Finding a Better Way to Make eBooks – ePub Files and Learning Sigil

I dislike eBooks. Well, I don’t dislike the idea of them, they’re fine. I dislike having to make eBooks. I’ve been publishing books for years, and the worst part of publishing a book is making the ePub file (the standard eBook file). It’s hard. It’s fiddly. It’s a pain in the arse. And it takes forever.

But making the eBook version of any book these days is critical – often you will sell as many copies of the eBook as you will of the print version. Making the ePub file, however, is such a pain in the butt, it’s always the last thing I do when prepping a book for publication. Because I bloody hate it.

Laying out a book for print is a lot of work too. But I’ve done it so much for Anglotopia’s books and our magazine, that it’s a breeze compared to making an eBook. With the print layout, you have complete control of the end product. How it looks when it’s printed, how many pages it is, what pictures are included. Everything. The book will look exactly when printed how you’ve laid it out on the computer.

With an eBook, none of these things applies.

You can no control over the end-user experience. When you make an eBook, you have to strip the text down to its base thing – which is just words organized in a linear fashion. There is no design. There is no layout. There are no pictures. How it looks to the reader depends entirely on their e-reader, tablet, platform – and what font they prefer – whether it’s lit or how large it is. You don’t even know how many pages it will be because it will be different for every user. So, an eBook has to be as little as possible, to work on every platform.

This is ridiculously hard to pull off.

I learned this early on when I was formatting Anglotopia’s Dictionary of British English. Having paragraphs is one thing, having a listing of words and definitions with different fonts and boldness and size, is entirely too much for ePubs.

And that’s what’s weird. ePub is the standard for eBooks. It’s what all the platforms use. But what it really is, is an HTML file, filled with code. With as little formatting as possible.

When making an eBook you need just two things – the book itself and a table of contents, so users can navigate the book. Making that is really hard. Over the years I’ve used KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing), Createspace (before it was fully swallowed by Amazon), Ingram Spark, Nook. All made it terrible to make an eBook despite all having software that tried to make it easier. With them all, I’d have to spend days formatting the damn thing. When you’ve reached the end of writing a book, rewriting it, editing it, editing it again, crying a few times, and then laying it out for print, doing it all over again for the eBook is that last thing you want to do.

There has to be an easier way.

I’m in the process of publishing a new edition of one of Anglotopia’s old Guidebooks – 101 London Travel Tips. The 1st edition was written almost a decade ago, it was time for an update. But I wanted the print version to be a beautiful print guidebook, with lots of pictures. It’s turned out great. I can’t wait to release it. But this past week, with all the other tasks done, one task was left: make the ePub version. I didn’t want to do it so badly, that I considered hiring someone to do this one task, but I’d already spent enough prepping this new book.


I guess we’re going to have to do this.

First I tried to convert the InDesign document into an ePub. But that just made an unformatted mess that didn’t recognize chapters existing. I tried to find an online web-based tool to make one. There just isn’t one – ePub tools are built into the publishing platforms, no one has just made one that works independently.

Finally, after some googling, I downloaded Sigil. I’d tried to use in the past but found the software impenetrable (just look at the interface in header screenshot – no icon is even labeled!). But I read some articles that told me what to do and sat down on an evening this past week to just make the damn eBook. I followed the directions and…. It was a breeze. Once I accepted the fact that everything nice I’d designed for the print version would be stripped away and mastered how to make the table of contents, it was easy to format the 101 ‘chapters’ in the book and make an ePub file.

I finished it in two hours while watching TV, uploaded it to Ingram – was told there were a few validation errors that were easy to fix (Sigil and the original Word Document for the text had added extra crap to the code that was breaking things). And boom, it was done. Uploaded and ready to go. You can already pre-order it.

When I tested it on my tablet, sure enough, it looked like an eBook. Which is, as I said, not great for this page designer. But it looks fine for an eBook, and that’s all that matters. Slightly irritating that all the time I spent selecting the 101 perfect pictures for the print version, was useless here as they are completely absent from the eBook (pictures always look like shit in eBooks, because you can’t control layout, size, format, they’re just THERE and increase the file size of the ePub, better to leave them out altogether). Never underestimate the benefit of taking the time to learn a new process. I’m still going to hate making eBooks, but I’ll hate it a little less and it will take a lot less time than it took before.

And best of all, Sigil is free!

Why You Need Your Own ISBN Numbers

So, I’ve published quite a few books on my own over the years. I’ve always had ISBNs with my books (international serial book number – basically the ID number of your book so it can be found anywhere). At one point, a few years ago, I bought 10 of them from Bowker, the main company that sells ISBN numbers, with the assumption it would take me a while to use them. I have finally used them all, and with several books in the pipeline for the rest of this year, it became clear I would need more.

But they’re expensive! Bowker now charges $295 for ten numbers (or just $125 for a single number!). It’s a high upfront cost, and I know it’s a small cost when you project the revenue from 10 books. But it still bites.

I’ve moved recently to using Ingram Spark for publishing Anglotopia’s books (I may write about the switch eventually). Happy with it so far – it offers hardcover options which Amazon KDP doesn’t offer (plus many different trim sizes). They offer a free ISBN if you use their system to publish the book. I did a few books recently with this feature.

But then, I wondered, what’s the cost of free? What’s the benefit of having your own number versus just using one provided by Ingram (or KDP).

After a little research, I discovered why.

You need your own ISBN so that you’re listed as the publisher, not Ingram or Amazon KDP. They become the publisher of record if you’re using their numbers. As I run a corporation that acts as the publisher, I’d much rather my company be the publisher.

I wondered what this meant in practical reality.

So, I looked up Adventures in Anglotopia, where I had my own ISBN, to see who the publisher is listed as on Amazon. It was Anglotopia LLC.

I looked up a book where I used the ‘free’ ISBN and sure enough – ‘Indy Pub’ was listed as the publisher.

You can bet I will no longer be doing that. It’s mostly a vanity thing, but Anglotopia is pivoting to publishing more books, and we want to be the ‘publisher’, not the platform we’re using to actually print the books.

And when you use a service like Ingram or KDP and use their ISBN’s you’re locked into using them for printing copies. And if someone comes in for a bulk order, they would contact your publisher – you’d rather that be you directly instead of Ingram or KDP.

So, spend the $295 on 10 ISBNs. It’s a small investment up front but will pay off in the future as your little publishing house grows.