Home » Amazon, Ebooks » Why Amazon Just Don’t Play Fair With Formatting

Why Amazon Just Don’t Play Fair With Formatting

10 February 2013

From Self-Publishing Review:

Someone I know has just published their second book on Amazon and due to formatting issues has completely given up on selling any more books due to bad reviews, not about the book but about the formatting.

Then the same day, a friend, a well known self-publisher had the exact same problem with Kindle Fire formatting that I had six months ago when I published my book and is probably tearing his hair out as I write.

Why? Because you can’t even trust the Previewer you are sent to by Amazon to test the different formats for Kindle and iPhone and it’s basically becoming a massive problem to know which is skinny, which is fat and short, which is for photos, which needs headers – ridiculous.

What gets me is as a self-publisher is that I should be able to not worry if Amazon or Apple bring out a new device. I am not saying that CreateSpace/ Amazon should retrofit every single book uploaded to their system. No, I am suggesting something that as a web development specialist by trade I have suggested to many clients. Retrofitting is thinking inside the box and is of course impossible.

Link to the rest at Self-Publishing Review

Amazon, Ebooks

47 Comments to “Why Amazon Just Don’t Play Fair With Formatting”

  1. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I agree. retrofitting is essential in things like these. Does Bezos care? Maybe he should before someone else comes up with a better way.

  3. This problem might stretch out for years. The device makers are NOT in synch with the end users (readers) and the industry hasn’t decided on the One Platform That Will Rule Them All. It will be a while until an ebook is an ebook is an ebook that can be read on any device.

    In the meantime (speaking as someone who uses three viewers–four, if you count the previewer at KDP) do not trust any viewer. Not the Kindle Previewer, not your browser, not MobiReader (Gah! Never MobiReader!), not Caliber. The only surefire way to see if your Kindle book looks right and works right is to test it on a device. Multiple devices, if you can.

    Amazon will let you upload a “broken” ebook. They will let you upload an unreadable mess. It’s up to the producer to make sure the book looks right and works right.

    How the producer makes the ebooks matters, too.

    If you build your Kindle book in Word, the chances of it being “broken” (as in it will not respond to end user/device features) are 100%. It is NOT possible to make a properly working KF8/mobi file with Word.

    If you use Scrivner, your chances of a broken ebook are about 80%. Scrivner uses KindleGen to generate mobi files, so if the producer’s program is properly updated and they are meticulous about the formatting, it is possible to make a fully functional ebook with Scrivner. You really have to know what you’re doing.

    The same thing applies to InDesign. The reason so many ebooks produced by the traditional publishers are broken is because they use InDesign and they are not formatting the books properly.

    Right now, the only sure way to build a Kindle book that works the way it is supposed to, no matter what device the end user owns, is to build it in html from the ground up. Even then you have to test, test, test because Amazon DOES update and change specs and that’s when gremlins come out of the shadows to bite.

    Building a properly functioning ebook is getting more difficult, rather than easier, because the devices are becoming increasingly feature-laden and interactive. Amazon doesn’t coordinate well between ebook producers and device makers and device users. Fact of life. Until this all settles down, it’s going to be a constant game of leapfrog.

    In the meantime, do not rely on the viewers and previewers. They are useful for looking at an approximation of the layout and testing links and the tables of contents, but they cannot tell you if your ebook functions properly on an actual device. For that, you need the device and you need to test.

    Now, William Occam, pop in here and give everybody some HOPE.

    • Well said, Jaye. The problem is that most authors don’t know or don’t want to learn or are intimidated by HTML, and it doesn’t help that there’s a tsunami of conflicting and incorrect advice on the Web about how to create ebooks.

      Relying on Word, Scrivener, and ID et al. to do the job for you is asking for trouble down the road.

      So, please get your skates on William O. I have a feeling you’re going to produce something rather wonderful to help sort this mess out.

