The Convertible Cloud, Extended — Google Docs

by | Feb 20, 2020

By David Kudler

A few months back, I wrote a review of the online ebook conversion tools available through the major retailers and aggregators. Someone reminded me, recently, that I’ve forgotten one easily accessible tool for converting Word documents into ebook format: Google Docs!

I’ll say this up front: as has been true for most of the tools I’ve tested, it doesn’t do a particularly great job of handling anything particularly complex. But it can in fact create a workable ePub3 file. There are a couple of surprises that go along with it.

The Test Case

I created a Word document back when I started testing conversion tools.

It’s an extract from my novel Risuko with some added art. You can download the Word doc here.

Here’s what the beginning of the file looks like:

Note a few things, here. First of all, I’ve obviously used some non-standard fonts — one for the chapter number and another for the chapter title and drop cap. I didn’t expect any of the services to be able to handle them — as I mentioned recently, that’s hard to make happen even with an ePub file with properly embedded fonts. Still, I wanted to see what would happen.

Those custom fonts are colored bright red. It’ll be interesting to watch how that gets handled too.

The body text is Garamond — a standard typeface that’s already installed on many computers, ereaders, and tablets. The text is set justified (that is, flush to the left and right margins), with a half-inch indent for each paragraph. There’s a drop cap (the big W) at the beginning — part of the first paragraph.

There are two images. The big one at the top (created from my cover) is on its own line, while the smaller one — the lovely Haranobu print of the flautist — is inset flush with the right margin. The text flows around it.

I figured that the art would be the sticking point for most of the services — including Google Docs. I was right.

Now, this is probably more complicated than the typical novel, which has little to no art. But there are ebooks out there that require images,1 and it’s important to see how the conversion tools are going to handle them. The idea was to push them a bit and see whether they’d buckle under the pressure.

Google Docs Enters the Ring

Creating an ePub file in Google Docs turns out to be dead simple.

The first thing you’ll probably want to do is probably to import your Word doc (or RTF doc or whatever). To do this, go into your Google Drive and simply drag and drop your Word doc into it.

When you open the file, it will open as a preview of the Word doc. Here’s what my test document looked like:

Not terrible.

See that rectangle at the top of the screen with the blue Word icon in it? If you click on that, it’ll give you the option to edit the document in a number of on- and offline applications. For our purposes, we want to open it in our good friend, Google Docs.

Once we’re there, it’s simple to convert the doc into an ePub file. Let’s see — just two steps:

  1. Go to the File menu with the Google Doc open2
  2. Select Download>EPUB Publication (.epub)

Boom. Done.

The Asset Test — Checking the Ebook

When I opened the downloaded file in Apple’s Books app (my testing app for other conversion tools), here’s what I saw:

Well… shoot.

The positives:

  • The colors are correct.
  • The body font looks right. (I didn’t expect the title and drop cap fonts to be correct.)
  • The images are the right scale and almost in the correct locations.
  • The body text is correctly justified and spaced.

The negatives:

  • As with many of the conversion tools I tested, the drop cap W is placed in its own paragraph rather than floating at the beginning of the initial paragraph.
  • The top image is oddly off-center.
  • Rather than floating to the right margin of the paragraph it’s in, the image of the flautists is placed inline at the end of the paragraph.

The ePub file may not be a thing of beauty — if you were looking to publish it, you’ll probably want to tweak it in Calibre or Sigil. But it will work.

I checked under the hood to see what kind of code we’re looking at and found a couple of surprises.

Surprise #1: the images were embedded at full scale:

Usually, when I convert from Word doc to ePub, the images have been poorly resized and compressed, to the point of being unusable. These weren’t messed with at all — I believe that resolution (1197x835px) and file size (860.31KB) were those of the file I initially embedded in the Word document.

Surprise #2, which was a bit of an eye-opener for me — the ePub file called Google Fonts in its <style> block:

At first, I was very excited — this seemed to offer a new way to provide more customized fonts in ebooks.

Unfortunately, the @import declaration caused the ebook to fail epubcheck validation. Since passing validation is a requirement for uploading your ebook to most major retailers and aggregator/distributors, my dream of Google Font-beautified ebooks was shortlived.

Ah, well! One can only dream.

Aside from that, the code was mostly fairly clean. Rather than creating a separate stylesheet, the CSS (styling code) is all placed (as we’ve seen) in a <style> block in the main page’s <header> section. This means that, if you divide the file up — to create separate chapters, say — then the style declarations are going to stop being global; you may want to move those into a liked stylesheet.

In any case, if you wanted to clean the style up — locating the drop cap and the inset image properly, say — it wouldn’t be too hard to do in an ePub editing app like Calibre or Sigil. Likewise, you could edit out that external call to Google Fonts.

However, as with just about every conversion tool I’ve tested, that leaves me wondering whether it wouldn’t have been more useful simply to have handled the conversion in one of those dedicated ebook editing apps, avoiding this additional step, since you’re going to need to do some cleanup anyway.

In any case, as with many of other converters, I recognize that Google Docs could do a more than passable job converting a more straightforward document — a non-illustrated novel or narrative non-fiction book, for example — into ebook format.

But you’d still have to do something about the fonts. Alas.

1 Even if they’re just screenshots of text used as decorative headers, etc., as I suggested in my post about fonts.
2 If you’re on a Mac, that’s the File menu in the window, not the one on the menu bar at the top of the screen.
Photo: BigStockPhoto

tbd advanced publishing starter kit

1 Comment

  1. Harald Johnson

    Interesting post about your test. While I write in Google Docs, I never use it for epub output (I do HTML + Sigil), but for a basic text-only novel, I can see that it could work for some folks.

    Thanks for taking the time to test the limits of GooDocs.



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