Tools/Programs

Let’s go on the assumption that you are like me. A non-techie person who just wants to make nice ebooks. You’re not a hardcore pro with hundreds (or thousands) of dollars to invest in programs like Adobe’s InDesign nor do you have the inclination to get a degree in computer sciences. What you have is a short story or a novel you want to turn into an ebook and sell to readers. That said, what DO you need to create an ebook?

  • Internet Access
  • Word Processor
  • File Generator
  • Text Editor
  • Graphics Editor
  • Conversion Program
  • OCR Reader

If you’re reading this, you have internet access. If you’re a writer, you already use either a word processor or a file generator. Whether you use a Mac or a PC, if it is loaded with the standard programs, then in your program accessories you have a graphics editor and a text editor. You can download—for free—conversion programs and an OCR reader. So unless you want to upgrade and get really fancy (as in expensive), you have access to everything you need right now to format, convert and upload an ebook.

An ebook is essentially a little website based on HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language)—just like this blog post. Because of the large variety of ereaders and other devices upon which an ebook can be read, the formats are kind of generic. You are limited as to font styles and layouts. All ebooks use text flow that allows users to adjust the size of the text and number of lines displayed and make it fit the size of the screen. The pages ARE NOT static. That’s why headers and page numbering don’t work. That’s why columns are tricky and text boxes won’t work in an ebook. You have almost zero control over the right margin. The technology is changing quickly, and I bet by this time next year there will be some amazing developments. Right now, these are the limitations we have to work with.

But you can still do amazing things with the tools you have.

WORD PROCESSORS: Word processors actually make the worst ebooks. All those fabulous features that make writing and editing so easy, and features that create beautiful print documents tend to muck up ebooks.

Every single character, including spaces, are a bit of code. An ebook converter turns a word processor’s code into HTML and if it misreads the code or there is conflicting code, things can go downhill fast.

That said, you can still format a nice ebook using a word processor. AND, because MS Word is so popular, so wide-spread, so ubiquitous, almost every distributor will allow you to upload a Word file. Some, like Smashwords, demand a Word file (or its equivalent—what they actually want is a DOC or DOCX file). The key to making a good ebook with a word processor? A CLEAN SOURCE FILE.

FILE GENERATORS: I honestly don’t know if this is the proper term or not, but generate files (as opposed to documents) is what these programs do, so file generators it is. These are programs such as Scrivener which organize projects and allow writers to do full-media creation. (I use Scrivener, it’s a marvelous program for creating and organizing a novel or screenplay or non-fiction book. If you’re working on a series, it’s brilliant, truly, try it out) When a project is complete, you can print out a document if you need to, but what it does best is generate electronic files: PDF, RTF, TXT, DOC, ODT, HTML, XHTML, PS (Post Script), EPUB, MOBI (plus a bunch of versions of something called MultiMarkDown and I have no idea what those do). The point is, it is capable of making nice ebooks.

TEXT EDITOR: Text editors create either TXT (plain text) or HTML files. If your computer came loaded with programs, you will find under Accessories (or its equivalent) a basic text editor such as Notepad. All it handles is text. It doesn’t code anything. (which is why you can use it to strip excessive coding out of a word processor file) If you want any type of formatting, you have to code it in by hand. There are text editors that are not so basic and will allow you to make websites, generate different types of files, and format ebooks. I use Notepad++. Free download.

GRAPHICS EDITOR: Fancy title for a paint program. In your program accessories you most likely have a basic paint program. Microsoft calls theirs PAINT. You can use it to resize and modify photographs and clip art and other images. If you want to create title pages, scene break indicators, chapter headers and other fancy bits, you’ll need a program with a bit more oomph. I use Paint.Net. Free download. If you want a real powerhouse, but don’t want to pay the powerhouse price for Adobe Photoshop, there is a program called GIMP that you can download free. I haven’t tried it yet so I don’t know how easy it is to learn or use.

CONVERSION PROGRAM: Conversion programs create ebooks you can download directly to your reading device or upload to a distributor. If you are uploading to an aggregator such as Smashwords, you don’t need to convert your Word file. Smashwords has its own conversion program.

To create a MOBI file for direct loading to Amazon, I recommend the Kindle Previewer. This is an Amazon product (free download) which they regularly update to keep up with their devices. It’s almost reliable enough for testing your ebook if you don’t have a Kindle. Its best feature is that if you’ve improperly formatted your file, the conversion will fail and it will tell you why. It will also warn you about minor problems that can cause problems in your ebook.

MobiPocket Creator is another conversion program for Kindle books. I no longer recommend it. It isn’t updated often enough to keep up with KF/8 and MOBI7 requirements. What it does best is work quickly. If you want to proofread a document on your Kindle, it takes two minutes to directly upload a Word document then build an ebook. It won’t look pretty, but it’ll be readable.

