101 london travel tips ebook layout

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!

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