As it turns out, an image and equation heavy non-fiction project is not the best way to get your feet wet in the world of self-publishing. There are a unique set of challenges to a project of that nature, but most of the lessons learned can be applied to anyone trying to publish an eBook on multiple platforms.
1) Go with the flow: Your eBook doesn’t have pages, or rather, it’s one big long page. You can assert new pages with page breaks, but most style guides advise against this practice for anything but new chapters. For a book like mine, which has a lot of equations and images, some of which I want to see in a specific configuration, page breaks are really the only way to make that happen, but you have to be aware of the risks.
2) Images are more unpredictable than text: The size of an image on many eReaders seems to be determined by its max width. If the picture is smaller than the width of the eReader, then it will probably size predictably, but if it’s bigger, then everything’s up for grabs. Where this became relevant for me was actually in the equation editor. Equations are rendered as images in the final eBook, and if the equation was wider than the width of the page, the eReader decreased the font size of the equation (by shrinking the image), and added a carriage return which sometimes resulted in blank pages. Experimentation here is really the key. Shrinking an image can but does not always solve the problem (especially for equations). Consider rendering equations in the text, using multiple lines for equation, or decreasing the space between lines in places where you expect the eReader to add space.
3) Don’t assume you’re the problem: For the longest time I’ve been having a problem with the contents page. I was doing everything the Kindle Style Guide was telling me to, but the Calibre converted eBook wasn’t seeing my gallery, references, or any of the front matter. As it turned out, the problem had to do with the way Calibre was converting my eBook (the settings of which I’ll describe tomorrow). Publishing an eBook is a complex process with a lot of sources of failure. Some of them are the input (your book) and some of them are the output (conversion software). If you’re stuck and have followed all formatting rules, then it might be the software at fault.
4) Don’t mix editors: My next book, Surreality, was started in WordPerfect (on an ancient Toshiba Satellite) and finished in Open Office. I’ve run some test renders with Calibre, and this book is unfortunately a candidate for what Smashwords calls the “nuclear option”. The nuclear option is, select all text in your book, paste in a plain text editor like Notepad or Notepad++, then open or copy that file into Word. This strips any of the odd formatting artifacts (mostly tabs, spaces and carriage returns), and can provide a clean slate for putting together your eBook. But life’s easier if you don’t have the problem in the first place (and much as it pains me to say this, don’t use WordPerfect).
5) Read everything about where you’re going to publish: Most self-publishing places, like Smashwords and Amazon, have free style guides. Get ’em. If you’re trying to make money, make sure you understand the royalty policy (and how the size of your book might relate to that). Hit the first button for publishing a book and see if there are any restrictions and limits (or just what material you’ll need to prepare). For instance, Smashwords has a 5MB upload policy, which unfortunately disqualifies the fractal book by a mile. Most fiction books won’t run into this problem, but image laden texts seem to be better on Amazon for now (*sigh*).
6) It doesn’t have to be perfect: And it won’t be. That’s really okay. For a fiction book it’s pretty easy to make something that’ll read nice on 99% of devices, but once you throw pictures into the mix… Work hard, fix glaring problems, and be open to feedback and uploading changes if your readers find something you didn’t. But don’t let formatting keep you from publishing.
7) Test your color images in B&W and on several color devices: The color on most laptops is way better than a tablet, at least cheap android ones and even the Fire. Subtle color changes may bleed together, and in black and white, text may be obscured in the background. Where this matters most is your cover (it has to look good in the store, in B&W, and in varying degrees of color). XnView can be a decent way to test this before putting it on an eReader. If you open your cover and click on the “Image” Menu, there will be a lot of options for converting to Colors (like 256 and below), or to grayscale. For grayscale test with 16 colors. It will still look better on your computer than it will on the device so keep that in mind.
8) Be transparent: One way to solve the above problem is to change the alpha channel (or transparency) of your cover. There are many ways to do this. In the GIMP add a new white layer (the same size as your cover), underneath your cover. Then click on the layer that has your cover and move the “opacity” slider to the left. I got good results with 90% opacity (10% transparent). You don’t want to turn it down too low or your colors will fade, so if a color scheme really isn’t working consider changing it.
9) Use separate files for different formats: Smashwords’ “meatgrinder” may work well for most fiction titles, but if you want a PDF with images, do that in Word. Typically a PDF is printed or read on a larger device, so a lot of the formatting decisions you were making for 6 and 7 inch screens won’t apply. You’ve got a lot more to work with in terms of real-estate, so take advantage.
10) Offer goodies: If your book is image heavy, and you’re not always happy with how they look in an eBook, offer hi-res copies with each purchase of the eBook. If source code wraps weird in different file sizes, make the download available. An eBook can sometimes be as much a platform leaping off place as it is a book. If you only want purchasers of your eBook to get the content you can consider passwords or links that are only present in the book, but generally speaking giving things away engenders more good will.