Creating an E-book: Tips on Document Formatting

After years of marginal acceptance, e-books have finally started to eclipse their printed-and-bound ancestors. Casual and sophisticated readers alike are growing much more accustomed to reading from a device -- a Kindle, a smartphone, an iPad or a laptop. They're also catching on for business and technical audiences -- for example, HR departments can distribute employee manuals digitally, while IT staffers can carry around 800-page references for their favorite programming languages or operating systems without having to dislocate a shoulder.

One of the most attractive features about this process is that you don't have to be a professional publisher to produce a useful and well-formatted e-book. Almost anyone can take an existing manuscript -- a technical manual, a corporate white paper or even a personal biography -- and turn it into an e-book.

But you need more than just your document. You also need the right software and the know-how -- because producing an e-book is a little more complicated than it ought to be. The breadth of e-book formats out there, and the quirks of converting your source document into one of those target formats, can make the conversion process anything but straightforward.

In the following article, I've attempted to unravel that particular knot by looking at the e-book creation process from beginning to end -- from formatting the source document to reading the finished product. I'll discuss what formats you need to start with and convert to, detail some of the issues you may encounter along the way, and suggest some software applications that can help.

E-book creation tips

Creating an e-book can be a rocky process, often with no pre-set path from the original document to the finished product. It's difficult to tell in advance what you might need to do, or not do, to make sure a given project renders correctly. However, before you begin the conversion process, there are ways to make things go more smoothly.

Start with the cleanest possible input document. There should be no stylization, formatting or elements present that you don't want in the final product. If something can't be supported in the destination format, it may well get stripped out automatically, but sometimes it might just be translated into something you don't want. You might have no choice but to clean up the original by hand, but it may well be possible to script the cleanup process depending on what you're using to compose your originals.

Consider using HTML as an intermediate target format in all cases. Since the majority of e-book formats revolve around some variant of HTML, it might be a good idea to standardize on HTML as the format to export to first from whatever program you used to edit the document. This minimizes the amount of processing that has to be done by the e-book converter itself. What's more, if you need to perform any manual editing on the file to get it to process correctly, HTML is a convenient format to do that: You have direct access to the source code via nothing more than a plain-text editor.

Test the results on multiple devices. Get your hands on as many reading devices as possible -- or, failing that, get in touch with people who have a number of different reading devices and get feedback from them. The desktop Kindle application, for instance, has quirks that the actual device does not (e.g., how each handles non-Western characters), so it helps to know when problems like this are relevant.

Be prepared to repeat as necessary. You will almost certainly have to make multiple passes across an e-book to make sure everything translated correctly. Odds are it won't -- at least not the first time -- and you'll have to go back and tweak many different things by hand. In a way this is another argument for using HTML as an intermediate format, because many of the tweaks that might need to be carried out could be partly automated. Keep notes of what breaks each time so you don't have to repeat your mistakes.

Source formats

The creation of any e-book starts with a source document: a manuscript that you have written or which someone else has provided for you. Right there, the problems begin, since even a "clean" document can pose conversion difficulties. Your goal is to ensure that the document's formatting will be preserved intact.

Odds are most documents used as a source for an e-book will have to go through at least two conversions: First, into a format that the conversion software can use, and then into the actual e-book format -- or formats. Sometimes this can be cut down to one stage, but it's best for the time being to assume you'll need two steps to do the job completely.

Here's a rundown of the most likely formats you'll start with:

HTML

I already mentioned this in the previous section, but it bears repeating: If you're looking for a standard, HTML is more or less it. For one, it's ubiquitous; almost every text-processing program can generate or read HTML. It also supports many features e-books will use: hyperlinks, font control, section headings, images and so on.

The tricky part is if you weren't working with HTML in the first place. If you're collating posts from a blog or a wiki and assembling them into an e-book, you won't have to put up with quite as much drudgery. But if you're starting with a Microsoft Word (DOC or DOCX) or Open Document Format (OpenDocument or ODF) document, your best bet is to export it directly from the source application into HTML. (Word users should do a "Save as..." using the "Web Page, Filtered (HTML)" option, which strips out most of Word's generated cruft.)

Exporting to HTML from your source program helps preserve the most crucial formatting and typically also preserves sections and chapters: outline headers are turned into H1 / H2 / H3 tags, which most conversion programs correctly recognize. Some are even able to auto-generate tables of contents from those tags. That said, I've had good results using Word to generate TOCs before I send the document to the e-book program, since Word typically gives you a broader range of formatting options.

