eBook Conversion

eBook conversion for Kindle and ePub readers

Introduction to the ePub format

In addition to the mobi format, used by the Kindle, the other widely used format is ePub. The ePub format is also based on HTML, although it offers more formatting options than mobi.

The good news is that the all the HTML features I’ve described for Kindle conversion also apply to ePub. So you can use the same HTML file for conversion; the only difference is that you’ll need to tweak a few conversion settings in Calibre. If you’ve written a novel, or any other type of prose with plain text, and you’re happy with the way it looks on the Kindle, then it will look pretty much the same in ePub.

In later tutorials, I’ll go through the additional formatting options that are available. But here are some things to bear in mind:

  1. As tempting as the increased formatting options are to the more design-minded of you, they’re a double-edged sword. Again, like the Kindle, there are a myriad of reading devices out there, and you need to remember that your book needs to be readable on all of them. As irritating as the formatting restrictions of the mobi format sometimes are, they do ensure a reasonably consistent experience for everyone
  2. There is much more variation in terms of screen sizes with ePub readers. Unless you’re producing ePub files for a specific device (such as the iPad), the best option for your book cover is 800 x 600 pixels
  3. Barnes & Noble has the second biggest market share for eBooks (around 20-25 per cent) and uses the ePub format; however to use B&N’s Pubit! channel, you need to have a US credit card. If you are outside the US you will have to use an aggregator. The aggregators Lulu and BookBaby let your upload ePub files; however Smashwords will only let you upload an MS Word 2003 document
  4. At the time of writing, Google is also about to start selling ePub books
  5. There is a free WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) ePub editor available: Sigil. This is a good option if you wand to do a lot of tweaking. It doesn’t have quite the functionality of a word processor – sometimes you have to go into the HTML code – but it’s a useful option

eBook aggregators and online book stores

Where to sell your eBook isn’t a subject I want to go into deeply and there are several people on the web who are far more knowledgeable than me. However, it does have some implications for formatting and conversion, so I thought I’d better mention it.

As far as market share goes, Amazon is the by far the biggest fish in the pond. Depending on whose figures you believe, Amazon’s share of the eBook market is somewhere between 70 and 80 per cent. For this reason alone, I think it’s worth spending time making your books look as good as possible and it’s why the Kindle format is the focus of this site. Getting your book in the Kindle store is a fairly straightforward task.

Next up is Barnes & Noble, who seem to have a market share of somewhere between 15-20%. B&N sells in the ePub format. They also make it fairly straightforward to upload your file and sell through their site but there’s one catch; you must have a credit card registered to a US address. If you have one, I’d recommend doing this; however, if you don’t then there are workarounds.

Apple and Sony, despite their high profile – especially in terms of the iPad – aren’t actually selling that many eBooks themselves.

I must also add that I have no personal experience of any of the sites I’m discussing on this page; although I’m a writer and editor by profession and I’ve formatted several eBooks for friends and acquaintances, at the time of writing I have no book to sell. There are several excellent websites and people on Twitter who know much more than me about writing fiction, design, marketing and distribution.

eBook aggregators

eBook aggregators are companies who will take your file, convert it into multiple formats and make it available through multiple distribution channels. They typically make money by taking a small commission or charging an upfront fee. They often are the only way of distributing your book via Apple’s iBookstore, Sony, Kobo and Barnes & Noble.

How many channels you want to sell on is up to you, but as I’ve already mentioned, you want to be on Barnes & Noble as well as Amazon. If you can’t sell directly through them, the only aggregators that let you access this channel would appear to be Smashwords, Lulu and BookBaby.

About Smashwords

Lulu and BookBaby both give you the option of uploading ePub files. You can use online validators (such as this one) to check your file before you submit it.

Smashwords seems to have a high reputation in self-publishing circles – for the range of retail channels they offer and for their competitive pricing. However, for reasons best known to themselves, Smashwords will only accept files in Word 2003 format. The company uses a proprietary piece of software called Meatgrinder to convert Word files into the myriad of formats they offer.

Of course the problem with this kind of conversion is that it often gives you a format that could be described as acceptable but rarely looks professional. Stylistic features such as images as chapter headings and drop capitals simply aren’t allowed.

