This publishing format is easiest to make when the files are in EPUB format, and with the free software Calibre, you can convert your finished EPUB into MOBI format (for Kindle.) Any precise editing of the EPUB file can be done with Sigil, another piece of free software. Ebooks need:
- Table of Contents
That’s it. The cover can be created in a number of ways – that’s another post. (Those are really piling up, aren’t they?) The content is your problem – I’m not a writer, in spite of my many attempts, and even if I were, it would scarcely help you to make your book, now, would it. So the big issue is how to take your manuscript and make it into an EPUB format ebook.
Ebooks are, at their heart, simply web pages – which means that what you can do to a web post is what you can do to an ebook. Fonts? Yes, fonts can be specificed and embedded in the ebook file. Images? Yes, images can be linked in the ebook pages, and if they’re in the ebook file, they will display … if the reader can display images and if the user hasn’t turned them off.
Which is the key point, really – the way ebooks are displayed gives the reader a lot of control over the font, the font size, the font color, the images … and since that’s all under the control of the user, you have to assume that you will not have control of it for your book. Even if you spend the money for a professional font licensed to embed in an ebook, the user may prefer not to use it, and the software they’re using may not display it to good effect … so all your care and money are wasted.
Instead, you need to focus – intently – on the bare bones of your story, and the format that will survive the technical limitations of the display process.
What’s In & What’s Out
You need to provide hierarchy for your text. The chapter titles need to be a clear part of the hierarchy instead of part of the text. The book title, the copyright page, any text about the author or about other titles – they need to be distinct and separate from the story. And how to you do that? Well, the nature of the ebook makes it easy; because it’s a web page, you can (and should) use styles to mark what text is a label and what text is the story.
What should you not do? Well, in talking about preparing a print book, I suggest using fleurons to mark scene changes. Don’t so that for ebooks; fleurons are special text symbols, and that symbol will probably not be available in the font that your readers use. You could, I suppose, make it into a small graphic that gets displayed … but really, don’t. Just go with three asterisks. It’s an accepted convention, and won’t cause any issues with your readers that are using an e-ink device (which can have problems with graphics.)
Ebooks also have issues with drop caps and small caps. You can set off the first character in a chapter with a larger capital letter, but having it extend down rather than up may cause issues, and you will need to be sure that you don’t start off any chapters with dialogue – because the first character in dialogue is the quote mark, not a letter. And small caps are also generally faked in ereaders, so they may not be the right size or have the right kerning.
You can do bulleted lists in an ereader, but you can’t be really attached to having just the right image for the bullet dot – or even your preferred size for the dot. Numbered lists can be done, but if your heart is set on having it be alphabetical instead of numbered, you need to let go of your obsessions – it’s just not going to happen.
Ereader presentation might be best with an extra line of whitespace between paragraphs, and if you decide to format that way, don’t indent the first line of your paragraphs. (Just like this webpage!) And be aware that the person reading your book might decide to make everything double-spaced anyway.
Your formatting is really a collaboration between you and the reader; you determine the hierarchy for the text, and they determine the way that hierarchy is displayed. You may as well embrace it, since you can’t change it, and that means getting go of all the rigid specification for display. The best way to do this is to prepare the format of your manuscript so that the conversion process produces the best output: which means, (sigh), the ‘nuke em’ procedure is needed.
Nuke Your Format
Open the manuscript, and copy the entire thing (CTRL-A in Windows). Then paste the manuscript into Notepad (CTRL-V). This is the point – Notepad can’t do italics, much less anything else, so any lurking format codes are completely eliminated. Save the file – it will have the .TXT extension. Now open a completely new document in Word, and load that TXT file.
Start at the beginning – add the title page, the publishing information for your copyright page, the dedication, and the acknowledgements. The start of each of those pages will have the name of the page, use the Heading 1 style in Word for that name, and then the content of that page. When you get into your story, add the Heading 1 style for all your Chapter titles. Add text styling as appropriate (again, as Styles), and make sure that you have a recognizable “The End” to finish things off. (Because in a book, the reader is aware that there are no more pages; in an ebook, that context cue is absent.)
