Multiple format ebook stores and web sites provide a valuable service for readers and for writers who, obviously, want as wide a distribution as possible. Many, if not all, multi-format sites rely on automated conversion software to generate ebooks in a format selected by the customer. Based on my limited experience, the automated conversion programs work pretty well for many of the popular formats (ePub, mobi, lrf, and mabye fb2), albeit with some minor changes to the original formatting.

But recently I published a short story as an ebook with smashwords.com, and the pdb edition of the story lost a key piece of formatting, the italics used, by convention, to indicate unspoken thoughts. Without those italics the story can be confusing to read, and I was forced to cancel the pdb version. That is unfortunate, pdb is a popular ebook format, and I like the desktop eReader. My story Healthy or Else can be downloaded from smashwords.com in ePUB, mobi, lrf, PDF, and .rtf formats, so alternatives are available for anyone who wants to read the story.

The problem was not caused by smashwords automated conversion software. They call it the “meatgrinder.” The same problem occurred when I tried converting the story to pdb online using Zamzar, and Calibre also lost the italics when I converted the story to pdb. 2ePub wisely doesn’t output pdb files. Not being a programmer I was forced to conclude the problem lies within the pdb format itself, and that was confirmed by searching the forums on Mobile Read.

I wanted to make a properly formatted version of the story available on my web site, if nowhere else. I found two software programs for formatting pdb files on the eReaderLibrary site, owned by Barnes and Noble. Naturally, I tried the free software first. This program, called Dropbook, requires use of the Palm Markup Language. It seemed a bit intimidating when I first looked at it, but the list of commands was not all that long and I decided to give it a whirl.

Trial and error is a slow process, but after a time I started to figure out how to use the program and the Palm markup language, and my progress picked up speed as I overcome a couple of initial problems I induced myself and the learning curve ramped up. Some time later (I don’t want to admit how much later) I was nearly finished and had searched through the character sets and added a couple of nice finishing touches. Now all I had left to do was attach the cover, and that should be easy, or so I thought. It turned out not to be so easy. In fact, I never did get it attached. Despite the relatively unimportant lack of a cover, the pdb download link on the Healthy or Else page is the only properly formatted pdb version anywhere, and will provide the best reading experience for the eReader and Palm devices. Or you can download it using this link: Healthy or Else.pdb. Now you can also download a pdb copy of the story from memoware.com

A pdb version can be downloaded from manybooks.net, but it is generated by an automated file conversion system and the italics are converted to the same font as the rest of the text. I can’t cancel the pdb file on manybooks.net, however. Nor can I test the formatting of all the many formats available from manybooks.net. I simply don’t have readers or devices to view files in all of those formats. When a site tries its best to provide files in every conceivable format some are bound to work better than others. And manybooks.net is a stellar site for readers. Every ebook is free, it doesn’t charge member fees, and is operated by volunteers. What more can you ask for?

I feel much the same way about Smashwords. It provides a good service for indie writers, and helps connect us with readers.

The Smashwords style guide even warns writers to avoid complex formatting – now I see why. A novel I am working on will have the same problem with italics. Both it and the short story were written or too far advanced to change after I looked at the option of electronic publishing. In the future I am going to have to learn new literary techniques to get inside my character’s heads.

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