Last week I started the actual writing part of my non-fiction project, diving straight into the perils and frustrations of the Kindle format. For plain text the formatting is pretty straightforward, but add pictures, equations and source code to the mix and you have a whole different ballgame. Writing an eBook for the Kindle is like designing a web-page in the mid 90s, with a lot of the same restrictions, but this guide will help you through some of the trickier bits.
1) Use Microsoft Word – It’s a little frustrating for me as an open source advocate to suggest that you have to use Microsoft software, but it just makes your life easier. All of Amazon’s guides are geared to this format, particularly the post 2007 versions of Office. For text you might be able to get away with LibreOffice, AbiWord or OpenOffice, but with equations code and styles, it’s best to go with Amazon’s recommendations.
2) Pick up the free guides – Amazon has two free guides on how to format and publish for the Kindle. While these don’t cover everything, they are a quick read and will give you a good feel for the whole process from draft to finished product. Of particular use are the sections on paragraph formatting and preparing front matter like the Table of Contents.
3) Own a Kindle – Seems straightforward but this is crucial. If you are like me, you’ll want to test your book as you go along rather than waiting till the end of the process. While Amazon does provide emulators, there is nothing like having the actual piece of hardware you’ll be publishing on. I recommend the Kindle Touch for this, even for projects that involve color pictures. Color’s gonna look good on the Fire and the iPad, but you won’t know how it’ll look on eInk till you try it.
4) Use a maximum of two levels of Table of Contents – While the guide suggests only one, you can have links to sub-sections within your chapter by using Header 2, if you’ve been using Header 1 for the main chapter titles. You can do three levels using Header 3, but the Kindle Table of Contents will show both Header 2 and 3 at the same level.
5) Don’t use bullets, but if you must… – Use a white bullet with a black outline. Bullets come with an automatic tab in Microsoft Word and tabs are a no-no in eBook formatting. The white bullet has the least noticeable indent and looks fairly close to how it looks in Word.
6) The equation editor is your friend – For anything mathematical, the equation editor looks more professional and ensures that it will look the way you want it to across sizes of screen and text. When the equation is saved out it is saved as an image so it is not subject to the whims of resizing.
7) Don’t use Courier for Code, use HTML Code Style – Word has a number of pre-defined styles. If you’re publishing source code like HTML or C++, HTML Code Style seems to be what the professionals use. It’s a tight font that allows for a lot of content per line, with a fixed width look, without the ridiculous spacing of Courier. Also use two spaces for indenting instead of tabs.
8) Back to the days of JPEG – The Kindle supports individual images in JPEG format (and a few others but not PNG), up to 127 KB. To give you some perspective my 5MP Camera from about 9 years ago takes 1-2MB pictures (or 8 to 16 times the maximum size). My new 14MP camera takes 14MB pictures (more than 100 times the max file size). You’ll need to take advantage of Word’s image compression tools, as well as compressing ahead of time. My advice, resize to a 600 pixel width (max width resolution for most Kindles) using IrfanView, then open in Paint or something else to compress further. When you save out the book as HTML you’ll be able to see final image sizes in the associated folder.
9) Use Calibre to convert to Amazon format – Calibre is an excellent eBook management and conversion manager, able to be used portably and across most OS’s. Only downside is they update frequently and updating requires downloading the full installer instead of simply patches, but library is maintained across versions.
10) Format as you write – There may an inclination to just bang out the text of your book, and insert pictures and other things later, but this opens the possibility of forgetting images, equations, and having to do a lot of insertions which Word is not always the best at. Also use page breaks near images if you want to be sure certain text appears with them.
Last thing is simply give yourself more time than you think you needed. Formatting a heavily imaged book can be time consuming, but the final result is ridiculously satisfying. Have fun 🙂