Getting into eBook Production

I’ve been a fan of ebooks for a long time. In around 2000 I was in a teaching position at the police academy and wanted an electronic calendar to organise my teaching and meeting commitments. I bought myself a Palm m100 and subsequently discovered the Palm Reader app and online store[1]. It was amazing—being able to download contemporary books instantly, any time of the day, or day of the week[2]. I read for hours on that device, with never really a thought as to the monochrome screen or low resolution.

After the m100 I briefly flirted with a Compaq iPAQ running Microsoft’s Pocket PC operating system, and can’t really recall what happened to my ebook reading during this period. But the flirtation was brief and I ended up back with Palm, buying a Tungsten T and later a Treo 650. Throughout this period, and even after my purchase of an iPhone 3G in 2008[3], I continued to buy eBooks from Palm Reader, which later became eReader after its sale to Motricity, Inc[4].

In 2008 eReader was sold to Fictionwise, which in 2009 was itself sold to Barnes and Noble. And sometime after that the eReader app was discontinued, and ultimately ceased to function on contemporary versions of iOS.

Then in 2010 Apple released the iPad and iBooks, which became my new mainstream source of ebooks, although I’ve since bought the occasional Kindle book from Amazon to read in the Kindle app on my iPad when a book I’ve wanted hasn’t been available on the iBookstore.

But throughout this ebook history I never looked too hard into ebook production[5]. Even in 2012 when Apple announced iBooks author, I only had a brief play with the software. Which is strange as during, and ever since, my posting to the academy I’ve been involved in the production of training guides for police. Although perhaps not so strange given the use of mobile technology has taken a while to infiltrate the daily lives of most of my colleges[6].

In 2014 however, tablet devices are starting to be issued to every police officer in my agency, which has made me seriously consider ebook production.

I’ve long used my iPad to read PDF files[7] for work, but a major problem with PDF is it’s fixed page size nature. Because the text doesn’t reflow to fit the device, the reading experience has never been as good as the ebook readers I’ve been used to. And this was highlighted to me even more by the Acer Iconia Windows 8 tablets they’re now buying at work, which have 16:9 widescreen displays, making an A4 page very squished on the screen.

Having bought a couple of David Spark’s ebooks recently, I realised that ebook production was really something I out to be able to do. But unlike his books, I knew my audience was wider than the iPad—all those Acer Iconias being bought at work—so iBooks Author was not going to be an option for me.

Having also bought non-DRM ePub books from O’Reilly and Peachpit, I immediately realised this was the format I needed to use. The books would work in iBooks on iOS and also on other platforms and ereaders. So I set out to do a bit of research, learning about the ePub file structure, and settling on Sigil as a tool to help me produce them.

Most years I have to produce few new guides, although I occasionally take on new topics. Instead it is usually a matter of updating the existing guides I’ve previously prepared on the topics I teach, most of which are now in Apple’s Pages, as compared to Word in years gone by. So the first step was to update the Pages documents and produce PDFs as the default format.

Rather than export from Pages to ePub, I decided to spend a bit more time crafting the ePub documents to get them to look right. Previous tinkering with ePub exporting in 2012 left me unimpressed with Pages output. So instead, for the few guides I’ve done so far, I’ve copied the plain text contents into Byword to apply formatting and then exported to HTML. The HTML files are then imported into Sigil where I’ve added the CSS to style the document, added a cover image, and generated the table of contents.

Book.jpg

I’ve been generally happy with the results, but realise I’ve got a fair bit more to learn about ePubs to get the most out of the format. I was also happy to discover KindleGen will convert the ePubs to Kindle format, with no real loss in fidelity, potentially expanding the chances my work will be read electronically, depending on the devices the students have and are most comfortable with (they don’t all have the Acer tablets yet, and some like me probably prefer other devices[8]).

The biggest letdown though has been that after producing my beautiful ePubs (and .mobis[9]) I’ve discovered the available reader software for Windows 8—and especially touch interface apps for tablet use—are generally awful. Given this is the tablet platform most likely to be used by my readers, I’m desperately searching for a decent reader, and would be keen to hear any suggestions. Although there are some okay Windows desktop apps, the real value comes from tablet use, and the only half decent touch app I’ve found so far is ebook.de, which unfortunately doesn’t support annotation.

I’ll keep looking, but in the mean time I’m intending to keep going with my ePub learning and production. With the most recent update to Pages I’m thinking of skipping the plain text export to Byword and instead extracting the XHTML files from a Pages ePub export to start construction of a new ePub using Sigil. This should save me some time and overcome Page’s formatting quirks. But being new to this, I’d be happy for any pointers on how to do things better.

Regardless, I’m excited by a world of learning where people can use ereaders like iBooks and Kindle, and their annotation tools, to help in gaining new skills and knowledge.


  1. Formerly Peanut Press.  ↩

  2. A similar experience with music didn’t happen until 2003 with the announcement of the iTunes Music Store, which didn’t actually make it to Australia until 2005.  ↩

  3. The original iPhone was never sold in Australia.  ↩

  4. Thankfully, and despite its Palm heritage, a version of eReader was made for the iPhone.  ↩

  5. I’m sure at some stage I tried converting Word documents to Palm Reader format, although not for anyone else’s use. And in 2012 I toyed with the idea, exported a guide prepared in Apple’s Pages to ePub, but the formatting was awful, and few of the students on the detective training course that year had ereaders to read it with—and even those that did didn’t seem that interested.  ↩

  6. In the early days the training materials were written in Microsoft Word, printed, and photocopied for each course participant I was presenting to. In later years the materials were exported to PDF for email transmission to the Academy, and perhaps publishing somewhere on our internal intranet, but still largely printed out for use by course participants.  ↩

  7. I’ve been using GoodReader for its connectivity (especially DropBox), reading experience, and annotation features. As much as people recommend PDFpen, in my view, it’s just not as good.  ↩

  8. The iPad and iBooks in my case.  ↩

  9. .mobi is the Kindle format produced by KindleGen.  ↩