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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Calibre

Calibre, a free and open-source application, is marketed more as a personal e-book management solution than a production suite. That said, it can be used as an e-book conversion utility, and a remarkably powerful one -- provided you understand the full range of options. For that reason, it may well be the best place to start, especially if you're distilling output for multiple e-book formats.

The best thing about Calibre is its support for a broad range of input document types: The program can accept ODF, RTF, ePub, Mobi, PDF and HTML. Calibre can also reformat documents according to various heuristic rules (unwrapping plain text that has too many line breaks, for instance) or insert chapter breaks by looking for certain text structures (such as a line break, the word "Chapter" and then a number).

However, Calibre doesn't support DOC or DOCX documents, so anything coming from Word will have to be saved in another format first. Saving in either ODF or HTML from Word seemed to do the best job of preserving formatting and features, including things like monospaced formatting for code examples. The program also convert books in bulk as well as individually.

Calibre from Kovid Goyal

Price: Free

Platforms: Windows, OS X, Linux

OpenOffice.org

OpenOffice.org is itself not an e-book system, of course: It's a free open-source productivity suite. That said, a number of people have authored add-ons for OpenOffice.org for exporting to e-book formats from within the program.

Writer2ePub, for instance, exports directly from within OpenOffice into ePub format; ODFToEPub can perform standalone conversion of ODF files or work as an OpenOffice add-in.

OpenOffice.org also has a powerful native PDF export function, one with a greater range of options than the native exporter in Microsoft Word. That's useful as long as you don't mind using PDF as a target document type.

OpenOffice.org from Oracle

Price: Free

Platforms: Windows, OS X, Linux, Solaris

Sigil

A more modest example of an e-book production application, Sigil is both free and open source. It's a lot closer to an editor that exports to e-books (it sports a built-in document editor) than a conversion suite for existing documents, but it also includes various tools for collating and assembling a finished e-book (such as a table-of-contents editor).

Sigil's main drawback is how it handles importing. It only accepts HTML, plain text or existing ePub files as input documents, so it will most likely work best if you are able to export your original document to HTML in a way that preserves all of the most important formatting. A similar program, Jutoh, accepts OPL files and has slightly more robust editing options; it costs $39.

Sigil from Strahinja Markovic

Price: Free

Platforms: Windows XP/Vista/7, OS X 10.5/10.6, Linux

Conclusions

The recent massive surge in demand for e-books hasn't yet triggered a concomitant surge in development of polished products for e-book production. The one thing that's most conspicuously lacking is a single gold-standard product that guides users through the whole workflow and helps them check their results. With all the different book formats that are floating around, putting together such a product might well be an order of magnitude tougher than anyone expects.

The good news is that the e-book boom has helped consolidate formats a bit. The Kindle, the Nook and the iTunes Bookstore (which services both the iPhone and iPad) now stand out as the most common targets for e-books.

The time's right for a product that can walk you through the whole process. For now, though, we'll have to settle for using the tools that do exist, and using them with care and attention.

Serdar Yegulalp has been writing about computers and information technology for over 15 years for a variety of publications.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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