In his third article in a series on self-publishing, author and digital publishing specialist Nik Peachey talks us through software, image choice, and formatting.
Okay, so you have raised your funds and written your book. What do you do now? This is the point at which you would usually hand over your finished manuscript to your publisher, then sit back and wait for a publication date and your first royalty check.
Your publisher would take your manuscript and start creating graphics, sourcing images, and mocking up design, before turning it into a ready-to-publish book.
With self-publishing, this is where you need to roll up your sleeves and start developing your new skills. For me, this is where things start to get interesting and creative.
How to transfer what you've written into a book format
I’m a Mac user, so I normally do all of my writing using the Apple equivalent of Microsoft Word, which is Pages. But you can use either, or even create the text part of your manuscript using a plain text editor.
Don’t start trying to format, design and lay out your text in the text editor to make it look nice. If you do, you are potentially creating more work for yourself later on. Layout, fonts and design are things you should deal with in your publishing software. It’s much better designed to do this, so keep things very simple at the writing stage.
How to choose the right software to create your book
There are a number of free and commercial options available. You should choose depending on how and where you want to publish your book, and how important the look and design of the book are to you.
If your e-book is only text and laid out quite simply, like the average novel, then you can easily export your file from your word-processing software to the .epub format. You should be able to upload that, along with a book cover, to a wide range of platforms. If, like me, you want to include illustrations, designs, and images, then you need something a bit more sophisticated.
I use iBooks Author, partly because I’m a Mac user and it comes free and with my computer. But there are other reasons:
- iBooks Author is the easiest route to getting the book published on the iBooks Store. I’ve heard of quite a few people using other software getting their books continually rejected, because of strange formatting anomalies that they have to fix. I’ve never had any of those problems. The software I use takes care of all of that in the background, so I can just design my book.
- It has nice templates that I can adapt and import my text into directly from Pages.
- It lets me add a range of interactive and dynamic widgets to the book. I can drop video into the pages, make interactive images with hotspots (which users can click on to zoom into a particular part of the image), add quizzes, and a whole range of other stuff.
- Finally, I can also export my books as high-quality PDF documents, which I can distribute through other platforms.
If you are a non-Mac user, or if you want to convert your book to an app for the Google Android platform, then you might also consider Kotobee. This is free software that you can download for Mac or PC. You use it to create interactive e-books that can be published in different formats, including desktop widgets for Mac or PC, as well as the iBook Store and Google Store.
The software itself isn’t as elegant or easy to use as iBooks Author, so expect to spend some time getting up to speed on it. But it can produce a book with a good range of interactive features, such as quizzes and videos, that make it much more engaging than a paper or PDF document book.
If you want to publish to Amazon, then you can download the free Kindle Textbook Creator. This runs on either Mac or PC and is pretty simple to use.
There are also a host of other free and 'freemium' (where the basic product is free, but extra features cost money) tools around that help you to create your book and make it look nice. These are just a few of the ones worth looking at: Booktype, Madmagz, and Active Textbook.
Creating an e-book is easier than you might think
The actual process of creating the e-book can be quite simple, depending on which software you use and how interactive your e-book is. You’ll need to spend some time adjusting to it, but software like iBooks Author isn’t really any more complex to use than the average word-processing software.
The point at which it can become tricky is when you finish the e-book and want to push it live to the marketplace, but again that depends on which marketplaces you choose.
For example, iBook Store has quite a complex publishing process that includes having to create a new account with Apple and download extra software that creates your promotional page for the book on their site. Other platforms can be much easier to deal with, but we’ll examine this in detail in the next article.
I googled and read a few blog posts and watched a couple of videos before getting my book onto the iBook Store. Be careful though: some of the posts I read made the process sound much more complex than it actually was, because they were offering commercial services to help.
If and when to hire a designer
If you are reading this and considering using clip-art images in your book, then I would say stop now and hire a designer.
But if you are willing to put in time to look at examples of good modern design and learn from these examples, then doing your own design can be a really rewarding experience. I’ve done all the design work on my own books and it’s something I really enjoy.
If you’re not sure, you could always invest in a good e-book about design. There are lots to choose from on Product Hunt, but be sure to read the reviews.
Take advantage of special features for e-books
If you want to make your book move beyond what can be done with paper, then there are lots of options. You can add video, create an interactive glossary, different quizzes, 3D objects, images that zoom in and out, animation, polls, and questionnaires. In fact, you can add almost anything that you can find on a website or in an app.
