Ebook Quality Assurance: The last 20% is the most important
by Joshua Tallent
You’ve done it! You finally finished the last sentence of your book. Maybe it was the novel you wrote for NANOWRIMO (my 12-year-old daughter is still working on hers), or maybe it was the non-fiction book you wrote based on 20 years in your industry. Regardless of the topic or genre, you now face the daunting task of finishing the project: the last 20%.
You know that rule, right? “The last 20% of the project always takes 80% of the effort.” This is true in self publishing as much as in painting your bedroom — and I still have painter’s tape on my walls 9 months later…
So, what’s the last 20% of your self-publishing project? Well, it’s the actual publishing stuff: editing the manuscript, designing the book, creating the ebook files, planning the marketing campaign, setting up the printing, proofing the final product, distributing it to stores in its various forms, and executing the marketing campaign.
In this article, I’d like to focus in on that part about the ebook files. If you are the typical independent author, you are probably thinking something along the lines of, “How hard could it be?” However, let me encourage you to think about the more important question: “What is the best use of my time?” There are times when it makes sense to give the job to a professional, and this is one of them.
When I started out as an ebook developer in 2002, Kobo did not exist, and the Kindle was not even a glimmer in the eye of Jeff Bezos. At that time publishers had to create five different ebook formats to be sure that everyone would have the format they needed for their own device. Thankfully we have moved past that, and today you really only need a single EPUB file for most ebooks.
However, despite that move toward a single format, ebook creation is still a pretty specialized field. With the standardization to EPUB we have also seen an increase in the functionality that is possible in ebooks, from accessibility to videos, as well as interactivity, fixed layout children’s ebooks, and more. At the same time, we have continued the long tradition of each device handling the display of ebook content differently. This all means that you are much better served having a professional create your ebook files for you than trying to navigate those waters alone.
Regardless of whether you go the professional route or try to DIY, there are some important steps you need to take after the ebook files are created. That’s what I want to outline for you here: The process of testing the quality of your ebook files before sending them off to retailers.]
EPUB files are essentially a bunch of HTML files combined together. While your readers will never see this HTML inside your EPUB file, what they see on the outside is affected by what’s on the inside. At the same time, you are probably not an HTML expert, and even professional ebook developers will miss things or create HTML code that is not up to snuff. That’s why automated testing is so important.
Automated EPUB testing tools will look at the code of your EPUB file and ensure that it meets certain standards and requirements. The most common and important tool is EpubCheck. EpubCheck is maintained by the IDPF, the organization than created the EPUB standard. EpubCheck will tell you if your EPUB file follows the EPUB specification properly. This is an important first step in ensuring you have a valid, high quality EPUB file.
EpubCheck is a command line tool, meaning it does not have a visual interface. There are other tools like pagina EPUB-Checker that make running EpubCheck easier if you are not comfortable with the command line. You could also upload the file to the online version of EpubCheck on the IDPF website.
For more robust automated testing you should also check out FlightDeck. In addition to testing your EPUB file with EpubCheck, FlightDeck will test it for adherence to industry best practices, as well as against the requirements of the major ebook retailers, including Kobo, Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Google. The messages are explained and clarified when necessary, and there is an extensive handbook that provides further information and examples to help you make your ebook even better. [Full disclosure, I am one of the creators of FlightDeck, so I’m probably just a bit biased about it.]
Manual Quality Assurance
After you test the EPUB file with automated testing tools, you need to take some time to manually test it. This involves loading the file on different devices and looking for issues or potential problems. It is best to test your EPUB on devices from all of the retailers you are planning to sell the book through. Often it also works best to have them all open to the same location at once so you can compare how things look on the different devices.
If you are on a budget you can do a lot of testing with just an iPad and a computer, and some testing is better than none. However, if you are looking for advice on which devices to get for testing, here is a good starter list:
- Kobo Touch
- Amazon Kindle (can be the lowest-cost device)
- Apple iBooks on an iPad
- B&N Nook
- Google Play app on Android or iOS
When you start looking at your ebook on different devices, it is usually best to start with an overview. Look for content that is out of place (like a chapter that has been put in the wrong order), content that is missing, page breaks that are improperly placed, and inconsistent formatting (like chapter headings that don’t look alike).
Once you are done with the overview, you will need to dig into the more detailed quality assurance testing. I recommend you create a checklist that you can follow as you go through this process so that you don’t forget something (there is a good starter checklist available on the FlightDeck website). This QA check should look at the following areas and potential issues in your ebook:
Metadata: The metadata inside your EPUB should match the metadata you will be giving to retailers. Watch out for the ISBN not being included, or the title of the book being incorrect.
Internal/External Linking: Be sure that all of the links to external websites are correct (ebook conversion tools can sometimes mess them up), and that you have linked the internal references that make sense, like references to “page 125” and “chapter 4”.
Fonts: Embedding fonts in your EPUB file can greatly help the design of your book. However, don’t forget to check the font licenses to ensure they allow embedding, and also test the files to ensure the fonts work properly and degrade gracefully when a device does not support embedded fonts.
Unicode Text: Whether you are using foreign languages or just adding a smiley face, it is important that you make sure your non-English text is supported on devices. If it is not, you might need to embed a font that provides the necessary character support.
Cover Image: The cover image should be included on the first page of your ebook.
Copyright Page: Be careful about references that only apply to the print book, like “this book was printed on acid-free paper”, or information about fonts that are not included in the ebook. Also, be sure your ebook ISBN has been included on the copyright page in the right location.
Headings: It is always best to ensure that your headings are structured properly and that they look consistent throughout the book.
Color: I do not recommend specifying black as a text color as it can mess up the night reading mode on some devices. Also, be sure that the colors you use in sidebars or other special features are visible on grayscale devices like the Kobo Touch.
Images: Images can be tricky in ebooks. There is a balance between file size and quality that can sometimes be hard to get right. Take a careful look at your images, be sure that they are not blurry or pixilated, and that they display at the size that makes sense for your content.
Tables & Charts: Tables are arguably the most difficult feature in an ebook. Most devices don’t handle them well, so you’ll want to test them extensively. If you can’t get the table to work properly, especially if it is just too large to work on ebook devices, you might want to consider putting it up on your website instead and providing a link within the ebook file. I do not recommend inserting tables as images in your ebook files.
Endnotes: Your endnotes should be linked within the content of your book. Some devices will convert properly linked endotes into pop-up notes for easier reading.
Indexes: The subject index in your book should be linked to the page where the content appears. If you are unable to link the index, it is usually best to just remove it.
Fixed Layout: If your ebook is of the fixed layout variety, I recommend you come up with a list of things to look for in those, like text magnification, narration timing, animations, and more.
As you can see, testing an ebook file before publication can be a long process. However, this is one of the most important tasks you can do in that last 20% of your effort, and I highly recommend you take the time to get it right. Your readers will thank you!
Joshua Tallent, the Director of Outreach and Education at Firebrand Technologies, is an expert in metadata and eBook development and an acclaimed teacher and guide on digital publishing. In addition to heading up training and outreach efforts for Firebrand, Joshua serves on multiple industry committees and working groups and teaches in-depth workshops and sessions at publishing conferences throughout the year. He also leads the development of FlightDeck, the most robust EPUB quality assurance tool available.