Book Production: Start to Finish, How It’s Done

blog2I spend a lot of time explaining to people what is happening with their ebooks and print on demand books–mostly why their Word docs don’t make much difference to me. So instead of repeating myself, I’ll just write this post and send them a link.

Caveat: This is how I do things, the workflow I’ve developed. Not every book producer or formatter does things the same way–or for the same reasons.


What I need from authors are their source file (Word doc or whatever word processor they use–doesn’t matter, I can handle just about anything*), their full-sized cover image (jpeg), and any images they want inserted. It’s better to NOT embed the images in the source document. Rather, send them as attachments, or if there are a lot then stick them in a zip folder and attach that. You can indicate image placement with a comment: [INSERT IMAGE dogandcat.jpg CAPTION Best friends for life.] It’s also best to send the complete document, including all front matter and back matter, in one file. That way nothing gets lost or misplaced (and I don’t get confused). Don’t bother inserting hyperlinks either. When you do that, I have to take the time to recover them. Best just to provide the url and place it next to the text you want linked. Example [LINK Crappy websites.]

* No pdf files unless you are paying me to recover the text. And that can be very expensive.

Should I “format” my Word doc?
Don’t bother. You’ll see why it’s a waste of time a little further down the post. What you should concentrate on is your text, making sure it is properly copy edited, proofed and as clean as you can make it. If you have specific design requirements, write me a note. [JAYE, I WANT THE CHAPTER HEADS IN SANS SERIF WITH A GRAY LINE UNDER IT] Best to just stick to a basic manuscript format.


I create a folder for the project, save the original document, then make a copy of it. I start a text file called “Notes”. I go through the copy, tagging chapter/section starts, section/scene breaks, and making notes of any special styling the book requires (quotes, poems, songs, lists, text messages, emails, letters, etc.). Here I record in my notes the front and back matter, number of chapters, sections, and anything else I need to know. Once the styling is tagged, I tag the special formatting such as italics and bolding. If the front and back matter were sent separately, I compile them into the main document.


Copy/paste the entire document into a text editor. Here’s where I do serious clean up. All tabs, extra spaces, and illegal characters have to be dealt with. Because I like my files tidy, I straighten up the italics and bolding, too. And because I am also a writer/editor, I go through and make sure any manuscript punctuation is turned into proper printer punctuation. Now the file is clean and ready to format.


I create a folder which contains all the sub folders I need along with base files for the opf (manifest) and toc.ncx (internal table of content and guide). Depending on what type of device the client uses, I will do either an EPUB version or a MOBI version first. Then I tackle the images. I size and insert the cover image, and any other image files the client provided. If the client wants custom graphics, I make those. Once the folder is set up and the images are in place, time to style the text.


I use css (cascading style sheets) and html to style the ebook in the text editor. By this point, I have a good idea about the tone of the book so I use that to come up with a “look” that fits the story and complements the cover. Once the book is styled, I split the book into smaller html files–one per chapter or section. Then I complete the opf file, making sure everything is in there, and finish the toc.ncx. The ebook is now ready to compile and convert. Once it’s converted into an EPUB file, I open it in an epub editor. I run quality checks to make sure everything is where it is supposed to be and I haven’t made any bonehead goofs. Any changes I make in the editor, I also make in the html files. Then I validate the file and if it’s for a MOBI/Kindle version, I convert it. Now it’s ready for proofreading.


If I am doing the proofreading, I load the ebook on my Kindle and go through it word by word. If I find a goof, I fix it in the original html file. If the client is doing their own proofreading, I encourage them to load the ebook on their device (or use a program such as the Kindle Previewer or Calibre) to see their book “live”. They can use a copy of their original document for mark up. All they have to do is highlight all changes. They can also leave me notes (highlight those, too!) if they want changes in the styling. The client sends the doc to me and I make the corrections/changes in the html files.


I send a copy of the final version to the client for a quality check. If everything is a go, I build the additional versions the client needs. I don’t hold with the notion of one-size-fits-all for ebooks, so I make separate EPUB and MOBI ebooks. Depending on the client’s distribution plan, I might make several retailer-specific versions (different hyperlinks, different promotional material, etc.). The ebook is done.


If the client needs a Word doc formatted for Smashwords and/or a print on demand book, I compile the clean/ proofread text into a new text file and remove all the html codes. Then I copy/paste that into a Word doc. If for Smashwords, I use a simple template. If for print on demand, it’s just a generic file that I will place into an InDesign document.