      • I run Word docs and pdf files through MobiPocket all the time for a quick conversion that I can read on my Kindle. It’s cheaper and faster than making a printed copy. But those are NOT proper ebooks. That Amazon would let me upload one of those broken docs and let me BELIEVE it is a proper ebook is a serious problem.

        It would be nice if someone came up with a program like Sigil for Kindle books. Sigil makes good EPUB ebooks and it doesn’t require a massive learning curve.

        In the meantime, indies need to get real. They are producing a product that consumers have a right to expect will work on their devices. If they don’t have the time or the skills to learn how to make a proper ebook, then they need to hire somebody who does have the skills. For the majority of fiction projects, and if the writer is motivated to do some of the work themselves (cleaning up the source file and proofreading the ebook) formatting an ebook does not cost that much.

        Or they can wait until somebody brilliant (you know who) gets his service up and running.

        • I dump my HTML into Sigil (LOVE that program) to create an ePub file that I upload to iTunes, Kobo, and PubIt; then I remove the HTML cover from the Sigil file, rename it, and drop it onto Kindleviewer/Kindlegen to produce a Mobi file that I then test on Kindle Touch, a Fire, and the Kindle app for the iPad.

          I don’t have access to a Kindle Daffodil (easier to remember than paperwhite/narcissus) and have to rely on Kindleviewer for that, but since I use HTML and do not declare fonts and use ems for all sizing, I think I’m OK.

          I wonder if the reason nobody’s produced a Sigil-like program for Mobi is that Amazon’s proprietary formats are on their way out.

        • “But those are NOT proper ebooks. “

          Why not? What’s the problem? I input a Word Web Page Filtered file into MobiPocket and it produces a prc file. USB copy to KindleII and check it. Upload to Amazon and it works fine. What am I missing?

    • I use Scrivener to create my ebooks, and I have NEVER had an issue with the finished product of any of my ebooks, either mobi or epub. Don’t get me wrong, it takes a lot getting used to as the program can seem overwhelming at times, but once you get the hang of it, creating ebooks, at least for me, becomes a snap.

      • I’d love to get the hang of Scrivener, but each time I try, I give up in frustration. They’ve tried to help me, but the most basic help is a foreign language to me.

        I’m working my way through my various pen names, getting my books fixed by pros. It’s expensive and I’ll never earn back that money via sales, but it’s something I feel I have to do.

        The font size problems that popped up about the time the Kindle Touch came to market are what drive me the craziest.

    • Jutoh is the best ebook creator I’ve found. One file can be PROPERLY formatted for both mobi and ebooks. I test on multiple devices (iBooks on iPad, Kindle app on iPad, Nook app on iPad, a Kindle PaperWhite, and a Nook Simple Touch), and the formatting is pretty great. I think I paid $30 for it and it’s worth every penny.

      I wish Amazon would simply abandon mobi and go with ebook. Mobi, IMHO, sucks a**. I loathe a format that doesn’t provide page numbers, one of the most fundamental elements of a book. (And yes, I know there are ways to jack around this, but it’s not standard and even when it sort of works it still sucks.)

  4. What’s the best HTML editor for building your e-books? Opinions? Thoughts? Complaints?

    • Suzan, I use Notepad++. Free program and zero problems (so far) and lots of nifty features. Plus, once you learn how to use its search function, it’s a hundred times better than Word’s Find/Replace, so it’s been a lifesaver when it comes to cleaning up scanned files and other groan-worthy projects.

      • Thanks, Jaye! Free’s always a good thing. 😉 I just want to find a decent WYSIWYG because I know just enough HTML to FUBAR the hell out of my book.

        I’m starting to get a little frustrated. It’s getting to the point where I need one source file to pass EPUBCHECK (don’t get me started about Apple’s stupid requirements) and one that will work with the MOBI conversion.

        And William Ockham, seriously, man, I WAS NOT joking about volunteering to be your guinea pig on your new project.

