Experience report: Editing, formatting, and publishing an e-book

Writing is a great way to share what I’m learning with lots of people, and I’d like to make that a large part of my life. To test the idea, I wanted to learn how to edit, format, and self-publish an e-book. E-books are handy because I don’t have to worry about inventory, distribution, or shipping. I also have more freedom when it comes to layout and colour, and I don’t have to worry about getting things wrong for an expensive print run. It was a great first step.

Instead of writing a whole new book, I decided to collect my favourite blog posts from my archive. This meant that I could focus on learning the new part – preparing and publishing an e-book – instead of getting bogged down in writing new content. I spent a few weeks re-reading everything and selecting a fraction of the posts. I exported these to HTML files, combined them, and imported them into Microsoft Word so that I could edit and format the posts. I picked Microsoft Word because I wanted to play around with ink annotations in addition to creating a simple layout for the text.

I like using a landscape orientation for easier reading on horizontal screens, so I formatted it with two columns. I added pictures and a few sketches. Instead of one big table of contents, I broke it up into several chapters and added chapter-level tables of contents. This led me to learn about Microsoft Word’s table of contents field and the ability to set up TOCs for a specific section. I wanted the page header to reflect the current chapter title, too, so I learned how to include the chapter as a field.

When I was happy with the document, I exported it to PDF and uploaded it to Lulu. I chose Lulu because I didn’t want to bother with calculating and collecting sales tax for all the different countries. I also didn’t want to spend time building an e-commerce site. I picked $2.99 as the price – low-profit, but also low-risk. Lulu didn’t offer a way to send people updates afterwards, so I asked people to send me their receipts so that I could send them updates if I released a new version. I was delighted to find that a few people bought the book even with very little promotion on my end. (Thank you for your vote of confidence!)

A PDF is great for controlling layout, but it doesn’t display well on many e-reader devices. I exported the Microsoft Word document back to HTML, then used Emacs and Sigil to clean up the HTML markup and convert it to EPUB format. Calibre helped me convert the EPUB to the MOBI format that the Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing program requires. I filled in the Amazon KDP forms and created another cover image.

I looked into using Smashwords for distribution, but it used Microsoft Word documents for input, so I went back to Lulu and uploaded the EPUB for distribution to iBookstore and the Barnes & Noble Nook store. We’ll see how that goes.

Putting together an e-book turned out to not be a scary process at all. That means I can start working on other books without worrying about getting stuck at the end of the process. Next book might be 101 Things You Can Do with Emacs! =)

  • Sacha,

    Thanks for the description of how you made the EPUB and MOBI formats.
    It doesn’t seem too hard!

    Eagerly awaiting the release of 101 Things You Can Do With Emacs!