Notice what happened with that original Word (word processor) doc? Once it’s tagged, I have no more use for it. I might glance at it for reference if the styling is complicated and the client has specific needs, but except for its text, it has no role in the actual ebook build.


On the left is the Word doc that I have tagged; on the right is the html version. Same text, but notice how it doesn’t resemble the Word doc at all. 🙂

blog3Here is the same text looking like an ebook. Notice the lack of resemblance to either the original Word doc or the html file.

I know some of you have questions. I’ll try to answer.

What about the font?
If your ebook requires a special font, I’ll embed it. If not, I won’t declare a font at all and leave it up the ereading device and user to decide which font they want for their reading pleasure. You can make life easier for yourself by not worrying about fonts in your Word doc. Compose with whatever makes you happy. If you are using special characters such as letters with acute or grave marks, or foreign characters (Greek letters, for instance) I recommend sticking with Times New Roman. Its character subsets render properly (mostly) in ebooks. Other fonts and subsets can have serious translation problems.

What about margins and justification and and and…?
None of it matters. Think of your Word doc as a component and the only thing that matters is the text. Your ebook is not going to look like your Word doc. You don’t want it to look like your Word doc. Whatever formatting you do is going to be lost when I copy/paste the text into the text editor. As I said before, if you want something special, just write a note in the document and highlight it. I’ll find it.

Can I make changes myself in the finished ebook?
If you’re familiar with using an epub editor, sure. You can’t do anything with the MOBI version, but I can provide the pre-conversion epub file that you can tinker with and then convert. If you’re not handy with an epub editor, then contact me and I’ll make the changes for you. (I rarely charge for minor changes or cover updates.)

For the Do-it-yourselfers who are reading this, pay heed to the ongoing theme in this post. Clean text, clean text, clean text. Clean text (both in the writing and formatting) is what makes or breaks an ebook. Make sure it’s in tip-top shape going in, then proofread the actual ebook to catch any remaining goofs or formatting hiccups. (For those of you who are uploading Word docs to Amazon, you can proofread your Kindle ebook before you upload it for distribution. Download Mobipocket Creator then use it to convert your Word doc into a prc file. Then, convert that into a mobi file with the Kindle Previewer. You can either proof the book (both text and formatting) in the Previewer or load the mobi file onto your Kindle and proof it there.)

I’m sure I missed some questions. Feel free to ask away.


20 thoughts on “Book Production: Start to Finish, How It’s Done

  1. Outstanding! And I am fortunate enough (1) to have been and be the recipient of all the fruits of your labor, and (2) not even to have to think about everything it is that you do under the hood.

    (Further: And I know, I know. I *will* be in touch).

    • Just keep your head down and whistle, eh, Julia? As far as I’m concerned, writing is the hard part. What I do is a breeze in comparison. 🙂

  2. I do the TPB for CreateSpace but leave it to the pros to do the ebook. (I just reviewed a book marketer’s ebook that recommended doing it yourself, and it seems like the book’s weird formatting and organization provided reason #1 why you shouldn’t).

    What I’ve found over the last two books is that it was better for me to do the TPB first, then send the file to the formatter. Reformatting the book showed me errors that two editing passes missed. And this last go-round, I still found one mistake in the ebook; but it was better than a dozen.

    As for formatting the ebook, I’m doing exactly what you said: one file for the text, with everything from book description to copyright notice. I insert notes using double asterisks (which I don’t use anywhere else) and graphics like this (“** insert 04-filename.jpg**”). Yes, I rename the art with numbers; my Palmer Trial book had 67! And, yes, I leave it up to the reader to select the font.

    Glad to see I didn’t omit anything in your post.

    • I hear ya, Bill. Some of the best examples of what NOT to do come from ebooks telling you how to format ebooks. Heh.

      As long as a producer works in a linear fashion (ebook to print or print to ebook), they’ll always have a clean copy to work with. Like you, I see it as an opportunity to catch goofs. Which I swear are breeding when we aren’t looking. But you know what, I am convinced readers can tell the difference between publishers who make an honest effort and the slobs who can’t be bothered.

      The real reason I prefer to do ebooks first is that it is much easier to make changes, even revisions in an ebook than it is in a print layout. I can get all the major issues fixed before going into print production. Then, if I find a minor goof in the print version, it takes two minutes to update the ebook file.

