The Core Dump

A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures

[By Nic Lindh on Thursday, 04 August 2011]

How to create an e-book

Nic is creating an e-book. He shares what he’s learned so far.

If you’re looking to create an e-book, the Internet is eerily void of good advice. Mostly you end up scrounging details from more-or-less sketchy forum posts and spend your time on trial and error. Wax on, wax off. It’s a lot like building websites back in ’97: the tools are primitive and the platforms you target—Adobe Digital Editions, iBooks, Kindle, Nook, etc. etc. etc. all have enough unique rendering glitches and oddities to make you sniff glue.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The best way to start is to buy Elizabeth Castro’s EPUB Straight to the Point. She does a wonderful job of walking you through converting Word (shudder and InDesign documents to ePub format, and then how to mop up after that process. And mop you shall, as InDesign and Word both take a … let’s say … naïve approach to e-books.

If I’d read her guide from the start my own process would have been infinitely less painful, so do yourself a favor and get it.

The ePub format is readable by every major e-book reader apart from the Kindle. The good news is that the .mobi format the Kindle supports is for our purposes a subset of the ePub format, so it’s easy to go from ePub to .mobi. We’ll look at how later on in this piece.

Simplify, simplify

When it comes to ePub, you have several vendors, including Adobe with its detestable Digital Editions (the Internet Explorer of e-book readers), Barnes and Noble, Sony, and others. In order to keep from going insane, I’ve decided to focus on Apple’s iBooks and the Kindle, since Apple has good volume in its store and pleasingly are trying to drag the ePub format toward the future kicking and screaming, and Amazon, let’s face it, is the 800 lb. gorilla when it comes to e-books. If my stuff looks and works well on those platforms, I’m happy. Far as I’m concerned, it’s up to Barnes and Noble, Sony, Adobe et al. to make their e-book readers not act like trust-fund hippies.

Your mileage may vary.

The tools you reach for first and why you shouldn’t

There are three kind of standard entry points to creating an e-book: Make the book in InDesign, Pages, or (again, shudder) Word and then convert to ePub. Badabim. But using a desktop publishing or word processing app to create an e-book is like using a hammer to knead bread. Sure, you could if you had to, but it’s the wrong tool for the job. Most of the raw power of InDesign is completely wasted on an e-book; as a matter of fact, you have to actively go against the grain of how InDesign wants to work in order to create an e-book. (This is not a slam against InDesign—I love it. It’s just not an e-book creator, and trying to make it act like one is … unpleasant.)

To make your ePub look good, you will then need to go in and edit the HTML and CSS a bit by hand, as Castro shows in her book. HTML and CSS? Ah. Indeed. An ePub document is—and read the next bit slowly; it took way too long for the token to drop for me—a website.

A special kind of website, sure, but still a website. Which means you should use Web-building tools to make the e-book. Now you’re using a tool suited for the job and your e-book creation process is infinity plus one easier.

This also means that you need basic Web design skills to create an e-book. Not advanced Web design skills, just a basic understanding of HTML and CSS.

So far I’ve only been able to find one tool that provides HTML editing together with the plumbing to insert the various housekeeping files the ePub format requires: Sigil. This free tool lets you preview your book and also edit the HTML and CSS. Nice. It’s is a very young project and a bit rough around the edges, but eminently usable. And pretty much required even if all you want to do is edit some CSS.

(Since an ePub is a zipped website, you could unzip the ePub, make your edits in any text editor, and then re-zip it. This gets annoying fast.)

Converting from ePub to Kindle format

Once you have an ePub file all shiny and good to go, it’s time to convert to .mobi for the Kindle. Amazon provides tools to do this for you: the dynamic duo of Kindle Previewer and KindleGen.

The Kindle Previewer puts a simulated Kindle on your desktop, so you can open books and interact with them just like you would on a Kindle. You can even open ePubs with it and it will convert them on the fly. Nice. The KindleGen command-line application lets you convert ePubs and some other formats into .mobi. I strongly suspect it’s what Kindle Previewer uses under the hood to convert ePubs on the fly.

Finalizing e-books is a matter of endless repetition—using Kindle Previewer lets you skip the step of copying the file to your Kindle after each revision. The time savings add up quickly.

KindleGen and Kindle Previewer are nice tools, with one major caveat: table of contents don’t get converted. Which means you don’t get the nice status bar with chapters at the bottom of the screen, and you can’t use the five-way clicker to jump between chapters. This will not do. Supposedly you can tweak your ePubs so KindleGen understands your table of contents, but for me it was an exercise in frustration, and one you don’t have to undertake. That’s right! Time for more free software.

Calibre is the big-daddy kitchen sink utility for e-book management. It is also quite horrifying to look at, but will get the job done. Among its many, many features is the ability to convert between e-book formats. If you load in your ePub and convert it to .mobi, Calibre is smart enough to figure out the table of contents. Beautiful. Load the resulting .mobi into Kindle Previewer and check it out. And then, rinse and repeat: Edit the ePub, convert in Calibre, load in Kindle Previewer.

A bonus of this workflow is that your ePub and .mobi versions are in sync. When I first started out I maintained two InDesign documents: one for ePub and one for Kindle. Down that path lies screaming madness.

(Why was I stupid enough to do such a thing? Because at the point in the process where you put in your cover image, InDesign has a stroke and refuses to show you your text anymore until you remove the cover image. Le sigh grande. I also had some notions of keeping my fancier formatting to the ePub version. Ah, youth.)

For completeness, and I’m planning on doing some experimentation with this, Pandoc looks very, very interesting and if it turns out to work the way it seems, would let me (angelic chorus) author e-books in Markdown. That, my friend, would rock my freaking world.

A warning about Pages

Apple is touting Pages as a good solution for ePub creation. And it kind of is. Except that the HTML pages kicks out makes it impossible to convert to .mobi without major, major editing. Thanks, Apple, that was great. And, like InDesign and Word, you’re press-ganging an application into doing something it wasn’t designed to do.


If you think of an e-book as a very specialized website, your life will become much, much easier. And buy EPUB Straight to the Point. It’s a life saver.

I’m very interested in hearing of any omissions or errors in this post. If you found some, please let me know. If you have a fantastic way to create e-books that will make me feel stupid about all this flailing around, I’m also all ears.

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