Notjohn's Guide to E-Book Formatting - N.J. Notjohn - ebook

The self-publisher's bible! In this clear and entertaining ten-step guide, a prolific American author reveals how he formats his books for sale throughout the world. The secret, he explains, is to use the universal "epub" format to create a single e-book file that will be accepted by every digital retailer, from through Barnes & Noble, the Apple iBookstore, and smaller booksellers like the Canada-based Kobo."Most beginners write their books in Word or Open Office," he explains, "and they expect the same document to convert easily to an e-book and a paperback. Sometimes that happens, but more often it doesn't, because word processors litter the book file with hidden formatting. The result can be a disaster."Instead, the book should be converted to clean HTML, the markup language used to create a web page. (All e-books are web pages at heart, and the Kindle and other e-book readers are just special-purpose web browsers.) The conversion takes seconds and costs nothing. It can then be plugged into a simple template that "Notjohn" includes in this Guide and makes available on his blog for anyone to use.If all else fails, there's Plan B: a stripped-down template for books that consists mostly of text. He concludes with a chapter on how best to present your e-book on the Kindle platform, with hints on encrypting the book, copyrighting it, and pricing it for the greatest return.Revised and updated 2018 edition, with a new chapter on adapting the e-book to a paperback.

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Notjohn’s Guide to E-Book Formatting

Ten Steps To Getting Your Book Ready To Sell Online, Digital and Paperback

N.J. Notjohn

Enjay Press

Revised and Updated 2018


Illustration: Sony Data Discman

Ten Steps to Digital Publishing

Step 1 - Your Html Template

Step 2 - Your Style Sheet

Step 3 - Your Title Page

Illustration: A Table of Contents

Step 4 - Your Table of Contents

Illustration: Clean Html File

Step 5 - From Document to Html

Illustration: As Seen in a Web Browser

Step 6 - Adding Heads and Sub-Heads

Step 7 - The Copyright and Author Pages

Step 8 - Adding Illustrations

Illustration: As Seen in Sigil

Step 9 - Sigil Works Its Magic

Step 10 - Getting Your E-Book to Market

Illustration: Yes, Plan B Works!

Plan B: The Ultimate Basic Template

Purpose-built Software

How To Kindle a Fire

And By All Means, a Paperback!

Copyright - Was This Book Helpful?

Ten Steps to Digital Publishing

E-BOOKS HAVE BEEN around for a quarter of a century, but for most of that time they were the answer to a question nobody was asking. Get a load of the Sony Data Discman on the frontispiece! Introduced in 1992, this “electronic book player” displayed encyclopedia essays, foreign language dictionaries, and novels from prerecorded discs. Not surprisingly, it didn’t catch on outside Japan, nor did most of its successors.

Then, in 1999, came Fatbrain. The company actually had a reasonable business model, selling digital editions (including several of mine) that could be read on a Windows or Mac computer. Alas, it was bought out by Barnes & Noble, which didn’t know what to do with it. Fatbrain withered on the vine, while B&N waited for someone else to lead the way.

More promising was Mobipocket, a French company that developed the “mobi” format that enabled us to read e-books on a portable devices like a smartphone, though it would be a while before Apple put an iPhone in the world’s pocket. (Even better, Mobipocket also supplied “Creator” software for people like me who wanted to build e-books.) Few people noticed the company before it was acquired by Amazon in 2005.

Meanwhile, Japan’s electronic giant launched the Sony Reader. My daughter, who had set off with her husband and two kids to sail around the world, bought two of them. A volunteer at the Gutenberg Project burned two compact discs for them, so they could take a thousand public-domain classics with them around the world. (Those kids are now mastering high-school biology on a ten-inch Fire tablet.)

Unlike Barnes & Noble, Amazon knew exactly what to do with its Mobipocket acquisition. Jeff Bezos told his boffins to mine the mobi format and to build a dedicated e-book device around it. The first Kindle made its debut on November 19, 2007, selling out in five and a half hours at $399 a copy. The market really caught fire with that first clunky device. Amazon’s participation gave the digital revolution the muscle and the critical mass it needed.

Just as important, from the author’s point of view, Amazon launched the Digital Text Platform that same month. With the DTP (later called the KDP, for Kindle Direct Publishing), writers could bypass those traditional gatekeepers — the literary agent, the publisher, and the bookstore. (They could also, unfortunately, bypass the the copy editor.) What used to take a year or two, from finishing a book to seeing it on the shelf, could now be done in a week or so.

