How I Learned a BIG E-Book Lesson


Since I embarked on this whole self-printing craziness back in March, I’ve learned a few lessons. Among them: self-publishing a book – even with POD – takes way longer than a weekend, it does matter if sometimes you write email and sometimes you write e-mail, and that if your books are printed in North Carolina, you should order them sooner than a week in advance of your book launch to avoid volcanic ash clouds giving you sleepless nights.

But last week, I learned my first harsh lesson.

You may recall that uploading Mousetrapped to e-book site Smashwords was a pain in my ample rear end. Formatting is the name of the game and the losers get stuck with migraines. Instead of taking out extra pages – as I thought formatting for e-book conversion would entail – I had to remove all formatting: standardize the text and size (sticking to a simple font and point 12 the whole way through), delete all tabs and make sure there was never more than two empty lines at a time. It took a long day and a chunk of my sanity but I got it done, and afterwards I uploaded the file to Smashwords and (a slightly modified version of it) to Amazon’s Digital Text Platform (DTP), for Amazon’s Kindle store.

Smashwords converts your MS Word document into multiple e-book formats. Once my conversion was complete, I clicked on the one at the top of the list – a PDF – and quickly flicked through it. It looked okay. Then I got out my mother’s Kindle and downloaded a free sample of Mousetrapped. That too looked okay.

Fed up with all things e-book, I decided to do no further investigating and assumed that everything else – the other formats Smashwords had converted my book to – were a-okay too. An email from Smashwords informing me that Mousetrapped had passed the entrance exam for inclusion in their ‘Premium Catalogue’ was further confirmation. I had read their Style Guide, followed its rules and now my e-book was looking good.

That was in March. I soon forgot about my Smashwords edition because it’s Kindle equivalent was outselling it by a ratio of 20:1. I knew it was available on Barnes and Noble’s e-book store and (rather excitingly!) Apple’s iBooks, but I hadn’t seen any sales data, so I just assumed no one was buying it from there.

Then last week – five months later, almost – I got a comment on my Mousetrapped site from someone who had purchased the B&N e-book. He was enjoying my writing but not the book. Something was awry with the formatting and his e-book version of Mousetrapped was 1,300 pages long. I thought this was odd and unfortunate, but didn’t – yet – recognize it as being my fault. I emailed the comment’s author and offered him a free download from Smashwords (thinking this would solve the problem) and, honestly, thought no more about it. As far as I was concerned he was the only person who’d ever bought Mousetrapped from B&N, and it wasn’t anything to worry about it.

A couple of days later, I logged into Smashwords and found that my sales numbers had jumped. As I investigated why, a sick feeling crawled into the pit of my stomach. It turned out that as third party retailers, sales date from companies like B&N and Apple was on a major delay and only updated every 90 days or so. Turns out I’d sold 6 copies of Mousetrapped on iBooks and – uh-oh – 27 copies on B&N.

That meant 27 people had paid $2.99 for a book that was 232 pages in paperback, but  1,300 pages in electronic. This meant that while reading it on their e-reader, they’d had to press ‘Next Page’ 1,300 times.


The edition B&N was in ‘epub’ format: the standard e-book format. It was the same one iBooks used. I downloaded iBooks to my phone, followed by a free sample of Mousetrapped and then… Damn! Another 1,300 pages.

Now I really felt sick.

In the self-publishing world, my greatest fear was having a bad cover – nothing says Amateur at work here! like a cover that makes your eyes bleed. In the self-publishing e-book world, bad formatting says the same thing. I was mortified.

I emailed Smashwords – who have the fastest email response of any online service I’ve ever encountered, even though all emails seem to be signed by Mark Croker, Smashwords’ founder – and was advised that Apple’s Pages application caused a bug in the converters that inserted a page break after every new paragraph. (Pages has a feature that lets you ‘Save As’ as a MS Word document; I’d used that.) I emailed the document to myself, got on the family PC, saved it in Word and uploaded it again.

Then I did what I should have done the first time: downloaded a free copy of Adobe’s Digital Editions, and downloaded the epub version of Mousetrapped.

It was 156 pages. Problem solved.

But it was solved too late. On Mousetrapped’s e-book B&N listing, someone has left a review saying (I’m paraphrasing), “I’m about half way through. Enjoying the content but the format is terrible. The book has over 1,300 pages and is – as you can imagine – very annoying to read. Most pages have just one short paragraph on them, and some have only one sentence.”

Do you think anyone else will ever buy the e-book version on B&N’s website again, with a review like that for them to read first?

I don’t.

The sad part is the problems have been fixed. The version you buy now will be formatted correctly. But I can’t go on there and say that; there’s no way to let B&N customers know. Or iBook customers, for that matter. The damage has been done, and it’s likely permanent.

So learn from my mistake. Be meticulous. And for fudge sake, when you’re publishing an e-book, download Adobe’s Digital Editions and check the page count.

On the off chance you’ve purchased Mousetrapped from B&N in the last couple of days (i.e. the new, correctly formatted version), please consider leaving a review to let other readers know the formatting errors have been addressed. I’ll love you forever. Well, at least until next week.

If you’re one of the people who purchased the 1,300 page edition, email me a screen shot or photo of the book on your e-reading device – showing the page count, so I know it’s not a sample – and I’ll send you a coupon for a free download.

In other e-book news, Mousetrapped is now available in the UK Kindle store, priced £2.21.


If you’d like to save both a lot of hassle, just buy the paperback version. I know that has 232 pages!

