that if I had an ereader that didn’t work on the character, I’d still prefer the author spell it correctly, even if it broke for me.

But the fact remains that I have some readers that will see “Erd?s” in that paragraph.  And that freakin’ sucks.

Orphaned Em Dash: My Worst Nightmare

Amazon Kindle has a problem with orphaning em dashes that are at the end of a line.  In other words, if the line falls on the page in an unlucky way, “What do you mean, he’s —” would become

“What do you mean, he’s

—”

GAH.

(I don’t know enough to consider myself a typography geek, but maybe I would qualify as an armchair typography geek, and this makes me go into spasms.)

And there’s no solution!  The worst part is, HTML has a solution to this, a character you can put between the em dash and the word in all of those instances to make sure no break happens, but Kindle doesn’t recognize it.  And I sure as heck wasn’t going to put it in and risk having it pop up as a question mark on some devices.

Aaaaaand of course, in my book, I have one paragraph which, in the default font size on Kindle, orphans an em dash at the end of it.  Motherfucker.

(My friend laughed at me.  “Is this your worst nightmare?” she said.  “YES!” I cried.)

Now, I could alter the text of that paragraph, but that doesn’t solve the underlying problem — in other font sizes on other devices, this orphaning will still happen.  And I’m really stubborn about changing the text of a book to make the formatting work better.  That doesn’t seem right to me.

So in the Kindle default font size, there’s an orphaned em dash.  And I sit here, grinding my teeth, and can do nothing.

Kills me, folks.  Kills me.

2 thoughts on “Ebook Formatting Woes: Remember Trying to Be Compatible With Netscape? Yeah, That.

  1. InMyBook

    The complexities of publishing in the e-world sound overwhelming given all these variables, especially for a perfectionist. It is absolutely worthwhile to be fussy about giving your book a professional and polished presentation. But do hang onto your hair.

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