Calibre, Word and MOBI: A Tale of Three Programs

(Yes, I know, MOBI is not a program, but my blog, my headlines…)

Ever since I started blogging about ebooks, I’ve cautioned people against using Microsoft Word to format their ebooks. Not because Word is a bad program and not because it’s impossible to create ebooks with it. It’s because it’s the not quite right tool. Word’s strength lies in creating print documents or pdfs.

Recently, I’ve been cautioning people to not use Calibre to convert their Word files into MOBI files in order to sell them on Amazon. Not because Calibre is a bad program and not because it’s impossible to create MOBI files with it. It’s because it’s not quite the right tool. Calibre’s strength lies in managing a person’s digital library. It was not created to convert commercial ebook files.

EPUB files are not as troublesome as MOBI files. EPUB is EPUB is EPUB, and while each device has its own special way of rendering the file to fit the platform, the differences between devices aren’t big enough for most people to notice. A single EPUB file will work pretty much the same on a Nook as it does on an iPad.

Calibre is set up for optimum use with EPUB files. If a publisher converts a Word (html) file into an EPUB file using Calibre, then what they see there is pretty close to what a Nook or iPad reader will see.

This is not true with MOBI files. The reason is Amazon. You see, EPUB devices have evolved and changed and upgraded and gone the way all technology goes, ever upward and onward. But the device makers built the newer devices around the existing ebook platform. So an EPUB ebook formatted five years ago will work pretty much the same on a new iPad as it did on a first generation Nook. Amazon went bass-ackwards. They built the new devices then tinkered and recreated entirely new ebook platforms to fit the new devices. So a MOBI file being sold on Amazon isn’t just a MOBI file. It’s also a KF/8 file and an iOS file and an AZW3 file and god knows what else is there. I don’t quite get all the technical stuff. What I do get is that the same ebook can work fine on a Kindle Fire, but go to hell on a Paperwhite and look okay on a Kindle Keyboard and turn into gibberish if an iPad user gets hold of it.

The whys and wherefores don’t matter as much as the fact that a file formatted in a program which is optimal for printing documents and then converted with a program that is at its best with EPUB files, is going to have trouble meeting the very odd demands of Kindles.

(By the way, if you are using Scrivner or InDesign to create your ebooks for sale on Amazon, you will run into the same exact problems because Amazon is constantly tweaking and fiddling with the platform(s) and updating devices and they don’t necessarily share what they’ve done with the rest of the world.)

I realize that none of what I just wrote is going to dissuade people from using Calibre to convert their Word docs into MOBI files to sell on Amazon. I know this because people are using Word because that’s the program they know and love(hate) and they need a way to convert those Word files and Calibre is the shortest distance between A and B.

So instead of wagging my finger and clucking my tongue, I did some research. Question: Is it possible to format a file in Word and convert it with Calibre and create a MOBI file good enough to sell on Amazon? (Here, I make a very clear distinction. If your Nook died and you bought a Kindle, and you want to convert all your Nook books into MOBI files you can load onto your Kindle, Calibre is a great tool. That’s personal use. You expect that the ebook might not work completely right, but that’s okay, at least you have it. You can’t ask your paying customers to accept that standard.)

What I discovered is: Yes, it is possible.

I managed to fix the worst problems I see with Calibre-converted ebooks. I managed to create ebooks that respond properly to all the user preferences in three generations of Kindles (Kindle Keyboard, Paperwhite and Fire). I almost got Calibre to build a toc.ncx (what the user sees in the Go To features on Fires and Paperwhites) the way I want it to. I think with some more tinkering and fiddling around inside the opf file, I can fix that problem. I couldn’t get the cover to display on the bookshelf in my Paperwhite, but that’s kind of a non-issue, since Amazon will handle that when the book is uploaded. (It is only a big deal if a publisher is selling direct.)

Even though the ebooks I created this way aren’t up to my standards, they will respond to user preferences and they will look fine and read fine, and thus, they are good enough for uploading to Amazon.

There is a caveat. If you format your document, save it as an html file and convert it as is with Calibre, your ebook will be broken. It will be a substandard product you should not ask people to pay for. What you have to do first and foremost is format your Word file so it works within Calibre’s parameters, and secondly, you have to fix the html coding in the Word file.