If you need an EPUB file, your best bet is to build one from the ground up in html and convert it at the command line. Or, use a program such as Sigil (free download) whose sole purpose is to create EPUB files. What you don’t want to do is use a reading program such as Calibre. Calibre is a fun and fabulous ereader (very nice display) and computer e-library management program. (Because I don’t have a device on which to test EPUB files, I use Calibre to run EPUB files through their paces) While it will convert files into all sorts of formats, it also adds a lot of junk code. Chances of Calibre creating a broken Kindle book, very high. Chances of it producing a validated EPUB, very low.

OCR READER: This is only necessary if you are making ebooks out of back list books that have been scanned. The OCR (optical character recognition) “reads” the scanned pages and turns them into text (sort of). You’ll have a lot of clean up to do, but it beats retyping an entire manuscript. FreeOCR is a simple to use reader, it’s fairly quick, and best of all, it’s a free download. (I highly recommend that you NOT turn the read results into a Word file, but instead copy the text  into a text editor—clean up will go faster and there’s no spellchecker to have a nervous breakdown)

* * *

The tools and programs I mentioned makes a very short list, considering that there are dozens, maybe hundreds of programs available. All have their strengths and weaknesses, but I can attest (with the exception of GIMP because I have not used it) that all of the above are stable, easy to learn and use, and have proved highly useful.

19 thoughts on “Tools/Programs

  1. Hi Jaye:

    Wonderful synopsis and list of some essential tools to have in one’s arsenal of e-book creation management! And it’s amazing that these (save for Scrivener) are free tools!

    I would also recommend Sigil (http://code.google.com/p/sigil/) for creating EPUB-formatted e-books. Right now, they’ve got a bit of a sync problem between the released 0.5.3 code release — which is good — and the 0.6.0 documentation that describes features not yet available. There hasn’t been any discussion that I’ve seen about when the 0.6.0 version will be released, but it ought to be good.

    Trying now to get a 184,000-plus word document converted into e-book format! With your handy and helpful “Cheat Sheets,” along with the recommended tools, I think it will be a fairly smooth transition.

    Thanks for all you do!

    Jon

  2. You’re welcome, Jon. It is amazing how much power is in our fingertips, isn’t it. I’ve heard good things about Sigil and once I get caught up and have time for exploration, I intend to check it out. Thank you muchly for the link.

  3. Jaye –
    Just wanted to give you a little update, Amazon has lately been known to kick back mobi files converted with Calibre – which is bad news for those that create the files themselves as Calibre is a great tool for converting. I do not know for certain if it will kick back a epub made with Calibre though but Amazon KDP does accept epub files for conversion instead of DOC or DOCX. Notepad++ is a great free tool ( I love the macros I can set up to do a lot of the “trained monkey” work, but CoffeeCup also has a free version that is great as well. When I was first getting started with HTML coding for ebooks I used both of these for different stages of the building of the ebook.

    Deena of E-BookBuilders

  4. Pingback: Self-Publishers: Do You Need Nurturing? | J W Manus

  5. If you plan on using Calibre to produce mobi files you will need to set its mobi output preferences to use ‘both’. That way the mobi file will include both the old KF7 file (suitable for basic Kindles) and the new KF8 file (suitable for Kindle Fire HD, other Android based readers and iPads. Without telling Calibre to do this any graphics included in the file will look awful on some devices. By default Calibre uses the ‘old’ format.
    With the correct configuration Calibre can produce both mobi and epub files which are accepted by Amazon. It can also produce the dreaded table of contents far easier than using Kindle Previewer/KindleGen.

    Whichever conversion program you use you must start with as simple a Word document as possible. You’d be amazed at all the rubbish MS Word adds to an HTML file. I find it best to strip out all unused styles before I start the process.

  6. Some fellow authors have recommended Jutoh (http://www.jutoh.com/) as a good tool for formatting ebooks. I’m on the fence as it does cost money. Have you heard any feedback or used the program at all? I know there is no real “all in one” program at this point, and I am fairly familiar with HTML and CSS so I can do a lot on my own, but I’m looking for a tool that might make things a *bit* smoother.

    • I haven’t used it myself, so all I know is the results. Jutoh does produce nice ebooks. I have several on my Kindle(s) and they work exactly the way they should.

