Making eBook Conversion Decisions

by | Mar 7, 2011

Last week I wrote an article with a Kindle uploading mini-tutorial using my Self-Publisher’s Quick & Easy Guide to Copyright as an example. In the comments to the post, one reader asked some questions about ebook conversions:

I’m curious to know (a) why you used a paid-for service ( to do your conversion rather than use software like Calibre (free) or Quark or Adobe CS5 which now accommodate eBook conversion formats; and (b) why you have chosen to send the second of your publications to a different conversion service ( – is it perhaps because it’s the one with the complex layout?

Both good questions, and ones I didn’t address in the article. Since most indie publishers are going to face these same questions, it seemed like a good topic to address in a larger forum.

eBook conversion: DIY or Outsource?

There are lots of tasks in self-publishing that you can either do yourself, or hire someone else to do. The question we face is how to decide which is which?

Should you edit the book yourself? Most people advise against it if you want to produce the best manuscript you can. Can you proofread your own book? Not that effectively, unless you are a trained proofreader. It’s surprisingly difficult.

The list goes on and on. Design the book yourself or hire a designer? Do a cover design with some template tools on a website somewhere, or hire a cover design specialist to produce the packaging for your book? Try to do your own fulfillment, or pay someone else to do it? Write your own press releases, or outsource them to a publicist to do?

This question is so urgent for self-publishers to answer, it can become the single biggest decision you will make on your publishing journey. Down one road, the DIY path, you’ll find:

  • great pride in achievement
  • a lot of time spent training to do new tasks
  • complete control of the project
  • output that will probably look or read like it was produced by amateurs. Which it was.

Down the other path, where you have a budget and hire professionals, you’ll find:

  • the support of a team in your publication
  • a collaborative approach to design and marketing
  • a lot more money spent on your book before publication
  • a book that should look and read like the product of professional book people. Which it was.

eBook Choices

I’ve written here about some of the eBook conversion software Averill mentioned in her question. Calibre is a terrific translation and management tool for your eBook library. We’ve seen how Storyist and Pages can output ePub files that pass compliance checks, especially on simple books.

However, we’ve also seen Liz Castro’s EPUB Straight to the Point. This book, which shows how to take the files produced by Adobe InDesign’s ePub export feature and turn them into beautiful and consistent eBooks. However, the book is about half HTML and CSS code, necessary for anyone to learn who wants to mess with the innards of ePub and Kindle eBook files.

Of course, once you create your ePub files, you have to have the skills to translate them into files for Kindle, a different format. My question for most authors is this: If you are only going to do this once, or maybe once a year, why do you want to learn to do it yourself?

There’s a huge difference between books that are converted by someone who is paying attention and knows how to manipulate the files to get the best result, and more or less automated conversion that give you whatever comes out the end when you push the “convert” button.

One Self-Publisher Decides

Taking all this into account, it was really a non-decision for me. I have no desire to spend time learning the ins and outs of HTML and CSS, it simply isn’t a good use of my time. The Quick & Easy Guides are heavily formatted, with bullet lists, numbered lists, headings and subheadings, graphics and other effects. For $99 each I got terrific conversions into both Kindle and ePub formats, fully corrected, with all graphics in place and links active and working. I think that’s a great deal. If these books can’t earn back the $99 I shouldn’t be publishing them anyway.

This also goes to answering the second question, too. I try as much as possible to use the best vendors I can for my own books. But I’m also interested in experiencing as many options as possible so I can get a real, first-hand look at what you’re going through when you set out to do the same things.

Not only that, Joshua Tallent, from, is very busy and can’t schedule books for at least 12 weeks. I needed my Guides on sale sooner than that, so the decision was easy.

I’ll continue to experiment with different vendors and different ways to get our books into print so I can come back and report on them here.

If you have any questions, leave them in the comments and I’ll try to help out.

Photo by tsmall

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. yolande

    I would like to know if I can download calibre for e-click tablet.

  2. Freddy Davis

    For me the best way I have got my print books out to the stores is Convert a book. They are super easy to work with, they do all the work for you. The do high quality formatting the best I have seen and are not very expensive.

  3. Fleur Wiig

    Hi Joel,

    Great post. I am new to the world of children’s books and have two x 20 page illustrated children’s books that I want to bring to life as ebooks. Preferably with functions that allow the user to have options such as auto play with “voice-over”, text only, and if possible some interactions, i.e. click on a character and a speech bubble appears / makes a noise / or moves (although this is not a necessity). I would be very grateful if you could please point me in the direction of some companies that may be able to help.

