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.
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.
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.
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.