Self-Publishing: eBook

by Neil Chopra

This is an entry in a series of articles describing the process I went through to self-publish my first book: Perpetual Patterns. Instead of providing generic tutorials, these articles focus on describing exactly what I did in detail.

This article will go over all the details of my process for publishing the eBook of Perpetual Patterns. This includes initial HTML setup and eBook creation, testing, and publishing. Regardless of whether you have a print version or not, I highly recommend creating a print layout, so you get the best understanding of how you want it to look. It provides a great reference, and the eBook should just be a simplified version of it. I was surprised to find out that eBooks are nothing more than rudimentary HTML pages packaged together. If you have a basic understanding of HTML (or are willing to learn it), you will have full control of the quality of the end product. Here is a very simple primer of HTML tags that will dominate an eBook:

  • Chapter headings wrapped with <h2></h2> (or any other of the “h” tags)
  • Paragraphs wrapped with <p></p>
  • Bold phrases wrapped with <strong></strong>
  • Italicized phrases wrapped with <em></em>
  • Links wrapped with <a href=”chapter01.html”></a>

I highly recommend getting an understanding of how it all fits together. I didn’t trust any of the automated conversion processes, and Perpetual Patterns is quite short, so I manually put the HTML together myself.

Setting up the HTML

It so happens that I made a decision to post all the chapter content of the book on the website, so I already had a good base of HTML to work with. For content that was not already on the website, I actually preferred copying from Microsoft Word into the editor in WordPress, and taking the resulting HTML. The output from that is much cleaner. I made separate, simple HTML pages for each chapter and tossed them all into a folder. In addition, the chapters in my book contain references to other chapters, and I wanted to create hyperlinks for them. As long as your HTML files are in the same folder, simply creating links to other files does the trick, and will properly work in the published version. My editor of choice is Notepad++ and I did all the preliminary work in there. At this point, I was ready to start constructing the eBook and needed to decide what way to go about it.

Creating the eBook

The widely used EPUB format (Nook, iBook) is much easier to work with than the MOBI format (Kindle). MOBI ends up being one enormous HTML page and is difficult to tweak. I decided to create the eBook as an EPUB, and then find a tool to convert it to MOBI for the Kindle version. Below is the free software I considered to help me out:

Software Pros Cons
eCub Lightweight; Extremely fast Output to MOBI doesn’t work; Inability to edit EPUB
Sigil Directly edit and validate EPUB; WSYIWYG editor
Online-Convert Web based; Fast and simple No advanced options
Calibre Advanced options for conversion Big installation; Lots of unneeded features

I ended up using a combination of Sigil and Calibre to get the job done. Sigil is a great piece of software and has a singular focus: EPUB creation and modification. It organizes your files nicely and you can immediately see HTML changes in its editor. It allows you to cleanly edit the meta data of the project. Simply saving your project gives you a ready-to-publish EPUB book (no exporting or building necessary). It also has built in validation, which helped me weed out problem links. Calibre, on the other hand, is an enormous all-in-one tool that I only ended up using for its EPUB to MOBI conversion capabilities. If there was a smaller installation with just that feature, that would’ve been preferable.

There’s a subtle difference in the Table of Contents for EPUB and MOBI. The EPUB format has a Table of Contents stored separately from the rest of the book, so you can bring it up without losing your position. MOBI on the other hand requires it to be embedded in the book itself, though it can be accessed through a menu. When creating the Kindle version, I included a manually written contents page to be designated as the Table of Contents. In order to avoid doubling up during the EPUB to MOBI conversion, I needed to select an option in Calibre which allowed me to exclude the automatically generated Table of Contents (screenshot to the right). This is the only reason I used Calibre over the much easier to use Online-Convert website.

There was another manual addition necessary to the base EPUB for correct conversion to MOBI. If you’ve used a Kindle, you know that when you start a book, it immediately sends you to the first page of readable text. To get this to work, I added the following line to the <guide> section of the content.opf file in Sigil:

<reference href=“Text/00_Introduction.html” title=“Introduction” type=“start” />

Interestingly, the validator doesn’t actually recognize start as a valid type, but it did produce the desired behavior when converted to MOBI. With my base EPUB ready to go, I made tweaks for each of the three versions I published (Kindle, Nook, iBook):

  • Adding or removing the manually created Table of Contents.
  • Changing the ISBN in the copyright page and meta data.
  • Changing the cover image to be the correct dimensions for the device.

