How to make an Ebook (Kindle, Epub and Smashwords)
This is a quick guide to formatting ebooks – I hope it’s useful! Make sure you visit the homepage and sign up for the free book formatting templates.
UPDATE: a lot has changed in the self-publishing world recently, so if you’re planning to publish an ebook soon, listen up:
- Amazon no longer requires a .mobi file so you can just use a .epub
- Smashwords merged with Draft2Digital.
- You can use Draft2Digital to make an epub even if you don’t distribute your ebook with them. Or just use my free epub converter tool.
- You can also just upload your microsoft word document to KDP and it’ll convert to epub for you; however you probably need to set up the heading styles and page breaks at least, so download my free templates and watch the tutorial videos to make sure you set up your document well.
Epub formatting can be a huge hassle, and you won’t have as much control over things like spacing or fonts. However, there are also some tools that make it much easier. I mostly use Vellum now, because it’s just too good not to use and saves me a ton of time and headache.
PS. I’ve given away tens of thousands of free formatting templates over the past decade, but that’s not the only thing I do to help indie authors. I hope you’ll sign up for some free publishing and book marketing guides, so I can share even more resources with you!
PPS. This whole site looks like crap right now, but I’m redesigning everything including a whole new updated package of templates soon…. don’t miss out!
Above is a video explaining the basics of ebook publishing, formatting and conversion. The video below will show you how to convert from Word (.docx) to epub and mobi formats with my free ebook conversion tool.
And this video will teach you how to edit your epub file with Sigil.
That’s the simplest process, which I recommend for beginners. But I’ll start adding individual videos here for each separate method of making an ebook (From InDesign, through Scrivener or Jutoh, etc); I plan to have about 25 of them.
Until then, you can read through the guide down below or watch the videos above.
Recently I had a couple custom ebook formatting and conversion tools built. I’m not sure what to do with them yet but you can check them out here: Ebook Conversion and Formatting Tools.
EBOOK FORMATTING GUIDE
No matter what kind of book you’re publishing, ebook sales will probably be your biggest numbers. Since ebooks have no production costs, they let you be much more flexible in pricing, and can be a powerful marketing tool to attract new readers.
So even while you’re formatting for print, you should be thinking about ebook conversion. Luckily, you can do it for free, and it can be pretty easy – if you aren’t picky about the little details (and I’ll explain why you shouldn’t be).
Below you’ll find a few different methods for converting your document to epub and mobi formats, as well as formatting a Smashwords file (ideal for broader distribution).
Terminology Crash Course
“Ebooks” are digital versions of your book that can be read on tablets and smartphones. Most ebook stores use a file format called “epub” – but Amazon/Kindle uses a slightly modified file format called “mobi.” Most bookstore chains have their own ereader device and their own bookstore; but some companies like Smashwords, BookBaby, and Lulu offer “distribution” – which means they’ll send your ebook out to all the online retailers and keep track of sales for you.
Ebook Formatting Guide
The basics of epub and mobi
Unlike print books, for which you want everything to be “fixed” and perfect, ebooks need to “flow.”
This is so people using various ereaders can set their own options, change the fonts and text size, to make the reading experience suit their preferences. To achieve this, ebook formats use something very similar to html code. While you don’t really need to learn this code, it will help if you need to fine tune the details.
When I first started learning ebook formatting, it was frustrating. I was trying to approach it like a print book, and insert images and special designs, and fixed fonts. While this can be done, my complex code would look fine on Kindle or Barnes & Noble but might like strange on Kobo.
It’s very hard to get your file to look exactly the same everywhere. The most important thing is that – even if it doesn’t look the same – it doesn’t look “broken” or obviously flawed.
For this reason, most mainstream publishers use extremely simple ebooks with no decoration at all. Even if you try to use a dropcap or special formatting, it might look funny. So don’t get hung up on the small details. Keep it simple.
What you can do (ebook design examples)
Basically, you’ll use “H1” or “H2” tags for headers. Your text will be justified. The first paragraphs of each chapter will be non-indented. And maybe you’ll offset the first line in all caps, or a slightly bolded or larger first sentence.
I’m taking a picture of a bunch of the books on my Kindle so you can get a sense of what they look like.
These books are mainstream bestsellers. If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking these don’t look very good. And that may seem depressing, but it should be liberating: you don’t need to spend a lot of time or energy making your ebooks perfect, just make sure they work and are clean, and people can read your book without distraction.
