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How to Make Ebooks #1. Getting Started.

[Note: I have combined, expanded and revised these four entries to make, fittingly, an ebook called How to Make An Ebook, available from Transreal Books.]

I plan to put up a series of four posts about the topic of how to epublish books on your own. In these posts I’ll focus on doing it all yourself. I’m going to describe the specific series of steps that I’m taking to epublish my Transreal Books.

Don’t take everything I say for gospel. There are many paths through the thickets of epub, and I’m only now beginning to find my way. I posted on this topic last fall, and revised that post in February, 2012, and by now I’ve expanding my understanding about many of the things in the old post. So it’s time to try again.

Posting the information seems worthwhile as I’ve really had quite a bit of trouble in learning it. Epublishing abounds with gotchas. But clearly its time has come.

Distribution: Kindle, NOOK, iBook, Direct

So suppose I have a document and I want to make it into an ebook. Let’s start by describing the steps you can use to distribute your ebook once it’s done.

There are four main channels for distributing ebooks:
(1) Amazon Kindle,
(2) Barnes and Noble NOOK,
(3) the Apple iBook store.
(4) Your own website. You can create MOBI and EPUB format books so as to reach all existing ereaders.

Regarding the corporate channels, the ebook market share figures are constantly being debated, revised, and spun. As of 2012, it may be that Amazon sells close to 70% of ebooks, B&N close to 20%, and iBook around 7%, with a variety of smaller channels picking up the crumbs.

One thing to keep in mind from the start is that you can distribute through all of these channels for free—provided you have a certain amount of patience and a good tolerance for pain. You can pay various intermediaries to set up distribution for you, but don’t make the mistake of paying a large up-front fee for this service and/or the mistake of cutting them in for the lion’s share of your royalties.


You need to set up your corporate distribution accounts. Search for “Amazon KDP” (Kindle Direct Publishing) to get an account for distributing Kindle ebooks. Search for “Barnes and Noble PubIt” to get set up for distributing NOOK. Search for “Lulu ebook” to get an account that will distribute to Apple iBooks.

I know there are alternate paths to the iBook market, as well as to the crumb-level channels. But to keep things simple, I’m going to stick to KDP, PubIt, Lulu, and your own indie website.

Another initial step (not absolutely necessary) is to invent a name for your publishing enterprise, and to purchase an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for your book. You do this by seraching for “Bowker ISBN” and buying one or several ISBNs—they’re not hugely expensive. The gain with having your own ISBN is that it makes it easier to get your distributors to attribute your book to your personal publisher name. Note that some people say that you need a different ISBN for each distribution channel. My preference is to quietly use one particular ISBN for all of a given ebook’s channels.

Now a bit about distributing your ebooks from your own website.

First you want to get a PayPal account so people can easily pay you. Note that PayPal is set up to accept credit card charges from customers who don’t have a PayPal account of their own.

Second you need a service to handle the process of collecting money from the customers and getting copies of the ebook to them. I’m finding that the relatively inexpensive ($5 per month with no extra per-book charges) service E-Junkie works well for me. Be careful here, there are some rip-off services that do the same thing, but who charge you a very high monthly fee and who take something like 10% of all your sales.

Third you’ll need to set up a webpage describing your ebook or ebooks, complete with purchase links (which will redirect them to, let us say, E-Junkie, who’ll collect customer info, chage them via PayPal and email the customers a download link).

EPUB and MOBI Formats

Ebooks are distributed in two main formats: EPUB and MOBI. What are they?

EPUB is the richer and more universal format. Basically, an EPUB file is like a compressed website. It’s a package file that holds all the elements of a website. Specifically, an EPUB holds a Text directory with one or more HTML files with your text in it, a Styles directory with a CSS style sheet to control the styles used in your text, an Images directory with JPG image files for each image in your text, a TOC file with a table of contents, and a funky OPF “manifest” file that describes how the pieces fit together. It’s a website wrapped in a package.

The Barnes and Noble NOOK reads EPUB, as does the iBook app.

There are various ways to turn your DOC or RTF text file into an EPUB file—I’ll discuss both an easy way and a harder way of doing this.

MOBI is the Kindle ebook file format, it’s a more primitive kind of package file that, like EPUB, holds text, images, table of contents, and a “manifest.” Amazon changes the name of this format to AZW. You can’t make AZW files at home, but it’s rather easy to convert an EPUB file into a MOBI. We’ll talk about this in a bit. The thing to remember is that first you need to make an EPUB, and making the MOBI after that is practically effortless (modulo a bit of screwing around with some tags).

