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)
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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.