November 23, 2011

Fear and Loathing with the New Kindle Format 8

Last month, Amazon announced that the Kindle Fire will support a new Kindle Format 8 with HTML5/CSS3 features. If you are confused by those nerd terms, it basically means that the new Kindle Fires will be able to better display interactive graphics, different fonts, better design, and hopefully some other fun features for eBooks. However, it has been a month and there has still been no further news on the new formats besides the original press release. If there are no guidelines for developers and publishers on how to build these new eBooks with Amazon's proprietary format, then how the hell are readers supposed to access the potential of the Kindle Fire that they shelled out 200 bucks for. The frustration can be seen over at this Kindle forum where authors and publishers alike are clamoring for answers about how to design eBooks for their readers in the Kindle Format 8.

You can signup your email here if you want to receive notification of when the new developer guidelines are out, but so far all I've heard is crickets.

The actual Kindle Fire tablet received a pretty lukewarm review from the folks at Wired, most notably that it had a very clunky web browser:
The Fire’s processor, a 1GHz dual-core chip, appears all but insufficient for fluid, silky-smooth web browsing, an area where I found performance to be preternaturally slow.
Technically speaking, eBooks are basically big long websites built with the same type of code. Therefore, it does not bode well that the Kindle Fire can't render simple websites, let alone a complex eBook.

Hopefully, Amazon is not suffering from oligopoly syndrome, where a small number of large companies have massive market share thereby squashing the economic forces that compel companies to innovate and devote themselves to customer satisfaction. If you want an example of oligopolies run amok, just look to my home state of Michigan. Most of the auto assembly plants were shut down years ago followed by the taxpayers having to bail out two of the Big Three. I hope that Amazon can stay on their toes in the fast-changing world of ePublishing, because a lot has changed just in the last six months and readers are clamoring for better eBooks.

November 18, 2011

How to Make an eBook with Sigil - Free

For those who don't want to get into the nitty-gritty of eBook formatting (I don't blame ya), you can take the easy way out and build an eBook with a free program called Sigil, that turns regular text and images into the EPUB format. Based on a 3-part series I guest posted for Piotr over at Password Incorrect, I decided to put it into eBook format for those who would prefer the content in file format. Below is the blurb for How to Make an eBook with Sigil:
Creating a perfect eBook from a manuscript requires technical knowledge that many authors in the self-publishing community either do not have or do not have time to learn. By using the free program Sigil, you can quickly and easily convert your manuscript into an EPUB eBook that is ready to be uploaded to many of the eBook stores. Also, you can easily convert the eBook made in Sigil into a format that is ready to upload to Kindle.

How to Make an eBook with Sigil is a 2,000-word guide for self-publishers that teaches you to quickly format your manuscript into an eBook.
 Check it out for free over at Smashwords.

November 14, 2011

Prevent Deployment Boredom with Operation eBook Drop

For those indie authors looking to do a small service to help out some of our troops in harm's way, there's a way to send our servicemen free eBooks through Operation eBook Drop. This program was founded by an author and veteran, Edward Patterson, and Mark Coker of Smashwords helps out as well. The way it works is you issue a free coupon on your Smashwords account for your latest masterpiece, and then you send the coupon and link to your self-published eBook to a mailing list of military members and family members that Edward Patterson has compiled.Write to Ed to gain access to the mailing list, and there's about 180 addresses on the distribution with plenty of room for more. If you use Gmail, you can BCC up to 500 contacts, so you don't need anything fancy to email this many people on one shot.

This is a great program, because I was in Iraq for a year in the bygone days of 2007-2008, when eBooks were virtually unheard of. Being a Green Zone fobbit, the Groundhog Day phenomenon, where every day is exactly the same, began setting in about month 2 (with 10 months left to go). Lucky for me I was able to order print books from Amazon, but some of our troops living on combat outposts might not have that luxury. Therefore, an eReader stocked with eBooks is a great thing to bring to war to stave off boredom and the mid-deployment blues. With no alcohol, serious restrictions on co-mingling with the opposite sex, and having to work 14-hour days, reading is a great activity for active duty personnel to keep sane (at least I felt so, and YMMV).

A big concern is that internet connections in war zones can be atrocious, despite the US government shelling out millions to contractors to provide this service for the troops. I'm not sure if speeds have improved in the last 4 years, but when I was in Iraq, it was virtually impossible to download anything over 1MB. Therefore, you may want to consider not sending that 8MB eBook full of high-res pictures.

Hit or Miss Internet Connection (me in Iraq - 2007)

So, head on over to the Operation eBook Drop website and write to Ed for the email list. It's an easy thing to do. Hopefully, some of the big publishing houses will consider providing a similar service to our troops.

