January 19, 2012

How to Design an eBook for the Kindle Fire - Introduction

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.

Looking for a complete guide on eBook design and development? Please consider The eBook Design and Development Guide, which contains everything you need to know about HTML, CSS, EPUB, and MOBI/KF8 to make an eBook like a pro. Pick it up at Amazon for $6.99 today.

Amazon Conquers All

To paraphrase the late Frank Sinatra, it's Amazon's world and we just live here. Love it or hate it, the Amazon Kindle store is the place to make money selling your eBook, especially if you are a self-publisher or small press. There are other vendors online that can sell your eBook: Barnes & Noble Nook, the iBookstore, and Kobo to name a few. However, no one provides that online shopping experience to a massive amount of consumers quite like Amazon. It is estimated that Amazon has approximately 60-70% of the market for eBooks. With the launch of the Kindle Fire tablet and other programs, such as Kindle Prime and Kindle Select, Amazon has further expanded their control of the eBook market and squashed competition. It has been announced by Amazon in a press release that they sell over a million Kindle Fires per week, not to mention an absurd amount of eBooks that surpasses even their print book sales.

The Rise of Self-Publishing

Once upon a time, publishing a manuscript required submitting to dozens of publishing houses and agents and getting rejection slips months later. The launch of the Kindle Direct Publishing program (KDP) has been an incredible game changer for the way people distribute and consume the written word--authors and small presses to reach millions of customers immediately. As an example, famed self-publisher, Joe Konrath, made $100,000 selling eBooks in the first three weeks of January 2012. Achieving even a small percentage of that success might allow you to quit your day job and retire off the royalties.

When selling your eBook on the Amazon Kindle store, you get 70% of sales if your eBook is priced $2.99 or higher, and 35% if priced below $2.99. There are a few caveats, such as the "delivery cost" based on the size of your eBook and whether your eBook was sold to international customers. Nevertheless, it is much better than the 15% royalties authors receive from the traditional publishing route, if the publishing house even bothers to tell you how many sales there were. Look at this excellent report on self-publishing from Piotr Kowalczyk for 2011 to see that there is serious money involved. So, what are you waiting for? Let's get that manuscript turned into an eBook and make a few bucks.

Why eBook are Different from Their Printed Cousins

Perhaps you think that making an eBook is as simple as running your Microsoft Word or Open Office manuscript through a software program and uploading it directly to Amazon. If you try this method, you and your customers will be incredibly disappointed with the results. Authors spend hundreds of hours writing their book, an editor spends hundreds of more hours fine-tuning the work, and a significant amount of time and resources are spent marketing the book. However, no attention to detail is paid to how the eBook looks to the reader in many cases.

Unfortunately, there is a serious lack of quality when it comes to eBooks at the moment, and it is not limited to the frequently derided self-publishing community. The Steve Jobs biography published by Simon & Schuster was pulled due to formatting blunders. This is unacceptable. Your readers are your customers, and they deserve the best possible experience for their hard-earned money.

To understand why it is essential that you don’t convert eBooks directly from your word processing software into an eBook format, eBooks have to be envisioned completely differently than regular documents.
A typical document in your word processing software has the following characteristics:
  • Fonts, color, and justification defined by the author
  • Number of pages defined by the author
  • Fixed margins
  • Fixed page size (usually A4 or 8.5″x11″)
The regular document that you have created in your word processing software can be defined as “What You See Is What You Get” or WYSIWYG. Word processing software is great for preparing reports, working on your manuscript, and sharing amongst friends in emails. The .doc format created in Microsoft Word and the .odt from Open Office are examples of a WYSIWYG document that can be easily changed. The PDF format is an example of a finalized WYSIWYG document that cannot be easily changed.

However, eReader devices come in all shapes in sizes, ranging from a big desktop PC down to a tiny iPhone. Amazon makes the Kindle app available for a wide variety of devices, not just the Kindle Fire tablet and the e-ink Kindles. Fixing the document with a set font size, number of pages, and margins for display on a PC would prove to be a very poor reading experience for someone using an iPhone.
Therefore, eBook formats have evolved to have the following characteristics:
  • Defined font, color, and justification by the reader
  • No defined number of pages (i.e. no page numbers)
  • Page size based on reader’s device
  • Reflowable text
By allowing these flexible characteristics in eBook formats, readers can have an enjoyable experience no matter what type of device they are using. Because word processing software favors a fixed approach, it is necessary to strip all the predefined formatting within the word processing software and convert your document into formats that are suitable for all eReading devices.

Reflowable eBook formats use HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) to define content and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) to define how the eBook is designed. There is also some extra code called XML (eXtensible Markup Language) that dictates the metadata (e.g. the author of the eBook, the description of the book, etc.), structure, and the table of contents. Even if you've never heard of HTML or CSS, you probably use it every day. HTML and CSS are the basic languages of websites. Essentially, an eBook is one big website with a bunch of metadata thrown in. This allows for reflowable content on all eReading devices of different shapes and sizes.

eBook Format Wars

While eBooks didn't really become popular until the Kindle was launched in 2007, they've actually been around for quite a while. There have been a lot of different formats over the years, but today there are only three major ones that utilize reflowable content suitable for eReading devices: MOBI (i.e. the old proprietary Amazon format), KF8 (i.e. the new proprietary Amazon format), and EPUB. To make things really confusing, the MOBI and KF8 format are merged into one file with the .mobi extension, which is sort of based on EPUB. Regardless, eBook formats are just a package of all the necessary content and metadata into one big file.

Amazon bought out Mobipocket in 2005, the French company that developed the MOBI format. This proprietary format is used by the Kindle devices that utilize e-ink technology, including the original Kindle (the clunky white squares), Kindle 2, Kindle DX, Kindle 3, Kindle 4, and Kindle Touch. While the MOBI format is okay for simplistic eBooks, it really falls short when it comes to complex layouts, such as wrapping text around images.

The EPUB format was developed as an open format by the International Digital Publishing Forum, which is a group of people from the technology and publishing sectors. It is superior to the MOBI format in terms of being able to display graphics, render complex layouts, and add elements of interactivity. The EPUB format is utilized in the Barnes & Noble Nook store, iBookstore, and just about every vendor except Amazon. Furthermore, the EPUB 3 specification was finalized in October 2011, and it promises to pioneer eBook innovation in terms of video/audio support, complex mathematical data, and better interactive features.

Sensing that it needed to upgrade the capabilities of its own eBook format, Amazon released the developer guidelines for the new KF8 format in January 2012, designed for use on the Kindle Fire tablet. KF8 provides a number of much-needed upgrades to the old MOBI format that permits more control over how graphics are displayed, fonts are rendered, and numerous other improvements to enhance the reader experience. One good feature about the KF8 format is that it is a single file that will work on both the Kindle Fire and older e-ink Kindles, which was an initial concern for some authors. However, the full design capabilities can only be seen on the Kindle Fire.

It is a bit frustrating that there are all these different formats in existence; but, the good news is that once you master designing and encoding the EPUB format, it is easy to convert your eBook into the old MOBI and KF8 formats by using a program developed by Amazon called KindleGen.

eBook Workflow

Writing is the hard part that requires creativity, experience, and a self-deprecating yet positive attitude achieved after getting your face stepped on one too many times--it takes years to become a good writer. However, eBook design requires a little bit of technical skills, attention to detail, and some patience--it takes a few days to be able to design a functional eBook. The basic workflow for turning your manuscript into a beautiful eBook for the Kindle Fire is as follows:
  1. Convert manuscript from word processor into a text file
  2. Turn text file into HTML
  3. Add images and tables
  4. Add eBook design features with CSS
  5. Create metadata files
  6. Create a table of contents
  7. Package eBook into a single EPUB file
  8. Convert EPUB file into the MOBI/KF8 format with KindleGen
While this may seem a bit intimidating if you aren't a nerd, it is certainly within the realm of possibility for anyone with basic computer skills and patience. The best part is that once you learn how to design an eBook, you'll have learned a valuable skill that will save you money and time. If you can write a book, you can do get your eBook ready for the Kindle Fire, so let's get started.

Up Next, We'll Learn About HTML

But first, let's have a look at some of the fun new things that the Amazon Kindle Fire can do that the old Kindles couldn't:
Drop Caps and Small Caps for the Top Line
Floated Images

Text Boxes with Rounded Corners and a Shadow
Embedded Fonts
Gradient Coloring
Support for Nested Lists
Background Imaging
(note: this example is worse than my old MySpace page, but you get the idea)

So stick around, and let's figure out how to do make your eBook utilize all the new features that the Kindle Fire can support.


Kelly Stilwell said...

Wow! This is amazing information. I am writing an ebook now, in Word, and I thought Amazon would convert it for me. Not true, I guess. I have bought several ebooks online, and they have all been Word docs. I can see what you are saying, that more and more devices will be available and we have to be able to keep up with that. When is the next installment?

Paul Salvette said...


Glad you like the information. Learning how to use HTML and CSS is the only way to design an eBook professionally. There are, unfortunately, no shortcuts.

I'm putting out some information about once a week. Just follow along at http://paulsalvette.com.

play kindle hidden objects game said...

Hey,I appreciate your writing.For me it is vital to keep control and to have a detailed understanding of what I have made.By meeting expectations at a granular level,I have much more adaptability and can undoubtedly roll out improvements in the future (it is not difficult to tweak an epub in Sigil), and can give the optimum reading experience to my readers.There are numerous different options for creating ebooks specifically,there is software that will yield books in the fitting format,there is conversion software, and there are administrations to convert books—then again,for me,this methodology is the main way that I could keep control and give the optimum reading experience.Thank you so much.
@Teresa Cooper.

Unknown said...

Goodness,I don't count on it either! lol!Simply attempting to stay positive!As it seems to be,I plan on making my fiction available on the kindle and I purchase for the most part fiction,so I don't think special,sparkling formatting options will influence me excessively.Fingers crossed.
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