Keep in mind that if you want to give away or to sell your book from your own website, you’ll need to make EPUB and MOBI versions of it at home. And, once again, if you have these two formats, then you can reach all the ereading devices or apps in existence.

But—if you can’t face the tweaking ordeal of making EPUB and MOBI, you can simply sell your book via the three big channels.

Amazon KDP will accept MOBI, EPUB, HTML, DOC or RTF.
Barnes and Noble PubIt will accept EPUB, HTML, DOC, or RTF.
Lulu will accept EPUB or DOC.

So…if you don’t want to do indie distribution, you can just clean up your DOC or RTF and upload it to Amazon and to Barnes & Noble. And upload a clean DOC to Lulu for the iBook market as well.

Making your own EPUB and MOBI: Why and How?

There are two main reasons to make your own EPUB and MOBI.

First of all, it gives you better control over how your ebook will actually look. In particular, making your own epub allows you to put nice-looking illustrations into your book.

Secondly, as I keep saying, if you want to distribute indie ebooks on your own, you need to get them into EPUB and MOBI—and really this just means getting them into EPUB, as the EPUB to MOBI conversion is so simple.

So now lets talk about how you make an EPUB and a MOBI.

You’re going to use three very good free software tools Calibre and Sigil , and the Kindle Previewer. These tools do different things, and you need both of them. They’re constantly being updated, so check for updates every so often.

Calibre converts files from one format to another. And can use Calibre to edit the so-called metadata (title, author’s name, ISBN, publisher name, etc.) in your files.

Typically you use Calibre to convert RTF or HTML into EPUB and then into MOBI. That is, you shoot for getting the EPUB the way you want it first, and only then do you convert to MOBI.

The Calibre conversion process is automatic, although there are a rather large number of Conversion settings you can tweak to affect the outputs. It usually takes multiple iterations until you get the settings and the outputs just right. Calibre also has a primitive ereader window that lets you look at the current states of your EPUB and your MOBI. When you’re happy you can save your EPUB and MOBI files to disk, and try them out in other ereaders. And you’re free to return to Calibre and change the files some more.

Sigil allows you to tweak your EPUB file in various ways: you can edit or wholly replace the text, add or remove images, alter the Table of Contents, and more. Sigil also has the ability to verify if your current EPUB has any format errors in it, and it helps you fix them.

Kindle Previewer autoconverts an EPUB into a MOBI and lets you preview how the MOBI will look on the various kinds of Kindle devices.

Three Work Flows

I’ve used three different work flows in making your EPUB and MOBI: a simple level, an medium level, and an advanced level. (I won’t be talking about pro-level use of Quark or InDesign for making EPUB files, as I’ve never used these tools.)

Simple Level
* Clean up your DOC or RTF file.
* If you’ve been using DOC, now save it as an RTF.
* Use Calibre to convert your RTF into an EPUB.
* Use the Sigil software to verify the EPUB and to do minor edits on it.
* Use Calibre or the Kindle Previewer to convert the EPUB into a MOBI.

Medium Level
* Clean up your DOC or RTF file.
* Convert your DOC or RTF into an HTML file, then tweak the HTML
* Use Calibre to convert your HTML into an EPUB.
* Use the Sigil software to verify and to correct problems in the EPUB.
* Use Calibre or the Kindle Previewer to convert the EPUB into a MOBI.

Advanced Level
* Clean up your DOC file.
* Use Dreamweaver to convert your DOC into an HTML file, then use Dreamweaver to clean and tweak the HTML. Create a CSS stylesheet for the HTML.
* Use Sigil to directly create an EPUB from your HTML, from an associated CSS stylesheet you’ve created, and from images that you’ve properly sized.
* Bounce back and forth between Dreamweaver and Sigil, finding and correcting problems in the EPUB.
* Use Calibre or the Kindle Previewer to convert the EPUB into a MOBI.

In the later posts in this series, I’ll talk about the steps of these workflows, and about such issues as how to handle covers, internal images, tables, styles and tables of contents.

But if you’re eager to start experimenting, you could give the simple workflow level a try right now, just to see what your EPUB might look like. Make a copy of some document you like, put it into a Playpen directory, and let Calibre munge on it. One thing worth stressing: always keep an Archive directory where you keep the best forms of your DOC, EPUB, HTML or whatever files for your ebook. Calibre has a way of screwing with the files that you load into it, and you don’t want to overwrite your archived files with the screwed-with files.

