Programs for Indie Publishers


Creativity is messy

One of the best aspects of indie publishing is that Do-It-Yourself is feasible. All you need is a computer and some decent programs–many of them free–and you can put together a professionally packaged book.


Many indie publishers start and end with MS Word. I suspect this has to do with comfort. They use Word, they know it (or think they do), and Amazon, Smashwords and Draft2Digital accept Word files. I also suspect fear plays a part. No matter how easy or intuitive a program is, there is still a learning curve. Easier to stay with the devil you know than to leap into the unknown. My hope is that the list of programs I use will encourage DIY indie publishers to wander into deeper waters and increase the quality of their book production.

This following programs and tools are what I use on an almost daily basis. It’s by no means a complete list of all the programs and apps that are available. A Google search for “programs for publishing” will turn up hundreds–thousands!–of programs an indie might find useful.

A word about computers. Currently I use two. A Lenovo Z70 laptop and a Mac. (I’m in the process of finding a new desktop PC, too.) I use the laptop for ebook production and the Mac for print and covers. The reason is: Adobe. I will not allow any Adobe products on my laptop. They are big and grabby and eat RAM like peanuts, especially InDesign. Adobe CC seems to behave better on the Mac, crashing less often. Plus, I have a 29″ screen that makes using Photoshop a real pleasure.

On to the list.

DROPBOX. Dropbox is a cloud storage service. You can sign up for the basic service and it’s free. If you need more storage space, you can go with a business plan that starts at $9.99 a month. Most indies don’t need the extra space. It’s a great way to back up your files. You can synch between devices. There are apps available so you can access Dropbox from your tablet or phone. You can share files and folders. It’s an easy way to share files that are too big for email attachments. I’ve been using Dropbox for years. It’s had a few hiccups, but very few. The only ongoing problem I’ve experienced is that the Kindle Previewer doesn’t like it. So to load a file into the Previewer I have to remember to drag it out of Dropbox and onto my desktop first.

MS WORD.  Used to be just about every PC came pre-loaded with MS Word. Everybody used it. Those days are over. Now you have to purchase it.


  • Personal correspondence and writing
  • Initial file clean-up
  • Basic ebook formats for Smashwords (fiction only)


  • Everybody uses it (for now)
  • It’ll open a huge number of file types and it will generate a large number of file types.
  • Word docs are accepted by Amazon, Smashwords and Draft2Digital


  • Most people have no idea how to use Word properly
  • Clunky, bloated and overly-complicated
  • Makes awful ebooks

NOTEPAD (PC) and NOTES (Mac). These text programs come pre-loaded on most PCs or Macs. When I’m working on a book I keep a file open where I can make notes to myself. Nothing special, but very very handy.

NOTEPAD++. This is my text editor of choice. (In the Mac I use Text Wrangler)


  • Create ebooks in html with cascading style sheets
  • Text restoration
  • File cleanup


  • Free
  • Easy to use
  • No bloat since there is nothing running in the background to add a bunch of junk to a file
  • Powerful search function with multiple levels
  • Can encode files for different purposes, including UTF-8 for ebooks


  • Learning curve (moderate)
  • Must get used to the display which is nothing like a word processor

SIGIL. EPUB editor. I have it on both computers. If you want to step up your ebook quality, Sigil is an excellent tool for creating ebooks. And yes, with some modifications to your file, you can create ebooks for Amazon Kindle, too. Paul Salvette of bbebooks offers a very good tutorial.


  • Troubleshooting epub files


  • Free
  • Mostly stable
  • Offers inline epub validation
  • Can be used in WYSIWYG mode or in html mode


  • Learning curve (moderate)

KINDLE PREVIEWER. Quick and easy way to preview your ebook files before you upload them to Amazon. If you want to see how your ebooks look with Amazon’s enhanced typesetting features you can download the Kindle Previewer 3.

CALIBRE. Quick and easy way to preview an epub file. Has an epub editor (which I don’t use and haven’t looked at it in over a year, so cannot say how good it is). Despite its many fans, Calibre is NOT the tool to use to create commercial ebooks. It causes disabled user preference controls on Kindle devices and apparently there are conflicts with Kindle enhanced typesetting.

MOBIPOCKET CREATOR. Will convert a Word or html file into a prc file that can be converted into a mobi file in the Kindle Previewer or loaded directly onto a Kindle device. Quick and simple. Good way to check how the formatting on a Word file will perform on a Kindle. I use it to do a quick and dirty conversion of Word files I want to read on my e-ink Kindle.

EPUB VALIDATOR. The idpf validator is the standard for making sure your epub files are free of errors and up to snuff. I use this tool in conjunction with Sigil. If I get an error message, I can find and fix it quickly in Sigil, then transfer the fix back to my html files.

UNMANIFESTED EPUB FILE CHECK. Apple iBooks is picky about unmanifested files within an epub package. Running your epub file through this checker will help ensure your ebook will make it onto the Apple site.

