Ebook Formatting 101 (part 1)

I’m giving a talk for Pikes Peak Writers at the February Write Brain on February 21 at the Celebration Place (Citadel Mall).  As usual, I’m developing my ideas as blog posts, because hey, you always gotta come up with ideas for for blog posts, and I often get good comments on stuff to add when I put up the posts first (hint hint).  Although I have to admit that the handouts for the talk will probably be printed before the posts for them do.  I’ll just do Ebook 101 posts until I get through them, so pardon the interrupted Editing series for now.

I’m not going to talk about whether or not you should indie publish, just about how to put together ebooks, and just how to put together ebooks for beginners.  More advanced users (e.g., people who know web design, graphic designers, etc.) are going to get pointers toward more advanced topics later (probably next Friday), which I’ll provide as part of the handout at the talk.  So when commenting–keep in mind that the best way for you might not be the easiest way to start out with.  Comments welcome, but this is intended for a very new, somewhat skeptical audience.  My goal is for people to go, “Okay, that I can handle.  It’s not what I’m used to, but it’s not that complex.”

Where to publish and what files types you’ll need

I’m assuming that you know nothing about ebooks, other than that they exist.  So what are ebooks?  Ebooks are books that can be read electronically; they come in multiple formats.  Formats are really file types.  If you’re going to publish ebooks, you need to make sure you are providing the formats that your readers need.

The most common formats are:

  • .pdf (Portable Document Format), an open document exchange format created by Adobe.
  • .txt (plain text format).
  • .epub (electronic publication), an open XHTML/CSS-based format set by the International Digital Publishing Forum.
  • .mobi (from Mobipocket Reader, an early ebook software provider purchased by Amazon), an XHTML/CSS-based format, can be used by Kindle.
  • .azw, an XHTML/CSS-based Amazon proprietary format.
  • .rtf (Rich Text Format), a word-processing format that is not Microsoft proprietary, although they did develop it.
  • .doc, the Microsoft-proprietary word-processing format and currently the only way to upload files to Smashwords.

I advise beginners to use the following formats:

  • .doc

I advise non-beginners (and people who know web development) to refer to the advanced users section of the handout.  If you do not have Microsoft Word, you can do the equivalent actions in another program that allows you to save as .doc files (Like Open Office).

With a .doc format (in two versions, a Smashwords version and a non-Smashwords version),  you can post files directly to Smashwords, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.  By posting a file to Smashwords, you can indirectly post files to Sony Reader store, the Kobo Reader store, the Apple iBookstore, and the Diesel eBook Store.

Smashwords says that you can also post to the Amazon and B&N bookstores; however, I advise against it.  Amazon and Smashwords aren’t actually sharing books at the moment and haven’t been since last July.  Amazon will probably be your biggest source of sales, so you don’t want to wait until they work out the bugs; you should post directly to the Amazon store.  B&N and Smashwords are sharing books, but B&N will probably be your second-biggest source of sales, and they only report sales to Smashwords every month or so, and it takes even longer to get paid.  Initially, watching your sales numbers will be very addictive, and you will probably be very frustrated with the wait.

So, in short, I recommend beginners to post to the following sites:

Note that Amazon and B&N have separate names for their ebook-publishing sides.

From manuscript to uploadable file

Your manuscript should be as perfect as it is possible to make it.  The #1 complaint about independently-published ebooks is that they are not professionally edited.  Personally, I think writers’ collective lack of editing skills comes from being treated as precious little jewels who need to have their hands held throughout the process so their tiny little brains don’t get distracted from writing…while they get screwed over financially.  But I acknowledge the truth of it: most writers (not you guys, obviously) have this attitude that grammar is for prudes and commas are for lesser mortals, and even the most detail-oriented writers have difficulty stepping away from their work.  At any rate, get someone knowledgeable to look at your manuscript and tell you whether you need editing help; if you do, trade fairly for that help.

The .doc file you start out with is not acceptable to use to publish your ebook.  Do not upload an ebook using any old file; your readers will get a load of buggy crap that they can’t read.

Why is this?  Because most ebook files are not simple word processing files, but actually simplified web pages (more or less), and the conversion software at Smashwords, Amazon, and B&N will read certain things in your word processing file incorrectly as they try to make word processing files do what they were never meant to do.  In fact, what looks like an ebook file is really a hidden zipped folder…but that’s an advanced topic.  Just take it that ebook file conversion is tricky to do from a word processor file, and you need to give it all the help you can.

What this involves are basically two stages:

  • Get rid of (“nuke”) everything that will screw up the conversion, and
  • Format the text in a way the conversion engine can understand.

Next: Formatting your template.

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