        • Notepad++ works really well with my browser (Firefox) and I have heard it works even better with Chrome. Even so, you can’t count on it for a true picture. Have to load it on a device to make sure. (a viewer, a viewer, my kingdom for a proper viewer!)

          • I know what you mean about the viewers, but I only have a 1st gen. Kindle to test my Mobi files. So far I haven’t any complaints about formatting from readers, but the stuff I’m hearing about KF8 concerns me. The hubby’s looking at buying a smart phone soon; I may have to “borrow” it for testing purposes.

    • I also go from Scrivener to HTML, and generally I use Crimson Editor, but there’s Amaya and Seamonkey, both which are WYSIWIG. Sometimes I switch between them. Generally, of the two, Amaya is going to be the most compliant for various devices, since Seamonkey is compliant to Firefox only. Sometimes Amaya runs a bit slow for me, though.

      But I will open the book in several browsers, the Kindle Previewer, my Kinde Fire, my iPhone, and anything else I can test it out on before uploading.



  5. I’m a big Scrivener fan. I’ve never had a problem using it for mobi, epub, or createspace.

  6. I still use Jutoh and am unaware of any problems with the files it produces.

  7. First, I’ve been dabbling in HTML since the early 1990s, so I know a thing or two about it. It’s simple stuff, really: anyone can learn the basics in a few hours.

    I’ve been reading about these problems with epub & mobi formats mangling HTML, & I’m almost tempted to say that these issues must be due to attempting complex effects that reveal edge cases & unusual conditions. Or as we say in reading & writing up bug reports, give us specific examples people!

    Except that I encountered an odd case of my own: I have an epub file that has something in it that forces a page break. It’s not a serious bug — it affects end matter of the book by putting a page break on a half page & creates an unnecessary additional page with tree or four words on it — but it is an odd one. I looked at the HTML source & found nothing there that caused it: no hidden crlf, no symbols, nothing.

    Maybe the only solution for this problem is to create an Open Source epub reader for use on ereaders, tablets & computers. Not because Open Source contains magic fairy dust that will prevent problems like this (it doesn’t), but because at least those of us who know something about how this should work can fix the damn bug instead of waiting for the companies to stop adding bells & whistles to fix it themselves.

    And if the corporations selling these devices were smart, they’d make the code available because in the long run it would be better business for them too: instead of spending time & money studying bug reports, triaging them, while trying to figure out what features users actually want & will use, they let the users do it themselves at far less cost while providing a minimum of guidance & management.

  8. I use word for all my ebooks and I buy a copy for my reader apps and I haven’t had any problems (knock on wood) but then I also keep my files simple, use Times New Roman 12-16 and basically follow Smashwords style guide (even though I upload directly to kobo and pubit and kindle).

    As much as I hate the meatgrinder, I admit that the more straight forward you keep your ebooks, the less the likely you’ll have file errors. I would like more personalization, but since everything is so new and fluid right now, I’ll take readable over fancy until things settle down in a few years.

    FYI, I’ve been having steady sales through kobo and kindle mainly. Pubit is third and smashwords… meh. I use to it to get into iTunes right now (though I trying out d2d) and and I like the free coupons and their tracking. But I have had many sales from there.

    • “I use word for all my ebooks and I buy a copy for my reader apps and I haven’t had any problems (knock on wood) but then I also keep my files simple, use Times New Roman 12-16 and basically follow Smashwords style guide (even though I upload directly to kobo and pubit and kindle).”

      I’ve been doing the same thing as you, H.G. But with my latest book, something quirky happened on the title where MOBI tried to cram the title and subtitle together and Epub-check complains about the extra linebreak I put between them to keep it from happening. I never had this particular problem before.

      I HATE the fact that Word will no longer let you see the invisibles! And from what I’ve heard from a couple of friends Word for Windows 7 is even worse about sticking weird stuff in.

