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Summary:

I’m looking to self-publish my writing, so I took a look at a bunch of different Mac apps that can create ebooks. The best I found were Apple’s Pages, Adobe InDesign, and Scrivener. Here’s a look the pros and cons of each program.

MacBook Air 11.6 inch

As a writer, I’m always looking for ways to maximize my revenue streams. While doing contract technical writing is working out pretty well for me, I’d like to start work on  writing some content that earns money over time. To that end, like millions of dreamers, I’m starting to look at creating ebooks and self-publishing them. I’ve tried a bunch of programs for the Mac to create ebooks and these three below are the ones that I liked best.

As a forewarning, I’m not going to go too far into the various bookstore formats, other than to say that at the least you’ll need to start with a Microsoft Word or ePub file. While Amazon and the like will accept a Word file to publish, to ensure your book converts to the various proprietary formats, I recommend creating an ePub file as your base. EPub is the most common ebook file standard, and I think you’ll have fewer problems starting with that. Fortunately, the ebook creation apps I’m going to tell you about all export an ePub natively. While there are Automator scripts to convert text to ePub, by using these packages you’re pretty much guaranteed to keep your document formatting.

One quick note up front: I’m not going to include Apple’s own iBooks Author tool. That’s because my goals for this piece were simple: talk about ebook-making programs that can be used in multiple bookstores and create files that aren’t just static images of a page. iBooks Author creates static pages that can only be used in the iBookstore. That’s great for getting an interactive textbook into the iBookstore, but not so good for other kinds of books.

Pages

Apple’s Pages app ($19) is probably the most straightforward and easiest way to create an ePub file. You will need to use a Word Processing template, not a Page Layout template. Other than that, you pretty much just type, type, type until your Great American Novel is done. You’re going to want to use consistent formatting, taking care to use document styles while typing away, or you’re going to have to go back and reformat the thing. Document styles are important because an ePub file is basically an HTML file with some CSS formatting applied. Therefore, using the Body style for your body text, and the heading styles for your headings will make your life a lot easier come file export time, especially if you need to create a Table of Contents. This support article by Apple has some handy tips for using Pages to create ePub files.

Scrivener

If you’re a serious writer, odds are you’re already using the wonderful Scrivener ($44.99) by Literature and Latte. Scrivener is a sort of Swiss Army knife of writing programs. It’s very flexible, and allows you to essentially merge and move around text files to create a piece of finished work (be it a printed manuscript, file, or ePub file). I’ve used it for some screenwriting, where I want to change the position of a scene. Rather than cut and paste, I could just drag that text file to the place I wanted it. While you could just use one text file for your entire body of work, laying out your file similar to the screenshot below will allow you to take full advantage of the program’s offerings. It’s a fantastic way to work on bits of chapters at a time without worrying about mucking the whole file up.

Once you’re done, just go to the file menu and choose Compile and then choose whether you want to create ePub, .Mobi, or .iBook chapters.

Adobe InDesign

Yes, that’s right: I’m recommending a $699 page layout program to create ebooks. No one is more surprised about this than I am. When I was offered a briefing from Adobe on using Indesign for this purpose, I tried to put it off due to my preconceived notion that using Indesign to create ebooks would yield a result similar to a Zinio magazine: a big honking static PDF-type file.

I was wrong.

Indesign, as it turns out, is a pretty powerful ebook creation program. In short, you can take a file you’ve created a smashing page layout of and turn it into an ebook. You can adjust the typography and create an ebook that looks almost exactly like a printed book. It’ll even fairly easily convert your initial drop caps into something the ePub file can understand. If you really need your ebook to look its very best, Indesign may be the best option.

But Lordy it’s not cheap. InDesign is a full-featured page layout program that designers use to create all sorts of material (ads, books, flyers, etc.). At $699 if your books are just text you’re probably better served with Pages or Scrivener because Indesign’s strengths are in layouts combining images and text.

If you’re working on an ebook that’s, say, a technical reference book with a ton of images and you want it to look damn good, InDesign is worth the expense. I was thinking of working on such a project a while back; had I gone through with it, I likely would have reached for my credit card quite happily.

InDesign also has a serious learning curve. It’s not a program you master in a weekend, or, say, a week before a deadline. In my case, I used to run a pre-press shop so my InDesign knowledge was pretty good, albeit rusty.

The app I use

Right now I’m using Pages, for the simple reason that it also runs on my iPad, meaning I can use my lunch breaks at work to write. Literature and Latte is working on an iPad version of Scrivener, but it doesn’t sound like it’ll see the light of day for quite some time. So, an app that I can use on multiple platforms and sync via Documents in the Cloud wins. It also helps that right now I’m working on short stories and novellas, which are well within Pages’ means to handle.

