Everything you need to know about e-books – part 1: creating an e-book

In 1988 the novel ‘Mona Lisa Overdrive’ by William Gibson was released on floppy disk and became the first electronic book, revolutionising the literature industry. The potential profit in the production and sales of digital books attracted numerous investors; manufacturers started supplying computer game instructions as PDF files on installation CDs, and lecture notes at universities were published in digital form. The printing industry didn’t see any real threat to its traditional print media and became powerful allies with online distributors, like Amazon, who were initially specialised in books.

Order management and modern logistics meant that printed books didn’t suffer since e-books didn’t become anything more than a niche product for years. Market relevance was first achieved in specialised publications thanks to advantages over traditional printed literature, like being able to carry out full text searches. Thanks to the development of reading devices with energy-saving ‘e-ink’ and the direct connection to online sales platforms, the e-book market was finally able to take off.

In this multi-part series we show you how to jump aboard the electronic book publication bandwagon and create your own e-book.

Motivation and objectives

Before you get to the technical implementation, you should ask yourself why you want to create an e-book. Financial gain may be a plausible reason if you are planning on selling your electronic book and also wish to integrate affiliate links. When people download your publication, you could ask them to sign up for your newsletter and kill two birds with one stone, creating new e-mail subscribers this way. With a successful e-book, you have the best chances of improving your reputation and that of your web project, not least thanks to social networks and viral marketing strategies.

When you’re sure of why you want to create your own e-book, you can start defining clear goals you want to reach with the publication. This isn’t just a matter of thinking about what you want to achieve with the digital book; it’s also a question of who you are designing it for. On the one hand, it’s about finding a suitable topic that entertains, informs, solves a problem, or does a combination of these. On the other hand, setting these goals also involves defining your target audience, so you can tailor the content better. You should also set a deadline, especially with larger projects.

How to create an e-book

In principle, you face the same tasks when creating an e-book that you do with traditional books – from the writing process, including structuring and implementing the content, to giving the rough draft to qualified proofreaders. The special features lie with the layout and design. If you are creating an e-book yourself, you’re sure to be faced with many different decisions. Which aspects are important for a well-designed and suitable layout?

A question of the right file format

It’s not just e-readers and mobile devices that come in many different designs, so do e-book formats. While the majority of these file formats are only used in special areas, three file formats have emerged as standard:

  • PDF: is produced by Adobe and is the most common format, especially with free e-books. The PDF format ensures that the electronic book looks the same on any display device and provides simple and safe encryption. The only problem with the classic format is the fact that the font sizes don’t automatically adjust to smaller displays.
  • ePUB: Despite the fact that this format supports multimedia content, albeit somewhat limited, it’s most often used for text books. The high diffusion rate is attributable to how well the text adapts to the respective screen size, and secondly to the fact that the format can be opened on virtually any reading device. Amazon Kindle devices are an exception.
  • AZW: the Amazon Kindle format AZW uses its own encryption, which is why e-books with this format can only be read on Kindle devices and Kindle apps. In AZW e-books, it’s possible to adjust the font size. Since mid-2015, Amazon has also provided the new FKX format for enhanced font options.

If you want to sell your e-book on Amazon, you are obliged to use either the AZW or KFX format. All other e-readers and sales platforms can be operated with ePUB books. Apart from the weaknesses regarding text scaling, PDF is also a good choice for your publications. For a deeper insight into the variety of e-book formats, read part three of this guide series.

The correct writing and conversion software

Searching for the right word processing program is closely linked to choosing a format with which you can create an e-book and publish it. Popular options include Microsoft Word or the freeware option, OpenOffice. These programs offer a feature that allows you to export your text document into PDF format.

For more specific formats you need additional solutions, such as the open source program Calibre. With the help of free tools for Windows, OS X, and Linux, you can convert various formats, such as ODT, HTML, TXT, or DOCX, into e-book formats, like ePUB and AZW3. You can also edit your electronic books with Calibre. This is generally necessary since your e-book will look good in all formats after it’s been converted. Alternatively, you can rework ePUB documents with the open source editor Sigil.

Optimise readability and highlight text

Editing tools play a fundamental role in e-book design since even very well-written texts won’t be successful if they’re formatted poorly. This is why it’s important to develop a design that facilitates your readers’ access to the text. The most important components are:

  • Font: the font choice is one of the most important factors of your e-book, and in combination with the font size, it is responsible for the readability of your text. In general, the use of very unusual fonts should be avoided. It’s a good idea to use two or three different fonts: one for headings, one for the body, and one for lists.
  • Colours: for an optimal reading experience, we recommend you stick to the basic text colour: black. Only with certain elements, such as headings, links, or quotes, should you use a second or third colour for effect.
  • Formatting: You can give your e-book the right structure with standardised formatting for identical elements, such as headings, paragraphs, lists, and highlighting. You can also make changes to fonts and colours. Don’t forget to add a table of contents.
  • Multimedia content: depending on the subject, using images, photos, and graphics can be a useful means of grabbing the reader’s attention. Links to videos or features are also worth considering in certain types of texts. But make sure the reader can understand the text without needing to access linked content, so that they can read it without an internet connection.

To what extent these elements are used should always be set in relation to the topic and the target group. Many providers offer ready-made templates (like with websites) that you can use as a basis for your e-books. Detailed information on e-book templates can be found in the second part of our multi-part series.

The legal aspects of an e-book

If you want to create your own e-book and publish it, you have to consider the legal aspects, especially copyright. If you want to use third party content in your book, such as quotes, images, photos, videos, or graphics, you’ll need the consent of the copyright holder for citation. It’s always a good idea to add a disclaimer to protect yourself; you can hire someone to write one for you or chose one yourself.

How to publish your e-book

There are numerous ways to publish your e-book: if your digital book is free, you can offer it on your website, in your online store, or on your blog as a free download. If you plan to sell the e-book, this is more expensive, but you can use a third-party platform, such as the Amazon Kindle Store or Lulu, to minimise these expenses. The following table shows the pros and cons of both options:

  Sell e-book yourself Sell e-book on an external platform
Publishing costs - on some platforms
Sales charges - average of 30-65% of net sales
Control over the sales process + -
Technical safety standards individual responsibility +
Legal standards individual responsibility +
Administrative expenses (accounts, customer support, etc.) high low
Market reach depends on own traffic high

In summary, you can obtain a high percentage of the sales revenue and operate more flexibly if you choose to sell your e-book in your own store or on your own website. But this comes with a heavy administrative burden that requires technical and legal know-how. When selling over an external platform, you don’t need to worry as much about these matters and you also benefit from the large market reach that many e-book shops possess. In both cases, you need to take care of the marketing yourself. There are often incurred charges from commercial providers. And even after you’ve created and uploaded your e-book, the work is far from over.