Save this as the ebook manuscript, and use this file to convert to an EPUB file.
Update 7/28/2017: For a step by step instruction, with lots of screen caps, try this link: Format a Kindle Book in 30 Minutes. It covers the “Nuke and rebuild” process for Windows users – using nothing but MS Word – very well. If you examine the screen caps and understand the instructions, you could use other word processors to do the same thing.
Update 2/16/2018: The “Nuke and Restore” steps can be done better, so I wrote out the instructions in a new post: Moving formatting to Styles. It does require a bit of specialist knowledge, but I’ve included my source materials, and I hope that I’ve explained why I did what I did. Well enough, anyway.
Again, use Calibre. Take your manuscript document, and add it as an ebook in Calibre. (Click on the ‘Add Books’ button, and select your document. Done!) Then, use the file conversion in Calibre to make an EPUB file. (Highlight your document by clicking on it. Then click on the ‘Convert Books’ button. The top right corner which says Output Format: needs to show EPUB. Ignore the options, and click the ‘OK’ button at the bottom right. This may take a while, but that’s how you start.)
Here’s what you need to know. Again, you are not in charge of how the ebook looks.
“Ebooks are different from print books, so do not attempt to make your ebook look like an exact facsimile of print book, otherwise you’ll only frustrate yourself by creating a poorly formatted, unreadable ebook. With print, you control the layout. The words appear on the printed page exactly where you want them to appear. With ebooks, there is no “page.” By giving up the control of the printed page, you and your readers gain much more in return. Page numbers are irrelevant. Your book will look different on every e-reading device. Your text will shape shift and reflow. Most e-reading devices and e-reading applications allow your reader to customize the fonts, font sizes and line spacing. Your customers will modify how your book looks on-screen to suit their personal reading preference and environment. By transforming your books into digital form, you open up exciting possibilities for how readers can enjoy them. At Smashwords, our motto is “your book, your way,” and this means a reader should be able to consume your book however works best for them, even if that means they like to read 18 point Helvetica with blue fonts, lime background color, and triple spaced lines.”
— Smashwords Style Guide
There is no ‘page’. So no page numbers. No headers or footers. No page borders, no page backgrounds … you are only concerned with making the format of the text easily discernible. All the italic words need to have a style associated with them that makes them italic, and anything fancy, like pull quotes in the margins or text boxes to set off quotes, isn’t going to fly. (I know that I’m harping on this, but it’s important to recognize the difference between ebook and print publishing.)
Each section and chapter of your book should be a separate webpage in the ebook file. One little page for the title and author page, one little file for the copyright and publishing information, several long files for each chapter.
And honestly, that’s really it.
Now for the fiddly bits.
There is an internal Table of Contents for the ebook file, and you should also have a webpage for a table of contents as well – different ebook software looks for a table of contents in different ways, so you need to cover your bases, so to speak. Both are simply a list of links to the webpages contained in the ebook file. You can edit both using the free software I’ve mentioned at the top.
An ebook cover has a lot of possible limitations – early e-ink devices hit a maximum of four shades of gray. At the other end of the display range, Apple devices have retina displays. You need to prepare for both. Make sure that your cover will be either useful or inconsequential when on an e-ink device, and prepare for full color fidelity for using your cover as your primary book advertisement on the web.
In technical terms, you will want to create a cover image that is roughly the same proportions as a standard tablet or phone screen, at a resolution that will fill the screen. For reference, a Kindle Fire HDX has a screen size of 2560px x 1600px … which is a little big, so plan on those devices scaling up your cover picture instead of scaling it down.
All the regular objectives of a cover still apply, of course. And that’s it, all you need to publish your book on your own – which is one reason that indie publishing didn’t take off until ebooks were commonly accepted.