November 7, 2011

How to Prepare a PDF for Conversion into an eBook

Thank you for visiting this eBook design tutorial. We now have an eBook design startup—BB eBooks—dedicated to helping independent authors and small presses get their eBooks formatted, converted, and ready for sale at all the major online retailers (e.g. Amazon's Kindle Store, Barnes & Noble's Nook, iBookstore, Smashwords, etc.) Please contact us for a no-obligation quote. For those writers, editors, and publishers looking to go the DIY route for eBook production (you probably are if you visited this page), we offer free online tutorials and apps to help you professionally design your eBook. Please visit our Developers page and let’s work together to improve the overall standards of eBooks. Also, please sign up for the mailing list for promotions, design & marketing tips, plus eBook industry news.

Problematic Formatting on eBooks due to Direct PDF Conversion

Complaints about poor eBook formatting from the big publishing houses are becoming more numerous from readers. You would never see improper page breaks, erroneous fonts, and garbled text on a print book, so why are the publishing houses allowing these sloppy standards into eBooks? Neal Stephenson’s latest eBook Reamde, a technothriller ironically about a computer hacker, had random hyphens scattered throughout the Kindle edition. Amazon eventually had to temporarily yank it until HarperCollins got their act together to justify the $14.99 cost.

While not knowing the workflow that happened behind the scenes at HarperCollins, I’m guessing the Reamde flub was the result of poor conversion from a finalized PDF for print into the eBook formats. Karen Dionne at the Huffington Post highlights the problem in converting PDFs into eBooks:
Self-published authors frequently take the hit for poorly edited and badly formatted e-books. But the truth is, many of them are more careful about proofing their work than traditional publishers seem to be.

"I don't think I've yet seen an e-book that didn't have some pretty blatant formatting and typographical errors in it," says Keith Cronin, author of the novel Me Again, "and I'm talking about even bestselling books from the major publishing houses. In some cases I've also owned the paper version of the book, and have confirmed that the error only appears in the e-book."

Portable Document Format (PDF)

The PDF was developed in the 1990s by Adobe as way for computer users to read complex documents in a standardized format—not edit. Unlike the PDF’s fixed-layout format, MOBI (the eBook format for Amazon) and EPUB (the eBook format for everywhere else) have reflowable content to accommodate differently-sized eReaders. This means that a PDF cannot be easily changed into eBook formats by any third-party software. Even when a PDF is created from an InDesign layout, which is frequently done in the professional publishing industry, it is not a simple task to convert it back to the source InDesign file. Unfortunately, many publishing houses and authors with backlists only have their final print available in PDF format and not in a word processor format (like Word’s .doc or .rtf). Sucking the information out of a PDF is a challenging task, but here are some tips to make it a bit more manageable. Since this is time-consuming and prone to error, these methods should only be used if you have no access to any other source files (i.e. a Word document, InDesign files, etc.)

Use Acrobat Pro to Save As a Word Document

Acrobat Pro is similar to the free Acrobat Reader offered by Adobe, but the Pro version has a lot more features. Unfortunately, the software is priced at $199 and many writers don’t want to shell that out during these hard times. Assuming you want to go this route, let’s take a look at my PDF version of How to Format Your eBook for Kindle, NOOK, Smashwords, and Everything Else. The PDF contains a significant number of images, text, bulleted lists, and other complexities. Trying to cut and paste from the PDF will leave a lot of hard breaks and mangle the formatting. You want to make sure that the text is reflowable prior to trying to build an eBook.

Perform the following steps to convert your PDF into a .doc format.
  1. Open the PDF with Acrobat Pro
  2. Select “Export” under the File tab
  3. Select “Word Document”
  4. Click on “Settings”
  5. Ensure that the “Retain Flowing Text” button is checked; otherwise, you will have hard breaks on each line
  6. Do Not Click the button for “Regenerating tags” or “Including Comments” as this may crash your computer
  7. Select “Ok”
Steps 2 and 3
Step 4
It may take a while for the conversion to take place and create a valid Word document, but it will eventually finish up.

Alternative Method for Converting PDF to RTF with Calibre (Free)

RTF (Rich Text Format) is similar to the .doc format and can be opened with Microsoft Word and many other word processing programs. Calibre is an open-source eBook content management system that can do a variety of conversions between formats with an extensive amount of options. The Calibre manual advises to use a source PDF as a last resort, so this tutorial assumes you have absolutely no other option to make your eBook.
To convert a PDF to RTF perform the following in Calibre:
  1. Click “Add books” on the main page to add your source PDF
  2. Click “Covert Books”
  3. Select “RTF” under the Output format in the upper right hand corner
  4. Press “Ok”
Steps 1 and 2
Step 3
Calibre is a great program that is absolutely free, and the conversion results from PDF to editable content are almost exactly the same quality as Acrobat Pro.