      I do the same thing with images. Image01, image02, image03, etc. I keep a list of descriptions handy in case things get rearranged or confusing, plus it reduces typing errors.

    • The real problem is that Word is NOT a safe program–not for publishers, anyway. Aside from all the html junk it inserts, it fools people into believing what they see on the screen is what will appear in their ebook. One of my biggest headaches is special characters. Writers want a symbol or dingbat or foreign character and select one from one of the many, many character subsets Word offers, unaware that those characters turn into question marks or crossed boxes or black boxes in the ebook. It’s not easy rooting those out. Another headache is using text boxes or tables. They will NOT translate into an ebook. The text has to be recovered and specially formatted in order to work.

      • Word is fine for what it’s designed to do: write office memos and technical documents that will be printed and distributed in a local office environment. The more I’ve used it, though, the more I’m coming to realize it’s really not a good program for writing novels, especially eBooks, on. You’re 100% correct, it fools people into thinking this is exactly what the final product will look like. If you’re printing something off a laser printer, sure, you’ll get pretty much exactly what you expect. As soon as you throw a Word novel at a Kindle you’ll wind up with some very strange stuff if you’re not absolutely careful when you’re writing and formatting. I’ve recently started using Scrivener and find it’s much better suited to the actual task of writing a book.

      • “Writers want a symbol or dingbat or foreign character and select one from one of the many, many character subsets Word offers, unaware that those characters turn into question marks or crossed boxes or black boxes in the ebook.”

        I learned that the hard way and had to do another round of ebook fixes to weed the boxes out. I operate now on the assumption that “simple” special characters such as accent marks over vowels are doable, but not umlats, doubled letters (as in the “ae” in encyclopaedia or archaeology) and anything else is not. Safer to leave them off.

      • Actually, Bill, if writers will stick to the character subset and symbols in the Times New Roman font, you’ll find that they contain just about any special character you need. It’s when they go snooping in other subsets or other fonts where they run into trouble. For really unusual characters, if you’re formatting in html, here are two reference charts that come in handy. You can use either the named entity or the hex code, and most will render just fine in ebooks: or

        Out of hundreds of ebooks that I’ve formatted, I have run into only ONE character I could not get to render. Drove me nuts, but had to concede defeat.

  3. This is great. Thanks, Jaye. Cleaning up unnecessary white space in the manuscript is a critical step. If I buy one more book where centered elements are off because the person put a bunch of tabs in and ran it through an automated conversion program at the vendor, my head’s gonna spin.

    • Hi, Paul! I’m growing increasingly impatient with blank “pages” at the ends of chapters. I know exactly what it causing it, too. Coker’s Smashwords formatting guide. It recommends using two blank lines at the end of every section before every page break. Well and good for the Meatgrinder which converts into formats that may or may not respect page breaks. Terrible for Kindles.

    • Word makes it easy to screw with me on that point. When I create a Header style, I have to go into the paragraph section and make sure the indent isn’t turned on.

      • Styles are actually one of the better features of Word. For most working documents the writer intends to eventually produce in an ebook, they only need two styles: Normal and Heading 1. Normal sets up the body of the text and Heading 1 is for chapter/section starts. Set them, apply them, and there’s not a whole of damage the writer can do. 🙂 I will caution against using justified text in a Word doc. Word can and does “lock” that and it will disable to user controls on Kindles. Also, never, ever use automatic hyphenation. Conversion can turn soft hyphens into characters. Looks very bad.

  4. [This may be the strangest blog comment you will ever read.]

    Jaye’s post is the to key to understanding why everything in the ebook production world is broken. Over 40 years ago, a famous computer scientist, Edsger Dikstra, described the concept of the separation of concerns.

    Let me try to explain to you, what to my taste is characteristic for all intelligent thinking. It is, that one is willing to study in depth an aspect of one’s subject matter in isolation for the sake of its own consistency, all the time knowing that one is occupying oneself only with one of the aspects. We know that a program must be correct and we can study it from that viewpoint only; we also know that it should be efficient and we can study its efficiency on another day, so to speak. In another mood we may ask ourselves whether, and if so: why, the program is desirable. But nothing is gained —on the contrary!— by tackling these various aspects simultaneously. It is what I sometimes have called “the separation of concerns”, which, even if not perfectly possible, is yet the only available technique for effective ordering of one’s thoughts, that I know of. This is what I mean by “focusing one’s attention upon some aspect”: it does not mean ignoring the other aspects, it is just doing justice to the fact that from this aspect’s point of view, the other is irrelevant. It is being one- and multiple-track minded simultaneously.