    Many thanks,


  4. ePubMATIC epub conversion services?

    Seeking help
    I would like to make a professional ebook, with photos and video texts various links, but do not know how to proceed. I have recommended this service: ePubMATIC: epub conversion services, but I honestly do not know if it’s good …. any of you used it? do you recommend? alternatives? thanks to all

  5. Alki Nea

    Great article!
    I agree that authors don’t have the time or desire to learn HTML.
    After writing my MG novel (Kea, The Third Way) I tried all the free softwares to convert it to Kindle and Nook, but found them pretty difficult to use, and the resulting quality quite bland.
    So I decided to write a software that converts directly an ODT file (from LibreOffice or OpenOffice) to ePUB (Nook) and mobi (Kindle.)
    I tried to make it as simple to use as possible.
    It has a few interesting options like converting the headings, which often use fancy fonts, to pictures that can be legally embedded in the ebook (embedding fonts is often not allowed, even if you buy a license of the font, but using pictures is allowed.)
    Anyway, it’s still in beta version (just released it this week.) I’m sure it still needs some work, and I’ll be happy to add any missing functionality.
    You can download it from my website:


  6. Shaun Wallace


    Can’t help but provide some input. Im an individual ebook converter that also offers service for those that desire the new iBooks Author format. Many of my clients are those that have decided to remove their books from Smashwords (because they want the full royalties) or they realize they don’t want to publish with them to begin with. I don’t have a website and as indie as you can get but my prices are extremely competitive and provide prompt yet quality ebooks in all the various formats. If interested in receiving a quote, send your materials (no input I can’t handle) and I will reply with a quote and delivery date for the book. Just send request to [email protected].

  7. Dan Arnzen

    If anyone is interested in the nuts and bolts inside the e-books, I recently posted an article about e-book file formats on my blog

    I agree with Joel that if you want a professional product, you should let professionals handle everything (you can afford) but the writing. Automated solutions can have poor results, especially if you are unfamiliar with the many options available in a program like Calibre. Even if it works well, you’re left with a very “cookie-cutter” product.

    Because of this, I decided not to have an automated conversion service on I’m starting to rethink it, however, since it seems all e-publishing services have their own automated conversion programs. I’ll probably compromise and avoid converting files, and simply combine user formatted HTML and meta-data into a valid ePub.

    If you want to give conversion a whirl, I suggest doing it for smaller projects until you get the hang of it. Try converting a short story, article, collection of blog posts or a “sample” chapter into an ePub ebook. You can post the files for download on your own site, or and get some exposure and feedback.

  8. Paul Brookes

    @Michael N. Marcus

    Michael–I have to disagree. If the reader’s understanding of your book depends on its layout, then any eBook format is a poor choice at the moment. PDF is not a good format for screen reading and makes unfounded assumptions about your readers’ eyesight. Resizable text is a double-edged sword. As one commentator has already said; if design is important, you should be looking at print-on-demand.

    The only truly reliable way of producing .mobi and .epub files is from HTML. In the case of .mobi, it uses a highly simplified form of HTML (4) and you need to bear in mind its limitations. But I’ve never got a professional result converting from Word. When I finally finish my website, it will hopefully be easier for authors to make the decision of whether its worth their while.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Paul your website looks like it will be a terrific resource for self-publishing authors, I hope you’ll let me know when it’s fully up and running.

      • Paul Brookes

        Thanks Joel. I think there’s now enough content for people who are doing Kindle conversions. Would be grateful for any feedback from you or your readers:

    • Michael N. Marcus

      Paul, I disagree with your disagreement:

      (1) When I publish a PDF version of a book I make only one assumption about readers’ eyesight: I assume they have eyesight. I personally have never encountered any difficulty viewing a PDF document on-screen (PC or iPad), and have never received any complaints from people who have purchased my PDF books. Why do you think a PDF is bad for screen reading? What are the unfounded assumptions you assume I am making when I publish a PDF book?

      (2) Resizable text can change a designer’s intended appearance of an e-book with reflowable text, but not a PDF e-book.

      (3) Most of my self-pubbed books (about 22) are POD’d. In one book, the positioning of graphic elements is not critical, so it has been published in mobi and epub versions as well as on paper. About six of my books, where graphic positioning is important, are available on paper and as PDFs, but not in reflowable formats. A few of my books are or will be e-book only, with formats chosen based on subject, graphic content, market and selling price.