      • That sucks! Sorry that happened. What do you mean, Word no longer lets you see the invisibles? The formatting reveal function? You mean an earlier version of word? I have 2010 and business version of office. If that’s the case I most certainly won’t be upgrading anytime soon.

        • LOL I’m showing my age here. Once upon a time, the format reveal function on a much, much earlier version of Word actually showed the coding for italics, bold, font, etc.

          • Oh yeah… I remember that. I’d forgotten. I used to used that function years ago and missed it for a while too. Showing my age too. Hell, I learned how to type on a Selectric in jr high if that tells you anything.

            • I typed my papers in high school on a manual. Grin! (Typing class in jr. high had electric typewriters, but we didn’t get electric at home until I hit twelfth grade.)

            • LOL I can’t talk. The grandmaother who gave me my first manual typewriter also gave me my Selectric as a high school graduation present. I thought it was the greatest thing ever with that self-correcting tape!

            • I don’t usually brag, but I won an award for being the fastest typist in my high school.

              • Way to go, PG! Yeah!

                (My own typing style never reached . . . what our teacher was hoping for. And remains . . . idiosyncratic, shall we say? Speed: adequate.)

              • You’re probably as fast or nearly as fast as my mom used to be. 100 wpm 1 error. Shes a freak of nature and now a retired ex asst. Thing is….she also has arthrits in her hands. Connection? Maybe…

    • As much as I hate the meatgrinder, I admit that the more straight forward you keep your ebooks, the less the likely you’ll have file errors.

      Agree. I figure paper books are where I design the pages to be attractive, easy on the eyes, and in harmony with the ambiance of the story.

      I keep my ebooks clean and simple, allowing the individual reader to customize his or her ereader as personal preference dictates.

      That said…every publisher – indie or not – has their own production workflow, which delivers a slightly different intermediate product. I suspect I’ve been lucky, in that mine (so far) delivers one compatible with the various etailers. It could so easily gone another way! And the learning curve was fierce! Anyone struggling with formatting issues has my sympathy. I figure it’s just a matter of time (and more software changes) before I’m back in the arena myself. 😛

      • And the learning curve was fierce!

        Yes it was! And I’m still learning little tweaks and improvements. Doing my first table of content links was horrible. The actual linking was easy, getting it work in the meatgrinder… argh! Formatting for createspace was simple in comparison. Though I’m talking with a local printer for my next book. I’m thinking of doing the online access with CS with my own isbn, then the print run with the local. They’re giving me a competitive price and I’ll have direct quality control.

    • *nods* Yeah, that’s what I do with my Word & the Meatgrinder. Keep it way simple, and it seems to function fine.

      Now, if only I could figure out how bare-bones I can strip the HTML that the Kindlizer produces! I’ve found some of the bloat (dear gods!), but if I could do the blighted thing by hand and trust the result, believe me, I would!

  9. I recently found out that my books formatted for Mobi show up as tiny text on KF8. It’s frustrating, as I don’t have a Kindle Fire to preview and have no desire to own one. As for KF8 Formatting for picture books, I’m still ripping my hair out on that one.

  10. Thanks to everyone for their suggestions of HTML editors! I knew I could count of the people at TPV to give me direction!

  11. I place a lot of blame for the current situation on readers. If they were pickier and complained more about poorly formatted or broken ebooks, the publishers would HAVE to improve their product.

    I sample every book before I buy. I load it on my Fire and test it (if it works on the Fire, it will work on my other devices, too). If it’s broken, I don’t buy it. Except. Sometimes I do because I really, really want the book and so I grit my teeth and accept that I can’t adjust the display to suit me or that the book just looks weird. But it always sours the experience and leaves me irritated. I’ve left a few reviews that gripe about the formatting. I probably should leave more.

    On a sidenote, I’ve figured out (by accident) a nifty shortcut via the Look Inside feature on Amazon (which renders a really crappy display, in case anyone has noticed, and Amazon really should fix it). If the text displays as justified in the Look Inside, chances are very good that the ebook is broken and I don’t have to bother downloading the sample.