    Nowadays, almost all software developers use this idea as the organizing principle for writing code, not just for analyzing it. If we apply this model to ebook production for stories (that is, short stories, novels, linear non-fiction, etc.), we will see that the industry has misapplied the principles of print and web production to create a hot mess and Jaye’s workflow is a valiant attempt to impose sanity on today’s messed-up reality.

    Let’s apply a little intelligent thinking and uncover the separate concerns buried in a typical ebook. Here is the model I developed by looking at Jaye’s workflow. There are four layers of an ebook that I read:

    1. The story text
    2. The literary work
    3. The edition
    4. The rendered instantiation

    Most of Jaye’s workflow is designed around compensating for the fact that no one (authors, software developers, standards bodies, publishers, distributors, or retailers) properly separates these concerns.

    The story text

    The way to think about the text of a story is to imagine a transcript of Homer (the ancient Greek bard, not the cartoon dude) telling the story. No chapter divisions, no footnotes, no emphasis, just a title, the author’s name, and the text, a linear stream of sentences. For some short stories, that might actually be all you need, but most longer works need more than the equivalent of a mere oral recitation,.

    The literary work

    To produce a more complex story, we often add structure and annotations. Chapter divisions, denoting emphasis or foreign words, reference links (notes, definitions, or forward references) and epigraphs are all common affordances we use to make stories more accessible to readers. In the modern world, these should be injected into the text as descriptive (NOT presentational) markup.

    The edition

    When the literary work is produced for a specific platform (i.e. for POD or for Amazon’s Kindle ecosystem), the text and descriptive markup will be combined with edition specific content and metadata (images, etc,) and then transformed via presentational markup into an output file that can be rendered for that fomat.

    The rendered instantiation

    When the words hit a reader’s eyes (or ears in the case of an audiobook edition), the story achieves its reason for being. The responsibility for this ‘concern’ belongs to the device which displays the words.

    Of course, nothing works like this today. We have no separation of concerns. If we did, the world would be a better place for writers, readers, and folks like Jaye. Correcting a typo would be as simple as changing the text and pressing a button. In theory a book could update while I was reading it (although that might be a little weird). Producing an edition for a new platform would be a simple matter of creating a new transform and adding any new metadata. We wouldn’t have any of this nonsense where ebook production folks try to create a single HTML file that works on every platform.

    Also, Happy Mother’s Day!

    • Hi William. You just said what I was thinking, but smarter. 🙂

      I’m different than most of the other formatters I’m acquainted with. Most either come from a background of computer coding or from book design. I don’t have a background in either. I came to book production as a reader/writer who has ALWAYS been hypersensitive to how my reading material looks. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. The disadvantage is that I’m always playing catch up with the technology. I spend a lot of time just trying to figure out how stuff works, or why it won’t work, or even just learning the name of things so I can research properly. A big advantage that I do have is that I’m not locked into any specific tools. I’ll use anything that works–and sometimes stumble onto things that “experts” say shouldn’t work, but it does. Like the book designer crowd who believe InDesign is the end-all. be-all of book production. It’s a great program and the more I use it, the more I appreciate it. BUT, it’s terrible for ebooks. I know there are formatters who will defend it to the death, but as a reader, I am constantly frustrated by InDesign quirks (such as locking my user preferences or out of control drop caps) in the ebooks I read. I’m also frustrated by the Word-crowd who say plain-vanilla formatting is the way to go (because plain-vanilla is the ONLY way to get a properly working ebook when Word is the source file).

      I’m sure my workflow seems overly complicated to many, but to me it only makes sense. Until the day arrives that an ereader is an ereader is an ereader, and all devices are able to read any ebook file, then I’m going to keep on doing the extra steps necessary to make sure my clients’ READERS have properly working ebooks. That is probably the biggest difference between me and many other formatters: While I want my writer clients happy, my first allegiance is to READERS. I might compromise on design decisions, but I will not knowingly break an ebook. And it’s why I insist that the books be proofread, and why I don’t give clients a hard time about correcting typos or making updates.

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