I set up a Kindle account that same month, sold a few books in December, passed the $10 payout threshold in January, and received my first electronic payment in March. Wow. Not only were e-books quick to publish, they were quick to pay! Just as it once took a year or more for a book to be edited, set in type, printed, and published, so did it take at least a year for that first royalty statement to arrive (by postal mail, of course, and with a paper check). No longer! A writer-publisher can look forward to payment in less than three months.

Not surprisingly, authors seized the opportunity. From 88,000 Kindle titles in November 2007, Amazon’s selection has grown to about six million, with maybe a half-million more added each year. Success in this crowded market has become correspondingly hard to achieve, so temper your expectations accordingly. My own sales peaked in January 2012, even though I have added a new title or two every year.

Meanwhile, other “e-tailers” entered the market, notably Barnes & Noble and Apple. There are other players as well, including Google, Kobo, and others around the world. All use the now-standard and superior “epub” format. Even Amazon has adapted epub to its own requirements, though Kindle books can’t be read on epub software, nor can an epub be read on a Kindle.

These competitors make up a significant market, but they are nowhere near the size of the Kindle universe. American shoppers (and the US is by far the largest market for digital content) buy 70-75 percent of their e-books from Amazon. And the share is larger for self-published books. I don't think I’m unusual in finding that 80 or 85 percent of my sales come from the Amazon stores. That reflects the advertising power of the Big Five publishing companies — Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Hachette, each with a family of imprints. Shoppers go to an online bookstore primed to buy the latest Lee Child or J.K. Rowling. The same, alas, isn’t true for you and me. Instead, they find our books by looking around the store. And, no surprise, Amazon has the best search engine.

From Word to html to epub

I uploaded three or four books as Microsoft Word documents. Then I realized that I needed more control over how they turned out, so I switched to html, the “hyper-text markup language” developed to build web pages. Despite its rather terrifying name (why hyper? why text? why markup? and above all, why language?), html is just a simple way of tagging text so that a web page looks as you want it to look when seen on a computer monitor. Most tags come in pairs, one for starting an action, the other for ending it. For example —

<b>Let’s make this sentence boldface</b>

— appears on the monitor as Let’s make this sentence boldface. What could be simpler and less terrifying?

Now here’s the secret that many author-publishers would rather not hear: An e-book is really just a web page, written in html. And a dedicated e-reader (or an “app” that you install on your computer, tablet, or smartphone) is really a portable web browser. When you upload a Word doc to the KDP, or let Word save your document as html, you are asking Microsoft’s program to auto-convert your book. And guess what? Sometimes the software does an acceptable job, but just as often it fails miserably. That’s because even the most innocent-looking Word doc can contain all sorts of formatting horrors behind the scenes. Word does a good job of hiding bad formatting, but the errors are likely to show up in the Kindle device and (worse yet) in the “Look Inside” sample on the Amazon store page. Can you think of any worse place for bad formatting than on the free sample that any intelligent customer is going to look at before pressing the Buy Now button?

(Everything I say about Microsoft Word is true of competing programs, such as the free and excellent OpenOffice suite. I must say that the most recent versions of Word do a much better job than my old copy of Word 2000, but I still wouldn't trust them to format a book for me. There are also some promising, purpose-built programs available to e-book publishers for $40 or so, and I will have more to say about them in my chapter on Purpose-built Software.)

Anyhow, for three years I wrote my own html documents and uploaded them to the Kindle platform. This worked beautifully, though it was a clunky process, especially when there were illustrations in the book. Then I had to create a zip file containing the images and the html file, and I had to re-create that zip file every time I made a correction to the book. This tripled the bother and also the chances for error. And the zip file didn’t work on Barnes & Noble and other booksellers, all of whom had settled upon the rival, open-source epub format for their books.

Then a gracious formatter let me in on a secret: epubs translate just fine on the Kindle platform. Wow! Do you realize how huge that is? A publisher needs only the one document to sell a book through any retailer, from Amazon to Barnes & Noble to Apple to Google Play.

