One of the fantastic rewards of writing a book is being able to hold a physical copy in our hands. Regardless of other definitions of success, the thrill never goes away.
I'm a huge fan of print-on-demand, and one of the most popular posts on the blog is Top 10 tips on self-publishing print books on Createspace by Dean Fetzer. Today, Dean is back to share a common question about formatting ebooks vs print.
I get asked this question a lot: “Can I use my CreateSpace PDF for the ebook version?”
The simple answer is ‘no’. Well, you could, but I doubt you’d be very happy with the finished results — and more importantly, neither would your readers. Frankly, a PDF is the last format you should use to create an ebook from as it does so many things that you just don’t want an ebook to do.
Flow vs rigid formatting
With a printed book, you want to control as much as you possibly can, from how the text aligns to the headers at the tops of the pages to where the page numbers sit on the page: that all needs to be exact to provide the best printed reading experience you can for your readers.
Ebooks, on the other hand, need to flow. You’ve no idea what the person reading your book is reading it on, much less whether they use really small text or enlarge it so they can read it easily. Even if all you format your book for is the Kindle platform, each model varies in the way it displays the written word.
If your book doesn’t adjust to that, they’re not going to enjoy reading it.
You can see from these three examples how different even the Kindle platform is when each device displays the book differently.
Ebooks are basically created using hypertext, the same language that web pages use to format content for the internet, albeit with fewer options for styling the text for the viewer. (No, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to learn HTML to set out your book, it just means you need to think differently about how you do it.)
The key for ebooks is about ‘flow’: how does your text look when you enlarge the font size on your reading device? What happens when it gets smaller? The pages reformat themselves automatically to fit the screen of the device and your book needs to do that, too. This is the main reason page numbers are pretty much worthless on an ereader — how do you know what page it is if the text has reflowed to fit the screen or the needs of the reader?
Your printed book looks great on paper, but that’s because a lot of effort has gone into making it fit the page, not to mention all the other work that goes into setting a book out for the printed page. Not so with ebooks – if anything you want less control.
The key to a successful ebook is to minimise the amount of additional formatting: that means no funky fonts, no weird margins and try to avoid tables or other text constructs in your copy that require a specific format.
I know, I know, “it looks so much better if that funny bit is in Comic Sans” — trust me, nothing looks better in Comic Sans. And if you want to keep your reader interested, you need to make the reading experience as easy for them as possible.
Keep formatting to a minimum. This means that rather than use an unusual font that isn’t supported by a lot of devices, go for bolding a basic font or use italics instead. If you have to use a different font, put it in a graphic. That way you can control the look and feel without resorting to embedding unusual fonts or anything else that will look bad on an ereader screen.
Sure you can indent a paragraph, just don’t try to lock it into a particular size or style at the same time. Don’t use drop caps as that’s another option that will just cause problems.
First tip: keep it simple. By that I mean take out any text formatting that is going to cause the reader problems with your book.
Photos or other images need to be high resolution for a print book – at least 300 dpi – it’s just the way printers work and the best way to get good results from your printed book. Graphics for ebooks, on the other hand, only need to be screen resolution.
So the simple explanation is that graphics need to be resized. Don’t worry, this is done by a lot of the converters out there, so it’s not a huge worry, but if you use a lot of images, I would recommend resizing them yourself before you put them in the ebook to avoid complications later. And by all means, keep them to a minimum.
Tip: keep images to a minimum and resize them before you submit your ebook.
Page breaks or section breaks are important in print and ebooks, as they keep chapters from flowing into each other and separate text you don’t want flowing on from a previous text block. Use them.
One of the worst crimes in terms of manuscript formatting I’ve seen is the use of paragraph returns to separate pages. I spend a good portion of my life taking paragraph returns out of manuscripts. So don’t do it. That’s what page and section breaks are for. I prefer section breaks between chapters because that’s more useful than a simple page break and provides a better standard of break.
Tip: use section breaks between chapters.
Okay, you’ve got your file ready for publication in print, so now what? That print file is a good place to start, just remember that you’ll need to simplify it for your ebook. It’s probably too complicated and not necessarily laid out in the right order to suit your electronic version.
For your ebook, you need to get it into the right format for the device you’re planning to publish on. The most popular version of format is the ‘.epub’ file format. Yes, I know, Kindle Direct Publishing until recently preferred a ‘.mobi’ file format (don’t write in), but they will now accept an unbundled .epub file, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish.
Personally, I always submit a .mobi file to KDP as I know where it’s been. By that, I mean that it is formatted in such a way that nine times out of ten I can predict how it’s going to behave.
This is probably the most common question I get asked: “How do I convert my book to the right format?” The straight answer is there is no simple way to do it that will guarantee you the best results. I usually code my books by hand until they’re ready to be made into an epub file, then convert them to .mobi for Kindle.
“How do I get my book into a .mobi format?”, I can hear you ask? Well, that’s the difficult part. No one has yet come up with an easy way to generate a .mobi file, although it’s easy enough to convert a file with a shareware app like Calibre. I find that Calibre’s conversion is a bit too rough and doesn’t always compile the files correctly.
A simple way to get to an .epub is to import a modern Microsoft Word file (.docx) into Calibre and then convert it to the epub format. You will need to add a table of contents and either link them to bookmarks for each of your chapters via the Hyperlink function or produce the file on a PC which will allow you to embed the links as HTML. Why the Mac version doesn’t do this, I don’t know.
Once I’ve got the epub file, I put the book through Kindle’s free application KindleGen on the Mac to convert it to a .mobi file. This isn’t something I’d recommend for everyone, as it uses Apple’s Terminal application and does take a bit of know-how of the Unix command line to do this kind of conversion.
If you’re converting to a .epub file, I would recommend Calibre as the results for that conversion have been pretty good for me. Once you’ve produced an epub file, you need to see if it validates by using something like ePub Checker or use an online validator to test it. If it doesn’t pass the checks, it won’t be a submittable file. And it won’t always give you enough information about what is wrong with the file.
There are a number of places to look for advice online but I’d recommend Mobile Read for general advice and great forums, Joel Friedlander is always a good source (here he talks about decision making when producing your ebook) and this blog entry has some great resources, too. Oh, and Joel Friedlander has just added a new kind of template that allows you to do both versions from the same file.
I know Joanna uses Scrivener to compile her ebooks and is happy with the results, but again, it takes a bit of work to get it to come out correctly to the standard you want. Personally, I don’t like giving that control up – hey, I’m a control freak with a perfectionist streak, what can I say?
Alternatively, you can always pay someone like me to do the conversion, so you don’t have to or you can submit a Word file that you’ve reformatted to be as simple as possible, to KDP or one of the others and hope for the best.
The end result
This is what you’re looking for: a file that passes KDP or any other ebook platform’s checks to get your book published. It’s not an easy job and if you’ve seen a badly formatted ebook, you know exactly what I mean.
The final tip I’d give is to do the best you can to make sure your book provides a great reading experience for the reader.
And I can help!
If this all this seems too daunting, I can help you produce the best ebook for your project. And I’m reasonable!
Dean Fetzer is the author of four thrillers, a former pub reviewer and has been a graphic designer for more than 20 years, designing for print and then the internet before naturally moving into book design.