Stacking Boxes: Creating a Compilation Ebook

by | Feb 14, 2018

By David Kudler

One of the great advantages of ebooks over their paper-and-ink friends is that it’s relatively easy to create a compilation or box set. This is true whether you are pulling together:

  • A collection of your own articles or stories
  • An anthology of stories/articles by a number of authors
  • A single-volume omnibus of your 21-title epic fantasy series
  • A giveaway ebook featuring your own work and one or more other author’s, allowing you to introduce your readers to each other’s writing

Pulling together a volume like that for print can get unwieldy quickly, since at a certain point the length of your book makes it uneconomical to publish. [i]

Doing so for digital distribution, on the other hand, has no real upper limit. I’ve released ebooks containing over a million words. The only constraints have to do not with creating such a book, but with marketing it — do you really want to sell your entire life’s work in a single volume for $9.99? Maybe you do. Maybe you don’t.

But the point is, if you want to you can.

But how?

There are basically two ways to create a compilation ebook:

  • Combining the source files
  • Combining the ebook files

From the Source

Combining the source files is easy but potentially arduous. (Okay, I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms — bear with me.)

Most likely these files exist on your computer as Word documents or some other word-processing format — or in a page-layout format like InDesign or Quark.

What you need to do to create a compilation is to create a new file for your box set, and then pull each of the component pieces in — preferably in order. Make sure that the cursor is where the new file — book, article, whatever — is supposed to go, then import. In Word, you do this using the Insert>File… menu item. Most other apps have some similar sort of command — if not, open the file, copy the part of the file you want, and then paste it into the new compilation.

Don’t forget to save!

Now, once you’ve got all of your raw material in one place, don’t just run off to convert into ebook form! There are almost certainly inconsistencies and extra material that you are going to need to clean up.

First of all, there are likely to be some redundant material that you can coalesce:

  • Copyright notices[ii]
  • Author bio pages (unless it’s a multi-author volume)
  • Also-by pages (ditto)
  • Tables of contents[iii]
  • Indexes[iv]

Next, you’re going to have to go back through and make sure that the styles are consistent. If you cleaned the source files up before you converted them individually, great! But you may still find some oddities:

  • Are section titles styled as Heading 1 in one title, while chapter titles are styled that way in another?
  • Are style names used consistently throughout, or is the body text set in Normal sometimes and Body-Text others?
  • Are images and captions handled differently in different places?
  • Do you need to renumber notes or figure numbers?

Again, if you cleaned each of those titles up earlier, this should be easy. If not…

Well, remember what I said about arduous?

This can be especially tough if you’re working with multiple authors. Breathe. Believe me, I know your pain.

Go through and make sure that the new volume actually looks like a single volume and not the contents of a rummage-sale grab-bag.

Once you’ve got your omnibus rolling, now you can go through the ebook conversion process.

Shuffling Code

If you’ve decided to work from the ePub files, great! Some parts of this are going to be easier. I am assuming you are using an ePub editor like Calibre or Sigil — they both work essentially the same way. [v]

What we’re going to do is:

  1. Export the component files from the old ebooks
  2. Import them into the new box set ebook
  3. Shuffle the files until they’re in the right order


So the first thing you need to do is export all of the stuff you want to keep from the old ebook. You can do this one of two ways:

  1. Quick and dirty
  2. Neater and more granular

Quick and dirty

Remember me showing you how you can turn any ePub file into a ZIP archive, then open it up? Yup. That’s the easy way.

Step 1: Duplicate your file
Now, I’m going to assume that you’re using a Windows or Mac computer.

We’re duplicating the file so that the original doesn’t get destroyed. Just a good habit to stay in, right?

In Windows, select the file in Windows Explorer by dragging over it or left-clicking on it once. From the Organize menu at the top of the window, select Copy. (You can do the same thing by right-clicking on the file and selecting Copy.)

In Mac OS X, select the file in the Finder by dragging over it or clicking on it once. Now hit command-D or go to the File menu and select Duplicate. (You can also control-click/right-click on the file and select Duplicate.)

You should now have a duplicate copy of the file:

Note: Linux users are usually pretty savvy and don’t need instructions on how to manipulate files. As for iOS and Android users… Well, opening up and editing an ebook on a tablet or phone isn’t yet terribly practical. It can be done, but it isn’t fun, so I don’t recommend it.