Making an Epub: Start with a Word File
***If you used Scrivener or Adobe InDesign you can export as an Epub file directly; if you used another open source word processor you can probably save as RTF or HTML. In either case, skip down to the lower sections.***
If your book is in an MS Word file, you should actually have saved a simple copy, before you did any print formatting. That’s because your book file needs to be pretty simple to convert it to ebook. I’m going to use Kafka’s The Trial for this tutorial.
Hopefully you’ve been using the “Header 1” tag for all your Chapter Titles – so you should already have a “Navigation Panel” showing up with your chapters.
You may need to get rid of some troublesome features; you can use the Search and Replace feature to do so.
I usually search for double spaces and change them to single space, in case I’ve missed any.
You’ll need to search for any “Tabs” and remove them: search for “^t” and just leave the “replace with” box empty. Your paragraphs should be indented with the “line space options” – if not, you can set the indent and then “update normal to match style”.
Your first line of new sections should already be using a non-indent style (different from “normal”).
You should have added a new page break between sections. And if you have any images, you’ll probably need to add them in later. This is what my Word file looks like:
I think it’s pretty clean and simple, so I’m going to try and use an automatic converter first.
I’ve set up a simple conversion tool on my book covers site that you can use to test things quickly. Click on this link to try it out: (free ebook conversion tool).
You might want to save your document as HTML or RTF, but DOCX should work.
On that page you’ll see this form.
I uploaded my data, hit the button, and got these two links.
The mobi file wouldn’t open with my Kindle application for some reason (I’m getting it checked). But the epub version looks great! I’m viewing it with Adobe Digital Previewer. The chapter heading style, italics, centering and non-indent on the first paragraph all came through fine.
Luckily there’s a very simple trick for making Mobi files from the epub. Download the Kindle Previewer application for desktop.
Then just drag and drop your epub file into the program – it will automatically convert to mobi and save the new file in the same folder that your epub was in.
If this worked for you, congrats, you’re done!
Upload your files to Kindle, or preview them with as many previewer tools as you can to make sure they look OK.
Making an ebook in Calibre
If you want to go a little deeper into the process, you can download and install Calibre, which is free and pretty easy to use (although there’s still some learning curve). This is what the program looks like.
First I’ll click on “Add Book” from the top left corner and choose my file. Then I’ll click “Edit Metadata” to change the details and add my cover.
Then I’ll click on “Convert Books.” In this panel, on the top right where it says “Output Format” I can choose to output as Kindle, Epub or another format (you need to do it one by one). On the left menu there are some more options, such as “Look and Feel.”
If my simple converter didn’t work and you need to fix something (removing spacing between paragraphs for example) you may be able to do it here.
When you’re ready, hit the green checkmark (“OK”) on the bottom. It will think for awhile, and then the new format will show up on the right side. Do this for mobi and epub (or just epub and use the Kindle Previewer trick), then click “Save to Disk” and choose where you want to save it.
Advanced Options: Using Sigil for fine-tuning
A lot of ebook formatters may take issue at my first two suggestions – they aren’t the best way to make ebooks and the code may not be super clean. But for Kindle and the majority of ebook viewers, the files will work just fine. Plus, simple is better.
But if you want to learn to “do it right” – or you need to troubleshoot your ebook file (for example, you caught a typo you need to fix) Sigil is your best bet.
Also a free program (click here to get it) Sigil lets you open up epub files and make changes. It only works for epub, so you’ll need to save your epub and remake a new mobi file.
I opened Sigil, went to “File” and “Open” and chose the epub file I made from my website.
The first page is the cover – and it may seem stretched because it will automatically adjust to the screen width. This is what Sigil looks like.
Each “section” is saved as it’s only unique html file – you can see them in the menu on the left. So I need to click on them until I get to the one I want to edit. Here’s chapter one.
I can edit, add, erase anything in the text just like a normal word processor. I can also add bold, italics and basic formatting from the top menu. It also has a “find and replace” feature which can be really helpful if you want to change all instances of something (like you changed the name of your character from Bill to Tom).
To make simple changes, Sigil is worth getting to know, so you don’t have to keep going back to a coder or formatter. If something is displaying strangely, you can hit the “code” view button (next to the “Book View” which is the default). Then you’ll see the code, but be careful about changing things if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Your Chapter Headings should still be using the ‘h1’ style. If everything else looks OK, you can hit “Tools” and check that your cover, metadata (details about the book) and Table of Contents are right (clicking “Generate Table of Contents” will add all the header tags, but you can uncheck any extra ones that shouldn’t be there).
Then you can resave the epub, then you can use the Kindle Previewer to convert it to mobi.
Now let’s try some fancy stuff.
Although simple is better, let’s add some style for fun.
My “Chapter One” is using the “h1” tag (which translated all the way through from my Word document – that’s why we use the “Heading 1” style.)
