Conversion Journey: My Word-to-E-book Workflow

POSTED ON Apr 8, 2011

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

Home > Blog > Book Production, E-Books & Readers > Conversion Journey: My Word-to-E-book Workflow

by Chris O’Byrne

Have you been stumped by e-book formatting, frustrated trying to do your own conversions? Chris O’Byrne is a frequent commenter here and has provided some in-depth help for other readers on questions with Adobe InDesign.

One comment in particular caught my attention because Chris spelled out in a systematic way the workflow he used to create e-books. I asked him to write it up for publication, and here it is. Chris’s easy-to-follow steps may be exactly what you need. Enjoy.

My workflow for creating an e-book is much more complicated than it is for a print book. For a print book, I use Adobe InDesign and because the software provides so much control, I’m able to design the book on-screen almost exactly the way it will look printed.

Everything starts with Microsoft Word for two main reasons:

  1. Smashwords requires a Word file (in the older .doc format)
  2. Word produces (so far) the cleanest HTML file.

Chris O'ByrneThere are other tools available, but this is the program I’ve mastered and in which I’ve invested the most time and money.

My work starts with styles. I follow the guidelines suggested by both Smashword’s Style Guide and Joshua Tallent’s book, Kindle Formatting. I often have to start completely from scratch with a text file. Here’s one simple way to do this:

  1. Save the Word document you’re working on as a text file,
  2. Close that file, open it again in Word,
  3. Then select all and assign the Normal style.

There is something about the process of closing the text file and reopening it that prevents Word from assigning any extraneous styles.

Working With Word Styles, and a Brief Detour

The styles I use most frequently are:

  • Heading styles for the chapters,
  • The blockquote style for indented text,
  • List styles for various lists.

Some documents require as many as 10 styles, others only 2 styles. I also go through and assign italics and bold where required. These can be assigned character styles, but I’ve found that simply using the italics or bold option works just as well.

The last step is to create the table of contents and assign hyperlinks. I use Word’s option to auto-create a table of contents, but then I copy that into a text editor program, delete the table of contents in Word, and then paste the text-only version back into the Word document. I do this because I don’t want to use Word’s other table of contents features, I just want the list. I then create hyperlinks from each of the table of contents entries to the respective chapters.

My next step seems strange, but I discovered it by reading online forums to solve my problem with Smashwords. For some reason, Smashwords does a lousy job of converting the linkable table of contents when those links are created solely in Word. But if you first import the Word file into Apple’s Pages program (part of the iWork suite) and then export it back as a Word file, that usually takes care of the problem. Strange, but it works.

Pages and e-book conversion

Pages Styles - Click to enlarge

Forking of the Three Streams

From here, my workflow splits into three streams:

  1. One stream is to upload the Word doc into Smashwords and let it do its thing. I don’t use their Kindle (mobi) version yet, but I do use their ePub version, especially for Smashword’s relatively easy process to get your files uploaded to Apple iBookstore and Barnes & Noble—two sites known for being fractious to work with.
  2. The second workflow stream is to use the previously created Pages file to export as an ePub file. I would simply use the ePub file created by Smashwords, but they won’t let you do the conversion without using the phrase “Smashwords edition” in your front matter and most authors don’t want that. Before I export the Pages file as an ePub, I add the cover to the first page and Pages will use that to create your cover.
  3. The third workflow stream is to export the Word file as an HTML file. I open that HTML file in BBEdit and spend the next couple of hours cleaning the code and adding additional code where appropriate. Again, Joshua Tallent’s book, Kindle Formatting, is invaluable here.
BBedit for ebook conversion

Cleaning code in BBEdit - Click to enlarge

Once the HTML file is ready, I open Parallels (I use a MacBook Pro) and run MobiPocket Creator to make the Kindle version. It took me a couple weeks of experimenting to finally figure out MobiPocket Creator’s idiosyncrasies, but now that I have it figured out I get a working Kindle book every time.

Kindle-for-Mac e-book conversion

In the Kindle for Mac App - click to enlarge

There are other tools available and other ways to get to the final product, this happens to be mine. The process is still far too complicated, however, and I’m excited for the day when we have one or two superior tools for creating e-books.

For me, the perfect solution would be a tool that allows us to design the file the way it will look as an e-book and then exports to any format. It would also prevent using features such as text boxes that simply don’t work with the current e-book formats.

For this reason, I don’t see InDesign as being the right tool for the job unless it comes up with an e-book template that limits available features. On the other hand, e-book formats are slowly allowing more features and perhaps the two will meet in the middle some day.

Chris O’Bryne is a former chemical engineer and teacher, and now provides book editing, e-book conversion and other services for e-book publishers at his site, The E-Book Editor (

All Amazon links are affiliate links. Photo by Kodomut

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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