Three Things Writers Need to Understand About Designing Ebooks

I like to think my blog is a safe place where we can meet as writers regardless of the publishing path we choose. For that reason, I try to bring you posts that will apply equally well to traditional, hybrid, and indie authors. While those of you heading down a traditional path might not think you need to know about designing ebooks, I disagree. Your name is on the product, and people will give you poor reviews if your traditionally published book is badly formatted. You might be able to avoid that fate if you can talk intelligently to your editor and agent about ebook formatting. And for indies, well, the importance is obvious.

I’m not an ebook designer, so I wanted to bring you a post by someone who was. I first learned about Paul Salvette at Lindsay Buroker’s excellent website and spent more hours that I want to admit to reading the resources he provides at BB eBooks. He knows his stuff. He’s going to talk to you about three important things to understand about designing ebooks, so that we can raise the standard–reflowability of content, HTML and CSS, and what tools to use to make our own ebooks.

So without further ado, take it away Paul…


Designing EBooks Needs to Get Better

By Paul Salvette

Recently, I shelled out a whopping $12.99 for Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In at Amazon so I could learn more about the career options for my little girl. She’s only 20 months old, but you can never start thinking about this sort of thing too early. When I cracked open the eBook on my Kindle for iPad this is what I saw:

Improperly Formatted Ebook Title PageFor some reason the publisher decided to use an image as a page for the title rather than proper text. Not only does this look tacky and hideous, but it does not scale well on smaller devices like smartphones. Also, on the right side you will notice there is a gigantic wad of whitespace in between each paragraph of front matter. For $12.99, you’d think the publisher would have spent a bit more time making everything look nice, especially the first two pages the reader sees after the purchase.

The Problem with eBooks

Most big publishers with a few notable exceptions still think of eBooks as lame replicas of print books. They spend very little time learning the varying technical requirements of each platform and just try to slap something on the market with very little quality control. A “Save As” button click from an InDesign or Word file intended for the print version always makes for a terrible eBook—but they try to get away with it. Time and time again, eBooks from major publishers have been pulled by major vendors like Amazon due to excessive reader complaints about the formatting.

Additionally, major publishers are much more concerned with Digital Rights Management (DRM) to lock down your eBook and other inconveniences rather than actually creating a nice-looking interior. Luckily, authors and small presses are much more attuned to the wishes of their readers, so they can adapt to the technology challenges that accompany the eBook format.

Reflowability of Content

To understand the difference between an eBook and a print book, we need to understand that eBooks are intended for all sorts of devices—from big PC monitors to tiny smartphones. Therefore, trying to typeset all the text into a fixed page size (like publishers have been doing for centuries) is a fool’s errand on eBooks. Have you ever tried to read a PDF with a tiny font on a smartphone? Not a pleasant reading experience.

Since eBooks need to be read on all sized devices and users need to have the ability to adjust the font, font-size, and orientation, it is important that eBooks are reflowable. This means that the content should properly break into as many lines as needed for any-sized viewport. Try adjusting the width of your browser on Marcy’s excellent blog to see what I’m talking about. So, an eBook that is 400 “pages” on an iPhone might be only 200 pages on the Amazon Kindle Fire HD.

Because word processing and desktop publishing software was designed for fixed-layout type documents that would be printed on a specified page size, it was necessary for eBooks to take a different approach. Luckily, there was a bunch of nerds already working on this technology since the internet was young and this was called…

What’s Inside an eBook?

HTML or HyperText Markup Language is what comprises the content of all your eBooks believe it or not. Don’t be scared if you haven’t heard the term, because you probably look at it every single day. HTML is also the standard that makes up the content on all websites. Without geeking out too much on the details, it is basically a series of rules to indicate how content should be “marked up.” When these rules are followed, web browsers (like Google Chrome) and eReading systems (like iBooks) know how to understand or “parse” the content to ensure that it renders as a good reading experience for the user.