      Michael N. Marcus
      — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
      — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),”

      — Just out (but needs a few corrections and a new cover design is coming): “STINKERS!: America’s Worst Self-Published Books,”

      • Paul Brookes

        Hi Michael

        I may have misunderstood you somewhat.

        If your format is designed for print, then I’d agree that providing PDF versions is a reasonable option if the readership are made aware of it.

        What I would be against is a general policy of publishing to PDF for eReaders simply to preserve formatting. epub and mobi are suited to fiction rather than non-fiction; if the understanding of a book depends on layout, then I think eBooks are simply the wrong choice. But native formats offer several advantages over PDF:

        Readers can resize text to suit their eyesight (or their devices)
        A book-sized PDF would be barely legible on a Kindle and completely unreadable on a smartphone
        Kindle features such as text-to-speech are only available for mobi files.

  9. Rich Dailey

    I agree that a lot of ebooks have the look and feel of something that was pushed out for the sake of having it available on the major platforms. So I was pleasantly surprised when I purchased Pat Conroy’s “My Reading Life” on my Nook Color. Of course the font/size choice was mine (Georgia, with a sepia background – alas, no Garamond), but the chapter heads and graphics were obviously well thought out, no doubt at the insistence of Mr. Conroy. The first ebook I’ve seen that has a simple beauty to it. And in his book, he makes no mention of ebooks, only the paper kind. :-)

    • Joel Friedlander

      Rich, that’s interesting. There are ebooks coming out that are far better than the standard formatting we’ve seen on most ebooks so far. I’ve had a chance to look at a couple and they have really changed my idea of what you can do with an ePub book. I hope to write about a couple of these soon. Thanks for your contribution.

  10. Adam iwritereadrate

    Hi Joel. This is a really useful post. Thanks, enjoyed reading it. There are a lot of choices out there at present for converting to ePub and other formats.

    Just to mention that we’re planning to do a conversion on our site for writers uploading their work for free.

    All the best

    • Joel Friedlander

      Adam, it’s not clear to me from your comment whether you are saying you will be offering free ebook conversions to authors, or if the upload is free but the conversion costs $$. If you plan on offering ebook conversion services, you might want to take a look at listing your company in the eBook Conversion Services Directory. Thanks for your comment.

      • Adam iwritereadrate

        Thanks Joel. Have found this all really useful, all the comments as well. Will definitely check out the link. All the best. Adam

  11. Robert Nagle

    First, I understand the difficulty people face about conversion. It’s tough.

    I have chosen the geekiest solution which is to code it in docbook and run a script to output it to epub. That avoids the shenanigans about Indesign, gives you full control over the source while introducing new kinds of idiosyncracies. I’ve been compiling an .epub brain dump of tips & tricks . Many are specific to docbook, but some are general tips (and hopefully I will release my css files and write a tutorial of all the steps).

    Personally, I find that making a Kindle file is sheer madness. It is an incompetent doomed (and downright evil) format. I have been spending about 50% of my tip trying to make my epub weird enough so that kindlegen knows what to do with it. Mobipocket is so strange that you end up having to construct two different workflows. It may make sense for a DIY author, but if you plan to release lots of titles, it’s bad to have two different workflows for the same ebook. I think it is altogether appropriate to refuse to make a mobipocket file for sale.

    One happy compromise is to use Sigil to generate the html code, steal some CSS code and you can punch out an epub in 10 minutes. If you’re comfortable with basic HTML, it’s easy.

    Finally if your ultimate target is the ipad and you don’t want to sacrifice design, I would recommend just selling a PDF on Lulu. PDFs on the ipad look outstanding! I normally cringe at the mention of the PDF format and was about to suggest a former client to hire me to make an epub, but eventually i decided it was easier and cheaper just to sell the PDF.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Well, Robert, I can’t imagine many authors who would want to take on the “geekiest” solution to getting their ebook in shape. I put this down to the ebook being in its infancy, and the tools we have to use and the formats that we end up with are really quite primitive, sort of like the original desktop publishing experience. Things will get better. I’d be interested to see how your book came out, and thanks for your contribution.

  12. Chris O'Byrne

    I debated whether or not I should say anything because I’m not a fan of shameless plugging for business. But this topic is so specific to what I do that I feel it’s more beneficial than harmful.

