Category Archives: Book vs. Ebook

Stylesheets, Then and Now

Some book designers don’t know what CSS stands for. That might actually be a good thing.

css illustrationCSS stands for Cascading Style Sheet. It’s basically a dress code for your website or your E-book. “Business casual! Serifs optional!” The E-books at Bicycle Comics have had two or three Cascading Style Sheets inside them. “Cascading” means that the different style sheets know which one to listen to if the instructions conflict. (If the company picnic is “T-shirts and jeans,” but your boss tells you “Dockers and polo shirts” then you’ll probably wear Dockers and a polo shirt.)

The thing is, the term “style sheet” far predates Web pages and E-books. Traditional book and magazine publishers have used style sheets for decades, to define a standard look and feel for all the different editors and designers. Stories in The New Yorker famously have three columns of text per page. The front cover of Time always has a red border. Apple Computer wrote all their user manuals in Garamond back in the 1990s. These consistent presentations resulted from the use of company-wide style sheets. Continue reading



Filed under Book vs. Ebook, Look and Feel

Indented Indentured Servitude

Poets have their own styles. But a poetry anthology should set some formatting ground rules.

For Bicycle Comics’ poetry anthologies, we allow three levels of indent, plus centered and right-justified text. That’s five different relations a line of poetry can have with its margins.

indents on screen

  1. flush left or “normal.” This is level “0” above, for 0 indents
  2. 1 indent, still left justified with a hanging indent
  3. 2 indents, still left justified with a hanging indent
  4. centered text, indents not applicable
  5. flush right or right-justified text, indents not applicable

I think that’s enough. Limitations help creativity, they don’t hurt it. Few people complain anymore about Twitter’s 140 character limit, or SMS’s 160 character limit. Not that many people complain about sonnets with only 140 syllables, or pianos with 88 keys.

If a poet is really fussy about margins and indents, then chances are a digital anthology isn’t the right choice for that poet, anyway. With E-book poetry, you can only recommend the final appearance of a poem; you can’t control it.



Filed under Book vs. Ebook, Manuscript Preparation

Cleaning Your Manuscript: Think of Steamed Rice

Long before you dive into InDesign, Dreamweaver, or an HTML tool, you want a clean text file.

Really, you do. In fact, you can even forgo Microsoft Word for the first part of this step, if you like. Strip out things such as tabs, funky fonts, charts, and clip art (ew). Make your manuscript painfully simple, and you’ll reap many rewards further on. Look how boring the original MS Word document is for Yellow Buick Review:

MS Word plain

Fear not; the E-book will be much prettier.

We call this the “steamed rice” version. It’s plain, it’s readily digestible, it’s unlikely to cause problems. Terribly bland, though, right? That’s fine. Steamed rice provides the foundation for all the spicy, yummy stuff you’ll be cooking up. Best learn this point early: Don’t bother making your poems beautiful in MS Word. You’ll make them look beautiful later, after you’ve made them look clean.

What does clean mean? For our anthologies, it means:

  1. A “big” font in a universal typeface. Think 16pt Times New Roman or 14pt Helvetica. If there’s an extra space or a missing period, you’ll want to notice it.
  2. Smart quotes, as in “sixes and nines.”
  3. Real dashes, as in “—” or option-shift-hyphen on a Macintosh.
  4. No soft returns. A soft return is a shift-return. Poets use them all the time for enjambed lines, but they are poison to poetry E-books.
    Here is a soft return. Find them. Delete them.
  5. One space after periods. Typewriters are long gone, my friend.
  6. Elipses … instead of …  (Can’t tell the difference? Try highlighting them with your mouse.)
  7. No tabs, no spaces. You’ll make indents later, with styles.
  8. Absolutely no handwriting, illustrations, or funky fonts. Fractions and footnotes should look boring: 1/4, 3rd prize, etc. You can use âçcént marks and basic symbols such as £ or π, but beware anything outré. A good rule? “If you have to look up how to type it, don’t bother.”
  9. (Optional) Italics and boldfaced words. I’m really torn on this one. If it were truly up to me, I would avoid them in MS Word, and add them at the very end with character styles. However, this stage is often where we do the most E-mail proofreads and edits with our contributing poets, and many of them must see their emphasized words.

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Filed under Book vs. Ebook, Manuscript Preparation

Introducing the Yellow Buick Review

As we close the books on another National Poetry Month, why do so many poetry E-books read as if they’re stuck in 2008?

For years, Bicycle Comics published PDFs with big font sizes and told people these were E-books. And they were, but only kind of. So in August 2013, we got serious about E-books. We Googled far and wide for formatting advice. Most of it was prose-related. Much of it was outdated or wrong. None of it talked about formatting whole books of poetry, just single poems. Figuring out how to code an anthology took hours and hours of paintstaking, frustrating work, and we’re a publishing company! Our staff has something like 13 years of combined production experience at “Big Five” publishers. But it was so hard, that first E-book, that we almost gave up and went back to PDFs.

Fortunately, our hard work paid off.

As soon as the book launched, rabid poetry fans promptly flooded our Website. Our servers crashed as over 400 people queued up to download the book on our first weekend. It was free from our Website, but we still managed to sell nearly 40 copies at 99¢ on Amazon that first week to people who just couldn’t wait for our servers to reboot. Eight months later, it’s still the #1 bestseller in its niche. (We donate all proceeds to the poetry festival that spawned our anthology.)

Amazon Listing for Alight

Amazon Listing for Alight E-book, 8 months after its release.

Many factors, including luck, contributed to the success of Alight. One of those factors, though, was the quality of the formatting. It wasn’t perfect. We’d code it differently now. But we had the basics down correctly. Unlike a lot of poetry E-books, Alight had proper line breaks, cohesive stanzas, hanging indents, metadata, a clickable table of contents… it resembled a professional product. It looked decent on old and new devices, because we’d tested the heck out of it.

We’ve done two more E-books since Alight. We’ve got this formatting thing figured out. And we want to share it.

There are publishers, indie poets, and brilliant freelancers who have figured out this whole html/css thing for poetry. Some of them are better at it than we are. But none of them will open their books for all to see, because their business depends on selling those books! Same goes for us; for reasons both legal and financial, we can’t just stick Carrie Rudzinski’s new book online as a learning tool for coders and formatters. That’s where The Yellow Buick Review comes in. YB Review is a fake anthology. All the poems are gibberish “Greek text.” But they look real. They respond to style sheet changes just as real poems would. And with fake poems, all the ego and copyright issues fade to the background.

We’ll publish the first volume of the Yellow Buick Review this May. We don’t expect to make a dime off of it. We’re sure some formatters and purists will howl. We hope so; that’s how we’ll get better. And we need to get better—not just Bicycle Comics, but the whole industry. E-books aren’t going away. Neither is poetry. So it’s in everyone’s interest for this ancient art form to be effective on this new(ish) technology. 2015 will mark the eighth National Poetry Month in the era of Amazon Kindle. Let’s all be gloriously ready for it, okay?


Filed under Book vs. Ebook, Publishing Industry