Creating eBooks with Free Tools

The future is digital, no matter how much we might resist. My wife and I will always be “book” readers. You know, those things that collect a bit of dust, take up space, and weigh a lot. There is and always will be something nice about the tactile act of reading a book.

But, I’ve created ebooks and will publish many more in the years ahead. Lately, small groups have been asking if I would present on how to create an ebook.

I can offer whatever training is needed for those interested, but the training isn’t that involved. In fact, the new, easy-to-use tools are why so many of my colleagues in book and magazine design are losing their jobs. Too many of my friends and colleagues didn’t make the transition to online publishing because the skills differ from those we needed in print.

The publishing world is definitely changing. I posted an ebook with a very narrow audience on Amazon and sold over 1000 copies last year. For those of us with decades of experience in the print publishing world, this causes both excitement and anxiety. Truly, anyone can be a publisher.

The tools required for online publishing change based on your distribution goal. Sadly, Amazon, Apple, and other distributors cannot agree on a single file format. The best books are assembled two or three times, so they can be sold via several distribution channels (such as iTunes and Amazon).

The good news: the tools are generally free and easy to use.

To create ePub files that work with almost every eReader sold (except the Kindle), you can use Sigil. This is a free tool from Google and works with Windows, Mac, and Linux. To download Sigil and create your own ePub book: http://code.google.com/p/sigil/downloads/list

The ePub format is used by the B&N Nook, Kobo, Sony, and most other readers. Even the iPad and iPhone can read ePub files, or you can use the free Nook app on the iPad/iPhone to read an ePub.

To create iBook files (which are ePub files with some extra Apple features), you do need a Mac and an iPad. The free creation tool is iBooks Author: http://www.apple.com/ibooks-author/

The iBooks Author creates the best-looking ebooks I’ve seen. My wife and I have used desktop publishing tools since the 1980s, and nothing has ever been as amazing as iBooks Author. (We use InDesign for print publishing and PDF creation, but PDFs are lousy as ebooks.)

Sigil and iBooks Author are no more difficult than using Microsoft Word. The thing to remember is that ebooks are not about pretty designs. The user can change the font, page colors, and more. It frustrates designers, but readers (and many authors) are glad that the focus is on readability and usability.

Amazon makes creating a decent Kindle book a royal pain. You do need to edit the raw HTML, XML, and CSS to make the book work properly. There is an InDesign “plug-in” for Kindle, but our experience is that the files still require hours of hand editing to work on all Kindle models properly. (The black and white Kindle doesn’t even do “grayscale” images well.)

If you want to learn about the Kindle tools:
https://kdp.amazon.com/self-publishing/help?topicId=A3IWA2TQYMZ5J6

I have made the journey from etching offset plates to phototypesetting to ePub creation. Each step of the way, the industry changed dramatically. More people can publish today than ever before, yet fewer people are “professionals” in the publishing industry full-time. I’ve also co-owned bookstores and my wife’s sister still owns a small bookshop. It is worse than brutal to be in any business related to publishing.

People ask if I am a “writer” and I always answer, “It depends.” The truth is that today’s writer has to be a designer, editor, agent, and publisher. You learn that the more skills you have, the more likely you are to win freelance contracts or full-time assignments.

Maybe one of my ebooks will do well. Maybe not. But it won’t cost us much to create them and we won’t be “sharing” the money with dozens of experts from a publishing house.

I always recommend hiring an editor or consultant to help with the digital publishing, mainly because we all need an editor. However, even with the cost of professional editing and cover design, the cost to publish has never been this low.

(Of course, we’d appreciate it if you considered working with us!)

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