So I learned to make epubs. All my recent books, and most of those I published earlier, are now in this format. I cannot recommend it too highly. The apparent hurdles are just that — apparent. They’re not real. If you can write a book in Word or OpenOffice, you can transform that book into an epub, and it won’t cost you a penny. This book will show you how. It’s set up like a cookbook or a training manual for soldiers, breaking the publishing process down into bite-sized steps. (Did you know that you can learn to ski by the numbers? That’s how the US Army does it!) Just follow the cookbook, and the end product will be a handsome e-book on the Amazon’s worldwide stores, and on those of Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Google Play, and Apple as well.

Of course I don’t actually follow those ten steps myself. I go straight from Word to html to epub. But I think it’s essential that you know how to build a title page, a table of contents, the copyright page, and all that other stuff before you start taking shortcuts. As you read along with me, however, you’ll soon realize that these tasks can easily be streamlined if you equip yourself with a few powerful — and free! — programs, the most important of which is Sigil.

Plan B

And if after reading the following chapters you still find it daunting, I also provide Plan B: The Ultimate Basic Template. With a bit of tweaking, and with no real knowledge of html, you can fit a novel or a simple non-fiction book into this template. The result is an html file that is readily accepted by Kindle Direct Publishing (though not, alas, by most of the other online stores). With that glorious moment behind you, I trust that you will then come back and give the Ten-Step Epub another chance to serve your needs.

Fixed format books

This is a reflowable e-book. Unless you have locked it in place, your e-reader can be held vertically, in what is called portrait mode, or you can turn it sideways for the landscape view. The text will flow to fit the changing wide of the screen, and if you choose a larger or smaller font, that too will change the flow. In the early years, all e-books worked this way. Alas, it doesn’t work very well with picture books, textbooks (like my granddaughters’s biology text), and children’s books, so companies introduced fixed format books that will mimic the appearance of a print edition.

I stay away from fixed format for two reasons. First, the systems are proprietary: if you build your e-book to Apple’s standards, you can’t upload it to Kindle Direct Publishing, and if you follow an Amazon template, it won’t be accepted by Apple. (And neither will work at Barnes & Noble.) Worse, even if you’re content to remain within the Kindle universe, your fixed format book can only be viewed on a Kindle Fire or other tablet, not on one of the tens of millions of e-ink Kindles. As for smartphones, forget it! How does one read a standard-sized textbook or graphic novel on a four-inch screen?

And fixed format books are usually much larger than reflowable ones — thousands of megabytes — so download fees will eat up part of your profit on the Amazon store. For all these reasons, I have nothing to say about fixed format e-books in the following chapters.

Before you go any further...

Since you’re reading this Guide as an e-book, you must own a digital reader (Kindle, Nook, Kobo) or have downloaded the appropriate app for your computer, tablet, or smartphone. So what I’m about to say shouldn’t be necessary, but I’m going to say it anyway: Buy a Kindle. You can find one as cheap as $79.99 on Better yet, buy a Kindle, a Fire tablet (starting at $49.99), a Nook (similarly priced), and perhaps even a Kobo device, though those are pricier and the payoff likely to be smaller.

What’s more, buy or borrow an iPad, so you can see what Apple does to your books. Finally, download every possible app for all the electronic devices you own.

Once you have equipped yourself, please take another step before to presume to publish your first e-book. Go to the Amazon store that serves your country (it may well be the US store) and download the free samples of the top ten or twenty best-sellers. If you write genre fiction or specialized stuff, also download samples of your competitors’ work, especially those published by the Big Five houses. Read them. Study them. Please!

And while you’re at it, take down the first ten or twenty books from your bookshelf and study them. (You’re a writer, so you do have a bookshelf, right?) You would be astonished, as I regularly am, at how many authors set out to become publishers without having a clue about how books are designed and formatted. In a later chapter, I have occasion to recommend The Chicago Manual of Style, which has an excellent chapter on book-making. There are also good resources online. Read about books and e-books; study the most successful examples; and adopt the best practices as your own.

New and improved for 2018

E-books are continually evolving, with the result that this Guide has gone through nine editions already. Most of my changes this year are minor, but I do have new things to say about two of Amazon’s rather clumsy attempts to make the publishing process easier, for itself if not for us. One was the introduction of Kindle Create, which tries to smooth the experience of uploading a Word doc to the KDP publishing platform.