Smashwords offers a very long and detailed style guide, which you must strictly adhere to. Tales abound on the internet of files rejected by the Meatgrinder. (Paul Salvette also has a useful guide to submitting Word files to Smashwords.)

Now, you may be annoyed that I’ve encouraged you to convert your Word file into HTML for conversion and you may now have to send a Word file after all. However, all is not lost:

1. Much of the Smashwords style guide is based around using Word’s Styles and Formatting features, which I’ve encouraged you to use prior to conversion. So chances are you’ve done much of the work already
2. If you’ve done all the style work by editing the HTML code, MS Word does a fairly good job of opening simple HTML files, which you can then save as a Word document. (I’d appreciate a comment from someone who’s done this – unfortunately there’s no way for me to test the Meatgrinder without submitting a book.)

If you’re going to use Smashwords, I would encourage you to try and do your best with the software. I’ve looked through some of their free .mobi book downloads on my Kindle and several of them look pretty lousy. I suspect it’s a combination of poor author formatting and the limitations of the Meatgrinder software.

Printing on Demand

Several companies let you upload Word or PDF files and print individual books to order; after all, many people still prefer a paper book. The most famous of these is probably Lulu.

This subject is also beyond the scope of the site. If you’re going to do this in MS Word, then tweaking the Styles and Formatting attributes makes this a whole lot easier. From a page layout point of view, I’m not a fan of Word – unless you know the program well, your pages invariably end up looking like office documents.

A good solution to this may well be the free program LyX; this uses a typesetting engine called Latex, via a basic word processor-like interface. For producing prose such as novels and poems you can get some very attractive results (here’s a PDF of the first two chapters of Emma done on LyX). Although it’s not particularly difficult to use, it’s not as intuitive as MS Word and there’s not much online documentation for the beginner (although this guide isn’t bad). However, I may return to the topic if there’s enough demand, as I think it’s a very useful tool for the self-publisher.

ISBN numbers and DRM

These topics are really beyond the scope of this website – my intention was to persuade and help you produce nicely formatted eBooks. However, these are both options in the conversion process, so it would be useful to at least explain what these things are.


ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It’s a 13-digit number that uniquely identifies your book. Under normal circumstances, you have to pay the relevant ISBN issuer in your country.

So do you need one? The simple answer is ‘it depends’. Amazon and Barnes & Noble, the biggest eBook retailers, do not require that you have an ISBN number. So, for example, if you only want to sell from your website and through Amazon, then it’s probably not worth worrying about. However, some online retailers, such the Apple store, do require that you do have an ISBN.

Some aggregators – companies such as Lulu and Smashwords, who will take your book and publish it in multiple formats to several retailers – issue free ISBNs as part of the deal. You can only use these ISBNs for books published through these services.

If you also want your book to sell in bookstores, then you do need an ISBN.

Some useful links

Sue Collier at BookBuzzr: Does Your ebook Need Its Own ISBN?
Joel Friedlander at The Book Designer: ISBN 101 for Self Publishers
Ron Pramschufer at Publishing Basics: Do I really need a separate ISBN for my eBook?


DRM (digital rights management) is an anti-piracy measure applied to digital files. The Amazon .azw format and the ePub format can both carry DRM if you choose to select it. It essentially ties the file to the device registered to the user and stops it being used on other devices.

Although this superficially sounds like a good idea, DRM is a double-edged sword. I’m just going to list the pros and cons and let you make up your own mind. It’s not necessary to worry about DRM as part of the conversion process — you will be given the option to apply it during the upload process to the eBook retailer (although some retailers insist on DRM, while some others don’t give you the option).

On the plus side, DRM means purchasers can’t just pass on free copies to their friends and it makes it much harder to pirate.

The cons of DRM include:

  • eBooks can’t be used across devices. For example, you can’t read Kindle books on a Nook, even if you’ve paid for them (although the Kindle application is available across several devices)
  • It can cause customer-support problems for people who have legitimately purchased content
  • DRM can be broken
  • Customers can’t make back-up copies their eBooks
  • Some consumers object to DRM on principle — it’s their book and they should be free to use it how they wish

Table of Contents

For a table of contents, the good news is that both Calibre and Mobipocket Creator will both create contents pages based on your headings, up to level three; that is h1, h2 and h3. And as you’ll know from reading eBooks, these will be hyperlinks and will take the reader straight to the corresponding section. There’s no need to do your own TOC in MS Word, for example.

