Wednesday, January 04, 2012

A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again: trying to make an ebook

Remember those resolutions from a few days ago? One of them was to get off my backside and finally make a version of Diet Croydon available on Amazon, for people to download to Kindles. This is partly because I've recently discovered the Lulu e-book is horrible; the version I downloaded to check was in bold italics throughout, which is about as easy to read as this sentence. Mobipocket Reader is a special sort of hell. Fortunately, Amazon provides lots of helpful documentation for a struggling part-time author to use to get their book onto their platform.

Charles Stross, in his excellent blog, has written about why the business of e-books is not as simple as you might expect. This is going to be a worked example of finding that making an e-book really isn't as simple  as you might expect.

Here's a quick guide to making a book, which you can follow, step-by-step.

Write manuscript. (And redraft manuscript, spell check, etc etc ad infinitum.)
Turn file into something compatible with e-book readers.

Find cover image
Figure out table of contents
Check pagination / flow
Upload to Amazon
Tell everyone

The first part was simple. I wrote my book, and then I looked at the instructions Amazon provide.  Create an .html file from a .doc file. Not very difficult.  I could manage that. (It's always a little worrying when people tell you to rely on Microsoft Word, mind, and I'm also sort of bemused that in today's world, Microsoft haven't included an 'Export to E-book' option of some sort within Word, but never mind.)

Then Amazon tell you to install Mobipocket Creator on your computer.  Again, not too difficult.  Then you feed the .htm file into Mobipocket Creator, and out comes an e-book.  Nice.  Like making sausages, but less messy.

Except ... except when you look at the resulting document, it's not really a book, just a big block of text. My book, like many others, has chapters, and it's nice when reading a book to know how far through a chapter you are.  Most of the books I've read on the Kindle have this implicit structure to them, which allows the Kindle to display little marks at the bottom of the screen to show how far you've progressed. They depend on having a table of contents.

How do you create a table of contents? Well, you go back to the Word document, and insert a table of contents.  Easy, if you've marked up the chapter headings in one consistent style throughout.  (Which I've mostly done, and where I hadn't, or Word was being unhelpful, was just a few minutes wrangling.) You have to label the table of contents with the magic letters "TOC" so that Mobipocket will realise it's a table of contents, but that's not difficult, is it?

Except Mobipocket Creator doesn't realise it's a table of contents.  To begin with I thought that Word had screwed things up, but give Microsoft their due, they had created a fairly clean html file, with a table of contents, with a tag at the start to signify it was the table of contents.  And Mobipocket blithely ignored it.  Yes, the table of contents was now visible in the book, but, importantly, not as a way to view the structure of the book itself.  No good.

I figured I'd come back to this problem later on, so I went looking for the cover image for my book.  I put this into the right place in Mobipocket Creator, and rebuilt the book. And then I got a warning that the cover image was too small, and I had a book with no cover.

I looked in vain in Mobipocket Creator's help for specifications on how big the cover image should be. Nothing at all. I went on Mobipocket Creator's company forum, which is almost entirely filled with spamposts for viagra and other drugs.  There is exactly one post which isn't, which shows somebody really doesn't care much about support.

Eventually, after digging around in Amazon's support pages (where they sometimes spell e-book as 'e-bBook' which also suggests a certain cavalier attitude, or just a lack of attention to detail) I found guidelines telling me the image needs to be at least 500 by 800 pixels. Thank you,

Ah, but no.  Having resized the image and reuploaded it, it's still too small.  I tried deleting the project and starting from scratch, and still, no good.  I hunted through the documentation again.  And on another page,, it's eventually revealed that images can be no more than 127k.  Am I expecting too much that when you specify on the firsr page how large the image should be, you also mention what the maximum file size is?  Apparently, yes.

But just a minute, what was that warning message?  Oh yes, "Image too small."  Yes, that's just the most helpful way I could think for a program to indicate to its user that the image is too big. I know we love to hate Microsoft, but while I might be sick of General Protection Faults and Unexpected Errors, at least you could just assume the computer was having problems.  Telling me that something is too small when it's too big is about as helpful as going up to a fat bloke and telling him it's imperative he eats some more pies before he has a heart attack.

Still, never mind.  Now I had a cover image, and a very nice one it is too, thank you.

The next unfriendly bit of behaviour was when I opened up the file in the desktop version of Kindle, to see what I'd made. Stupidly, I'd named the html file that I created DietCroydon for Kindle.html. I'd changed the title in Mobipocket Creator back to Diet Croydon, but apparently it wasn't interested in taking any notice of that, because the name showing up in Kindle was DietCroydon for Kindle, as if I didn't know what a spacebar did. I always thought metadata was meant to stop this kind of inconvenience, but it turns out it's just there to make you do more things without being rewarded.

So let's add that to the instructions:

Write your book.
Export your book from Word as filtered html, and make sure the title of the html file is <EXACTLY THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK>.html
Find cover image.
Figure out the table of contents.

Ah yes, 'figure out the table of contents'.  You probably knew when you saw that show up again that it was going to be all fun and games from here on in.  Or not.

I could labour you with a description of the hour of my life that I lost, but suffice it to say that table of contents support in Mobipocket Creator is a bucket of shit. Either it ignores the table of contents you've built for it within the file, or if you try to supply the contents in an ancillary file, it makes a whimpering noise and generates an unhelpful error message, before pointing you back to the amazing shit-spraying exploding house of spam that is the Mobipocket forum.

What you do, it turns out, is uninstall Mobipocket from your machine, and install Calibre instead. Funny how Amazon don't mention that.

Calibre is a breath of fresh air after all that Mobipocket horror.  OK, the interface doesn't look quite as friendly to begin with, but if you ask it to do something, it will do it, or tell you why it can't do it.  It won't tell you something which is the exact opposite of the truth, or send you to a support forum that was apparently designed to advertise knock-off pharmaceuticals.  There are even handy documents written by people that explain how to add in a table of contents, and why it is that with Mobipocket you need to put the table of contents at the end of the book, not at the start. Not being written by a man with his brain addled through sleep-deprivation and frustration at erroneous error messages was probably helpful too.

After two hours of this, I had a book that was sort-of-serviceable.  There's problems with leaving it there, of course, which we can airily dismiss as 'pagination'; all the unique hells of blank pages randomly appearing in the book, which is probably because of how we handle page breaks in the Word document, and also horribly tedious, but armed with a Kindle in one hand and an html editor in the other, it should be a matter of sweeping through the book and eliminating all those blanks.  Not so bad when I've got 21 chapters, but probably more aggravating to other people.

So now I'm part way through creating a book and getting it submitted to the Kindle publishing platform, and I have some friendly documentation from Calibre, and everything else I can do away from the internet, most likely on one of my impending 12 hour plane journeys.  So I'll leave this here for now, and follow up in a few weeks with the results, and hopefully a more helpful guide for anyone following in my footsteps.


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