15 thoughts on “How I Learned a BIG E-Book Lesson

  1. Marcus says:

    Hi Catherine,

    Bad luck getting bitten by that formatting bug. I’ve learned the same lesson when programming. There’s alas no other way than to face the drudgery of testing everything that is output, even if you only changed a space. Or months of work may be rendered useless.

    Anyways, if I were you I would leave a comment on the B&N site announcing that you are the author, apologising profusely and offering free replacements. I can’t see it doing any harm.

    Btw, are not the B&N and iBookstore sales via Smashwords’s channel, meaning they still are indirectly SW sales?


    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Smashwords are the distributor to B&N and iBooks, but they are different from sales, which show up immediately on your sales date and royalty balance. Also I don’t think you can leave reviews on B&N’s site (or any online bookstore) without having a valid credit card number (US-based, in this case) and a purchase history, which I don’t have on B&N. I’ll just have to suck it up, or hope that someone else buys the properly formatted version and leaves a comment.

      • janmendoza says:

        I know the feeling… I had ordered my own book (paperback) version from B&N and the entire book was printed backwards! I have no idea if anyone else got a backwards book! I haven’t yet formatted for e-book. I think I’m just going to format it for kindle and call it a day. It seems most of my book sales are coming from Amazon anyway. I’m kind of over the B&N thing.. I mention it to people that my book is avail there to give me some “clout” but I push Amazon since the royalty is bigger.

  2. Belinda says:

    Oh man. This is an important lesson, and one I’m glad you told us about. I’m off to check my Smashwords book right now. Thank you!

  3. Lindsay says:

    Thank you for sharing this lesson. The practical help you give other self-publishers is quite wonderful.
    I am starting on the journey — just got my novel edited/proofread by a pro (a good thing, too).

  4. catherineryanhoward says:

    @Jan – Yeah, I thought of your backwards story when this came up – B&N’s track record ain’t all that good with POD OR ebooks. That’s why I’m not that cut up about it because in the same length of time that I’ve sold 27 B&N e-books, I’ve sold over 250 Kindle editions. The royalties are almost equal and it’s MUCH easier to publish on Amazon’s DTP. Plus your ebook is listed on, which just can’t be beat in terms of exposure.

    @Belinda – You’re welcome! I hope you don’t find any problems with yours!! It’s just so simple to download Digital Editions and check the book – I just kick myself I didn’t do it at the beginning, back in March. Oh well… a lesson learned!

    @Lindsay – I’m glad you’re finding the posts helpful! It’s actually quite scary isn’t it after you get your book proofread – you think, Oh my God! I’m so lucky I didn’t release it into the world without a copyedit! 🙂 Definitely worth it in the long run. Best of luck with your book!

    • Lindsay says:

      I thought my manuscript was clean. Heh.

      The editor/proofreader not only caught outright errors, but she also saved me from publishing some badly written passages. I’d read right by them many times. She did not.

      • catherineryanhoward says:

        Same here. There were things in Mousetrapped that made perfect sense to me, but the editor picked up on the fact that to anyone else, that made no sense at all! You read things so many times that your eyes start to glaze over. Always better to have someone else – someone professional – check!

  5. janmendoza says:

    I have been looking over all sorts of blogs and posts about formatting for e-book and they all say that word does a crummy job converting to HTML (too many unnecessary tags and codes inserted) Also I have images in my book which is a whole other thing! (from what I read) I looked around for more instruction and it just all seemed to convoluted to deal with. (and I’m pretty computer savvy) Is it really that hard? I’m thinking of paying someone to do it for me!! I’m all blurry eyed and have other things to do! I really want to get on the e-book band wagon! LOL!

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I would never pay anybody else to do it for me not just because I could do it myself, but because it would be hard to find someone who can guarantee better results than you can produce on your own.

      I would only refer to one thing and that’s Smashwords Style Guide – even if you’re not using Smashwords it’s a great rule of thumb. Instead of trying to amend your existing formatting, go at it from the opposite end. In the Style Guide it tells you how to remove all formatting from a MS Word document, which is what I did. (Keep in mind this will remove EVERYTHING – even italics, font size, bold, etc.) Then go back through and only put in what you need. It also explains what you need to do to images. It’ll take a long time but at least you’ll have total control over your book and can decide yourself what to put in or take out.

      Don’t worry about Word converting to HTML or anything like that – Smashwords convert to every format for you, and I think Kindle uses PDF..?! (Not sure, would check.) Anyways, it’s daunting but not impossible! 🙂

  6. D.C. Akers says:

    I have my first book coming out through Createspace soon (waiting on second proof) Terra Vonnel and the Skulls of Aries. My question is, would it be better to go through for the Apple iBook inclusion? Btw your site is GREAT for those of us headed down this path!!

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Hi D.C.!

      Thanks so much – I’m glad you find it helpful and best of luck with your book.

      I can only advise you based on my own experience but I would recommend that you only use Smashwords and Kindle (Amazon DTP). Kindle is really easy and Smashwords – if you follow their guide to the letter and pass their Premium Catalogue entrance exam – will get your e-book on, Barnes and Noble’s e-book store and iBooks. (I’m not sure this is guaranteed but it’s free, and if the formatting is ok there should be no problem.) I just think it’s better to keep your book to as few companies as possible because in the long run it’s easier to keep track of sales and royalties.

      What I DID use for was a free e-book preview of Mousetrapped – just the first chapter.

  7. Billie says:

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