Sound scary? It is, kind of. Word’s html coding is a nightmare, full of mso odd bits that give Kindles the hiccups. The good news is, all you really need to do is remove some very specific lines of code and rearrange a few others.

Since this post is running long and I don’t even have any pretty pictures to enliven it, (plus I have a buttload of Christmas gifts to wrap) I am going to explain how I did it in my next post. It’ll have pictures. In the meantime, if any of you, Dear Readers, have figured this out and feel like sharing in the comments, feel free.

18 thoughts on “Calibre, Word and MOBI: A Tale of Three Programs

  1. Okay, you’re making me a little nervous with this post. I’ve been using Calibre for a couple years, in pretty much the exact manner you say I shouldn’t. I test all my files in Kindle and Kindle Fire, and they seem to function correctly. The covers are there and look fine, the text size and fonts can be changed, and I can skim back and forth or jump through the book without any issues. After upload, I also buy a copy to verify that the book is working as it should… Which makes me wonder what terrible thing I’m missing. Have I really sold thousands of incorrectly functioning e-books? Yikes. Or do I have the magic formula that actually works? (ha!)

  2. Great article, Jaye. The HTML created by Word should definitely be avoided at all costs. It’s more 1990s than a Technotronic mix tape. The Guido Henkel method of gussying things up in a text editor and converting with Calibre works pretty well and is good for DIY authors, but haven’t tried this method in a few years. Look forward to part 2!

    Oh yeah, email us your mailing address and we’ll send you the awesome BB eBooks Christmas Card. Take care.

    • That’s how I build ebooks. It’s not difficult, but it requires learning how to build an ebook with html. If you’re interested in learning how to do it, I suggest getting Paul Salvette’s design and development book (there’s a link in the sidebar of this blog).

  3. Hello JW –
    I am new in the publishing process. I really appreciate your information!
    I recently published my first animated eBook with Apple iTunes iBook store. I created the book with animation, video and music. “Angel Diamonds from the Sky.” My goal is to get it on Amazon and Barnes & Nobel. This one is fixed pages. I created it in Keynote and published it in iAuthor. Any ideas of the best way. It’s a jungle with the different formats required and also I want print versions as well. Looks like for I have to redo the art. Lots to learn. I do have a graphics background so that helps. Any thoughts are welcome. Jack

    • As far as I know, Apple is the only company that makes this relatively painless. However, it’s not a closed shop. Amazon offers something similar, but I haven’t used it and don’t know anyone who does. You can start here.

      I do know that you’ll be working with a complete different platform and whatever you formatted for Apple will have to be redone for Amazon.

      Print is easier. There are tons and tons of book designers doing graphic-type books. And there are several print on demand companies who can print them for you. Check CreateSpace and Lightning Source.

  4. I’ve been using Guido Henkle’s method. I thought I was doing okay. Basically, it ends up going from html to Calibre. They look good to me, but what the heck do I know. They’re also pretty basic, though. For my next book (waiting to get back from the editor) I’m going to experiment and try sigil, even though I’ve never used it before. I hear good things, though.

    • Hi Rob, checked some samples. All looks good except for the Calibre line squish.
      Sigil is an interesting program. It can actually be used to create terrific files for Amazon. You just have to tweak them a bit.

      • Wow. Thanks a lot for checking that out. Glad to hear there aren’t any major issues. I would like to get rid of the squish, though. And I’d like to get a little fancier with the design, too. So I still might make the switch. I think it’ll be worth the extra effort for even more control.

  5. Definitely worth the effort, Rob. What producers need to realize is that the ebook novelty factor has pretty much worn off. People read ebooks for convenience and comfort. A Calibre conversion is great for convenience. Where it falls down is in comfort. The Calibre line squish is okay for younger readers with strong eyes. Not so bueno for those of us with old eyes who need more line spacing. And there is the issue with how Calibre creates ebook navigation and how Amazon does it. Plus, Calibre can’t be expected to keep up with Amazon’s tweaking. Whenever my Kindles update (and it happens quite often, actually) I notice things happen to some of my ebooks. Sometimes those are bad things that turn the ebooks pretty much unreadable.

  6. Pingback: Understanding EPUB | InstaScribe

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  8. Pingback: A new look at self-publishing | The "Professional" Blog of J. M. Brink

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