  1. Michael W. Perry Saturday, November 10, 2012

    Thanks for a great article and a great selection of apps. I write in Scrivener and I’m working toward using InDesign to create books in all formats. With the CS 6.0 version, it’s become a marvelous tool for that although, as you note, the learning curve is steep.

    Three asides:

    1. Adobe is generous in allowing their product licenses to be transferred. Quite a few people in small business buy InDesign, planning to use it for product brochures, only to discover that learning curve. Look around on eBay and elsewhere and you can often get a copy of an older version for a decent price. Just make sure the license is transferrable and upgradeable to CS 6.

    2. It’s great that products such as Scrivener, Pages and InDesign now export to ePub, but I can’t understand why at this date there’s not a top-notch WISWYG ePub editor. Like many others, I don’t want to get into that code and hand edit it. I want something that’ll take the ePub generated by some other app and let me tweak it to my heart’s content without looking at code. I’m a writer not a programmer.

    3. Scrivener will be releasing an iPad version, possibly before the end of the year. I’m thinking using it with my iPad rather than upgrade my aging white MacBook. It’ll be lighter, cheaper and the battery will last longer. The iPad version of Scrivener won’t have all the features of the Mac and Windows versions, but it’ll be fine for writing.

    One final note. I’ve been a writer and editor since the early 1980s and a publisher for some 13 years. I’m often ticked off that the digital book market is far more muddled than the print book market, although it is improving.

    I send cover and interior PDFs to Lightning Source, and within a couple of weeks, my print edition is available to almost every bookstore and online store on the planet and is printed in some eight countries from the UK to Australia. Nice!

    Nothing like that is true for digital. Each distributor wants files to its specs and has to be dealt with individually. The closest to a universal distributor is Smashwords,. Unfortunately Amazon and Smashwords have yet to do a deal, I suspect that’s because Smashwords’ Mark Croker is a bit too independent for Amazon’s tastes. Amazon wants author and publishers who meekly comply with its wishes. Croker isn’t that sort of guy.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien (a day-by-day LOTR chronology)

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  2. Why wasn’t Open Source Scribus not included in this article ?

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  3. Andrew Lombardi Saturday, November 10, 2012

    I’ve been using Scrivener a lot for the desktop. But the issue for me, is that I like to take the iPad and write, and there just isn’t an easy way to do that.

    So I write in iA Writer, and transfer back over to Scrivener when I feel things are “complete”.

    I would buy an iPad version of Scrivener in a heartbeat though.

    -Andrew Lombardi (andrew-lombardi.com)

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  4. I’m considering an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription at $49.99/month. The advantage is that you get virtually every Adobe program and can download them to your computer. Still kind of expensive, but I’d love to have access to all of those programs.

    I’ll take another look at Pages. It is the nicest writing program on the iPad.

    And, of course, I love Scrivener too. Who doesn’t. Can’t wait for the iPad version.

    Also, thanks to Michael W. Perry for pointing me to Lightning Source.

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  5. I have always assumed Adobe Indesign was professional graphic designer software. Is it easy to use for layman like me once you have played around or would you recommend taking training courses?

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    1. Once you get the feel of the basics, InDesign is pretty easy to use. Lynda.com has some great training courses, if you want to learn how to use any of the Adobe products. David Blatner of (http://indesignsecrets.com/) also provides some invaluable tutorials and resources for InDesign.

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  6. Hey Mark as you would have seen if you would have taken a close look iBooksAuthor can also be used for non static content. (e.g. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/ipad-iphone-app-development/id571023793/mt%3D13&ei=dYefUIq2MMf5sgaxjYGgBg&usg=AFQjCNEHraf0eyJMCTipeULhLHvDW3ZSGA&sig2=kcVCk0doWnL6GC3okPA0VQ)

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  7. Great way to start publishing! I started a new and super easy website for writers: BLABOOK! We love autors, artists and creative people! Just check it out and TWEET about it with friends! Why: because it is a new and sustainable education idea worth spreading! It looks great on iPad!

    Stijn Tebbes
    Founder Blabook

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  8. Another option to the ones presented are web-based solutions, such as Folium Partners’ Folium Bookstudio.

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  9. Mark, great article and I appreciate your perspective on finding software that you can use to publish anywhere, not just one channel.

    I do want to point out that there are Cloud Platforms, like FastPencil.com, where you can create and publish without software. When you use a system like that you can work on your Mac or PC or tablet, anywhere you want.

