Creating an E-book: Tips on Document Formatting

Conversion applications

Content-creation programs, such as word processors or publishing suites, are only starting to add e-book formats to their lists of possible exports. Most of the time, you'll need to use some kind of standalone application to perform the final conversion.

Some of the tools you might encounter are designed for extremely specific jobs and are not general conversion utilities. Those producing e-books for the Kindle, for instance, need to use Amazon's own e-book tool called KindleGen to produce a Kindle-compatible file from HTML or Epub input.

These are only four of the better-known conversion applications; there are a lot more out there. In contrasting their behaviors and capabilities, it's clear we're still a ways from having a single end-to-end suite that fits the majority of users' needs.

Adobe InDesign CS5.5

InDesign is normally thought of as a full-blown desktop publishing suite, but in its last couple of incarnations -- especially in the upcoming 5.5 release -- it's been positioned more as a platform for generating output to many different destinations.

The program now includes export options for the Epub format. InDesign accepts a broad range of document formats for import, and can even map style information from the source document to whatever style definitions you have set up in InDesign. A plug-in from Amazon also lets you export directly from InDesign to the Kindle format.

InDesign has two big downsides. The first is the scope and scale of the program. Because it's a full-blown publishing solution, it requires a lot more work to generate a finished product than a simple conversion utility. Second is the price tag: it starts at $699. That puts it out of reach for users not prepared to invest that much money, although the 30-day trial version should give you an idea of whether it's worth the money or is overkill for your needs.

Adobe InDesign CS5 from Adobe Systems Inc.

Price: $699

Platforms: Windows XP/Vista/7, OS X 10.5.8/10.6

Calibre

Calibre, a free and open-source application, is marketed more as a personal e-book management solution than a production suite. That said, it can be used as an e-book conversion utility, and a remarkably powerful one -- provided you understand the full range of options. For that reason it may well be the best place to start, especially if you're distilling output for multiple e-book formats.

The best thing about Calibre is its support for a broad range of input document types: the program can accept ODF, RTF, Epub, MOBI, PDF and HTML. Calibre can also reformat documents according to various heuristic rules (unwrapping plain text that has too many line breaks, for instance), or inserting chapter breaks by looking for certain text structures (such as a line break, the word "Chapter" and then a number).

However, Calibre doesn't support DOC or DOCX documents, so anything coming from Word will have to be saved in another format first. Saving in either ODF or HTML from Word seemed to do the best job of preserving formatting and features, including things like monospaced formatting for code examples. The program can also convert books in bulk as well as individually.

Calibre from Kovid Goyal

Price: Free

Platforms: Windows, OS X, Linux

OpenOffice.org

OpenOffice.org is itself not an e-book system, of course: It's a free open-source productivity suite. That said, a number of people have authored add-ons for OpenOffice.org for exporting to e-book formats from within the program.

Writer2ePub, for instance, exports directly from within OpenOffice into Epub format; ODFToEPub can perform standalone conversion of ODF files or work as an OpenOffice add-in.

OpenOffice.org also has a powerful native PDF export function, one with a greater range of options than the native exporter in Microsoft Word. That's useful as long as you don't mind using PDF as a target document type.

OpenOffice.org from Oracle

Price: Free

Platforms: Windows, OS X, Linux, Solaris

Sigil

A more modest example of an e-book production application, Sigil is both free and open source. It's a lot closer to an editor that exports to e-books (it sports a built-in document editor) than a conversion suite for existing documents, but it also includes various tools for collating and assembling a finished e-book (such as a table of contents editor).

Sigil's main drawback is how it handles importing. It only accepts HTML, plain text or existing Epub files as input documents, so it will most likely work best if you are able to export your original document to HTML in a way that preserves all the most important formatting. A similar program, Jutoh, accepts OPL files and has slightly more robust editing options; it costs $39.

Sigil from Strahinja Markovic

Price: Free

Platforms: Windows XP/Vista/7, OS X 10.5/10.6, Linux

Conclusions

The recent massive surge in demand for e-books hasn't yet triggered a concomitant surge in development of polished products for e-book production. The one thing that's most conspicuously lacking is a single gold-standard product that guides users through the whole workflow and helps them check their results. With all the different book formats that are floating around, putting together such a product might well be an order of magnitude tougher than anyone expects.

The good news is that the e-book boom has helped consolidate formats a bit. The Kindle, the Nook and the iTunes Bookstore (which services both the iPhone and iPad) now stand out as the most common targets for e-books.

The time's right for a product that can walk you through the whole process. For now, though, we'll have to settle for using the tools that do exist, and using them with care and attention.

Serdar Yegulalp has been writing about computers and information technology for over 15 years for a variety of publications.

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