From final version to e-book

Last week, we discussed formatting your manuscript. As I said then, you can set your formatting from rough draft on or do it after you’ve finished all your edits. I tend to do it from the beginning because I’m lazy and don’t want to have to go back and change formatting before starting the conversion process. But that’s just me because I’m lazy and don’t want to format something what would effectively be three times (draft, final for e-book and final for print). Twice is more than enough for me.

So, now you are ready to convert for e-book publication. (Print will come next week). I’m going to assume you’ve finished your final round of edits and have set up your formatting to what you think will look good. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that you are going to direct upload to Amazon and either direct upload or use an aggregator like Smashwords or Draft2Digital to upload to Barnes & Noble and other outlets.

Before starting the conversion process, do one final check of your manuscript. Click on the Show/Hide icon (it looks like the copy editing symbol for paragraph). That will show you every tab, return, space, etc. in your document. Make sure you have no tabs or soft returns. If you do have a tab, delete it and use the first line indent option in your paragraph formatting box. For soft returns (which happen when you hold down “shift” and then hit “enter”, they can be problematic in converting, so delete them and replace with a standard return. Also, if you are publishing through Smashwords, do not have more then three consecutive “returns”. The meatgrinder reads multiple returns — I think four or more — as a page break.

One final formatting note before we get to converting. If you, like me, learned to type back in the dark ages, you learned to put two spaces after a period, question mark, colon, etc. Don’t. The new standard is a single space. You can change this by simply doing a search and replace.

Now, here’s the question everyone seems to ask. What programs do you need to convert your manuscript for upload to Amazon and the other e-tailers. Honestly, all you really need is your word processing program. Amazon and most of the other e-tailers allow for upload of a DOC file and then they will convert it for you. If you check the FAQs for the different platforms you are uploading to, you will find a list of formats they accept for conversion. For example, Amazon will accept the following formats: DOC, HTML, MOBI, ePUB, RTF, TXT and PDF. For the love of Pete, do NOT use PDF. You will have nothing but headaches trying to get a good MOBI file from a PDF. For an example of how Amazon views the different upload options, check here.

(Amazon’s format for its readers is MOBI or AZW. B&N, Apple, Kobo, etc use ePub.)

If you upload a DOC file, be sure to follow the formatting instructions for each of the different platforms. For an example of Amazon’s instructions on how to format your DOC file for successful conversion, go here. It doesn’t really offer you much guidance but if you follow the formatting guidelines I posted last week, you will be ahead of the game. This is also where I will warn you that if you are uploading to Smashwords, all bets are off. They have their own formatting requirements that basically toss out a lot of the time saving procedures we used last week. Instead of using the Styles menu for your headings (like chapter headings), there are other steps you have to take if you want to have an active table of contents. You have to either manually place bookmarks and hyperlinks in your manuscript or your have to start every chapter title with “chapter”. (IIRC, I hate Smashwords so I don’t use it unless I have to. Check their style guide for the latest information.)

This is where I tell you that I like seeing how my book will look in the format it will be sold in before I upload it. I also believe that there is less of a chance of conversion issues if you upload a MOBI file for Amazon and an ePUB for the other outlets. I know lots of folks who have no problem uploading HTML or DOC files, but this has been the process that works for me. So how do I do it?

The programs I use in my conversion process are Word, Atlantis and Calibre. I have Sigil on standby in case I need to tweak the ePub file. Here’s the step-by-step I follow:

