On ebook creation: Tools

This past year, creating the ebook of Heavenly Breakfast and the ebook of Feast of Serendib, I have learned a whole lot about creating ebooks.

I hope at some point to write up some of what I’ve learned. But here’s the main thing I’ve learned:

Use tools that do all the hard stuff for you.

In particular, if possible, use Vellum.

(…One really big conceptual-background thing to be aware of, btw, is that a reflowable ebook is, in essence, just a collection of web pages. At core, both ePub and Mobi consist mostly of a set of HTML files and some CSS. So you could create ebooks by hand, but I strongly recommend against it.)

For Heavenly Breakfast, I scanned the printed book (using the excellent CZUR scanner) into a Word document, proofread that document, imported it into Vellum, and clicked a few buttons to create an ePub version that passed Apple’s checks and a Mobi version that passed Amazon’s checks. (Well, to reach the final Mobi version, I had to run Vellum’s exported ePub-for-Kindle file through Kindlegen. And in both ePub files, I did tweak the CSS slightly.) There was a lot more to the book-creation process than that, but most of the other work was working out content changes and additions with Chip, not ebook-production work. Vellum does a great job of creating ebooks that conform to Apple’s and Amazon’s guidelines/specifications.

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For Feast, I started with an InDesign file, converted every paragraph in the book to using named styles, anchored every photo and illustration to nearby text, exported using InDesign’s ebook-export tool, applied some conditional text, edited the resulting CSS by hand, then went through a convoluted process involving Calibre, which the web is convinced is the only and best tool for editing an ebook. (My process: Convert to AZW3; edit the CSS in Book Editor; then convert to old-style Mobi.) I ran into many problems, mostly because I was trying to reproduce a lovely print book design as an ebook. And the resulting Mobi file doesn’t work in Amazon’s Kindle Previewer tool. More recently, I tried skipping Calibre and using kindlegen, and found a less convoluted approach that does work with Kindle Previewer.

So for books that are mostly text, don’t have fancy design elements, and can be easily gotten into a Word file, Vellum is amazing. (It’s expensive and it’s Mac-only, but it does excellent work. (Though I haven’t looked at its print output; I’m only creating ebooks.) I haven’t tried the lower-cost and free alternatives, so I can’t speak to how good a job they do.) For books that have fancier design elements and start out in an app like InDesign, Vellum is the wrong tool; instead, manual export and manual CSS editing may be the best option. But in the latter case, there are many obstacles and pitfalls, mostly around HTML and CSS features that aren’t supported in some Kindles.

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