Self-Publishing 101: How to Make an eBook

For­mat­ting and pub­lish­ing your own eBook can be an intim­i­dat­ing expe­ri­ence for a novice self-pub­lish­er. That’s why ser­vices like Smash­words are so pop­u­lar: they can take a stan­dard Word doc­u­ment, con­vert it into all pop­u­lar eBook for­mats, and pub­lish them to a bunch of venues for you. They take the has­sle out of inde­pen­dent publishing.

But, for those of us who want bit more con­trol over their pub­lish­ing expe­ri­ence, for­mat­ting and cre­at­ing eBooks by hand can be a reward­ing expe­ri­ence. Why would you want to do this by hand, when there are ser­vices out there that can do it for you?

  • Microsoft Word is a pain. Basi­cal­ly, it is overkill for the eBook writ­ing process. Most Word fea­tures are either not need­ed in an eBook (e.g., mar­gins, padding, page num­ber­ing), or won’t trans­late dur­ing the eBook con­ver­sion (e.g., font selec­tions and foot­notes). And, your Word doc­u­ment has to be metic­u­lous­ly for­mat­ted for it to con­vert clean­ly. (If you’ve glanced over the Smash­words style guide, you know what I’m talk­ing about.) Most peo­ple default to Word because it’s what they’re used to using, but I find that oth­er options are much sim­pler, ele­gant, and con­ducive to the writ­ing process.
  • For­mat­ting by hand gives you greater con­trol over the look of your final eBook. I’m a typog­ra­phy snob, and I love the con­trol that for­mat­ting eBooks by hand gives me. I can embed fonts, change the way that para­graphs and head­ings are for­mat­ted, even include drop caps into my open­ing para­graphs. While there is a bit of a learn­ing curve involved in tweak­ing eBook out­put, I find the result to be well worth the effort.

In this three-part series I’m going to go over writ­ing and for­mat­ting your eBook file, con­vert­ing it to pop­u­lar eBook for­mats like ePub and MOBI, and tweak­ing the out­put with a bit of styling. You’re result­ing eBook files will be ready to upload to pop­u­lar out­lets like Ama­zon and Barnes & Noble for sale and distribution.

Ready to dive in with me?

Part 1: Writing and Structuring your eBook

In the first part of this series, I’m going to show you how to write and struc­ture your work to get it ready for eBook con­ver­sion. It’s not as scary as it sounds — in fact, once you get the hang of it, I bet you’ll great­ly pre­fer writ­ing this way over clunk­ing around in Microsoft Word.

You’re going to write your work in plain text (you know, those files that have a .txt exten­sion, and have no embed­ded fonts or styles). And you’re going to struc­ture this text using a pop­u­lar mark-up syn­tax called Markdown.

What is Markdown?

Mark­down was ini­tial­ly intend­ed to make it easy for web coders to plain text and eas­i­ly con­vert into HTML (for the web). It has since grown into a way for coders, writ­ers, and oth­er con­tent cre­aters to cre­ate min­i­mal text files that can be eas­i­ly con­vert­ed into HTML, ePub doc­u­ments, PDF’s, and more.

While “Mark­down” is referred to as both the syn­tax used to markup text files for con­ver­sion, as well as the script that con­verts it into HTML, all we need to wor­ry about is the syn­tax end of things.

Does all this sound too com­pli­cat­ed? I promise. It’s not. To prove it, let’s take a look at the begin­nings book chap­ter cre­at­ed with Markdown:

Chapter I: Down the Rabbit-Hole

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought Alice "without pictures or conversation?"

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

There was nothing so _very_ remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!"

That does­n’t look so scary, does it? It looks much the same as if you were to dust off a type­writer and pen your nov­el the old-fash­ioned way. In fact, the syn­tax was designed to be very read­able and intuitive.

Let’s take a look the Mark­down here. First, you’ll notice that the chap­ter head­ing is under­lined with dashes:

Chapter I: Down the Rabbit-Hole

This marks up that text as a first-lev­el head­ing (or, in our case, a chap­ter head­ing). So, when we con­vert this into an ePub, the soft­ware rec­og­nizes it as a chap­ter head­ing, and for­mats it accord­ing­ly (i.e., includes a page break before the chap­ter, and ren­ders the chap­ter head­ing in a large font).

Next, notice the blank lines in between the para­graphs — this delin­eates the para­graphs in the text. (Easy enough.) And final­ly, check out the _very_ in the last para­graph. See the lit­tle under­scores on either side? That indi­cates that the text is empha­sized, or, for the pur­pos­es of an eBook, ital­i­cized.

Those three syn­tax rules — for chap­ter head­ings, para­graph breaks, and ital­i­cized text — are all that many fic­tion writ­ers need. Of course, Mark­down includes syn­tax for more com­plex things like tables, images, and links, and I encour­age you to take a look at the Mark­down doc­u­men­ta­tion to learn more. But, in the mean­time, this should get you started.

Markdown-editing software

Now, you can cre­ate a Mark­down file with any basic text-edi­tor (like Notepad for Win­dows). If you’re going to be doing a lot of Mark­down writ­ing, how­ev­er, it’s help­ful to have soft­ware made just for that pur­pose. There is a slew of great Mark­down-edit­ing soft­ware. Many of them have some groovy fea­tures, like a dou­ble-pane that shows you what the text looks like, for­mat­ted, as you’re writ­ing, or tools to con­vert your Mark­down to web pages or PDF’s.

I’ve includ­ed below a list of basic Mark­down edi­tors that are free (or very, very cheap). I tried to select soft­ware that had syn­tax high­light­ing (so you can eas­i­ly dis­cern the Mark­down syn­tax from your text), a clean, min­i­mal inter­face (to get out of your way) and a dis­trac­tion-free writ­ing mode (to let you focus on your writing).

(Ubun­tu Linux)
Check out these edi­tors, and see if they meet your needs. You may want to invest in a more robust edi­tor down the line, but, hon­est­ly, you prob­a­bly won’t use those extra fea­tures in your fic­tion writing.Once you’ve writ­ten and struc­tured your work, it’s time to prep it and con­vert it to your eBook formats.

Next: Part 2: Con­vert­ing your Files

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