The first item we covered above. The second item is technically only necessary for paid iBooks as described in Apple’s Book Publisher FAQ. If you enter into a paid contract with Apple directly, they require that you provide a unique ISBN for the book. If you don’t want to spend the money on this ($125 for one, $250 for ten), I would suggest you go through an aggregator that handles it for you. Amazon and Barnes & Noble do not require an ISBN for eBooks, they will generate their own unique identifier (whether you provide an ISBN or not). In my case, I wanted to setup my own publishing imprint, so I went ahead a bought a block of ten ISBNs and provided unique ones for each eBook version.

The third item was a final bit of polish to make sure the cover looked the best for each device. I found a wonderful article which explained optimum sizes for both the embedded cover image and online catalog image. My free image editor of choice is Paint.NET, and I did all prep work for this in there. The exact the dimensions I used are below:

Device Embedded Catalog
Kindle 600×800 (PNG) 600×800 (JPG)
Nook 600×1024 (PNG) 398×600 (JPG)
iBook 600×860 (JPG) N/A

Testing the eBook

Amazon has a great Kindle Previewer which allows you to preview MOBI files. It also lets you flip between several devices and see how each one feels. I own a Kindle, so I ended up emailing my MOBI files as a personal document when I was satisfied so I could do a final check.

Barnes & Noble only has a stripped down online previewer, but I downloaded their Nook for PC application. Under My Library -> My Stuff you can click Add New Item to add an EPUB, and read it straight on there. Be sure to vertically expand the window, I couldn’t see My Stuff until I did that. I do not own a Nook, so I wasn’t able to test on the device itself.

iTunes allows you to import EPUB files into your Books library (simply click and drag) and sync it with your device. I own an iPhone 4, so I was able to see the end result on that.

The Kindle version was the first one I finalized and published, so the majority of tweaking was done there. Once I tackled the Nook and iBook versions, not a lot of testing was necessary.

Publishing the eBook

Alright! So now I had two sexy EPUB files and one less sexy MOBI file ready to publish. Amazon and Barnes & Noble have wonderful websites that really empower people to self-publish their work. Apple does not.

Though Apple suggests you go through one of their approved aggregators, I was determined to do this on my own. I applied for an iTunes Connect account specifically dealing with books (separate applications are required for each media type). Once my application was approved, I was reminded that I simply needed to use iTunes Producer (Mac OS X only) to deliver my content. Of course, I don’t own a Mac.

There was a solution, though! MacInCloud provides a service for people like me who only have a PC but still want to publish content on Apple mobile devices. They provide a remote desktop connection to a machine for your use that includes all the software necessary for this work. They have a nice pay-as-you-go plan which allows you to pay $1 per hour of usage. Unfortunately, you have to buy credits to get started, and the smallest initial amount is $30. Still, not bad in the grand scheme of things if you don’t have access to a Mac. It is a fairly slow connection, but was enough for me get the job done.

iTunes Producer is not nearly as easy to use as the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites. A couple details that hung me up:

  • You have to provide at least one Target Audience. The general choice for this is Apple -> General.
  • When adding a territory under Rights & Pricing, you must provide a Publication Type. I selected Other as the alternate options require some special setup with Apple.

The application will validate that you’ve entered the minimum information required before it allows you to submit it for approval. Apple allows adding territory rights for up 32 countries, and each one has to be individually setup (Amazon at least gives some nice shortcuts to set pricing for the European countries it sells to). The good news is once you have initially submitted the content through iTunes Producer, you can then fiddle with the rights and pricing through the iTunes Connect website. In addition, be aware that you are only allowed to select from Apple’s ten predefined pricing tiers (free, $0.99, $1.99, all the way to $9.99). I only set it up in the United States at $4.99. As of this publishing, it has been over three weeks since I first submitted the content, and it hasn’t yet been approved (or rejected) by Apple. I’ll post an update when I get more information.

UPDATE 3/24/2012: After contacting Apple multiple times, they flagged the iBook for expedited review. I checked the status today and it looks like the book is finally up there. So it took over one month to see it show up and I didn’t get any notification that it happened. Definitely the least impressive of the three services.

I hope this article helps you with whatever project you’re working on, feel free to comment or send me an email if you have any questions!


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