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EBook basics for authors (part 1: formatting)

March 13, 2013

Tags: ebooks, ePub, mobi, Kindle, formatting

Updated March 13, 2013. Original post appeared May 12, 2011.

Mobi and ePub are the two basic eBook formats
It's not enough to know which book you want to read; now you need to know which devices will read which books, with which features. At a tutorial on eBook basics organized by the Washington (DC) Biography Group, we learned that the main standard formats for eBooks are ePub (for most e-readers) and Mobi (the proprietary format read by Amazon’s Kindle).

We learned this from two excellent speakers, the knowledgeable Joshua Tallent, founder and CEO of eBook Architects, and David Rothman, founder of TeleRead and co-founder of Open Reader, which jogged the main industry trade group, IDPF, into releasing ePub, the open standard eBook format used by Apple, Barnes and Noble (Nook), Sony, and other major e-reader companies.*

Listen up. Wrong choices down the line could limit your future readership. Our focus here is on what authors need to know.

Reflowable text lets you change font size
The reason you can enlarge the font size (the letters) on an e-reader like iBook is that ePub has reflowable text – that is, the display of the text changes easily to fit the screen of the device you use to read your eBooks, whatever your particular settings. Thus, if you increase the font size the text will rearrange itself so what you see appears as a normal page. This works well with straightforward text (with no illustrations or graphics).

Kindle format is different from, and not compatible with, the others. In 2005, Amazon purchased Mobipocket (the business), which is based in HTML.3. Mobipocket hasn’t changed a lot since, apart from various tweaks to enable video and audio. Kindle can’t do a sidebar with a border, for example (ePub can, which is better for formatting).

The ePub format came from the OEB system (Open eBook), an open standard based on XHTML1.1, which is much newer than HTML.3.

The ePub format can also be converted to Mobi, the format read by the Kindle. Amazon has been working hard to make it easier for publishers to upload books into their system, but if you upload ePubs into the Amazon system you lose all that nice formatting, and it goes back to HTML.3.

You can go from Kindle to ePub format in two steps. You can copy it to a new file and improve it. But if you make changes down the line, you have to go through those two steps again.

Poor formatting will hurt sales
Many firms and individuals can handle conversion to eBooks. In some cases they can help you find outlets for sales, too. But there are many 1- and 2-star reviews on Kindle because eBook formatting is crummy (partly because Kindle is currently more suited to straight text). Here, for example, is part of a review of the popular eBook A Visit from the Goon Squad:

“Although the book, itself, was thought provoking and cleverly structured, I would warn anyone who elects to read the book digitally that the 'powerpoint' chapters are extremely difficult to read on the Kindle. The print is so small and the back grounds so dark that even a magnifying glass was little help. The font size selection feature on the Kindle did not work on the 'slides' for those chapters."

Many trade publishers economize on formatting
One of the biggest problems in e-publishing is the quality of eBooks. Trade publishers often send files to cheap producers overseas for reformatting into eBooks. They often outsource formatting to firms in India, upload an ePub file, and Amazon turns that into a Mobi file. Some use systems that promise a lot but don’t deliver much. You can end up with some junky formatting trying to save money that way. It's important which option publishers choose.

Look at your book publishing contract, authors, and try to spell out in your contract that you have some control over formatting and eBook files.

What’s wrong with automated ebook conversion systems
Automated conversion systems are being heavily marketed to authors who want to self-publish, by firms such as Smashwords. Should authors consider them? NO no no no no, says Josh; NEVER do an automatic conversion. Anything automatic will cause problems – with all the variations you are much better off creating ePub files or Kindle files from scratch. If you use automation, you are not in control.

Use an eBook designer
For a good print book you need to use a designer. The same is true for ePubs and Kindle. It’s a different container and the eBook needs a different format and design. You also definitely need a good eBook cover (which could be different from a print-book cover): That’s what buyers see on the website where they purchase or read about the eBook. Among other sources of help, see John Kremer's page of links to eBook production and distribution services.

First step: Creating the eBook file
When Josh’s firm designs and formats a book, he gives it to you in two versions: one for the Kindle and one in ePub. How does he charge? His firm is on the high end. For a novel the cost is $150 under 400 pages, $200 for 400-800 pages, or $250 for over 800 pages; for a biography (straight text) he charges $1.50 a page (whether Word or PDF), so conversion for a 400 page ms. would cost about $600. (This does not include digital rights management, or DRM, which is applied by retailers and discussed in Part 2 of this series.)

Josh specializes in complex formatting. One of his clients is Open Road Integrated Media, which publishes many enhanced versions of eBooks. An expanded e-books mean there is multimedia. (The author may be required to collect material for multimedia and to clear the additional rights. It’s not just a question of linking.)

Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble all allow video, but all have different requirements for video. There’s a great need for standardization. (Think Beta and VHS in video history.)

Converting a physical book into an eBook
Working from a physical book (rather than a PDF or a Word document) is a different animal: You scan the pages, creating an image, and then you turn them into text. You must be VERY careful in choosing the company you use for this; you need quality assurance (QA) or you will get some strange pages.

To create an eBook from a hard copy book, Josh’s firm works with a Utah-based company with staff in China. They take a scanned page (scanned by OCR, which does 99.997% of text capture). A Mexican company then does line-by-line proofreading – with everyone watching for irregularities. After they go through that process, they create a Word document, which makes it easier to make editorial changes. Then they create an ePub and a Kindle file from the edited Word document.

Next step: distribution
What’s the next step after the $600 design fee? Right now eBook distribution is a problem for self-published authors. Your access depends on the firm. With Amazon and Barnes & Noble, your eBook is in the system and on sale one or two days after you submit it.

It can take weeks to get up and for sale in the Apple system. Josh is working on helping authors negotiate the distribution.

BookBaby will place your eBook for sale with iPad, Kindle, NOOK, and Sony Readers for $99 or $199. The question is, says Josh, what kind of control do you want? The options are limited now.

Interactive eBooks
There is a difference between an eBook and an eBook app (application). Apps can have eBooks inside of them. For example, Alice In Wonderland on an iPad is a book but it is also an enhanced eBook, based on gaming software. The software to create an eBook app costs thousands of dollars. Nook is also doing apps. Push Pop Press has posted a video guided tour of Al Gore's enhanced ebook Our Choice. Kindle does not yet do apps.

Fast-changing software can limit future access to eBooks
In 1995, Haldeman published his diaries—the entire text, plus home movies and stills of him and President Nixon. It was on a CD and today nobody has a machine old enough to be able to play it. Old CDs are usually based on old software (such as Windows 98).

The current software being used for ePubs is ePub 2. The industry is going through approval stages for the next version, ePub3 , which should come out soon, and should be backwards compatible (able to read ePub2 files).

This is part 1 of a 3-part report on a talk eBook experts Josh Tallent and David Rothman made to the Washington Biography Group, May 2, 2011.

Contact info for Joshua Tallent:
9415 Burnet Road, Suite 306
Austin, TX 78758
Gtalk: ebook.editor
Yahoo: ebook.editor

Many thanks to Sam Black for organizing a fascinating evening.

~ Pat McNees, Writers and Editors
* Adobe has posted a list of devices that can read ePubs.

This is Part 1 of a three-part series on Ebook basics for authors. See also
Part 2: DRM, or copy protection (http://bit.ly/irvKhq)
Part 3: Trends, QUA (http://bit.ly/kYt5Lk)

For more insights and opinions about various angles on e-publishing check out this page on Pat’s Writers and Editors site:
eBook Basics and Beyond .

Smashbooks publishes a very useful guide to formatting eBooks (download it free on your e-reader or your computer:
Smashwords Style Guide by Mark Coker -- also available free through Amazon.com. Copy for the book says it is useful "for any author who wants to distribute their book via Smashwords to major ebook retailers such as the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and Diesel." (Note, this does NOT include Kindle, the most widely used e-reader.)

Amazon Kindle Publishing Guidelines: How to make books available for the Kindle platform (PDF link). Here's the broader Kindle site.
Barnes & Noble's PubIt! Support & Resources Page
Kobo Writing Life (PDF file, FAQs revised 7-13-12)
Creating ePub files with Pages (Apple software)
Calibre FAQs (instructions for a powerful eBook conversion tool which is way over my head!)
Formatting an eBook in 10 easy steps, Part 1 (James Galbraith, 9-29-12) and Part 2 .
Thanks for these links and links to marketing guides to Jason Boog (Galley Cat, 1-24-13): Free eBook Formatting & Marketing Guides for Writers .

Also of possible interest: Field Guide to Fixed Layout for E-Books (free, from Book Industry Study Group)

And here (if you are thinking of buying an e-reader), is Wikipedia's guide to e-readers


  1. June 26, 2011 1:13 PM EDT
    Smashbooks publishes a very useful guide to formatting eBooks (download it free ON your e-reader or your computer: Smashwords Style Guide by Mark Coker -- also available free through Amazon.com. For "any author who wants to distribute their book via Smashwords to major ebook retailers such as the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and Diesel." (Note: that does not include Kindle. Read main blog entry.) Here's the Kindle site.
    - PM