For example, a paragraph of content in HTML gets special tags at the beginning and end of it, while a heading gets a different set of tags wrapped around it. You can also use HTML to display more complex content like tables, lists, and embedded images. What is also nice about HTML is it allows you to provide clickable links to other parts of the eBook or website. This is particularly useful for eBooks when constructing a functional Table of Contents or making your eBook more interactive. Below is an example of the classic poem Ozymandias marked up in HTML:

HTML Mark-Up for Ebook

It will end up looking like this in the Kindle Fire:

How HTML Looks on an EReader

CSS or Cascading Style Sheets compliments HTML and is a series of rules that provide presentational styling to your content. This is an important part of web design and an even more important part of eBooks. A typical novel will have around 1–2,000 lines of HTML code, and if you wanted to change something like the size of the indent on your paragraphs, it would be a heinous task to have to go through and change each line. Rather, you can use your style sheet to make one change that will apply to all the HTML. Below is an example of some CSS code telling any paragraphs with a class of “poemtop” to have a small indent and some whitespace above it, but none on the left, right, and bottom:

CSS for EBookseBooks also contain additional files that dictate the linear order of the eBook, the metadata, and all the images, fonts, and multimedia contained in the eBook. This is all part of what is called the EPUB specification—an open-source eBook format that is used by all the major eBook platforms except Amazon. The MOBI/KF8 format is what is sold at Amazon, but it is very similar to EPUB with the exception that Amazon has proprietary control over the format rather than it being open source. If you have your eBook designed in the EPUB and MOBI/KF8 formats, you will be able to professionally publish at all eBook markets including Smashwords, iBooks, Nook, Kobo, and, of course, the biggest of them all: Amazon.

So How Do I Make my eBook?

Since eBooks are composed of HTML rather than a fixed-layout type program like Word, it is necessary to first get your eBook’s content into proper code. Calibre is an excellent eBook management system for readers, but it is not intended for publishers. Using Calibre for professional publishing purposes is discouraged, and Amazon will actually reject eBooks made in Calibre. Some indies try uploading a Word .docx to Amazon or the dreaded Smashwords Meatgrinder to automatically create an eBook—big mistake and readers will notice the ugly interior. Much like Word’s spell checker is a bad substitute for editing, automated HTML conversion is a bad substitute for eBook design.

If you do not wish to learn the technical mumbo jumbo behind eBooks, Sigil or Jutoh may be the best option to create your eBook. However, it is a good idea to at least have some knowledge of HTML, CSS, and the EPUB format as technology progresses and readers begin demanding more features in your eBooks.

If you would like to get your hands dirty and learn about creating the source files for your eBook, you’ll be glad to know that the software to do this is free. Notepad++ is an excellent text editor that can be used to create your HTML (Text Wrangler is a free option for Mac users). As HTML and CSS have been around for ages, there are excellent learning resources for these topics available for free at places like the Mozilla Foundation to help get you started.

I don’t want to turn this into a buy my book-type guest post, but I’ve got a book that can teach you from start to finish the ins and outs of eBooks called The eBook Design and Development Guide (available at Amazon), and we also have some eBook production tutorials on our website. Another alternative is contracting out the eBook conversion to a shop. 52 Novels and Rob Siders are excellent, and our own shop, BB eBooks, can get you a novel turned into an eBook for all major platforms for as low as $60. Whatever you do, don’t settle for a poorly designed eBook!

Have you run into ebooks that are poorly formatted? Does a poorly formatted ebook influence your decision about whether or not to buy a book?

Paul Salvette of BB EbooksAbout Paul:

Paul Salvette is the Managing Director of BB eBooks, a small business dedicated to eBook design and development in Bangkok, Thailand, founded in June 2012. His technical knowledge of eBooks somewhat surpasses his mediocre writing capabilities, so he decided to dabble in that aspect of the publishing process. He is the proud owner of a pair of sunglasses.


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