    I provide e-book conversion services (along with e-book editing and development) and I’m listed in the eBook Conversion Services Directory ( My turn around time is currently much less than 12 weeks and yes, Nance, I do heavily illustrated children’s books.

    And I heartily agree with James—the simpler the better. For now. E-book technology is changing rapidly.

    • Joel Friedlander

      No problem, Chris. You make substantive comments here and lend your expertise to our conversations, so go for it.

      • Chris O'Byrne

        Thanks, Joel! Most of the time I prefer to just give useful advice. I appreciate your kindness.

  13. James Byrd

    I agree. Good info, Michael.

    People forget that an e-book is fundamentally different from a print image like PDF. PDF is generally a very poor starting point for an e-book because, except in rare cases, PDF is not a “flowable” content structure.

    E-book devices not only differ in physical dimensions, but users can often change how large the type is. The text has to be able to “reflow” to match the content viewport, so the concept of a “page” is meaningless. Most PDFs can’t adjust to that situation. The “artistic effects” you describe, which depend heavily on the concept of a page and consistent rendering on an output device simply aren’t practical.

    On the other hand, some conversion companies (E-Book Architects included) like to have a PDF version for reference. The PDF shows how you *intended* the book to look, and they do the best job they can to get your e-book as close as possible. This is the kind of tweaking that will drive you insane if you try to do it yourself. (Yes, I’m probably certifiable by now).

    The key to remember regarding e-book formatting, at least for now, is to keep it simple. Very simple.

  14. Michael N. Marcus

    Here’s something important I learned today: An MS Word doc that produces a perfect PDF for printing, has to be tweaked before conversion into EPUB (and presumably MOBI).

    (1) Some symbols that are available in Word, such as the bold right-arrow Wingding, do not translate and are replaced with a small box. Some symbols, such as a smiley face, show up in reduced size. Other symbols show up just fine. I don’t know how it would work out with “adult” software like InDesign.

    (2) Forget about designing two-page spreads, for example with photos on the left margin of the verso page and on the right margin of the recto page. The eBook text may display as a single page, flowing from top to bottom and destroying whatever artistic effect you hoped to achieve with the spread. It can be jarring to scroll down and have images on the left, and then on the right. If you design a spread having opposite pages starting a specific distance below the top margin, when viewed by scrolling downward, there will be extra space where the pages would have dropped down in the spread.

  15. James Byrd


    You are so right that most authors should stay away from the conversion process as much as possible and hire a professional. I’d even recommend that for authors who want to produce a Smashwords-compliant document (in spite of the fact that I have written three articles on formatting for Smashwords myself).

    I speak from a position of experience here. I did the conversion myself for our Funds to the Rescue book, starting with an EPUB export from InDesign (which SUCKS, I can attest). I pulled the files apart and manually tweaked the HTML and CSS. I used Calibre and an arsenal of readers to perform conversions and test the output.

    In my opinion, Calibre is largely a piece of junk. The MOBI files it produced had serious problems with the graphics, which looked just fine in other formats. Since Kindle was my ultimate goal, MOBI had to look good. More manual tweaking and assembly later, I had something worth uploading to Amazon’s (then) DTP.

    By the time I was done, it took me almost 30 hours to convert one little 175-page book. I haven’t had the heart to tackle one of our other 9 books since then.

    But here’s the real rub. I’ve been developing database software since 1985, so I’m no technical slouch. I’ve been developing web site software since 1995, and I use HTML and CSS virtually every day!

    We’ve decided that the rest of our books will be handed over to someone who has the tools and experience to do the job quickly and correctly. You can bet I’ll be thankful for your Service Directory when we are ready to do that.

    A final note about Smashwords. Yes, you can prepare your e-book Word doc yourself. It is definitely easier than creating e-books in the specific reader formats (EPUB, MOBI, etc). The Smashwords-compliant doc for Funds to the Rescue took me about 10 hours, and I believe I could cut that down to 5 for the next book. But if you are not a meticulous person who understands Word styles and has a high tolerance for frustration, I recommend hiring that out to a professional as well.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Excellent advice, James and compelling since you’ve actually done the nuts and bolts work yourself. I was quite impressed with the series of blog articles you wrote about the experience. Thanks for taking the time to provide this for readers.

