11 (and a half) Tips for Fiction eBook Creation

Publishing fontfacesDo you want professionally looking ebooks to delight your readers? Of course you do!

Following my post about the best tools I found to create and produce books and on how to best use InDesign, here are some 11 specific, highly-useful tips about how to create ebooks to the best effect!

First, let’s be clear that this is a tips column, not an blow-by-blow full guide on creating ebooks. Still, from having produced several books (mine and others’), these are tips that will help preserve your sanity and let you get back to writing quicker.

Also, this is aimed at fiction authors – where there aren’t too many complex elements (compounded illustrations, or interactive elements in ebooks), and where your main market is probably Amazon. While almost everyone uses ePub as the main ebook format, Amazon uses mobipocket which has less features. In a way that’s a good thing – it forces you to keep things simple and clean. The tips below should help you produce a good-looking general fiction book for all distributors.

1. eBook Formats

From reading the preamble above, you might think that you’d need to work with different ebook formats for Amazon vs other retailers.

Not so.

It’s a lot easier to work throughout your whole process with ePub, and then upload that to Amazon and let them do the conversion to their proprietary format. The rest of the tips are about generating an ePub and then polishing it in various ways. It still pays to structure your original document well though (e.g. using styles rather then direct formatting, as I stressed in the previous article), as this will make things smoother now.

2. Scrivener Compile

As I said in the first article in this series, Scrivener is an awesome tool for writing your novel, and it also does an excellent job in exporting to ePub – even if the Compile function has a bit of a learning curve. (If you look at tutorials – and I suggest you do – make sure that it applies to your platform; as mentioned, the Windows Scrivener version lags behind the Mac).

You’ll need to:

  • Ensure that the “compile for” (bottom) is set to “ePub eBook”
  • Add front matter if you’re set it in Scrivener
  • Ensure that the check-boxes are selected for everything that you want included. Ensure that Page Break Before and the “as-is” is ticked for things like maps.
  • Set your scene separators are correct – from scene separators (I prefer ‘* * *’ as the industry standard, which isn’t the default for Scrivener), and that Folder (essentially chapter) separators is set to page break.
  • Set your cover image. Again, chose a reasonably sized image – not too big, not too small.
  • Go to the Formatting tab, and set the formatting for chapter headers and text. This is the output text, which can be different from the test you use in the editor. This bit does take a bit of practice, and contains my main gripe with Scrivener: not only is it a bit obtuse, Scrivener uses direct formatting rather than styles.
  • Check under Transformations and Replacements if you need to do any advanced changes (e.g. if you’ve used highlighting for yourself, but want to hide it in the output; normally, I’d say you should have cleaned up your manuscript before).
  • Ensure the metadata is correct

Hit Compile, which will also save the settings for future use. You can also Save the preset, which is useful if you intend to export to multiple formats.

If you intend to use InDesign, some of the above steps can be skipped. In this case, you’ll need to export to Word (.docx), skip cover, formatting, etc., and then import the Word file into InDesign where you handle formatting and multi-format export much, much easier. (See my article on 14 Tips for using InDesign for Fiction Authors).

One thing I did notice though, is that when Scrivener is exporting to Word it uses in-place formatting, rather than styles. This makes it more annoying to work with, but in some cases causes InDesign to misinterpret the file (e.g. making a whole line italic, instead of just one word). There’s an easy fix though – open the file in Word, make a small change, and save the file. Word will fix all those issues under the hood, which will make the import to InDesign a lot smoother.

3. InDesign Export

I’ve talked at length about how to use InDesign for book production in the previous post. If you’re using this awesome tool and have followed the tips, you should have a lot of the hurdles already dealt with. Here, I’ll focus on a few aspects specifically about exporting from InDesign.

Select File > Export and then save the file as “EPUB (Reflowable)”. This is the format that works best across ereaders, as it allows the text to be adjusted to various screen sizes and reader’s preferences. (For the curious, Fixed Layout is more like PDF – it doesn’t reflow the text, but allows for advanced features like animations; this is not what you would normally use for fiction.)

On the export options dialog, set the following:

  • ePub version as EPUB 3.0
  • Cover Image: chose your cover image. Remember that you don’t need the full print resolution – a smaller file will do just as well.
  • Navigation: Set to Multi Level (TOC style)
  • Check “Split Document” and select based on paragraph style with your chapter header style. This will cause the novel’s text to be spread internally across several HTML files, which make it quicker for ereaders to load and display (otherwise they have to load your epic 400K words magnus opus all into memory, which slows down navigation and page turns).

This is normally all you would need. If you have images, go to the “Conversion Settings” tab and set Resolution to 150 PPI. This is a good balance between image details and file size (remember that Amazon might charge you a fee for delivering the book on each sale, so you want a smaller file size).

Double check the metadata tab, and hit OK for the export.

4. ePub Editors

Now that you can the ePub, you’ll need to review and (probably) lightly edit it to ensure that it’s up to spec. There are two tools I can recommend. Both do an excellent job, are free, and are available for both Windows and Macs. The first (the one I mostly use) is Calibre. This is a powerhouse of book management software, and it does a lot more than just editing ePubs – managing your whole library both on desktop and across devices, converting formats, reading, managing metadata, and editing contents. Note that the first button on the left (edit metadata) is just for editing the information about the book. You’ll need the “Edit book” button on the right of the toolbar. If it doesn’t appear, enable it under Preferences > Toolbars & menus > main toolbar. The keyboard shortcut it ‘T’ (rather than ‘E’ for editing metadata).

The second tool is Sigil, which is just an ePub editor. You can do the same tasks below in both, although the ways to do them might differ a little (Google is your friend). Give them a try, and see which one works best for you.

5. Preview

Once you have the ePub, you’ll want to see how it looks and behaves. The ePub editors above can of course be used to open the files, but since they are not your what your typical reader would use you need something else.

If you have a kindle or other ereader, you can use Calibre to convert and send the book to the device. This also includes phones and tablet with Kindle / ereader apps. Alternatively, you can use software on your computer. Windows 10 Edge browser will do a basic display, and Macs come with iBooks by default. You can get the desktop version of Amazon Kindle, which can open generic .mobi files (again, convert with Calibre). Another dedicated viewer is Adobe Digital Editions, which you can download for free.

You should try to preview the file across devices, ideally those that match your primary market (which, as an indie, is likely to be Amazon Kindle). While some devices have some quirks and format conversion will change how things look, the basics (tables of contents, images locations, etc.) can be seen immediately in any viewer, even the editors above.

6. Table Of Contents

There are actually TWO types of table on contents for ePubs. One is an internal TOC (which is what you’ll see when you look at the viewer’s contents function), and the other is just a section with links to chapters etc in the book (also known as an HTML TOC). Modern standards requires that all ebooks have an internal TOC. A lot of people do like the embedded HTML TOC as well.

The tool you used to generate the ePub probably created both for you. (With InDesign, see tip #11: Make sure that the “Make text anchor in source paragraph” is checked). You now just need to make sure that you haven’t missed anything, and that the structure is correct (from a link to the Cover at the start, through all sections and chapters).

Edit the book, and look under Tools on managing the ToC. I find that sometimes a link to the Cover is missing, or that the HTML contents is added at the front and I prefer it at the back. Once happy, save the file and review it again in your reader of choice.

7. Images

As mentioned above, Amazon charges a small fee for delivering your books on the 70% royalties scheme. If you include many images at high resolution, this can blow up the file size and eat into your sale margins. Most exports will try to do some image optimisation, but that is not always the best result. Play around with various settings (I usually find that 150ppi or a pixel size of 1080 on the short long side, is enough), to see what produces the best results in both readability and file sizes.

Alternatively, if you can, edit the images in a professional image editing software, and then replace the image files in the ePub.

Once done with the image files, open the ebook in a viewer and check that all images appear correctly and in the right place. In case an image is out of place, either go back and fix it in the source program (e.g. anchor it properly in InDesign), or edit the HTML inside the ePub to put the tag in the right place. Of course, if you do the latter, you’ll need to write it down somewhere so you remember to do it when you export the file again from the source program to ePub.

Bonus tip: a lot of people don’t know this. On Kindles (both devices and apps), images often appear small. You can long press on the image and then select to zoom it, which will display it full screen. While it won’t help all your readers who don’t know of this, it might your life a tad easier 🙂

8. Cover

As images above, but deserves some special treatment. Take a note of the requirements from the platform of choice about sizes (pixel resolution), colour spaces (RGB or CYMK), etc., and whether it should be embedded this way in the ePub or just accompany it as a separate upload. i.e. the embedded cover may have different requirements from the uploaded cover when you set up your book!

Mostly, when you export the book from the source software there will be a place to specify the cover. Ensure you pick the right file for inside the book, and it will do it for you. You can also manage book covers with Calibre, which will embed them automatically in the ePub.

9. Fonts

Unlike embedding fonts in a PDF for print, embedding fonts in an ebook for distribution to readers is trickier. For one, there are licensing issues: Some fonts are OK to embed for printing, but require additional (paid) licence for use in ebooks. Check each font you use, and choose wisely.

In general, free fonts are often quite good. You can find free fonts that can be embedded in ebooks without any costs on places like Google Fonts et al. You’ll need a good looking serif font for the main text (one that looks good at various sizes and weights), and something contrasting for the headings. The font should complement the genre of the novel, and should convey the right atmosphere (historical, futuristic, romantic, thriller…)

You don’t want to get too crazy here, as some ebook formats (notably, Amazon Kindle) only have a limited set of options. Even if you embed fonts, readers can override the “Publisher’s” font with whatever they prefer. Power to the readers I always say, because as much as we love our fancy designs they don”t always account for people with vision impairment or other reading difficulties. So consider your market, and choose appropriately.

One thing that’s trips up InDesign export, is that it assumes all your fonts come via TypeKit and are subject to license restrictions. It doesn’t detect which fonts were just plainly installed on your system, and will treat all the same. InDesign therefore obfuscates fonts, which will make them all appear strangely oblique in your ePub editors preview.

So whether suddenly everything looks italicised or you’re getting other errors with fonts, it’s best to re-embed them. Open the ePub in your editor, and replace all fonts with the plain, original OTF / TTF font file. Remove the “encryption.xml” file from under the Miscellaneous directory, and save the ePub.

Once you’ve done that, make sure you also subset the fonts. This removes all the glyphs that are not used in your book (and for some fonts that can be a lot – especially if you didn’t use any Chinese characters and the like). This will also help reduce the final file size.

Lastly, you can set alternative fonts in the CSS if you’re so inclined. I’m still testing how much I can push this through to Kindle.

10. Text Touch Ups

Did you put the book’s ISBN on the copyright page in the front matter? Did you remember to use conditional text to differentiate between the ebook and print ISBNs? Are there other bits that only belong in one edition, but not the other? Do you have tables that suddenly look wonky?

There will be any number of small changes. Almost every time, it is better to go back to the source and fix it. Sometime, however, it’s expedient to just edit the HTML and make the correction: switch that ISBN, remove that catalogue-in-print reference, or whatever. In general, it’s best to keep a note of all those manual changes, so that you can repeat them later (like a week after launch, when someone points out an annoying typo you want to fix).

11. Validate

Finally, when you’ve finished prepping the ePub but before you upload it, it’s a good idea to validate it. This ensures that the ePub conforms to standard. This is one area that I’ve seen where Sigil is better than Calibre. The latter seems to report too many errors that aren’t really problems.

As any developers tell you, the fact that something compiles doesn’t mean it runs correctly. Validation will tell you if there are any glaring issues, but you should still visually check the file before you upload, and after conversion by the market place (Amazon, SmashWords, etc.) See tip #5 again – but this time we’re talking about uploading the file and then downloading the proof copy and checking it across devices.

Sounds confusing? It’s not, but it does require practice to get over the learning curve. There’s a lot more information and technical details about ePubs, but luckily you can get by without them. It’s worth the effort to learn the basics, though, as working at this gets you professionally-looking books and ebooks, and places you firmly above the amateur league.

Don’t forget to check out my previous articles on the best tools I found to create and produce books and on how to best use InDesign.

If you’d rather concentrate on writing, you can always get professional book-layout services (same as you would get a professional editor and a professional cover artist). While I work with freelancers for the last two functions (see the Purple Toga team), I do book layout myself, as it’s a skill I use often in my day job. I’ve produced many books by now (for multiple authors), so if you want help with this, just contact me!

If you’re wondering about the mounting costs of publishing a book, I will be posting an analysis of them (editing, covers, layout, etc) in two weeks time.


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