    Thanks again for your wrap-up!

    Mash
    CTO at FastPencil.com

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  10. Hamranhansenhansen Monday, November 12, 2012

    If you are trying to make something where quality matters, then only iBooks has a reading platform that can show any quality at this time. For example, an art or photo book can be every bit as good as a $100 printed coffee table book when presented as a $10 iBook, and sell 100 times as many copies quite easily. ePub is a way to make a paperback only. Right now, readers are getting over the novelty of reading infinite paperbacks on a device, and they are hungry for rich book experiences with high-quality photos and layout and interactive features. The only platform that is doing that is iBooks right now. But because iBooks Author uses W3C standard HTML widgets and ISO standard audio video and Word/Pages word processing documents, it is easy to reuse your content in the future when other reading platforms catch up to where iBooks is today.

    What we have been doing is making an iBook that is like a big printed coffee table book for full price, and then making an ePub that is like a little printed book you would see at the checkout in a printed book store, for a low price. Many print books are also done that way. You might have a photo book in the art section and a book of postcards of some of the photos at the checkout.

    Basically, recognize that iBooks format and ePub format are 2 different kinds of book. You should specifically choose to make either one or the other, or both. Don’t ignore iBooks because you think ePub is the only kind of book. It is most certainly not. There are many formats of printed book. Even a DVD is a kind of printed book — in 2005 a set of cooking lessons that incorporated 10 hours of video would be published as a 5-DVD set, but in 2015, that is just another electronic book about cooking with video embedded in the pages.

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    1. Fantastic reply, and very important when your self-publishing plans are focused on rare photographs.

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  11. I use Omm Writer for writing. I was completely blown away with this app. Nothing comes close and it is really reasonably priced for what it offers. Zero distractions to bother you with meditative sounds & visuals to allow your thoughts to flow.

    1. Plug in your headphones
    2. Choose your favourite theme, sound, typing
    3. Dive into an ocean of writing ecstasy

    http://www.ommwriter.com/

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  12. I don’t use Pages, but I use the other two in a workflow when I write novels. I draft in Scrivener because of the many files (character sketches, scene descriptions etc.) can be opened in a split window. I’ll do one or two rewrites in Scrivener, and then I’ll put the novel into MS Word and use their grammar and spell checker. When I’ve got the manuscript in decent shape then I put it into InDesign (I have the older CS4 version, but it works superbly). Here I can compose the graphical aspects of the book including orphaned lines and any artwork.

    I take the InDesign file and convert it to a high quality PDF for publishing at Amazon’s CreateSpace. For e-pubbing, I take the InDesign file and transfer it back to MSWord so I can take advantage of the Word conversion tools available at Amazon, Smashwords and PubIt (B&N’s e-book publishing site.) For cover design (I do my own book covers), I use Adobe Photoshop for the images and Adobe Illustrator for the layout and PDF output to CreateSpace. I order a Proof copy of the actual book from CreateSpace for a final polish. I find I can catch errors or issues with phrasing better if I look at my manuscript in different formats.

    InDesign gives your print output so much more polish than using a word processing program that it’s worth the hassle of learning the program. I also find that

    I’ve done eight books this way and it works just fine (see Guy Antibes in Amazon for samples)

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  13. Thanks for the Scrivener mention, I’ll give it a try.

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  14. I am trying to decide what is best to use. Thank you for this helpful article!

    Can you not use pages on the iPad and transfer to InDesign? I have toyed with ID but realise I need proper tuition to benefit from the software. I am conversant with iBooks Author (though that has the obvious pitfall of limiting publication through Apple).

    If anyone can help me to learn ID and what app will link to iPad, I would be very very grateful!

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  15. I think you need to throw iBooks Author into the mix here. I’m just finishing up on my first book with it, so I don’t have the total solution under my belt… but it is definitely the wave of the future.

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  16. Great article and a good informative read. I use Scrivener and I am still waiting for the iPad app – hopefully this millennium. I’ve tried Pages for writing, but I have to admit, for me at least, I still prefer Scrivener. As it is, I’m looking hard at dumping my current self-publishing company and going it alone (scar thought); should be interesting.

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  17. Thank you for listing InDesign. So often lists like this only include the cheap programs. But yes, InDesign is very robust. I have plans at work to make it the hub of all our ebook creation. Down with Microsoft Word!

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  18. Nice article, I would suggest if you are serious about making epubs consider what you are going to use for a text editor as well. All epubs will have to be tweaked if you want to include javascript for interactivty and non of the current epub programs have that capability built in.

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