I haven’t written any how-to’s on how to create an ebook because I assumed there were countless how-to’s out there already. I was both right and wrong; there are lots of people providing helpful information about text-based ebooks such as novels, but there are not that many devoted to graphics heavy ebooks.
This distinction was brought home to me when one of my blogging friends needed help with a picture book. He was trying to create an ebook with both pictures and carefully formatted text.
It can be done, but the digital technology we have at the moment is limited when it comes to integrating text and graphics.
Before I start on possible solutions, and/or workarounds, I want to explain what those limitations are, and why they cause problems with graphics heavy ebooks.
Things ordinary ebooks can do
Ordinary ebooks are great with text but just barely okay with pictures. That’s because they’re not really ‘books’ at all. They’re more like rolls of toilet paper with words projected onto them. The story literally unrolls in an ebook.
This has significant advantages. For starters, as ereaders don’t care about the size or number of words shown on their screens, the reader can make those words as big, or small, as they please…for the whole ‘book’. I use this feature all the time because my eyesight ain’t what it used to be.
Things ordinary ebooks can’t do
Unfortunately, the very flexibility of ebooks can create problems when it comes to adding pictures to the text. Pictures don’t ‘flow’ the way text does, so getting them to fit the screen requires that they be sized for the screen.
But which screen? There are dozens of different digital devices from smartphones to dedicated ereaders to tablets of various sizes. Making an image to fit one screen almost guarantees that it won’t quite fit another.
Another problem with pictures is that not all digital devices are in colour. Dedicated ereaders, such as ordinary Kindles and Paperwhites, only do grayscale.
To display a picture in colour, the digital device has to be some kind of tablet [like the Kindle Fire] or a mobile phone. So again, which device should you optimise for?
And finally, because of their ability to ‘flow’ the text, ebooks don’t do precise formatting. Unfortunately, graphics heavy books like memoirs, cookbooks, picture books etc, look best when the formatting is controlled and the pictures are in colour.
To work around this fundamental problem with ebook design, Amazon created a number of specialist programs:
- Kindle Kid’s Book Creator
- Kindle Comic Creator
- Kindle Create
I took a quick peek at Kindle Kids, and I couldn’t quite work out what it was doing [the manual approach]. I suspect it’s a lot easier if you use the PDF option and simply pour everything into the app in one go.
Of the three, Kindle Create is the one I find most useful. In its current iteration, it is actually two programs in one:
- The first allows you to ‘format’ Word .doc and .docx files into text-based ebooks like novels. There is help for creating a Table of Contents as well as Front and Back matter pages, and you can add pictures although the image manipulation is basic to say the least.
- The second is the old Textbook Creator app. which turns a PDF document into an ebook.
Kindle Create for text based ebooks
This version of Kindle Create allows you to include all the standard elements of a book as well as pictures, but all you can do with pictures is adjust the size, and sometimes the location. That’s it. You can make the image small, medium, large, or full, but you can only adjust the placement of small or medium images. Large and full images seem to be placed automatically and can’t be changed.
One nice thing is that Kindle Create automatically wraps the text around the image as shown below:
But again, only if the image is small or medium.
This does not constitute ‘total control’ over the way text and images display, but it’s not bad. More importantly, when I did a preview of the page, it seemed to display quite well on tablet, phone and Kindle devices.
Something I was not expecting was that the colour image was automatically changed to grayscale on a Kindle device:
Given that this option works with standard .doc or .docx documents, I was pleasantly surprised by how it put everything ‘together’.
The old Textbook Creator
For the sake of clarity, I’m going to call the second option of Kindle Create by its old name – Textbook Creator.
Textbook Creator doesn’t try to integrate text and pictures at all. It creates an ebook out of a sequence of pictures.
If you’re nodding your head and saying, “Ah, she’s talking about PDFs”, you’d be right.
To quote from one of my own how-to’s:
PDF stands for Portable Document Format. With PDF documents, each page is like a ‘snapshot’ of the original Word page. That’s why it’s called WSIWYG – what-you-see-is-what-you-get.
Basically, everything on the Word page becomes a composite ‘picture’ that cannot change. This is how you make sure that what appears on the screen of the digital device is exactly the same as what you originally created, including the positioning of both graphics and text.
It’s the difference between ‘some control’ and ‘total control’.
“But…PDFs can’t be edited.”
That would normally be true, if you were dealing with a PDF document as a whole. But Textbook Creator cuts the original PDF document into its component pages, and each one those pages can be swapped out, individually.
To make this a bit clearer, let’s say you have imported a 20 page PDF document into Textbook Creator. Then you discover that you made a small error on page 15.
Rather than redoing the whole, 20 page document, you can:
- go back to the original,
- make a change to page 15,
- export page 15 as a new PDF document
- swap the new page 15 for the old page 15 inside Textbook Creator, and voila!
Okay, I admit the process is convoluted, but it does make working with PDFs a little less frustrating.
So what is the downside of using Textbook Creator?
The text in the ebook created by Textbook Creator cannot be resized. You can pinch-and-zoom to see details at a larger size, but you cannot specify that the text in the entire ebook be at a certain size.
This means that the original document has to be designed in such a way that it will suit most readers and most ereaders.
In paperbacks, this is kind of standard, and expected, but not so in digital devices. Plus getting the document to fit can be rather tricky.
Getting the size right
As mentioned before, there are a lot of different ereaders out there, and screen sizes are not the same either. Designing a document to fit all of them is a case of picking something ‘average’ and basing the sizing on that.
But what do I mean by ‘sizing’?
The easiest way to explain is to show you. The following is a preview of this post, in Textbook creator:
Can you see how tiny the text below the image is?
All I did was export a standard Word file to PDF and then import that PDF into Textbook Creator. The font size of the Word document is 12.
Now have a look at this preview. Same document but with a font size of 28:
To get the document to display like that, I had to radically change how the Word document was setup. Basicallly, I simulated the Kindle Fire screen in Word so that I could place text and images to their best advantage.
The following screenshots show my page setup in Word 16.
1. Paper size
The dimensions circled in orange create a page size that exactly fits the screen of my Kindle Fire 6.
Again, those margins are designed to make reading the Kindle Fire 6 screen visually ‘comfortable’ without wasting too much space.
Note: there are no settings selected in Layout. You need clean, minimal formatting in the original Word document. This includes not using things we normally take for granted, such as manual ‘spacing’.
For best results, you should always create styles – for the effects you must have – and use only those styles in the formatting.
Because Word is an old program, and Microsoft never throws anything away, it simply buries it under new code. This means that there is a lot of…[expletive deleted]…junk in Word that lurks in the background and can seriously mess with other programs that attempt to read/use Word documents. So keeping the document ‘clean’ is important.
But wait…there’s more. Remember how I said I’d changed the font size to 28? The next screenshot is of the Normal Style I created just for Kindle Fire 6 documents:
I can’t tell you why translating text from Word to a small digital device shrinks the text. All I know is that it does, and we have to manually compensate for it.
The other thing you might want to notice is that the alignment is set to ‘Justified’. Not only does it make the text look more professional, it also saves space on the screen.
To change the Normal Style on your own version of Word, right click on the style [on the Ribbon] and select ‘Modify’ from the drop down list of options [see here for step-by-step details]. That will get you to the Modify Style dialog box shown above.
Once the Modify dialog box is open, change the font size and alignment and then click ‘Save’.
We should now have a document that is optimised for an ebook.
Once the Word document is as perfect as we can make it, save the document as a Word file, and then Export it as a PDF.
Your book is now ready to import into Textbook Creator.
In my next post, I’ll talk about the Textbook Creator software.