IRIS OCR. I do a lot of text restoration, recovering the text from printed books and turning it into a workable document. I have used and researched a lot of OCR programs. Quality ranges from “oh my god you have to be kidding” to excellent. IRIS is excellent. If you have an HP scanner, you can download IRIS OCR software along with the HP drivers. You can also purchase software that allows for side-by-side document editing (necessary if you’re scanning and restoring graphic/image heavy or complicated layouts in non-fiction books).

INDESIGN. For print on demand layouts. (Despite what many of its fans say, it’s NOT a good program for making ebooks. I can usually tell an ID generated ebook because it looks gorgeous and the user preference controls are disabled. There are apparently conflicts with Kindle enhanced typesetting, too.)


  • For POD it’s easier to use than Word.
  • Print is what it was made for and print is what it does best. Makes beautiful books.
  • Adobe help sucks, but google “how do I…InDesign” and you’ll find answers all over the place.
  • Trouble-free export into POD ready pdf files.


  • Expensive! I don’t think you can buy the program new from Adobe. Instead, you have to set up a subscription. If you cancel your subscription, your .indd files are rendered useless.
  • Steep learning curve.
  • RAM grabby and has a tendency to crash.

PAINT.NET. A powerful paint program that is easy to use. Fun, too. And free! Good for resizing images and creating simple graphics. Offers many plug-ins that make it possible to create ebook covers. It does a good job of modifying and manipulating photos.

PHOTOSHOP. The more I use Photoshop, the more I learn about it, the more I like it. I use it to make covers and to clean up damaged images. Unlike ID, I’ve had no problems with it either slowing my computer to a sluggish crawl or crashing. Like ID, it’s not being offered for sale by Adobe, but is on a subscription plan.


There you go. My favorite book production programs. What about yours?





Guest Post: Karen Myers–No Need For Calibre

When I ran the recent ebook formatting contest, I noticed some similar issues with many of the entries, all of them the result of Calibre conversion. I have no beef with Calibre, it’s a great online reading platform and I use it myself, but it’s a not-quite-right tool for converting Kindle books. One entrant, Karen Myers (Perkunus Press), contacted me about the problems in her ebook.

KMblog6The flaws weren’t fatal, but Karen was not satisfied with not-quite-right. So I pointed her at Sigil and Paul Salvette’s books, tutorials and website, and now I’ll let her tell you the results:


Silly me. I’m an old programmer and I pride myself on trying to get my ebooks “just so”, as if I were writing a piece of code. I want to create worthy offerings to add to humanity’s river of books; at the very least, they should be shiny and well-scrubbed.

So when Jaye offered to judge the formatting of a few books from her blog fans, I hopped right on board, and she was very kind in her review.  But I read with horror things like “squishy line spacing” and links to chapters not working quite as they should, systematically.

I use an EPUB reader and hadn’t seen the book on a Kindle device other than the PC Previewer, so it was useful to see this from the Kindle reader’s perspective, since none of my buyers had complained (yet). Without a Kindle device, I hadn’t realized quite how irritating it was to not properly trigger the “Cover” and “TOC” hard buttons.

Now on the one hand, it wasn’t really broken, but on the other hand, I want perfection in book formatting, and some cosmetic and graphic flourishes. I’m not willing to settle for “good enough,” so Jaye was nice enough to coach me through some of the issues.

(Jaye here: I made a template for Karen based on Paul Salvette’s The Ebook Design and Development Guide)

If you’re content with auto-conversion from EPUB to MOBI or vice versa, or output direct to ebook formats from products like Scrivener, then this is overkill for you and you can stop reading now. But if you want as much control as possible over the results without killing yourself, you might find this approach useful.

Originally I formatted my ebooks in raw HTML using tips from a variety of online recommendations, like Guido Henkel’s. The first book was a real learning curve for me, but after that it wasn’t difficult to just do the same for later books.  Automated search/replace macros took care of things like wrapping lines with <p></p> tags, and so forth.

I took the HTML output, opened it in Calibre, added the cover and converted it to EPUB using Calibre defaults (more or less). I did the same with a separate conversion to MOBI, which required me to maintain a different HTML file because of the way Calibre generates the MOBI TOC. These outputs were what I was uploading to the distributors. The MOBI files produced this way were not ideal, possibly because of AZW vs MOBI choices (in other words, me as a Calibre user, not necessarily Calibre as a tool), and I was left with two files to maintain (EPUB and MOBI) and the Smashwords EPUB as a third file, since my approach wasn’t modular.  So every time I found a typo…

Jaye has taught me a better way… (Sigil)

KM blog1KMblog2I poured my HTML file for a book, broken up into chapters, into a Sigil template.  Each part of my book has a separate file: Beginning Blurb, Title Page, Copyright Page, Also-By-This-Author Page, Small TOC, Chap 1… Chap Last, Guide & Name Index, If-You-Liked-This-Book Page, Excerpt-From-Next-Book Page, Author Bio Page, Long TOC.