If you want to see some examples of widgets, have a look at Bookry. This site specialises in interactive widgets for iBooks Author, and has a vast range of interaction and media type widgets.
Risks to adding extra features
There are a few things, though, to be wary of.
- Adding lots of widgets increases the file size of your e-book. Some users are much more reluctant to pay for e-books that take up a lot of storage space on their device.
- Using a third-party company like Bookry for your widgets may involve an additional cost, and makes you dependent on the stability of the company. If they go bust or change their code, elements of your book may stop working.
- If you want to publish your e-book to multiple platforms and in different formats, you may find that your widgets don’t work or need to be changed.
When I did an e-book on digital video, I decided just to drop video tutorials into some of the pages. Then, when I created the PDF version of the book, I placed images where the videos should go, linked them to the online video, and added QR codes so users could download the videos to a mobile device.
This took a little extra work but I think it was worth it to include this feature, because doing it another way might have meant totally recreating my e-book using another software tool. Sometimes you have to be prepared to make compromises.
Be aware of copyright
Teachers can be particularly lax when it comes to copyright and feel that anything they use is covered by fair use for educational purposes. Let’s be absolutely clear: this doesn’t apply to creating an e-book, especially if it’s going to be a commercial product.
Here, there is one simple first principle: if you didn’t create it, then you don’t own it, so you can’t use it.
As with all rules, there are some exceptions. Some sources of images and videos allow for free commercial use. You can also ask for permission to use an image, video or text. You may well get it: I didn’t have a single refusal when I tried this, but it could take a long time and you may never get a reply.
Lastly, you could ‘risk it’. But if you do this and use something that you don’t have permission for, you may very well end up having to remove it or face legal action. Think very carefully before doing this.
I used a lot of screen shots of websites. Even though I got permission from the site owners, in some cases, the content they host comes from various creators and they can’t give you permission for that third-party content. For example, you may get permission from a site or app owner to show part of their app, but it may include an image of a celebrity, for which you would need to get permission separately.
Create all your own content where possible
You should create all your own graphs, unless you can find the exact one you want and get permission to use it. Creating graphs and screen shots can be quite easy. I created all the graphs in my books using draw.io. This is a free browser-based tool that allows you to drag and drop various elements onto a canvas, and then save them as images.
There are lots of similar programs. If you want more traditional graphs, you can also use spreadsheet-type programmes like Microsoft Excel or Apple Numbers, and use the images from there.
I created and edited all of the screen shots using Skitch, which again is free and easy to use.
For the video tutorials I used Screen Flow, which is about $100. There are free apps available for creating video tutorials, but I prefer Screen Flow, as it’s versatile and can deliver high-quality results that I can easily edit.
Where to look for images
First, I would say where not to find images, and that’s clip-art. Nothing says amateur more loudly than a clip-art image.
If you have a reasonably good digital camera, or even a decent smart phone, you can use free image-editing software and produce some near-professional results. I’ve taken many of the photos that I use in my own e-books. It also helps if you have some photogenic friends who are willing to model for you. However, avoid creating images that include people whose permission you don’t have, or which show brands or logos.
If you don’t think you can produce your own images, there are lots of sources of ‘free to use’ images that are published with attribute or non-attribute licenses for use in commercial products.
The main downside of these is that lots of people use them. You may find the image that you chose for the front cover of your e-book on someone else's site or product. Also, always check the licence to make sure you are using the image within its defined limits.
Think about costs associated with selling your e-book
The last thing you need to think about carefully before you start creating your e-book is where to launch and sell it. This is something that I will focus on in the next article in the series. But just to start you thinking about it, the first thing you need to consider is cost. How much will it cost you to offer your e-book through the platform? And, after the taxes and VAT are paid, how much will be left for you?
Costs can vary enormously. I looked at platforms where it would have ended up costing me money to deliver the book at the price I wanted. More on that in the next article.
Nik Peachey is a freelance teacher trainer, materials writer, blogger and consultant specialising in digital publishing and the development of digital resources for teachers, available on his website. He has been involved in English language teaching since 1992 and has worked all over the world as a teacher, trainer and project manager.
Nik is doing a webinar on self-publishing for the IATEFL Materials Writers' Special Interest Group on 3 June 2017.