Adventures in ebooks

I’ve been a bit quiet because I’ve been channelling my head resources to creation of an ebook. I don’t mean in the sense of throwing a document out to PDF: I mean a reflowable text publication like you get on Kindle, iBooks, Kobo, etc.

That’s a new medium for me. Of course, being me, I wanted to turn the thing from Word to ebook myself rather than pay someone to do it. Partly to learn the process (which should then be relatively simple to repeat for other books) and partly to have control over the appearance of the finished product. Like any new technical process it’s involved a lot of trial and error – poke the box, puzzle, refine, repeat. My trusty Kindle has been my lab partner, uncomplainingly accepting one version after another. Getting it looking good on there is the first landmark; then checking on other platforms. The cheapo Android tablet has been handy too, letting me try several ebook reader apps.

If you don’t know, there are two main formats for ebook files. EPUB is the one almost everybody uses, but Amazon uses MOBI (and other dialects of it). They’re both basically a set of files like you’d use to make a web page, wrapped up in a zip file. Part of my process has been finding a software path that lets me produce good output without delving into the HTML (I could probably do it but I don’t want the hassle).

This is one of those things where simplicity makes it complicated. You don’t have a lot of control over formatting, certainly on the basic Kindle model. The device and the user define text size and font. All you can do is set a structure and relative things like paragraph spacing, heading size, indents, etc. If you’re used to print layout you have to forget a lot of it.

It’s also clear that you can’t rely on how it will be displayed. Different reader apps can render even a simple ebook in quite different ways. Even different models of Kindle apparently do so. Indents, paragraph spacing… Some reader software puts hyphenated word breaks in left-aligned text, which presses my buttons like I can’t tell you. (More so because the book has a section specifically about how bad these are!) You have no control over what device and software any reader will use. The simplicity is your buffer against that: artful throttling back to get something that works OK as widely as possible.

Experience of using styles has been crucial. Because I’m used to book layout (of the non-fancy but effective kind) I knew what I wanted and could go looking for ways to do it. I’d say that most people wouldn’t be able to produce an ebook that looks good without help. And indeed, the Kindle store shows plenty of examples of people who’ve squeaked by on enthusiasm alone. (Cover design is another aspect. Someone pointed me to the Kindle ebooks of the works of Catherine Cookson. The thumbnails are… to be learned from.)

Oh, you know that advice about writing for the web that says you should break your paragraphs up to keep them short? I found it goes double for ebooks. It doesn’t take much to turn a Kindle screen into a wall of text, making it harder for the reader to keep track of where they are and sapping their will to go on.

Anyway, my book is just about finished now. You can be sure I’ll plug it here when it’s available. It’s a short introduction to writing to communicate. The next adventure will be in marketing and sales levels.

4 thoughts on “Adventures in ebooks”

  1. thanks Tim for your journey description through the land of eBook production.

    Very pertinent and I agree with your assertion that most people wouldn’t be able to do this alone – I am in this camp!

    See you at a future leadership circle meeting?


  2. After a conversation with a colleague at a networking event to day I was challenged to get my ebook on Kindle by the end of the month. Hmmm, is that doable? Maybe you can advise me when I see you on 16th August. Is that one of the meetings you are going to?


  3. Hi Cherry. I’m not down on 16th, I’m afraid: coming on 22-23.

    To answer the question… well, it’s possible, but rather a push. Bottlenecks would be whether the text is in a finished, ready to go form; getting it converted to MOBI format, or optimised to be fed into Amazon’s sausage machine; and sorting out the tax side.

    On that last point, Amazon withholds 30% of US sales for tax. If you provide the appropriate paperwork you can stop it doing that, as a UK citizen, but sorting that out would take a while. I think you can just set it up and accept the cut if you want (and maybe sort it out later). It’s a pain, and I use other online sales services that don’t do all that. Myself, I’m aiming to avoid the hassle by going through Bookbaby and managing all the ebook channels through that – though I’ll lose some Amazon goodies like flexibility to make changes.

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