Why Hand-Code Ebooks?

Designers are not always coders, and I’m not sure NY publishing has figured this out. I was wandering through some coding forums and stumbled across a post by a frustrated employee of one of the NY publishers pleading for help on converting an InDesign file to the various ebook formats.

(Adobe InDesign is the program used to design the interior of a book for print publication.)

She let loose a rant at how customers are blaming them for missing and added spaces and various other errors in ebooks, for which she blamed the conversion programs and threw up her hands.

Okay. I’m not yelling. I just have to say this big and bold because it’s an important point.

There exists NO automatic program that will convert a document to .mobi, .epub or Kindle format with both forward and backward compatibility. And automatic conversions will introduce formatting errors on various devices and various formats.

It’s a bear, but the only way to get a well-designed ebook product that looks professional and renders perfectly on all devices and in all formats is to hand-code it—and to hand-code each separate format.

(If you don’t know, this is what hand-coding is. In a nutshell, it’s knowing what you’re doing and not relying on a program to know it for you.)

The book designers in NY publishing either need to hire hand-coders, or they need to put up with the fact that their ebook products will be sloppy and inferior in comparison to those smaller publishers and indie publishers who hire people to hand-code ebooks.

People have been saying that the conversion script for the latest release of InDesign is better, but if you’re a Kindle owner and you’ve read those $9.99-12.99 ebooks put out by the major New York publishers this year, you may have noticed the “36 highlights” in random paragraphs.

OMG. So. Irritating. Like every other page, there’s suddenly 52 highlights in a paragraph, icky dotted underlines and all.

Would people put up with random errors and extra junk in print books? This is why those who read digitally feel like NY publisher’s ugly stepchildren instead of those who read print who are NY publisher’s preferred children.

That’s not to say the big publishers haven’t done some beautiful work in recent years. Sometimes they experiment and it’s clear when an ebook is given the design and coding attention it deserves. For example, Tor’s Kindle edition of Kushiel’s Avatar by Jacqueline Carey is more beautiful than the print edition! 

Most top websites are coded by hand. In fact, even the New York Times eschews Dreamweaver and codes by hand for their website:

It’s our preference to use a text editor, like HomeSite, TextPad or TextMate, to “hand code” everything, rather than to use a wysiwyg (what you see is what you get) HTML and CSS authoring program, like Dreamweaver. We just find it yields better and faster results.

With clean, hand-coded websites, you’re not going to get a bunch of extra junk that WYSIWYG editors put in. And the cleaner your code, the more likely it will render correctly in all the major browsers, including the older versions and the new versions yet to come.

With clean, hand-coded ebooks, you get the same benefits. The cleaner your code, the more likely it will render correctly in all the major e-reading devices, both the older ones and the new ones yet to come.

Even better if you hire a hand-coder who can code with respect to the various quirks on the different devices and stores.

For those who self-publish, this is definitely an area in which you can stand out as more professional than your traditional-published competition.

So hire me! Kidding. Well, not really. I hope you will! :-) I’ve just been so busy with coding books for people, I haven’t had time to put up an information site about it yet.

For realz, though, I’ve got several posts on Kindle Formatting to help you, if you want to give it a go yourself. Joshua Tallent has an awesome book, The Complete Guide to Kindle Formatting, which is the one you want to get. (Most others are junk.) I have yet to find a book as good as Tallent’s on Epub Formatting.

So there’s my rant for the day. It boggles my mind how the NY publishers can complain that we don’t want to pay $12.99 for an ebook, and they can’t even bother to put out a product that is free of GLARING, intrusive errors.

Written by Natasha Fondren in: Kindle Formatting |


  • Angie says:

    This isn’t a new issue, either. Back in the Paleolithic, when I was doing clerical work at a high-tech company, we used a program called Script that ran on the IBM mainframe to do word processing. Script was actually a text formatter rather than a word processor, but it worked and you could do a lot of stuff with it, within the context of the era before desktop publishing. It used inserted dot-commands to get things done, and could do stuff like tables and boxes as well as the usual paragraphs and lists and TOCs and such.