For getting started, there’s an online Calibre user manual to help you along. The MobileRead forums have a huge amount of info if you use the Search box. And simply Googling your questions often leads to good answers—although there’s a lot of inaccurate jabbering as well.

12 Responses to “How to Make Ebooks #1. Getting Started.”

  1. eo Says:

    Sort of interesting, so I’ve shared it with some others that might actually want to e-publish.
    I’m surprised there isn’t a google path now via Google Play Books. I’m reading some books on my Android phone via Play Books. Can I get your pubs on Play Books?

  2. Rudy Says:

    Eo, I think Google Play Books is closed and only reads certain Google-approved books, and I don’t know of a path for publishing there.

    The FBReader and Aldiko apps are recommended as open ereaders for the Android.

    You should be able to read the EPUBs from my Transreal Books site with either of these. If you give it a try, let me know how it works out.

  3. Kehrtraud Says:

    Another possibility. Instead of Word use libre-office for writing your text. Libre can import .doc. You save them .odt. Maybe you have to tweak it a bit. Libre- wirter can convert your text to epub. Just download the tool.

  4. Rudy Says:

    Kehrtaud, always good to hear from you. Like I say, there’s a lot of paths through the jungle, and they’re going to change every year. Maybe you’ve found a magic shortcut. But at this point, for the sake of sanity, I’m not about to replace my currently preferred combo of Word, Dreamweaver, Sigil and Calibre with a free word processor! Keep in mind that turning a document into an EPUB isn’t necessarily that hard—but having it look the way you want on a wide range of ereaders is tricky.

  5. Rudy Says:

    Speaking of alternate paths, here’s an interesting post “How to Generate your First Mobi File,” by indie fantasy writer Lindsay Buroker. She uses Scrivener for her word processor, saves her file as an HTML, tweaks that, loads the HTML into Calibre, then saves as Epub and Mobi.

    More shout-outs:

    See Christopher Meeks has an interesting post about making your built-in table of contents work for a MOBI book.

    Writer and programmer Huw Collinbourne’s has some useful entries about ebook publishing on his Dark Neon site. He also treats the issue of making a table of contents for Kindle.

    Note, however that Dark Neon uses some conversion software called Mobipocket Creator that has been pretty widely replaced by Calibre and Sigil. You can use Sigil to edit the “guide” material that Dark Neon talks about. More on this in installment #2 of my “Do-It-Yourself Ebooks”.

  6. Steve H Says:

    I’ve used Calibre to make an ebook already and it was easy. I had to go back and remove an unwanted index, but it worked.

  7. Susan Kuchinskas Says:

    OMG, thank you so much for taking the time to write all this out. I spent a couple hours searching around until someone at a bookstore pointed me to your blog. You definitely should turn it into an ebook; as far as I can tell, there’s nothing available in any format that has this information. I’d buy it!

  8. nailah Says:

    i was thinking about using smashwords, but i think if you use them, you cant upload to other platforms? is this true? if so, do you think that it would just be easier for me to use and amazon kip to publish the books myself (being that i am a first time author) and im not really familiar with ebooks?

    thank you,
    nailah harvey (aka n.harv)

  9. Rudy Says:

    nailah, so far as I know you can use any and all epub tools. smashwords isn’t a great choice as they don’t have much distribution. KDP is really the best place to start, as it puts you on Amazon, where the great majority of ebooks are sold. Note that it is possible to upload DOC files to KDP, see You don’t have much control over the book’s appearance this way, but why not try it and see how it looks. My posts describe some simple paths for getting more control over your final ebook’s appearance. The main thing for you to do is to try various options and to Google your questions.

  10. Ed Forsyth Says:

    Incidentally if you think the Calibre program is good — Might I add that it is made by the same people who actually produce libreWriter. They are producers of all free-programs written by hundreds of volunteers from all over the world. I look at their website is a must-do!
    Take care, , Edward Forsyth

  11. Anonymous Says:

    GREAT article, thank you SO much. I have a question, if you don’t mind.

    Step 1 in your “advanced” work flow is to “clean up your DOC file.” As the conversion to html doesn’t happen until step 2, this is obviously not talking about html tags. Can you tell me exactly what needs to be “cleaned up” in the DOC file before it is converted?

    Thank you in advance,


  12. Sarah Says:

    GREAT article, thank you SO much. I have a question, if you don’t mind.

    Step 1 in your “advanced” work flow is to “clean up your DOC file.” As the conversion to html doesn’t happen until step 2, this is obviously not talking about html tags. Can you tell me exactly what needs to be “cleaned up” in the DOC file before it is converted?

    Thank you in advance,


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