    • I bought it about a month ago, to upload an ePub directly to Kobo. Learning curve isn’t too steep :-), and I figured out the problem I was having pretty quickly. Upload went very smoothly, and now I know what to do in the future. Calibre has always been wonky for me for some reason; no idea why. I felt it was worth the US$30 or so I paid for Jutoh. :-)

  7. Fantastic information, kudos.

    I thought I’d mention how great GIMP is, many powerful features, updated with some regularity and totally free. It’s especially worth mentioning, aside from it’s features and cost (nothing), as the pricey professional suited Photoshop has gone lease rather than purchase, though older versions and I think Elements currently do not feature that restriction.

    I’m used to PS Elements, but apart from some obvious differences to get used to, it’s an enjoyable experience that suits my needs. I do find working with fonts in graphics still has room to improvement, such as scaling, as well as moving the text layers. Flattening the other visible layers first helps, some, but it may still mistakenly think you want to move the b/g, even when you have already clicked upon the right layer. I expect such issues and others will be resolved or improved in future builds.

    • Thanks for the recommend. GIMP is one of those programs I’m working up my nerve to try. I think Paint.net has taught me enough of the basics to think that maybe I can step up my game to something more powerful.

  8. Just discovered your blog via Passive Guy. Thanks for all of your info !

    Would you have any comment on using Scrivener for writing/formatting/compiling ? I am 35% through my first book with it and hope I am not storing up trouble for myself.

    • Scrivener is a terrific program for organizing and composition. Its fun to use, too. I’m leery of using it to make an ebook, though. It’s really “grabby” in its coding. It’s been known to override user preferences in Kindle devices. Best bet, I think, would be to compile your finished book as an EPUB file, then open that in an EPUB editor to tweak, fine tune and make sure it’s validated. Then run that file through KindleGen and convert it to a MOBI file.

      If all this is utter babble to you, email me when you’re ready to make an ebook and I’ll walk you through it.

      • Thanks a lot for that. I do get it, as I used to build web sites a good bit and used html. Great advice. Appreciate it.

  9. I tried to use Scrivener in the 30 days trial period, but almost went nuts with it. To me, it is overcomplicated, and I just didn’t understand how to use it. If you have any suggestions and tips on how to master the basics of the program, I would be very happy to hear them. Actually, all I want to do is format my text to various ebook documents, and upload the text from Word or Open Office.

    • I haven’t used Scrivener in a while and don’t even have it loaded on my current computer, so anything I have to say would be relying on my memory and prone to errors. Gwen Hernandez is a sanctioned expert on Scrivener: http://gwenhernandez.com/. While Scrivener can generate ebook files, it’s not a program I’d recommend to anyone other than an expert for direct production of ebooks.

      If you’re looking for a write>edit>ebook type of program, you should check out Sigil or Jutoh, both of which do exactly that. I don’t use Sigil to build ebooks, I do use it for its epub editing capabilities on a fairly regular basis. (I load EPUB files into it so I can twiddle with the html) It takes some getting used to, but it’s not difficult to use. I have never used Jutoh, but everyone I know who does use it claims it’s wonderful.

      Word and OpenOffice are okay for formatting very simple ebooks (start with squeaky clean text and use style sheets). The real problem is that you can’t actually SEE what you’re doing (same with Scrivener). You can’t know if the program is doing something weird until the ebook is converted and it’s broken, then you have to GUESS at what sort of weirdness was inserted into your file. (To see exactly what I mean, save a Word file as html, then open it in a text editor.)

      My best recommendation is to use Scrivener for what it is intended–organization and composition. Use word processors for what they are intended–composition and print documents. When I produce books I use multiple programs (everything from a basic notepad to InDesign) some because a particular program might do one thing particularly well, and others because my clients use all sorts of different programs. I’m not good enough nor do I have enough time or energy to try to force a program that does one thing really well to do another thing only sorta well. If I were doing one-size-fits all in ebook production, I’d go with Jutoh.

    • Scrivener is a powerful program. I agree. But it not complex to use imho. However like any program that we want to use for something worthwhile, it is worth investing a bit of time to learn.
      I have been using it for about 6 months and have been using it solely for writing a book. I had tried Storymill and Sygil previously. I found them fine, but like simplified versions of Scrivener.
      Scrivener allows the writer to gather background, research on the web, external files such as maps all within the one program in an easy to use way. Multiple windows can be kept open in order to refer to those documents while one writes. Word count targets can be set by session or by day. Layout, formatting, fonts etc can easily be set, with styles etc. It is also pretty easy to work on more than one project at the same time, and auto backups as well as periodic backups and syncing with Dropbox is straight forward.
      The writer can write by scene, or by section or by chapter or whatever feels best. And it is easy to then preview how it will look and change around the order of things on the fly.
      There are also many tutorials on the web site and on youtube.
      Personally I am some way from compiling into an eBook and am researching how best to do that. Jaye’s comment above is helpful and I will continue to prepare for that day :-)

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