Kindle Conniptions: How I Published My First E-Book

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hire production lackeys to pore through each book, paragraph by paragraph, reformatting them for Amazon’s digital bookstore—and Sony’s, and Barnes & Noble’s, and soon Apple’s.

It seemed only fitting to sum up my self-publishing experience in today’s column, which is also Chapter 80 in the book. It’s a cautionary tale. E-publishing may be great for independent authors from a financial point of view—especially once Amazon starts offering 70 percent royalties this summer—but it’s still a nightmare from a technical one.

My first step toward creating Pixel Nation was simply to gather up all of my old columns, which meant copying and pasting them from the Web pages on Xconomy into a Word document. I would never have attempted this task before November 2009, when we added a single-page view option that lets you see an entire article on one page. Many of my columns are fairly long, so they get broken into two, three, or four pages on the site, and it would have taken forever to stitch them all together from these separate pages.

Pixel Nation: 80 Weeks of World Wide WadeNext I deleted most of the pictures, as photos tend to add greatly to the file size of an e-book. Then I went through all the old columns and added updates and wrote an introduction. Using a graphics program and a photo that I staged on my dining room table, I whipped together the cover image you see here and inserted it into the Word file. That was the fun part.

Now I was left with a big, long Word file. On a Mac, it’s easy to export a Word file to PDF, so creating that version of the e-book was child’s play. It was the Kindle version that really gave me fits.

Now, I am very fond of my Kindle. I got it in May 2009, and use it every day. I love the fact that it comes with an email address (like “[email protected]”) that you can use to e-mail Word and PDF files to Amazon; for only 15 cents per megabyte, Amazon will then convert the files into the Kindle format (called AZW) and transmit them wirelessly to your device.

In an ideal world, publishing an e-book—that is, getting it converted to AZW and listed in the Kindle Store and the website—would be just as easy. Unfortunately, Amazon’s conversion software doesn’t have much of a sense of style. The Word files that you mail to yourself never look as nice as the e-books that you can purchase and download. The conversion process tends to leave ridiculously large gaps between paragraphs, for example. And the files lack all the pleasant conventions of professionally published books, such as consistent chapter headings or a hyperlinked table of contents.

It turns out that if you want that stuff in your e-book, you have to build it all yourself. Did I learn this from Amazon? No, the company actually shares very little information about … 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!