  16. nance cheifetz

    Hi Joel
    I know you from BAIPA and was also at the pitchapalooza event. My question is around turning my 3- 40 page illustrated children’s books into e-books. I spoke with David ( pitch guy)last week and he said that a good conversion program for kid’s books is yet to be created- still a ways off.
    I have a publisher that would like rights to my e-book for their site and keeps mentioning MP3 files, which I have no idea of. Do you know anyone who can do a successful conversion on Kid’s illustrated books at a reasonable price, or can do it all? If so, would appreciate your recommendations and if not, would appreciate knowing that as well…. Thank you so much! Nance

    • Joel Friedlander

      Nance, there’s no problem converting your books to eBooks, and they will display beautifully on the iPad. You’ll need someone who can size, place and position the artwork properly for ereaders, and you have to adjust your expectations about the reading experience. If you want specific referrals, please email me, and good luck with your project.

  17. George Angus


    I have had tremendous success with Smashwords. The process is easy, it converts to all ebook formats and they submit to all major catalogs. It’s free, the royalty rate is reasonable and even though there are about 15K authors, every question I’ve had has been personally addressed by the owner, Mark Coker.

    Thanks for listing the other resources, I’ll check them out as well.


    • Joel Friedlander

      George, thanks for the feedback on Smashwords. They are a great resource performing an amazing service for DIY and indie authors. Unfortunately, if you have any heavily-formatted material, you can’t use them since the files all have to go through the “meatgrinder.” Perhaps as they grow that will change at some point.

  18. Michael N. Marcus

    (WARNING: This response is longer than usual. I’ll be providing a thorough report of my eBook odyssey on my own blog, but since Joel posted on this topic today, I thought it was important to report on some of my experience and make a recommendation now.)

    I’ve already made most of my books available in the PDF format, because it was extremely easy to do, cost me nothing, and the PDF pages perfectly represent the look of my printed pages. I also produced several eBooks that do not yet exist as pBooks, and may never become pBooks.

    Alas, despite my affection for PDF, it is just one of many formats (and perhaps the least important of the three major formats) that eBooks are produced in. Unlike my beloved PDFs, those other formats “reflow” the text to fit the size of the display and meet the desires of the reader, and can terribly distort the look desired by the page designer (i.e., me).

    With a novel or other book that is all or mostly text, that’s no big deal. My books, however, tend to have lots of graphic images, and I was horrified by the prospect of them showing up in the wrong places.

    I hate the way eBook pages look when readers enlarge the type on narrow pages, causing terrible word spacing. I decided that since that is a reader decision, I would not be blamed for ugly pages.

    My PDF books are readable on iPads so it seemed logical to devote my first non-PDF effort to providing reading material for the Kindle Kommunity. Apparently, about 8 million Kindles were sold in 2010.

    Some writers are able to format their own Kindle versions. I bought and read several books about Kindle conversion. I then tried converting, using Smashwords, Amazon’s own Digital Text Platform (DTP) and other services. I failed multiple times and got increasingly frustrated.

    Perhaps the process is fine for 20-something geeks, but not for 60-something geeks like me. On the other hand, I am skilled in various ancient arts. I know how to solder wires, change sparkplugs and develop film.

    Many services will make Kindle conversions for money. Prices vary and each service’s website is filled with glowing testimonials. I had heard good things about Joshua Tallent’s and assumed I’d use his service. As Joel mentioned, he is booked up long in advance.

    I considered other service providers. Some did Kindle but not EPUB. Some did EPUB but not Kindle. Some were non-responsive to emails and phone calls.

    Last week I learned about and quickly decided to use, a new company that seems knowledgeable and well-prepared for the task. It converts book files for multiple formats including PDF, Kindle and EPUB for a basic charge of $149 (volume discounts are available). The website is informative, well designed and extremely easy to work with; and tech people are reachable by phone.

    On Friday, after just two days, I received my EPUB conversion. I was both surprised and pleased with the results. It needs just three minor corrections (one is my fault). Photos are in the right places, and even the drop caps were preserved.

    eBbookIt will use a publisher’s ISBN, or supply one at no charge if needed. They can even design a cover, and write and distribute press releases.

    The company says it has distribution arrangements with Apple’s iBookstore,, Sony’s Reader Store, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Borders, Diesel, Google Editions and Ingram.

    It collects 15% of the net payment. If your book sells for $10 and the bookseller takes the typical 30% ($3) eBbookIt keeps 15% of $7 ($1.05) and you get paid $5.95 — nearly 40%. You can make more money by directing readers to the eBbookIt website. You’ll get to keep $7.50 fro ma $10 book, because keeps just 25% and does not take 15% on top of that.

    Michael N. Marcus
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),”



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