Let’s talk about the formats themselves. In the e-book world, there are two major formats: Kindle and epub. Kindle e-books are often signified by a “.mobi” file extension. The epub form is signified, as you might guess, by the “.epub” file extension. Some experts say that epub has pulled ahead of Kindle in terms of its flexibility. I don’t want to get into this discussion, but from my experience, having formatted Rebecca Hamilton’s Forever Girl, I can say, in general, that epub readers seem to be better behaved than their Kindle counterparts. Whether this is the result of the epub format or just the device, who knows.
There are a number of programs which convert a word-processor document to either Kindle or epub format. For instance, on my Macbook, I have Apple’s Pages and Keith Blount’s wonderful Scrivener, both of which will generate e-book files. At Immortal Ink Publishing, however, we need to have tighter control. We need to assure that a book will display appropriately on the Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and on Apple’s iPad (also, not everyone has a dedicate e-reader; they’ll be viewing our books on a number of devices from a PC to an iPhone). Our decision involves formatting the e-book basically by hand.
How does one go about doing so? Both the Kindle and epub formats are based on the HTML markup language. It would not be inaccurate to say that e-books utilize a stripped-down version of HTML. Not all tags are supported. Not all CSS (cascading style sheet) directives are supported. But I’m not going to get into the deep technical nuances of e-books.
Here is the basic process for converting a word-processing document to an e-book:
- Place codes in your DOC or RTF file to represent special formatting. For Rebecca’s book, we were concerned about italics only. You could very well, however, have a book that includes bold, subscript, superscript, etc.
- copy and paste your document into a text editor
- Apply special HTML formatting to your text editor. This includes paragraph tags, chapter headings, etc.
- Place the results into a special HTML document
- Add CSS directives
- Use the Calibre software to turn your HTML file into an epub and Kindle file
Thankfully, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Guido Henkel has been kind enough to provide us with some guidelines in his “Take pride in your eBook formatting” series. I have to warn non-techies out there that these articles are in-depth and bring with them a steep learning curve, but if you take your time and read the articles carefully, you should be able to professionally format an e-book. I won’t go into the steps involved, as you can read the articles yourself—moreover, I’ve kind of outlined them above.
I’ve developed what I think is a pretty solid method for e-book formatting, thanks to Guido’s awesome articles. I have a couple of departures from his suggestions, however.
1) He recommends encoding dashes as HTML entity for a dash. I won’t get into the coding geekery of it all, but Shana and I found that the encoded dash is almost the size of an em dash. This makes passages, at times, difficult to read. Thus we opted to represent the dash literally as “-”.
2) Guido also suggests using a global format for producing both Kindle and epub files. For instance, the iPad can’t seem to center content appropriately—unless you trick it into doing so by nesting HTML tags. From my experience, this nesting, while necessary for the iPad, can make the Kindle device choke and gag (sometimes content is centered, other times it isn’t). As a result, I’ve decided to separate the source HTML files. I use one named “kindle.html” and another named “epub.html.”
3) He also suggests placing a CSS directive for chapter headings in order to force page breaks. In some cases, this didn’t always work. A method I found that seems to be more full proof is to create a DIV tag to simulate page breaks.
If you’ve made it this far, I want to add some technical tips. Even so, I don’t want to frighten anyone with technical details. I am by profession a programmer and database administrator, so these details, to me, seem normal. I’m providing them here for reference purposes only.
1) Kindle is not as obedient with CSS directives as epub devices. In particular, Kindle seems to ignore the “margin-right” directive.
2) If you intend to sell your e-book through Apple, keep the following things in mind:
- You cannot post books to Apple unless you have a Mac
- The Apple validation engine is a bitch. It’s much stricter than Amazon or Barnes & Noble
- There is a long delay while Apple checks the content. I’ve read this can be as long as three weeks
3) You will need a fairly advanced text editor. Sorry, but notepad simply will not cut it. You need something that can do some fairly advanced search and replace. I use the wonderful—and free—Text Wrangler for the Mac.
4) Simplicity is the key. Make your HTML templates as simple as possible.
5) Check your e-book on an actual reader device, if you have access to one. The software on your PC is great for reading e-books, but it does not accurately represent your e-book’s formatting on an actual e-reader.
6) DO NOT use spaces in filenames. Ever. If you do, good luck making it past Apple’s validation engine.
7) Prefix all external links with “http://”; if you do not, an epub validator may look for documents of said name instead of understanding that those are external links.
8) Use “title” attributes in all anchor tags and “alt” attributes in image tags.
9) Calibre is a great program, but takes some getting used to. If you’re a techno-geek who is familiar with PHP, Apache, PostgreSQL, EMACS, etc., then you should be right at home. Calibre is not what I would refer to as a friendly program. It’s quite functional, though.