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What every author needs to know about ebooks

row of books with ebookEbooks have become part of the way in which we interact with the written word, and although they’re not an alternative for traditional, printed books, they are an additional and useful resource which authors, entrepreneurs and educationalists would be unwise to ignore. With the advent of automated conversion software and the rise of self-publishing, ebooks can be a low-risk, low-cost first step into publishing and many computer-savvy authors are keen to test the waters by creating their own.

The trouble is that as routes to publishing become easier and authors turn to DIY methods of book creation, there can be a downward slide in terms of quality. Not only can ebooks be poorly written, but also badly designed and not at all user-friendly. Unfortunately it is all too common to see inconsistent page breaks, poor line spacing, odd image placement, lack of punctuation, broken hyperlinks or seemingly random foreign characters interspersed throughout the text. All of these problems make the very act of reading difficult and leave readers frustrated.

The reason for most of these problems is a simple lack of knowledge and a lack of technical expertise in ebook creation. All authors want their ebook to be as professional-looking and well designed as possible, but they may be unsure about exactly what’s needed. So before you launch straight into your ebook project, here are a few areas to bear in mind:

Formats and platforms

Although there are still some people who only want to create PDF or Kindle ebooks, the majority of authors now recognise the need to publish across as wide a range of platforms as possible. This means that in all likelihood, you’ll need to create your ebook in two formats – ePub and mobi. But what are these formats exactly and which devices support them?

ePub is a widely supported, open, non-proprietary format based on XHTML. With the exception of Kindle, almost every other e-reading device supports ePub files, including Nook, Kobo and iPad. With the file extension .epub, this format is designed for reflowable content, so that content is optimised for whichever device the reader is using. It’s basically like a little zip package containing the book in HTML form, plus related images, styles and so on.

[Tip: Because epubs are structured like zip files, you can replace the .epub extention with .zip and open the file with your usual file compression program.]

.mobi, short for Mobipocket, is Amazon’s own version of ePub, designed for use solely on Kindle devices or on the Kindle app. It supports HTML and contains DRM copyright protection features.

Fixed layout books are different creatures entirely. Unlike standard ePub files, they are not designed to be reflowable and are created for each device and screen size separately. More like a fixed PDF, every element on the page is carefully positioned and will stay exactly where you put it! However, a fixed layout file is not the same as a series of flat images, but is fully-functional, HTML-based, searchable and interactive. Think of each page as a mini webpage. Features include full-page zoom, embedded audio and video files, animations, narration overlays, buttons and other interactivity. Each main e-reading device has it’s own fixed layout file requirements (e.g. Amazon’s KF8 for the Kindle Fire), but Apple are ahead of the game at the moment in this respect.

As well as supporting standard ePub and ePub3 fixed layouts, Apple also have their own file format and creation software called iBooks Author (IBA). If you have a Mac, an iPad and an iTunes account, you can create your own IBA books for free and sell them on the iBookstore. IBA books have much of the same functionality of an ePub3 fixed layout book, including some extra widgets, and are more user-friendly to create than their fixed layout counterparts.


Although there are many automated ebook conversion tools on the market, there’s a world of difference between ebooks converted using this type of software and ebooks that have been hand-created by a professional. To be honest, we haven’t found any pieces of automated software that we can recommend yet.

But there are pieces of software that are very handy for creating ebooks, assuming you know what you’re doing. If you have Adobe InDesign, you can get very close to the layout you want before exporting to ePub. Following this up with some final HTML and CSS tweaking using a program such as Sigil (which is free to use) lets you create an ebook that is functional and as beautiful as its printed counterpart. Calibre is also a useful free tool, which is handy for conversions between ePub and mobi versions of your book.

Can I do it myself?

Whilst we advise hiring a professional to carry out your ebook design, formatting or conversion, there are many authors out there who want to save money by doing it themselves. If you’re confident with HTML and CSS, or your book is very heavily text-based, this might be an option for you, but what are the main factors to bear in mind? Here are our top tips:

  • Start with the cleanest document you can. Most authors write in Microsoft Word, but converting directly from Word to ebook can pose all kinds of problems and some formatting and features might not make it through the conversion process.
  • Convert to HTML before editing. Working in HTML means that you can avoid many of the common mistakes of inferior ebooks and be more precise about how your book looks.
  • Test your ebook on as many different devices as possible, and don’t rely on the on-screen simulation programs – they are not always an accurate representation of how the book looks on the real device.
  • Use validation tools to check your files before uploading to the platforms of your choice.

Hiring a pro

As with most things, hiring a professional is the ideal way to create an ebook that looks beautiful and functions perfectly. But not all companies are the same, and level of service, technical expertise and price varies considerably. When looking for an ebook pro, make sure you ask these questions:

  • Do you use automated conversion software?
  • What is your workflow?
  • Which source files do you accept?
  • Which file formats can you create?
  • Do you accept books with images, chart, graphs, audio, video etc. (as appropriate)?
  • Can you offer advice or assistance on uploading or ebook marketing?
  • Do you run the finished ebooks through validation software?
  • Do you have any examples of your work?
  • How much does the service cost?

Hopefully the above has been helpful in covering the basics of what you need to know about ebooks. If you have any further questions or have an ebook you’d like created or converted, you can of course contact us at Callisto Green and we’d be delighted to chat about your project and offer you a no obligation quote. For further details, visit

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November 2013
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