If I click on “styles” on the left, I can see the stylesheet – that’s an external document that tells the html what it should look like. Right now that stylesheet is very simple, but I can add to it.
Let’s change the font of the chapter headings. First, we need to import the font. Hit the “+” button on the top left, navigate to your fonts folder, and select a font (you could also copy and paste your font into the same folder your ebook files are in).
I choose Stag – but I’m not sure if I want light or bold, so I added both. The fonts will show up in the fonts folder.
Now go to the stylesheet. At the very top, before any other code, you need to add:
That “src” needs to be the exact link to your font, so it has to match the font name on the left exactly.
If you want to simplify it, you can right click over the font and “rename” it to something simple.
Now that I’ve added that to the top of my stylesheet, I can go down to the bottom and add new instructions for the H1 tags.
font-family: ‘Stag-light’, serif;
The name of the font here needs to be exactly the same as above.
At first this wasn’t working for me, so I went in and checked the code. Instead of clean H1 tags there was some other code (the dangers of using Calibre, which doesn’t use clean tags). So I removed it and just used:
Now the font is showing up.
I used the buttons on the top right to change the text to all uppercase.
Now let’s play with the first paragraph style.
I highlighted the first sentence and hit the uppercase button. But that looked a little too busy.
Instead I’m going to be content with just changing my subtitle to “h3” to make it stand out a bit more.
And just for fun, I’ll add some decoration – first I hit the “+” button and choose a picture. This just adds the picture to the program but doesn’t put it in the book; I need to hit “insert” and “file” to choose the picture I’ve just added. Then I can center and adjust it.
What I can’t do easily is change the size of the picture.
In this one, there is too much white space around the graphic but I can’t trim that off in Sigil, I’d need to crop it in an image viewer or graphics program, save it, and try again.
One thing to notice: my computer screen is pretty wide, but If I make the window more narrow (like most ebook readers) my subtitle breaks into two lines. This is annoying, but common – the only way to fix it would be to make the text smaller. If you test it on some ebook readers and it always breaks, you could try a smaller size. Perhaps just bold italics and not a header tag.
But if it only happens on a few, don’t stress it too much.
The main thing is to get things right in the Word document, rather than messing around with things to much in Sigil.
More advanced epub formatting (the ‘right’ way)
Another way to make ebooks (more professional, but more time-consuming) is to copy all the text from your Word document and use an online service like “word2cleanhtml.com” to make it cleaner.
Then, open a new document in Sigil and paste all that html code in between the body tags.
That’s the safest way to do it – manually coding the whole book. It doesn’t take that long; you just need to skip down to end of each chapter, hit “split at cursor” under the “edit” menu, highlight all the chapter headings and select H1, add your style to the first paragraph (although – coding the “no indent” first paragraph is a little tricky… You’d need to make two styles in the style sheet; one for normal text, one for no indent.)
Once you get used to it, it’s quick. But it’s still a pain, and so I either use my free ebook generator, or I hire someone on fiverr.com to convert to ebook files for me, because there’s really no need to add style, and it can actually sabotage the process.
The average price for ebook formatting is around $100 – and I charge even more on my main site; the reason is because, if you’re coding everything manually, and the author wants very specific styles or changes, it can take a lot of time.
So if you want more control and you want a designer to spend a lot of time on your ebooks, and you want someone to help you out or fix things when if you run into any problems, expect to pay more; but keep in mind you can do it for free or almost nothing if you keep things simple. (Some mainstream books don’t even have indents on the first paragraph, although it’s easy to do if you’ve prepared your word file the right way).
How to make a Smashwords File
While Kindle takes up a big share of the ebook market, it’s a good idea to have your book up in other stores as well, especially Apple iBooks. The easiest way to get in is to use a service like BookBaby or Smashwords. I prefer Smashwords because it’s free and Mark Coker is a cool guy; they’ll take your Word document but it needs to be clean before going through the “meatgrinder” (their automatic conversion software… it’s pretty similar to the function I have on my site that converts to Kindle and Epub formats).
Luckily if you’ve already gotten your Word document ready as we discussed earlier (remove tabs, headers and footers, use H1 tags) you should just need to add the necessary copyright to the front and “Smashwords Edition” and it should be ready to go. (You can also just use the epub file you’ve made; you’ll have to use Sigil to add “Smashwords Edition” to the front.)
As this can be a source of frustration however, it’s another thing I would use fiverr.com for. There are several providers who will make a Smashwords file from your Word document for about $10.
PS – Smashwords merged with Draft2Digital so the “meatgrinder” tool is no longer available, but there are updated ebook making tools you should check out.
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