by Corina Koch MacLeod
Updated February 2014
It’s no secret that getting your ebook from your word processing software into a format that reads well on a variety of e-reading devices is a bit tricky.
Many authors, overwhelmed by the tech knowledge required to create a flawless ebook, hire formatters or designers to do the job. Others take advantage of one-stop book services that will edit your book, convert your book to an ebook format and offer printing services. That’s entirely fair. Learning to create ebooks for reading ease is a steep learning curve.
There is currently no agreement on how best to convert ebooks to e-reading formats. Further, some methods cost more than others, so cost can influence what method you use. As far as I can tell, self-publishing authors and publishers are using one of five methods. I’ve listed them from the simplest to the most complex:
- PDFs or doc/ docx files Kindle formats (AZW and KF8) using automatic conversion tools provided by distributors like Smashwords and Amazon
- doc/ docx to epub or mobi using Jutoh
- doc/ docx to mobi using Sigil
- PDFs or doc/ docx files to epub format using InDesign (software used in print publishing) >epub file >AZW and KF8 formats
- Hand coding doc/ docx files using HTML and CSS, which may make sense for highly designed books with lots of images and styling
Because things can go wrong at any point in each of the (admittedly simplified) processes listed above, it’s important that you understand the process you’ve chosen, whether you hire a formatter or decide to DIY. If you’ve decided to hire out for formatting/ designing services, you want to be able to ask questions that will ensure that you’re getting your money’s worth. Here are a few questions you could ask:
What is your formatting process?
Consult the options above. Formatters will often charge you more if you want an epub and a AZW/KF8 format.
Will you create a linked TOC? An NCX file?
An internal linked table of contents (TOC) enables readers to navigate your book from your TOC page. The NCX serves the same purpose, as it allows readers to access your TOC from a pull-down menu, no matter where they are in your book. It’s the ebook equivalent to flipping pages in a print book. Formatters worth their salt will ensure that you have a linked TOC and an NCX.
If you have cross-references in your book, and you’d like them linked, expect to pay more. Each cross-reference has to be linked or hand coded and this is a time-consuming process.
What file format do you need from me? doc? docx? PDF?
Be aware that converting from a PDF will be more expensive because a PDF will have to be converted to a text file before any formatting can begin.
What can I do to prepare my file for the conversion process?
There’s a great deal you can do to reduce the time your formatter will spend on your ebook, possibly saving you money. See this post for cost-saving measures.
How can I be sure that my converted file will read well on a variety of devices?
Some formatters will check how your file reads on various devices. Others will not, leaving you to ensure that your file is clear of formatting distractions.
Why there are conversion issues
It helps to first understand that book services and even traditional publishers may not have the time or resources to ensure that your ebook file comes out right on the other end. If, for example, you’ve had your book formatted for Kindle, you may not know that it reads fine on a Kindle e-ink device, but there are problems reading it on the Kindle app for iOS or on the Kindle app for Android.
Why you should care
Ensuring that your book is working across devices matters because with sycing capabilities, many readers can now read the same book across devices—on an iPhone when they’re out and about, on a tablet when they’re at home, and on a computer when they’re on lunch break at the office, for example.
And because readers have the option of returning ebooks for a refund due to conversion and formatting errors, formatting foibles could affect your book sales.
What’s an author to do?
Until publishers and book services begin to proofread ebooks after they are converted to an ebook format (Open Road Media was one of the first to do this), in much the same way that they proofread print proofs before printing, it’ll fall to the author to take up this responsibility.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to purchase every kind of e-reading device to see how your book is working on each of them.* In another post, I show you how to view and proofread your book for various devices.
How to Check Your eBook Using Kindle Previewer
eBook Formatting Principles
Formatting Principles for eBook Authors