KMblog3I have 3 outputs: MOBI, EPUB, Smashwords EPUB. The difference between Mobi and the two EPUBs is that the “stylesheet.css” file is a little different between MOBI and EPUB, and the Cover page is treated differently (EPUBs require an extra step). The difference between my EPUB and my Smashwords EPUB version is that the Copyright Page has different content.

Now, thinking in the long term, I expect that the differences between MOBI output and EPUB output are likely to be persistent, and other devices may come along and generate different optimum stylesheet requirements. So I’m fine with having two different (but very similar) stylesheets which I maintain externally and copy in as needed into the stylesheet.css shell.

Likewise, the fact that Smashwords requires its own ISBN means only that I maintain two different external Copyright Page HTML documents and copy the contents of whichever one I want into the shell in Sigil.

Both of these make use of a simple modular structure.

So, what happens when I finish a new book and want to format it?


  1. I copy the Sigil file (MOBI version) from the previous book and rename it.
  2. I create Copyright.HTML files for both the normal and Smashwords copyright pages by copying the ones for the last book, renaming them, and updating the content.
  3. I create a new Title page (it’s a graphic) and a new Cover.


  1. I work on the MOBI version first (it’s the master). I copy the text in, chapter by chapter, the front blurb, and the back excerpt.  I run saved searches to wrap the lines with <p></p> tags and to convert special characters to named entities.
  2. I update the Also By and If You Like This book pages by hand.
  3. I run a saved search to update the Title field on all the HTML pages to the new work, and update the equivalent fields in the TOC.NCX and CONTENT.OPF files.
  4. If the book is a little longer or shorter (number of chapters) than the last one, I update the TOC.NCX and CONTENT.OPF files and the HTMLTOC file.
  5. I update the metadata in the TOC.NCX and CONTENT.OPF files. This allows me to do some things that either Calibre doesn’t, or I don’t know how to find, such as set a UUID (Unique User ID) for my short stories that don’t have ISBNs, embed book descriptions, add keywords, etc.  There’s a great tool for this that Jaye told me about:

bb ebooks meta-pad generator (courtesy of Paul Salvette, BB Ebooks Thailand)

KMblog5Run the file through Kindle Previewer (which runs Kindlegen) and check the results.

How much time does this take?  I just updated my entire backlist (3 novels, 5 short stories, 1 story collection) to Sigil–it takes me about an hour for a novel, and 20 minutes for a short story.  Making the short story collection from the already-formatted short story files was truly trivial.


  1. Substitute the content of the EPUB stylesheet into the stylesheet.css.
  2. Run the Sigil tool to insert the cover.  (Kindlegen does that a different way for MOBI).
  3. For the Smashwords variant, substitute the contents of the Smashwords copyright.html for the default one.

That’s it.  I import the files into Calibre for one last look to make sure they seem healthy, and do a quick scroll through on my EPUB reader. If I find typos, I fix them in the MOBI version (and the Scrivener original) and redo steps (10)-(12).

Why not use Calibre?  I am confused by the various options and clearly, for MOBI conversion, I wasn’t doing it quite right. Also, my original HTML file was one big file with a stylesheet and all chapters together, making modular changes clumsy. Calibre created its own version of the styles it found, and they weren’t always what I expected. It’s a big black box to me, and there were some issues with the results, which may be my fault, not Calibre’s.

Why not use Scrivener?  Like Calibre, you are at the mercy of whatever Scrivener decides to do to instantiate the different conversions. Since the Scrivener text isn’t in HTML, there are all the issues of named entity conversions to deal with, and you have little control over the default styles. The results may be clean, but you can’t do anything special, such as use graphic chapter heads, scene dividers, and so forth, at least not in the Windows version.  Perhaps there’s a way…

Other tools, like Scrivener, will take your word processor input and generate EPUB and MOBI output, but the black box in between what you write and what they produce leaves you at the mercy of the limitations of others, and so your output will remain at best functional vanilla. That’s not a bad thing, but we can do better.

It’s really not that hard to go through the learning curve once.  After that, each new book becomes quite easy.  Your book designers or people like Jaye can help you get started by setting up the first one and explaining how it works.


Jaye again. Thank you, Karen. Now I’d like to add a word about Sigil.

Sigil creates EPUB files. Kindle ebooks are MOBI files converted from EPUB files. So, you can take an EPUB file created in Sigil and convert it with KindleGen into a MOBI file that will work on Kindles.

There’s a gotcha–One size does NOT fit all. EPUB and MOBI handle styling differently. They handle covers differently. If you know what the differences are, you can use Sigil to create ebooks that work exactly how they are supposed to, on EPUB and Mobi. You can control how the devices handle your work, as opposed to being at the mercy of whatever the conversion program decides is best.

I have a special offer for readers of this blog. If you are really serious about creating ebooks that work properly across devices, and you are ready to climb the next step on the learning curve, go buy Paul Salvette’s The Ebook Design and Development Guide. It might freak you out the way it freaked me out when I first read it (I have zero programming experience). If it does, but you’re still motivated, send me an email (jayewmanus at gmail dot com) with a screenshot of your receipt for Paul’s book and I’ll set you up with a template similar to the one I made for Karen.