Examining Your Converted Content in a Word Processor

This is the ugly and labor-intensive part. You will notice that the editable content that you open in either Microsoft Word or Open Office looks completely terrible. Problems converting from PDF include (but are not limited to):
  • Headers and footers from the PDF showing up in the content
  • Garbled characters
  • Extraneous spaces and indentations
  • Content placed into text boxes
  • Images located all over the damn place
The Ugly Results of PDF Conversion
To prepare your document to be converted into XHTML as part of the MOBI and EPUB workflow, you really need to spend some time editing this messy content. Look for patterns that became garbled during conversion (e.g. loss of certain capital letters, loss of bulleted lists, etc.) and do your best to rectify the myriad of problems. You can use the Find and Replace feature (Ctrl+H) to help make short work of this task. For the extraneous spacing before and after paragraphs, you can get rid of these with the “Trim leading and trailing spaces” in a text editor like Notepad++.

This process may sound lousy, but it is better than trying to directly convert to plain text from PDF, because you retain some of the formatting (e.g. italics, headings, etc.) when converting from PDF to .doc or .rtf.

Extracting Images from and RTF or DOC

Hypothetically, you could go image by image and copy and paste to Powerpoint or Photoshop and then save the image. This can be a tedious task if your eBook has an extensive number of images. To extract all images from a document, perform the following steps:
  1. Save your .doc or .rtf as a .docx file
  2. Open the .docx file with 7-zip or another unzipping utility
  3. Look for the folder /word/media
  4. All images are located in this folder
Location of Image Files in the .docx Package
Once you extract all these images, they will be conveniently numbered based on their location within the document. This will be useful as you construct your eBook with XHTML.

Build Your eBook from the Ground Up

Now that you have a workable source document, you can begin the workflow process from the ground up to ensure a 100% perfect conversion. A detailed tutorial on how to construct an eBook from a manuscript can be found on this website. The entire process can be very labor intensive if you have a complex eBook. However, if you are a publisher planning on charging $14.99 for a Kindle copy, you should be sure it’s perfect.

November 3, 2011

Possible Code to Fix the Double Cover Issues on eBooks


If you take the advanced route and work with EPUB code to format your eBooks, it may be advantageous to have a separate XHTML file that can be accessed to display the cover image. I like to link to this file in both the eBook's HTML Table of Contents and the meta Table of Contents (NCX) in case the reader wants to check out the cover. There's a file in my EPUB package that has the following code:
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" ?>
<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.1//EN" "">
<html xmlns="" xml:lang="en">
<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="application/xhtml+xml; charset=utf-8" />
<style type="text/css">
  @page {padding: 0pt; margin:0pt;} <!--Remove for MOBI-->
  body {text-align: center; padding:0pt; margin: 0pt;}
  div {padding:0pt; margin: 0pt;}
  img {padding:0pt; margin: 0pt;}
<img src="cover.jpg" alt="The Book's Cover" style="height: 100%;" />

In the content.opf file, the brain of the eBook, the coverpage.html file is located at the beginning of the spine section to indicate that it should show up first. This works swell for eBook readers like Adobe Digital Editions. However, you will get two cover images after you run your EPUB through KindleGen and upload to the Amazon Kindle Store. This is because Amazon requires the following code in the metadata section of the content.opf file:
<meta name="cover" content="My_Cover_ID" />

And the following code is in the manifest:
<item href="cover.jpg" id="My_Cover_ID" media-type="image/jpeg" />
<item href="coverpage.html" id="coverpg" media-type="application/xhtml+xml" />
So when the reader pulls up your eBook in the Kindle the get two cover images on two different pages at the beginning. This was apparent in the new Steve Jobs Biography, which means Simon & Schuster was having the same problems as the rest of us.

As a workaround to the double cover issue, you can try adding the following XML into the spine section:
<itemref idref="coverpg" linear="no" />
The linear attribute is "yes" by default, and it makes the section inside the eBook available, but it cannot be accessed by page turning. It should be a good method, but unfortunately nothing ever works as its supposed to in the MOBI format. Both the Kindle and Mobipocket stick the cover in the back for some reason with strange results when you try to click through the navigation with prev/next section or prev/next page.

Conclusion: It looks the best option for the Kindle is to completely remove the coverpage.html file and adjust the Table of Contents as necessary making no reference to the coverpage.html. If anyone has a better way, I'd sure to like to hear it.