A lot of people ask me what’s the best way to produce ebooks so I thought I would set out here a few ways of getting the job done.
Using a word processor and uploading for conversion
The most basic way of doing it is to use Word or Open Office to produce a doc or docx file and upload that to Kindle Direct Publishing or a distributor such as Smashwords or Draft2digital which will do the conversion for you.
I’ve never used this way of conversion as I prefer to build books myself so I’m sure they’re going to look like I want them to look but a lot of people do just upload their doc files and seem happy with the conversion results.
The main program I use is Jutoh, which is brilliant software produced by an independent company, run and programmed largely by one man, Dr Julian Smart.
It’s very reasonably priced at £24 and has versions for Windows, Mac and Linux. There’s a free book, called Creating Great Books With Jutoh which is a very good and complete guide to using the software.
Jutoh isn’t the easiest program to use initially as it doesn’t have the familiarity of some software but once you’ve used it a few times you’ll get the hang of it.
Ebooks are basically HTML (or XHTML) files and Jutoh could be thought of as being a powerful HTML editor with CSS capabilities and word processing thrown in. I often use it now to build a book from the beginning, writing the book within Jutoh, although this really isn’t what it’s designed for.
The general way of doing things is to write your book using a word processor such as Word or Open Office and then import that file into Jutoh. Although Jutoh imports a lot of file formats, it doesn’t import doc files but its preferred import format is docx, so you can use Word. It originally specialised in odt files imported from Open Office.
Jutoh’s way of working, which is similar to most ebook production software, is to split a book file into sections or chapters, according to whatever criteria you set, so you’ll have a series of chapters which will be compiled into an ebook.
One of the great things about Jutoh is you can compile and output for a wide range of ebook formats, including mobi (used by Amazon) and epub (used by most everyone else). Most ebook production programs offer only output to the epub format and do not cover mobi.
Other ebook production software includes Adobe InDesign. If you’ve ever used this in producing print projects, where it’s the market leader, then you’ll find it fairly easy to use for ebooks and it really is a powerhouse in terms of its range of functions.
A lot of people swear by it and produce all their ebooks with it. I do use it on occasions but although I think it’s a great program for print, I find it has some drawbacks for ebooks, including the fact that you can’t output to mobi format direct from the program (at least with the Creative Cloud version) and compiling a table of contents can be a tedious task.
InDesign was built as a print layout program and has been adapted for ebooks so I feel there are some uneasy compromises while a program like Jutoh was designed to produce ebooks.
There’s also the drawback of cost. InDesign used to cost about £1,000 to buy outright but Adobe have given up on that and now only offer it as part of their Creative Cloud rental which costs around £25 a month if you only want the InDesign program and £40 a month or so if you want Photoshop, etc.
I suppose you could say if you only want it for a month then it’s reasonable but it can be annoying if you want to make a few changes to a book that you’d have to go and reactivate the program and pay another £25.
Scrivener is a great word processor program that also excels at ebook production. It’s a bargain at about £30 and is produced by an independent company.
It’s very popular with a lot of writers and has become a cult program. It’s fast to compile and export ebooks, including both mobi and epub formats, and also has lots of bells and whistles to help writers plan books.
If you haven’t used Scrivener before then you would need to get familiar with it as there are a lot of differences between it and word processors such as Word.
Scrivener, like Jutoh, operates using separate items such as chapters or sections within an overall file. I found this confusing initially but once I got used to it I realised how much better it is and now I find Word to be rather limiting.
Scrivener offers a PDF manual which you can download which covers how to use the program and there are several third-party guides, including Scrivener for Dummies, available as print or ebooks.
The importance of setting styles
With all these programs, including Word or Open Office, it’s important that you set and name consistent styles, including paragraph and character styles, as that is the key to producing good ebooks.
Everything in an ebook should be linked to a set style. Even if you want, say, a single word made bold in the middle of a sentence you should apply a set character style to do this rather than simply selecting the text and clicking on the bold icon.
Go with the flow of ebooks
An ebook is very different from a print book. I’ve found that some writers get confused and think they can place items precisely as they would in a print book.
It’s best to think of an ebook as a flow of words that can change course and appearance depending on what device is being used for viewing. Remember, you don’t know what device your reader will be using, it could be anything, including a desktop computer monitor, a full-size iPad, an iPad mini, a Kindle Fire, a Kindle Paperwhite or any make of smartphone. That’s one of the great beauties of ebooks, you can read them on any device with the right app.
You can produce so-called fixed-layout ebooks but there are so many disadvantages they’re not worth considering unless you’re publishing picture books.
There is another ebook program which has been recently released called Vellum which I’m intending to review soon. It looks promising at first glance but I was dismayed to learn that although the program itself is free, it costs $50 per book to generate an ebook.
That’s disappointing as it isn’t far off the price you would pay for a third-party ebook service to convert your book for you and with Vellum you’re still doing the work yourself. There are discounts, so you can pay $150 for 10 books or $300 for unlimited use.
I should also mention Sigil, which is a free open source program that can produce epub files. This was promising when I tried it out some time ago but does have the drawback of only dealing with epubs. There were some problems over whether the program would continue last year but a new update appeared in October so it could be worth a try.
- A previous post on my blog, How to choose typography for ebooks, covers more general issues of ebook production which you might find of use.