Step 2: Convert to ZIP format
This is actually a much simpler process than you might think: an ePub file is just a carefully constructed ZIP archive with a different extension (the last three or four letters at the end of the file name).

If you don’t see the .epub extension at the end of your new file, click on/drag over the file to select it.

In Windows, go to the Organize menu and select Folder and Search Options. De-select the Hide known file extensions option. Click OK.

In Mac OS X, go to the File menu and select Get Info or hit command-I. If not already open, click on the triangle next to the Name and Extension heading to reveal the Hide extension option and deselect it. Close the Info window.

Now rename the file.

In Windows, right-click the file name and select Rename (or left-click and hold down the button for one second). Double-click the epub file extension (not including the period!) and replace it with the extension zip. Hit the Enter button.

In Mac OS X, click once on the file and hit the Return button. Double-click the epub file extension (not including the period!) and replace it with the extension zip. Hit the Return button.

Voilà! You’ve turned your ePub ebook into a ZIP archive.

Step 3: UnZIP the file
Whether you’ve got a Mac or Windows computer, you can simply double-click on the file now to expand the archive, turning it into a regular folder/directory on your desktop.

Voilà! You’ve got your files right where you want them, ready to import.

The Neat Way

So if you don’t want to dissect your ebook file (it won’t feel a thing, I promise), you can also use the File>Save as… command.

First you have to select the file you want to save — whether it’s a chapter (an XHTML file), a stylesheet (a CSS file), an image file (a JPEG or PNG file) or whatever.

Here I’ve selected the cover page in my sample ebook, White Robes:

I select Save as… from the File menu, and save the file to a folder where I can find it. You can select and save multiple files. I tend to save different kinds of files (pages, stylesheets, images, etc.) to separate sub-folders, just to keep them straight.


This is the reverse of the previous step, obviously!

In Sigil, open your new box set file. Select File>Add>Existing Files or hit the lovely plus-sign button:

Navigate to the folder with the file(s) you’re planning to add, select the file(s), click the Open button, and now that file from your old book shows up in your new one!

NOTE: Each file needs to have a unique file name! If you are pulling files from multiple books, each of which has a file called chapter-1.xhtml, add the book name at the beginning of each file name, to keep them unique but still making it obvious what each file is. [vi]


Once you’ve imported everything you want, and all of the files are in your compilation ebook, look at the order — in Sigil or Calibre, the file list shows the XHTML files in the order that they’ll appear to a reader. [vii] If you need to rearrange the order — if you want to shift all of the pages of endnotes, for example, — just drag the file down the list to where it wants to be.


Once you’ve pulled the new compilation ebook together, PROOF IT. Check it in a variety of ereaders and make sure that it looks the way you want it to look. If it doesn’t, go through the editing process or repeat the steps above.

Then, once it looks the way you want it, validate it. If it passes validation, congratulations! You’re ready to publish!

Next time, I’ll discuss two (related) ebook choices I get asked about a lot: ePub2 vs. ePub3 and reflowable vs. fixed-format.

[i] Did you know that J.R.R. Tolkien’s original plan was to publish the entire Lord of the Rings — all 450,000 words of it — as a single volume? That would have worked out to somewhere around 1300 pages. Uh. No. I’m very happy that his publisher convinced him to split it into a trilogy!
[ii] There should be one for the complete volume — and it should include the copyrights of the component pieces. But this is a new work: it needs its own copyright!
[iii] Um. Actually, I’d just get rid of these and create one once you convert to an ebook. If you’ve properly styled everything, then that should happen painlessly, and will be quicker than hand linking.
[iv] I usually recommend my clients ditch these as well — because the search function kind of handles this. But some folks like their indices. Just know that the page numbers will be meaningless, and we’ll have to hyperlink every instance by hand. Eesh.
[v] In the examples, I’m going to be using Sigil.
[vi] I’ve mentioned this many times, but make sure the file name has no spaces in it — use hyphens or underscores to break up the words.
[vii] If you’re using a different editing solution, the order is laid out in the OPF file as part of what’s called the spine. Change the order in the spine, and the chapter will display in the appropriate order.
Photo: BigStockPhoto

tbd advanced publishing starter kit



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