Microsoft Word (DOC or DOCX)

If you're dealing with an original manuscript, odds are it's probably going to be in Microsoft Word format. Proprietary as Word may be, almost every device on the face of the earth can read or write Word documents. And the format has native support for most everything you could think of: formulas, chaptering, footnotes, indices -- in other words, anything that might show up in an e-book.

That said, Word documents are best seen as a starting point for an intermediate conversion format, most likely HTML, rather than a format that can be converted directly into an e-book. In fact, most e-book conversion programs don't accept Word natively as a source document type. They may accept Word's sibling format, RTF, but that is already at least one stage of conversion away from the original and increases the chance that certain features might not make it through the conversion process. For example, RTF does support features like sections and footnotes, but the Calibre [[WILL LINK TO REVIEW BELOW]] e-book creation suite, for one, didn't process them correctly when I tested it for this article.

OpenDocument (ODF)

OpenDocument, or ODF, is the format used by OpenOffice.org. (Microsoft Word also supports ODF, although it isn't the default format for Word -- it's just one of the formats it reads and writes.) Third-party OpenOffice offers extensions that let you export directly to e-pub formats; there are also a number of standalone applications, such as ODFToEPub, which will do the same. If you're already in the habit of creating your documents in ODF, your path to creating a finished e-book may be slightly shortened because of this.

PDF

Adobe's PDF format is all but impossible not to encounter and is used consistently enough as an e-book format that it would be foolish not to mention it. Many programs (such as Word and OpenOffice.org) export directly to PDF, and the files can be opened and read in many applications. In fact, before dedicated e-reader devices made significant inroads into the market, most e-books were just PDF distillations of their print counterparts.

However, it's generally not a good idea to try to use PDF as a source format. Because it's designed to precisely reproduce printed pages, a PDF document needs to be taken apart and put back together if it's being used as a source format for a non-PDF e-book. As a result, PDF should only be used as a source for other e-book formats if you have no choice.

Destination formats

Odds are you won't have just one destination format for your e-book, but several. If your target readers are using a variety of devices -- a Nook, a Kindle, an iPad -- it helps to support as many of those devices as possible. The Kindle, for instance, is notorious for not supporting Epub format files.

These are the most common e-book destination formats and their quirks.

Epub

An open, non-proprietary format that uses XHTML as the basis for its document format, Epub is widely supported as an output format by various e-book production applications -- iTunes, for instance, only accepts Epub as a source format. In fact, it couldn't hurt to render a copy of your product as Epub no matter what other formats you're also planning to output to.

Epub has a few downsides. Its formatting methodology assumes the text will be reflowed to fit the target device, so books that require PDF-style page fidelity won't work well in Epub. Also, there's no support for equations apart from inserting them as images -- TeX or MathML, two commonly used languages for representing math, aren't supported. And Epub doesn't have a standard way to interpret or share annotations, which might be another drawback for people publishing e-textbooks.

To that end, it's best for "straight" text, or documents where reflowed formatting won't be an issue.

MOBI and Kindle

A variant of an earlier version of Epub, MOBI -- or Mobipocket -- was developed by the company of the same name as a format to be used with its e-book reader software, designed originally for PDAs and later smartphones. After Amazon bought the company, it made MOBI into the basis for the Kindle reader's own e-book format. MOBI supports Digital Rights Management (DRM), but unencrypted MOBI documents can be read on the Kindle without issues.

PDF

PDFs can be read as-is in the majority of e-book readers, including the Kindle. Exporting to PDF is best when you want to maintain absolute fidelity to page layout -- images, typefaces, and so on.

Ironically, this is the very feature that can make PDFs a problem in some scenarios, which I hinted at before. Other e-book formats are designed to work independent of any particular device resolution, so pages reflow automatically for each device. This is one of the reasons the Kindle didn't make use of page numbers at first, since the page numbering for a particular book could vary depending on what device or screen size you were reading it with.

PDFs, on the other hand, reproduce as closely as possible the formatting of the original page, no matter what the size of the destination device. A PDF formatted for an 8.5 × 11-in. page may be quite readable on a large display, but looks cramped on a Kindle or Nook. Some PDF readers, such as Adobe's own Acrobat Reader application, are able to re-flow a PDF to fit an arbitrary screen size -- but this isn't a universally available function, and you shouldn't count on it being present.

If you're committed to using PDFs, you may want to consider exporting your document with different page size as a courtesy for people using e-readers with small screens. This may require some research to figure out what page sizes render best with popular e-book readers.

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