The other was KDP Print Beta, in which Amazon actually goes into competition with itself. As I will explain in my final chapter, the company bought a very successful outfit for publishing print editions, a platform called CreateSpace. It worked wonderfully well, and I have used it to publish all my paperbacks, including the print edition of this Guide. Weirdly, Amazon last year added a print option to the KDP platform. It was truly second rate, and while it has been improved since it was launched, it still leaves a lot to be desired. I’m not the only author-publisher hoping that Amazon never shuts down the wonderful CreateSpace option.

Step 1 - Your Html Template

FIRST GET RID of the notion that html is code. It’s not. It’s just a way of tagging or labeling words and paragraphs and headings so that they appear as you want them to appear. A document thus tagged is inserted into a template that tells the computer (and all digital readers are computers, just as all digital books are html files) that this is indeed html, or xml or xhtml to name a few variations. My template is shown below, and to make matters easier it’s posted online so you can simply copy it and paste it into your plain-text or html editor. The same is true of the style sheet that I recommend in Step 2.

But about that text editor: don’t use Microsoft Word or OpenOffice Writer or any word processor for this task. Most of the horror stories on the Kindle author communities are the result of using Word for creating html. The software does have a built-in conversion for turning your document into html, and some authors — usually the most inexperienced — swear by this method of building e-books. The problem is what you don’t see. Behind the scenes, Word is littering your book with instructions that are invisible to you but will be seen and obeyed by the html conversion and eventually by the Kindle device or app that someone is using to read your book. There’s a much better way of going about it. We will get to that shortly.

(The same formatter who turned me on to epub is much kinder about Word than I am. But she is a professional who has formatted thousands of e-books, and she knows how to make software sing — though I’m pretty sure she’s never actually uploaded a Word doc to the KDP. In the case of Word, the secret is to be obsessive about using Styles. If you want to give Styles a try, check my blog for some pointers.)

For now, all you need to know is that the following template will provide the necessary scaffolding or framework for the html version of your book. It’s a simple-minded document and one that actually wouldn’t pass an html validation. That doesn’t matter because you are going to go directly from html to epub, and trust me: the epub will be okay.

And note that by “template” I don’t mean a software program that you might use to build a website, record a song, or perform another such computer task. My template is simply a bare-bones framework. You will copy it to clipboard, paste it into a text editor, then add the various elements of your book.

The template



<title>Your Book Title Goes Here</title>

<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="epub.css">

<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html;charset=utf-8" >



<!--Your title page goes here-->

<!--Then your table of contents-->

<!--And your book file-->

<!--And finally, your copyright and author pages-->



Notice that the template is divided into two parts, the head and the body. The head contains only one piece of information that matters to you: you must replace Your Book Title Goes Here with ... the title of your book! The other lines are basically just boilerplate, including the name of the style sheet (epub.css) that tells the digital reader how to display your book. (You could simply put the style sheet in the heading, but having it as a separate file will cut down on the size of your finished book.)

For the body of the book, I show several comments to suggest the book elements you probably will want to add. You can delete each comment as you add a section, or you can leave it in place. “Commented” material isn’t visible in the book as displayed in an e-reader.

Finally, there are closing tags to end the body section and also the html document as a whole. In most cases, every html tag is matched by a closing tag, something that is too often neglected when you use an automatic conversion to turn your book into an html file.

Enough said! You can duplicate the template, or you can go to Notjohn’s KDP Guide on Blogspot and copy it to clipboard. Then paste it into any plain-text editor such as Notepad that comes with every Windows computer. If you use Notepad for this purpose, as opposed to a more sophisticated editor — see below — it will want to save your book file with a txt extension instead of the htm or html extension that is called for. You can use the “all files” option instead and type the extension yourself, or you can change the extension later.

Notepad++ and NoteTab

There are two alternatives to the simple text editor. To start, you might try the free and excellent Notepad++, which is easy to use and handles html very prettily. (Just go to Download, then click on Notepad++ Installer.) Or if you are serious about working with html, and can handle a steeper learning curve, NoteTab is a great text editor and html tool from Fookes Software. The full-featured version is NoteTab 7, which costs $40. You can also get a 30-day trial, and there’s also a freeware Light version at that same web page. Just page down to find it. The free version will handle most e-book formatting chores.

You may find Notepad++ more user-friendly, because all html tags are shown in color, and if you forget to close a tag it will show up in purple. Note that when saving an html file in Notepad++, you should select the Encoding option as Encode in UTF-8