  • Save my final version of my manuscript in DOC format,
  • Open it in Atlantis and save as a new DOC file. (The reason for this is that Atlantis will strip out a lot of the offending MS Code that can sometimes interfere with a clean conversion). Atlantis is a paid program but is relatively inexpensive. I don’t write in it but it was worth the $40 or so I paid to help cut out some of th headaches I ran into when a file went between several different computers and word processing programs. You can find out more about Atlantis here.
  • Still using Atlantis, you will click on File -> Save Special ->Save as Ebook. This will export your DOC file as an ePUB file. It will also open up a new dialog box where you will add your product description, author, key words, rights, etc. It will also allow you to embed your cover image and tag it as cover. So, be sure to have the Amazon KDP tag page open so you can make sure you are maximizing your exposure on Amazon by using the right tags.
  • Once you have your ePUB file, open it in either Adobe Digital Editions or another ePUB program. Do not use emulators because they will not always show you an accurate version of your file. You are looking for several things here. You want to make sure your active table of contents works and takes you to the right “page” in your e-book. You also want to make sure your e-books looks the way you want it to. Do your chapters all start on new pages? Is your formatting consistent? Are your first line indents too wide or not wide enough? This is your chance to tweak your e-book before uploading it and putting it on sale. It is a pain but look at every page and make sure all your links are there.
  • If you see any problems with your e-book that are basic “coding” problems or minor content problems — ie, you saw a spelling error while checking formatting — the easiest way to deal with it is to open your ePUB file in Sigil. I like Sigil because I can edit the underlying HTML code or do minor text editing without any problem. (Note, you can skip the Atlantis step if you save your DOC file as an HTML-filtered file and import it into Sigil.)
  • Once your ePUB file looks the way you want it to, you are set to upload to B&N, Apple and KOBO. You can also upload an ePUB file to Smashwords. However, the caveat is that you will only be able to sell ePUB versions of your title on Smashwords and at elsewhere if you choose to use their “expanded catalog”. You can also upload the ePUB to Amazon for conversion to MOBI.
  • However, to be sure you are not going to run into conversion problems, go ahead and convert your ePUB file to MOBI for upload to Amazon. That will let you see just how your book will look before you upload it. You can do this using Calibre. This has the added benefit of letting you make sure your tags and other baseline information is accurately saved into the underlying HTML of your e-book. Calibre will also let you tag your book as part of a series and put in the edition number if needed. And, just as you did with the ePUB, once your have your MOBI file, check it with a native MOBI reader like Kindle for PC or by checking it on your Kindle or Kindle Fire. Once satisfied, you are ready to upload this file to Amazon.

It sounds like a lot but it really isn’t. I can do the entire conversion process in a matter of minutes — excluding the time taken to check the files to make sure I like the converted product.

As with most everything in writing, there is no one “right” way to convert your book. Just be glad the days of having to hand code the HTML are long past. Find what works for you.

One last comment. The key to making e-books is to make them look as much like a “real” book as possible. So look at printed books and see what makes them attractive. Look at other e-books and see what you like and don’t like about them when it comes to layout and formatting. And keep notes. If you are writing a series, you want the e-books to have the same “feel” or “look” from one volume to another. Fortunately, it is now easy to change that as needed.

Next up will be the parts of an e-book. What do you need to make sure you have in your file before you upload it. We’ll also talk about setting up your accounts with the various outlets and whether or not you should use an aggregator and which one should you choose.

13 thoughts on “From final version to e-book

  1. Another useful tool is the EPub Metadata Editor. Especially if you’re not using Atlantis, this can be very handy.

    (Calibre and Sigil also can edit the metadata, but Calibre doesn’t expose fields like “editor”, and Sigil assumes you know a lot more about the way EPUB handles metadata than most people have time for.)

    1. Thanks for the link, Joel. Am I right in assuming that this will allow metadata editing but not editing of the underlying html code or text if you want to make minor changes to the “book” and not just the metadata?

      1. Metadata only; correct. (It will edit content.opf, and it knows enough about the zip structure to set an image as the cover or add an image, but that’s it.)

  2. One that I get asked now and then is whether to use justified text (both margins!) or not. My standard response is that I think ragged right is generally accepted. I remember seeing the journalistic studies some years ago that showed that justified text is actually harder to read (due to the uneven spacing inside the lines), but… and I just checked, and while APA says do not justify the right margin, IEEE still calls for fully justified text. Oh, and searching for KDP full justification seems to open a can of worms… which probably means it’s a good question? Left-justified (ragged right) or full-justified, which way do you go?

    1. Left hand justification for one simple reason. Most e-readers and apps will justify on their own. Others allow readers to set their preference. My reasoning is to left justify to simply keep one more layer of code from being embedded in the document.

  3. I have followed KDP’s style guide for Mac and I upload a .doc for kindle with no problems so far. FWIW, I only use one computer to work on my manuscript.

  4. Totally off-topic, but…

    Believe it or not, there are some editors who still require double space after a period. I’ve sold some short stories to them.

    Going back through and making sure there’s a double space after every period is a royal pain in the ass. I wish they’d drop the requirement.


  5. Oh, and I came back to make one final point:

    I tend to do it from the beginning because I’m lazy and don’t want to have to go back and change formatting before starting the conversion process.

    Bullshit. You aren’t lazy. You are optimizing your workflow. This is called working smarter, not harder.


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