Kindle Conniptions: How I Published My First E-Book

This is the 80th edition of World Wide Wade since this weekly column on technology trends began in April 2008. Since we have so much material piling up in the archive, we at Xconomy decided to do something a bit different: We’re collecting all of the columns in the form of an e-book. It’s called Pixel Nation: 80 Weeks of World Wide Wade. Not only does the e-book bring all of the columns together in one easy-to-read place, but it includes a new introduction and updates on many of the early columns, which, frankly can benefit from some updating in the fast-moving world of high-tech. We’re offering both a free PDF version that you can read on your PC, and a $4.99 Kindle version that you can read on your Amazon Kindle or your iPhone.

Pixel Nation, Kindle Edition

I really hope you’ll check out Pixel Nation, because it took me a boatload of work to assemble it. I’m not complaining—I learned a ton, and I took on the project mainly for the experience. But what an experience it’s been! I’ve discovered that it’s damnably difficult to publish your own e-book, at least if you want to get it onto Amazon’s Kindle, the dominant digital book platform (for the moment). The whole ordeal has given me some new empathy for authors who have been complaining about the Kindle for years.

It all came as a bit of a surprise, considering that we’re more than a decade into the era of electronic book publishing, and new e-reading devices are popping up left and right. Did you ever hear the phrase “write once, run anywhere?” It’s the slogan Sun invented to describe the idea behind Java, a computer language that’s supposed to work on any device or operating system. I had figured that by now, publishers too would be in a “write once, read everywhere” world. Books and articles obviously start out in all sorts of formats (Word documents, Web pages, etc.), but you’d think that there would be some easy-to-use software capable of reformatting this material for any e-book device, right?

No such luck. Instead, there’s still a welter of incompatible e-publishing formats, each championed by different factions of the publishing world with conflicting business interests, and you have to customize your book for each one by hand. If you had to compare the current situation with e-books to the historical evolution of the Web, it’s as if we were stuck in 1996 or so, back when Netscape and Internet Explorer displayed Web pages differently, and you couldn’t publish a website without learning HTML and learning how to tweak the code to make sure your pages looked the same in both browsers.

If this is what the future looks like, I can understand why the big New York publishing houses aren’t dancing with joy about the e-book revolution. In addition to all the traditional design and typesetting work that goes into creating the print versions of their books, publishers who want to distribute their books digitally must now … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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11 responses to “Kindle Conniptions: How I Published My First E-Book”

  1. phil says:

    If Mr. Tallent can convert a book in one to six hours, what’s the problem? If I were an Indie author and could make 70% profit on each eBook sale, that cost for a contractor seems like nothing. Sounds like there’s certainly no need for a major publisher, if that’s all the work it takes to format a book.

  2. P J Evans says:

    LEarning how to create a Word formatting template took me several hours, with an instruction book, the one time I did it. That was for a manual at work (about 160 pages, with illustrations, which means a format for captions also).
    The entire manual required two or three months, because I had to redo all the images in it also. (At least I got paid for part of it – most of the work I did at home, on my own time.)

    Anyone who thinks ebooks can be done without editors needs to try it.

  3. Bill says:

    One reason you had so much trouble is that Word produces *really* *horrid* HTML, as opposed to clean well-formed HTML. That’s partly because they’re Microsoft, and partly because Word is a product that’s evolved over a couple of decades rather than being built cleanly from scratch, but it’s also partly because HTML and Word are designed for radically different problems. Word is designed to let you make pretty-looking marks on screens and specific-shaped paper, while HTML is designed to let you categorize the *information* in a document, so that somebody (not necessarily you) can display it on a display that doesn’t necessarily look like yours.

    An HTML reader might be displaying contents on an 8.5″x11″ portrait-mode piece of white paper, or on a wristwatch, iPhone, or billboard, so what HTML really cares about is that one bunch of words are an H1 header and that you’d like to anchor a given picture at this point in the document, not whether the bunch of words are in 14-point boldface small caps or have enough room before a page break. There’s an auxiliary standard, CSS, that lets an HTML author give some hints about how you’d *like* the reader to display the document, if they can, but it’s just hints, because that’s the reader’s decision, not the author’s. And since Word is primarily about display (and PDF almost entirely about it), it’s got to add a bunch of ugly format requests around every HTML information tag, because the author might have changed the heading format partway through the document, or might have just specified that a given paragraph was in 14-point bold-face without indicating that it was an H1 header.

  4. bowerbird says:

    wade said:
    > Since I use Word all day every day,
    > I had thought I understood the program.
    > But Tallent’s book forced me to figure out
    > previously ignored features such as
    > the styles pallette

    whoa. you’ve “ignored” styles? seriously?

    that’s a pretty brave thing to be confessing!

    all this time i thought you knew your stuff.

    > I bet that the first company to build
    > a decent e-book editor would get
    > snapped up by Amazon or Apple.
    > Entrepreneurs, are you listening?

    oh please. haven’t the “entrepreneurs” caused
    more than enough damage in the e-book space?

    i’m coming out soon with a simple light-markup
    authoring-tool that lets writers write in plain text,
    not bothersome, clumsy, heavy, intrusive markup.

    button-clicks will output e-books in powerful .pdf,
    and several versions of .html (for different purposes),
    as well as .rtf. other converter programs out there can
    then auto-generate the other formats you might want.

    my authoring-tool will be cross-platform and cost-free.


    p.s. send me your word file or your .html file, or better yet
    both, and i’ll show you how easy your book could have been.

  5. Wade,

    Thank you very much for purchasing my book and for your kind comments on it. I am very glad to know that I helped you in your conversion project! Hopefully the next book will be much easier to do, and do feel free to drop me a line if you ever need advice or assistance.

    – Joshua

  6. Matt says:

    Interesting article, I wonder whether the next version of Word will (as some whisperers are suggesting) have an export to ePUB feature. Seems like that would be a good idea and make life for a lot of self-publishing eBook authors a lot easier.

  7. Outtanames999 says:

    So it turns out that the Kindle (and probably all other ebook readers – uh the machines, not the people) are the dumbest devices ever invented. And to think, people pay money for them.

    For you see, the dirty little secret is that you could read these Kindle books on your non-smart phone circa 2007 because that is how dumb the Kindle devices are.

    Amazon themselves says their Digital Text Platform (DTP) “handles .mobi file formatting and images very well. For more information about the Mobipocket format and the Mobipocket eBook Creator, please visit the eBook Creator homepage Important: Only unencrypted mobi files are supported.”

    Turns out Mobipocket Creator is free.

  8. David says:

    Great Post! I am currently finishing up my first book project and I plan on self-publishing it. Any words of advice would be greatly appreciated!