Some more formatting issues and concerns

Amanda Green posted Formatting issues and concerns with some generally good points. My response is below, being too long to fit in a comment.

Someone in the book-production process is going to need to understand basic HTML typography, and if you’re self-publishing it’s going to have to be you. Or at least you’re going to need to learn good habits that will make conversion to clean HTML possible for the fellow actually doing the job.

(I can do this—I’ve actually re-edited e-books I’ve downloaded so I could comfortably read them—but engineering pays better.)

Here are some rules I think are helpful:

  1. Use named styles, never the bold/italic keys.
  2. You don’t need too many styles anyway. Ignore the title & copyright pages for now.
    • Chapter headings are “Heading 1” (<h1>).
    • Location tags (the lines that read “Zurich, 1949”; I don’t know the standard name for these) are “Heading 2” (<h2>)—not bold; see Rule 0.
    • For emphasis and italics see Rule 2 below.
    • For any other special kind of paragraph (e.g., poetry, 19ᵗʰ-century chapter synopses [“In which our hero finds a book and loses his his mind”], computer chat transcripts) create named styles and use them consistently. When in doubt, refer to Rule 0.
  3. Prefer Emphasis (<em>) to Italics (<i>); I use plain italics only for italicized loan-words or foreign-language dialog. (This lets the editor spell-check these separately.)

    If you have whole paragraphs in italics (flash-back scenes, e.g.), use a named paragraph style. It’s not hard to define a formatting rule that will display Emphasized text within such a named style as upright text. You may need to get some help implementing the formatting rule unless you’re comfortable with CSS, but you will want an HTML+CSS-literate person looking over your stuff anyway.

Some comments on the points made in the post:

  • Points 1 & 2 (Fonts): Good idea, although it is possible to define “fall-back” fonts so you can get away with using one or two decorative fonts. Also note that e-readers are quite capable of using fonts other than what you’ve specified, so don’t depend on anything font-specific.
  • Point 2 (Symbols): Note, however, that “curly quotes” and proper em- and en-dashes are not special anymore. (But use them correctly! And that’s a whole ’nother story.)
  • Point 7 (Indenting) Amanda didn’t say, but I think she was suggesting 0.5″ or 0.33″, measuring in inches. This is not a good idea because the font size can vary. Define things like indents in “em” units, which scale with the font. For example, with a 12-point font, there are about 6 ems to the inch, so an indent of 2 or 3 ems is about right.
  • Points 8 & 9 (Exceptions to indentation): There are actually two options here. The first is a named paragraph style (see my Rule 0) that has no initial indentation; you can tell Word that a no-indent paragraph should be followed by regularly-indented ones. The second option is technically “cleaner” but is not as well supported by some e-readers: create a CSS rule that suppresses indentation after chapter headings etc.

Regarding print layout—there’s a whole world of typography down that rabbit-hole. From the (rather technical) TeX/LaTeX world there’s Peter Wil­son’s A Few Notes on Book De­sign.