Converting books to ebooks

First-step: decisions

In an ideal world, turning books into ebooks would be as simple as clicking “Save as…” in any good text-layout software. It will be one day, but right now it’s not (not even in InDesign, though it gets better with each version). This is partly because the industry is young, so the tools haven’t been developed fully yet. But more than that, it’s because you (and your clients or bosses) have to make some decisions about the nature of the ebooks you’re creating. Each ebook can be a little different.

Let’s go through some of those decisions.

Is design and layout (including typography, colours, and the exact placement of images) important for understanding the content?

Do you want DRM?

How big can the ebook file be, considering your market? (Think about bandwidth and the devices they’ll use to read it.)

How much linking and interactivity does your market expect, and how much time can you spend on providing that?

Must this ebook be read offline, or is it only online content?

Is accessibility for the visually impaired important?

What systems or services will you use to distribute this ebook? (Different ones can handle different kinds of files.) Some examples:

Creating a PDF ebook

This is the simplest ebook to make. It is just a PDF, but with settings applied that make it great for reading on screen. This is most easily done in Adobe Acrobat Pro (you may be able to get by with lesser, cheaper equivalents, like Foxit Phantom), and is more a case of knowing what steps to follow and which settings to choose than having any particular technical skills.

First, though, you want to do as much of the work in InDesign as possible, before tweaking the ebook in Adobe Acrobat Pro. Most of these things you should do as part of your design and typesetting process. In InDesign, you’ll create or see to:

Then, export to PDF, and refine the PDF ebook in Acrobat Pro:

Finally, check the PDF on various apps and devices to make sure everything is there and works. Check the hyperlinks open the right web pages and email addresses, and that the bookmarks (what Acrobat calls the clickable table of contents) go to the right pages. Check the metadata, too. For instance, many people forget to change or add the PDF ebook’s ISBN, which should be different from the print book’s ISBN.

Converting to EPUB using Calibre

Much of the time as a publisher, you want to be able to create lots of ebooks  quickly. They don’t need to be works of art, you just need to get the things up for sale. They need to work and to look fine, not spectacular. Importantly, you need to make them cheaply. You could outsource this (e.g. to one of many companies in India that do this), but you’d rather do it in-house.

Calibre is a great open-source ebook-management application for converting ebooks from one format to another. Since you can work from a variety of file formats, your editors can do this, not just your designers. If you have a clean, final MS Word file, creating a sellable basic EPUB file can take about 20 minutes, including some testing.

In short, to create an ebook file (say, EPUB) in Calibre, you can start with an MS Word document. In Calibre, add it to your Library. Choose the output format (EPUB in this case), and press Convert. You can bulk convert, too, converting lots of different books to ebooks at once.

The Calibre user manual includes a thorough explanation of the conversion process and how to tweak it for best results. When you glance through this, you’ll see why you needed to learn about HTML and CSS earlier on.

Another open-source ebook program is Sigil. Sigil is a bit more technical, since it requires that you know a bit of HTML and are familiar with the way EPUB files are structured. It’s a WYSIWYG EPUB editor (as opposed to a converter): so you can design your EPUB with simple, click-and-drag type tools. You have to start with an EPUB file, or HTML or plain text. So you could start with Calibre or InDesign to create a basic EPUB, and then refine it in Sigil.

Creating EPUB from InDesign

This is probably the best way to produce an ebook. InDesign has been able to export InDesign documents to EPUB since CS3, but only in CS6 has it become fairly reliable. From CS3 and CS4, you have to do a lot of work after export to finish the EPUB (much of this extra work is covered in detail on the Electric Book Works Knowledge Base). In CS5, a few hours work, too. In CS6, you may have to put in an hour or two to polish up the EPUB before it’s ready for proofreading and sale.

Here, I’ll just provide an overview. For really detailed guidance, check out Elizabeth Castro’s excellent book EPUB: Straight to the Point, or visit the EBW Knowledge Base.

Working in InDesign

Before you start, look through the book you’re about to work on. You are probably going to be changing or making decisions about:

I’ll cover these issues in more detail later.

If you’re definitely only using InDesign to create an EPUB ebook (not a print book), you do NOT need:

These two things will be discarded in the export-to-EPUB process. But why limit yourself to ebook only? You might as well set things up for a possible print edition, too.

Once you’ve set up your InDesign document properly, you can export to EPUB. Note that in InDesign CS3 and 4 you export to EPUB using “Export to Digital Editions…” (Adobe used to refer to EPUB as “Digital Editions”, conflating the EPUB file format with their own EPUB-reading software Adobe Digital Editions.)

Note: I’m assuming for the most part here that you’re using InDesign CS4 or later. If you’re using CS3, the EPUB export is very buggy, and you’ll need to do a lot more to the EPUB files after export in order to create working EPUBs, let alone good-looking ones.

After exporting to EPUB

After you’ve created a basic EPUB from InDesign, there’s more to do to make a polished, sellable EPUB. Depending on the version of InDesign you’re using and how you’ve created your files, you may need to:

And you’ll definitely need to test the EPUB thoroughly during and after this process. In the end, you must get a human being to at least glance at every page: just because it’s digital doesn’t mean it’s quick and easy!

To do all this you’ll almost always have to work with the EPUB’s code at some stage.