    You had to know how to use it, though, and many people didn’t. So they’d fire up a Script document, and the first thing they’d do would be to type in:

    .fo off

    which turned formatting off. “Because,” I was told as a newbie by someone who thought they knew what was what, “if you leave formatting on it just messes everything up.” And from that point they just used the Script document like a Notepad, using the spacebar and carriage return to get spaces and blank lines. If you needed to, say, take out a block of text in a box to one side, which you’d painstakingly constructed out of spaces, letters and | and _ characters, you had to change a lot of stuff because it’d throw your formatting off as everything turned into spaghetti-hash. But god forbid they learn how to actually use the commands and get things to format properly, which would’ve been so much easier.

    Later I was working on a dedicated word processor, a Xerox 860. It also inserted little command symbols into the text, although there were dedicated buttons and much more convenient commands to do so than Script, where everything had to be typed out. The girls who’d done my job before me had worked with the symbols hidden, though, which meant they had no clue what was actually going on beyond the letters and punctuation on the screen. Whenever I had to go into, say, insert a new column into a table in an existing document, I’d find that they’d constructed said table with a combination of default tabs and spaces (or both — TAB, TAB, space, space, space, TAB, space, space, space, [part number] and don’t even ask me how few brain cells one has to have to do that) which meant I had to reformat everything properly before making the requested change. [headdesk]

    Even now with Word, I know people who work with formatting characters turned off, who then get frustrated and gripe about how much the program sucks when they can’t figure out why some bit of formatting isn’t working the way they think it should.

    Maybe if they took off the blindfold, they could find the problem…? o_O

    I’ve never coded an e-book, but I’m sure it’s similar. If you want something to turn out right, you have to be able to see what you’re doing, period. Some day there might be systems smart enough to automate this kind of thing, but today is not that day. :P


    • Natasha Fondren says:

      Yeah, exactly. You know, even today, most people have no clue how to really work Word the way it’s supposed to work.

      • Daisy says:

        Bill Gates doesn’t know how to really work Word. Earlier versions (97) were much easier. I’ve been published by 2 of the Big 6, back when paper was king. Rebooting career, Just got a Mac, can use Word for Mac or Apple word processing program, which might be even worse than Word. Any thoughts? Thx

  • Edie Ramer says:

    You know how bad I am with anything technical. It’s like I have a block in my head that doesn’t recognize code. I wish it were different, because I do hate it when something is sloppy.

  • I know I’ve seen a lot really bad formatting in the Kindle stuff I’ve bought so far, and some just plain weird things. Guess stuff is still shaking out.

    • Natasha Fondren says:

      Isn’t it irritating? I don’t mind so much for a $2.99 book, but when it’s in a $9.99-12.99 book and publishers are crying that it’s SOoooooo expensive to produce a digital book, I have zero patience.

  • You’re making me think I should create an automatic program to do the translation correctly. :-)

  • BTW – I do use Dreamweaver, but the more I use it, the more I go in and code by hand – which is also an option in Dreamweaver.

    • Natasha Fondren says:

      Yeah, lots of people do that. It’s helpful to have a way to preview your hand-coding.

      If you can write an automatic program to do it perfectly, you’ll make a fortune!

  • Robin says:

    I think this is an awesome idea for a business! Truly. You will be a lifesaver for brains without code capacity – and Mac users.

  • Eric Mayer says:

    This is all beyond me but yeah for those prices you would expect excellent formatting. My brother was just talking about InDesign this weekend but was unhappy that they keep foisting off new versions and the newest wants more powerful computers than they are using, which is pretty odd since he works at the biggest paperback printers in the United States. For paperbacks they are incredibly picky about formatting. Lets face it. Big companies are just endlessly greedy. New innovations are just new ways for them to maximize profit.

    • Natasha Fondren says:

      That’s gotta be frustrating! I can’t imagine! I do wish they would be as picky about formatting in the ebooks.

  • David Holmes says:

    Hi I am a newbie to createspace and am getting their Kindle formatting service but the problem is the catalog cover. I am going the e-book route and I am having the cover created in photoshop. I heard the size for fiction (300 pages) is 6 x 9 with 300 dpi 600 x 800 pixels. Am I close to the correct format for my pdf. Sure could use some advice.



    • Natasha Fondren says:

      Createspace is for print formatting, in which case you’d want to choose the same trim size as your book. For Kindle formatting, now that the Kindle Fire has come out, I’m not sure what I’d recommend, but 600×800 is a good size.

  • Yucel says:

    Hi Natasha, Maybe this book will help me?

  • Yucel says:

    Though the book seems 3 years old… will it apply to the new color kindles too?

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