Tuesday, March 23, 2010

ePub success

Well, I got the novel up, anyway:


I goofed around with Calibre's extensive settings for quite a whole day. I really feel like all of those lovely settings should be more... umm... useful.

...and they would absolutely be if I was doing this for all of the dozen or so different ebook readers that are available.

It's just that I'm sort of focused (for now) on the iPad.

I ended up using Sigil to make my final version and focused on Stanza as the reader to test in. The desktop version of Stanza is still in beta and was a little disappointing. Once I got the file on my iPhone, however, things started looking up.

I also tested the ePub file in the Sony reader (it looked great) and I tried to look at it in Kindle, but I couldn't figure out how to get the stinkin' file to show up. Jeeze. What a pain.

Sigil has a clean, simple interface, it allowed me to easily put page breaks where I wanted, I could add meta data with ease, and (as a bonus) I was able to successfully pop in an image.

The reason I kept going back to Calibre is because I was getting thrown by the table of contents (TOC) feature. I'd open the ePub doc in one of my reader software packages and I wouldn't see the TOC as I was expecting to. Once I rationalized to myself that a TOC really wasn't that critical to a novel and that they actually sort of get in the way of reading the real content of a book, everything sort of fell into place.

...Then, of course, I realized that the software readers I was using to test the file all had the TOC hidden under a button. I'd been making the TOC just fine all this time.


I think the time I spent on this was ultimately valuable, though. I wound up going with HTML as my source. HTML is really pretty easy to keep clean from a coding perspective. You don't have to worry about what kind of weird formatting is getting tossed in by our friends at Microsoft.

That said, I'm pretty sure that I could convert a Word document or Rich Text Format document pretty well at this point.

These are my bottom-line learnings:

  • Keep your source files simple and straightforward in terms of both format and coding. The software readers just don't support complex layouts right now.
  • If you use images, use non-interlaced PNG files rather than JPGs (since the JPG format is, actually, copyrighted and some of the readers don't support it).
  • Put in good metadata. Spend some time thinking about the metadata before you are sitting there staring at the dialog and wondering what to type.
  • Don't try to convert from PDF. As I searched for hints, the one recurring theme was that PDFs convert really poorly to the ePub format.

Now it's on to converting the illustrated children's book... and after that I should probably (*ahem*) start writing again.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Friday, March 19, 2010

The ePub saga continues

I spent some time cleaning up the HTML and bring it back into Calibre. I started going through the settings and realized that I really should actually read the instructions.

OK. The instructions are reasonably complete and they even have color and pretty pictures. I can do that. What's this? An ePub editor named Sigil? It lets me see the code and control the output? Hallelujah! Let's download that puppy.

It downloaded and installed fine. My kvetchy computer is still stable. