Creating an e-book: Tips on formatting and converting your document

Your company needs an e-book and the project has landed in your lap? These tips and tools can help you get the job done right.

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Elements to include

When you're building a book, elements that you've included in the original document may need a little extra work to translate properly into the finished product. In addition, some elements that didn't seem important for a print publication may be more useful in an e-book.

Tables of contents

An e-book that isn't properly chaptered is difficult to navigate -- doubly so with devices where going to an arbitrary point in a book is not as easy as it should be. The Kindle, for instance, has no touch screen, so jumping around in a book without a table of contents is a chore.

Font variation

This is most important if you want to set certain elements apart from the rest of the text -- such as examples of code in a monospaced font. This isn't so much a formatting issue as it is a conversion issue, since font choices can sometimes get stripped out entirely during the conversion process, or not be supported at all on some target devices.

Be sure to try out at least two different font types in your documents -- a standard body-text font and a monospaced font -- to see how they render on different devices and in different book formats. Sometimes font declarations don't work at all: With the Kindle, for instance, you need to use the HTML <pre> tag in e-books to reliably show text in a monospaced font.

Illustrations

This can be a crucial issue for some books. You need to make sure any illustrations convert correctly depending on the system you're using. Exporting to HTML as an intermediate step helps here, since image references in HTML are honored pretty consistently throughout the conversion process.

Footnotes

Footnotes are typically translated into hyperlinks in e-books, but they also run the risk of disappearing if the conversion process doesn't know how to honor them correctly. This is another reason why exporting to HTML as a first step is a good idea: If footnotes and endnotes render as properly hyperlinked elements in that step, they should remain accessible in the finished product, too.

Pronunciation marks

Some languages -- Japanese, for instance -- use what is called "ruby markup" -- annotations that appear next to the text -- to indicate how certain things are pronounced. HTML supports ruby markup, but that doesn't mean it'll always render correctly in the converted e-book.

There are a number of other curious issues that can arise. For instance, if you have a document where outline headings (which typically indicate chapters) are auto-numbered, the numbering doesn't always survive the conversion process. One document I had automatically added "Chapter __:" to the beginning of each chapter, but once converted into an e-book, the auto-numbering vanished.

Conversion applications

Content-creation programs, such as word processors or publishing suites, are only starting to add e-book formats to their lists of possible exports. Most of the time, you'll need to use some kind of standalone application to perform the final conversion.

Some of the tools you might encounter are designed for extremely specific jobs and are not general conversion utilities. Those producing e-books for the Kindle, for instance, need to use Amazon's own e-book tool, called KindleGen, to produce a Kindle-compatible file from HTML or ePub input.

These are only four of the better-known conversion applications; there are a lot more out there. In contrasting their behaviors and capabilities, it's clear we're still a ways from having a single end-to-end suite that fits the majority of users' needs.

Adobe InDesign CS5.5

InDesign is normally thought of as a full-blown desktop publishing suite, but in its last couple of incarnations -- especially in the upcoming 5.5 release -- it's been positioned more as a platform for generating output to many different destinations.

The program now includes export options for the ePub format. InDesign accepts a broad range of document formats for import and can even map style information from the source document to whatever style definitions you have set up in InDesign. A plug-in from Amazon also lets you export directly from InDesign to the Kindle format.

InDesign has two big downsides. The first is the scope and scale of the program. Because it's a full-blown publishing solution, it requires a lot more work to generate a finished product than a simple conversion utility. Second is the price tag: It starts at $699. That puts it out of reach for users not prepared to invest that much money, although the 30-day trial version should give you an idea of whether it's worth the money or is overkill for your needs.

Adobe InDesign CS5 from Adobe Systems Inc.

Price: $699

Platforms: Windows XP/Vista/7, OS X 10.5.8/10.6

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