    • “I place a lot of blame for the current situation on readers. If they were pickier and complained more about poorly formatted or broken ebooks, the publishers would HAVE to improve their product.”

      That’s certainly one approach and I can certainly see it working. However, how many times have you seen an author complaining about negative reviews that are due to something that can do nothing about (maybe an Amazon policy or, in the case of non-self-published books, something the publisher controls like pricing or formatting). I’m playing Devil’s Advocate here, as I can see a case for going either direction, but it is something to consider. An alternative is to click on the link way down at the bottom of the book’s listing page (in a blue tinged box) is a link to report formatting issues. I think PG has had some posts about the repercussions self-published authors have seen when someone (or too many someones) clicks that box and complains. I would hope the same thing would happen regardless of who published the book.

      • Unfortunately, you are right, Al. Which is one of the reasons I am always hesitant about leaving a griping review in a public forum. I’d feel sick if something I said encouraged a dogpile on a writer. I have, several times, emailed authors about problems with their ebooks. In a few cases the authors were unaware of the problem and were thankful for the head’s up. Mostly I’m ignored or the responses were hostile. Which is a shame, because in most cases the problem could be fixed and the book updated. (granted, some problems are NOT an easy fix or can’t be fixed at all, the producer can only chuck the file and start over from scratch)

        I have noticed, though, a steady improvement overall in ebook quality. Standards are rising, for whatever reason. That’s a good thing. I also suspect that as more and more readers turn to tablets over eink, their demands for quality are going to increase. Publishers will have to step up their game.

        By the way, Andrea, check the Look Inside on the Faerie Wars book. Justified text.

        • I would always appreciate a heads up (especially a private one) about formatting issues. I just don’t understand why some authors freak out, especially over formatting errors pointed out. Yeah, it’s frustrating, but it’s better to know so you can fix it rather than think you’re golden and have people get a shoddy product. It doesn’t always mean it’s your fault as an author either. You can do your best or even hire someone do format and it’ll get messed up after uploading. Computers and internet… they’ll eat files. It’s not personal and readers (hopefully) should realize this. Sometimes things just happen no matter how hard you work.

  12. Frantically raises hand!!!! Reader here, and this formatting topic was timely, as I tried to read a kindle book just this morning that had the most hideously messed up formatting I’ve ever encountered. The book Faerie Wars and is published by Bloomsbury. I viewed the book on a Fire and a kindle keyboard, with bad results on both. After each word, there are a LOT of spaces between the words. On the fire, after a few words, there would be spaces until the end of the line.

    I’ve read books with typos and occasionally oddities before, but nothing like this. I went out to the product page and there was one review mentioning the bad formatting.

    I contacted Amazon and found out I was the first to report an issue with this book. Customer service did confirm that there is a problem with the book and Amazon is looking into it. I also left a review warning other about the formatting.

    So, to some degree I agree with Jaye that more readers should speak up and report poorly formatted books. However, at the end of the day, whomever publishes the book is responsible for the quality. Doesn’t matter if it’s an indie author or a trad publishing house. It sullies the brand when the ebook is low quality.

  13. Welcome to the nightmare of developers. This kind of problem is nothing new in the tech world, it’s just rare that non-programmers are faced with it.

    Complete standards-compliance in a brand-new industry would be nice, but it’s not going to happen no matter how much you say it “should”. Even web browsers still haven’t managed it ten years on.

    Best solution is to test the stuff on as many platforms as you can before release, typically by cultivating friends who have those platforms who’ll test stuff for you in exchange for beer or for you testing their stuff in return. In the end, the gaffs are your responsibility – it’s your product.

  14. Aaron Shepard “From Word to Kindle.” Currently $.01 on Amazon as Aaron is in the middle of a major update to the book.

    E-mail updates available as completed from Aaron.

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