Kindle publishing and the problem of apostrophes

19 Aug 2013
Dick Pountain

Publishing on the Kindle sends Dick Pountain into an apostrophic rage

I've finally bitten the bullet and published my own Kindle book. I’d been thinking about it for several years, cutting out PC Pro features about how to convert your work into Amazon’s MOBI format, but somehow I’d never got around to actually doing it. Finally, Kevin Partner’s recent Online Business columns – describing how he set up his own experimental Kindle publishing business – persuaded me that it was something I must try.

I had my content, in the shape of a short book I wrote called Sampling Reality. It attempts to stitch together recent results in information theory, affective neuroscience (the physiological basis of emotions) and cognitive psychology. As you can imagine, it isn’t a title likely to trouble the bestsellers list, and so far I’d made it available only via Scribd, and on my own website in PDF form.

Converting my PDF produced a total dog’s breakfast

This meant that I already had it in a more or less publishable format: paginated, with chapter headings and subheads, a table of contents and a properly formatted bibliography. I’d done all that easily enough in Microsoft Word, using Times New Roman for body text and Arial for headings (I’m conservative that way; no hipster Futura or Helvetica). It looked nice, and was quite easy to use, with working links from the contents page to chapters.

Book covers are one of Kevin’s strongest recommendations; with so much on Kindle, you have a fraction of a second to catch a browsing eye, so you must make your work noticeable. I used a montage of my own Flickr photos, and stretched it to fit in Word without resorting to more sophisticated software. Now I had a PDF with a full-colour cover, which I expected to turn into a Kindle MOBI file.

There’s only one game in town for doing this conversion, and that’s a free program called calibre. Written by Kovid Goyal, Calibre is hardcore multiplatform open source, which you can compile yourself from GitHub if you’re that way inclined.

I just downloaded a Windows version. The software is far more than a file format converter – it’s a complete content management system for your ebook collection. Its multiplatform roots show in a colourful GUI that conforms to neither Windows nor Mac guidelines, so it will have you scratching your head at first. I’d already been through that hoop back in 2009, when I discovered Calibre for converting public-domain PDF books to read on my Sony PRS-505 ebook reader.

Converting my PDF produced a total dog’s breakfast. Pagination was screwed, with chapter headings halfway down pages. Subheads were indistinguishable from the main text. The contents page was spread out with one chapter per page – and its links didn’t work. Most intriguingly, every single apostrophe in the book had been replaced with a little empty box. Apart from that, it was fine.

What I hadn’t understood before is that MOBI supports only one font family per document, although it does permit bold, italics and various sizes. Bye-bye to my sans serif headings. I generated new PDFs with altered settings to no effect, then decided to dump PDF.

Calibre can’t convert DOCX files directly, so I tried outputting HTML. That paginated better, but the contents page still didn’t work, and my apostrophes were still atrophied. ODT didn’t work too well either. Finally, I tried good old RTF and it all looked good, with subheads in bold and a working contents list... but still, those bloody apostrophes.

I hit the forums and found a tip from Goyal himself, which said this happens when a Kindle doesn’t have the right font to display a particular character. He suggested setting "transliterate Unicode to ASCII" in one of Calibre’s many config files. That didn’t work, but it provoked me into getting medieval on the document’s ass.

I search-and-replaced every single apostrophe from Unicode character 0027 to 02B9 (a slightly smarter apostrophe): this made the conversion work, and finally I had a publishable file that passed Kindle’s vetting stage without criticism. It was up on Amazon within a day – you can check out the result at my Amazon profile page.

One last annoying thing about the way Kindle works is that if you want to edit an already published book, you have to delete and resubmit it, with the accompanying 12-hour delay: there’s no interactive editing. So when I noticed that the word "Contents" now occupies page 2 all on its own, I couldn’t face fixing it. I will one day soon, and that’s a promise.

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