Calibre can identify the structure of your book from the file and do this automatically. I personally prefer to use Mobipocket Creator, because it’s quicker – which is important when you’re experimenting with layout – and there are fewer options to configure. However, I’ll leave the choice up to you; bear in mind, it’s PC-only. The technical details of how to configure TOCs are in the respective Calibre and Mobipocket conversion pages.

My only irritation with Mobipocket Creator is with its table of contents creator, which usually crashes unless headings have certain attributes. Fortunately, it only takes a minute or two to fix. Fire up Notepad++ and replace the following tags:

Heading tag Replace with
<h1> <h1 toc="one">
<h2> <h2 toc="two">
<h3> <h3 toc="three">


Book structure

Some authors take time to think about the structure of books – section headings, chapter headings and the like – while some are a bit more blasé about it. However, it’s important to do it correctly, in terms of navigation, as a consistent visual pointer for the reader and for technical reasons such as whether or not a heading appears in a table of contents. And also that you can define styles for them and change their appearance throughout the book very quickly.

In HTML (and by relation Kindle format), you can have six descending levels of headings, from <h1> to <h6>.

A simple novel

Let’s take the simplest example – a novel with twenty-five chapters. All you need to do is to make sure all your chapter headings are tagged with <h1>.

Chapter 1

<p>It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.</p>

A book in parts

However, let’s suppose you split your book into three parts. <h1> now corresponds to the part and <h2> is now the chapter style.

Part 1

Chapter 1

<p>It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.</p>

And of course, if you want to have some subheadings, they’ll be <h3>.

If you’re writing something quite long and technical, with lots of headings, it’s easy to forget where in the hierarchy you are.

Defining Structure

Most word processors feature the same principle I’ve outlined above. In MS Word, for example, if you go to Format > Styles and Formatting, some built-in headings are displayed in the right-hand pane – typically Heading 1, Heading 2 and Heading 3. These correspond exactly to <h1>, <h2> and <h3> and can be carried into the HTML, which is an easier option than trawling through code and doing it manually. So I highly recommend you use this feature – all you need to do is select your heading text and click on the style. In addition, once you’ve defined all your headings, you can use Word’s automatic table of contents function, which is very useful for displaying the structure of long books.

Writing your book

I’m not here to tell you what software you should use to write your book; for composition I personally prefer Microsoft Word, but you may favour Open Office, iWork or Google Docs. Even though the final format will be simple HTML, you don’t need to write in it.

I will admit that I’ve found MS Word the easiest program to work with for composition. However Open Office writer was also fine. Converting from Google Docs requires a bit more work, but in some circumstances the advantages of Docs may outweigh the downsides – for a multi-author collaborative project, or if you’re working on your book using more than one computer or device.

All these programs do offer the facility to save to HTML, but their HTML output is overly complicated, difficult to understand and requires cleanup. Therefore I suggest you ignore this feature.

The important thing is to stick to writing text and not to worry at all about formatting. If you have any pictures or tables, leave them out of the document. Don’t bother with tabs, line breaks, section breaks and indentation – keep it as simple as possible.

Many people will have chapters as separate documents, which is fine for composition: however, the final version will need to be one long document. Rather than copying and pasting, it might be quicker – in Word – to open a new document and build it up using Insert > File.

eBooks: What works, what doesn’t

The simple answer to this question is that anything text-centric – content that doesn’t rely on layout or graphic elements – looks great on an eBook. By ‘text-centric’ I’m referring to things like novels, biographies, poetry and essays.

What doesn’t work are formats where the precise placement of text and graphics is important to the reader’s experience; comic books, technical manuals, most textbooks, and magazine and newspaper layouts. The control over placement of graphics in ePub format is rudimentary; in Kindle format it’s almost non-existent. There’s also no support for things like mathematical formulae and the fixed-width formats common in computer manuals when code is displayed. Read the rest of this entry »

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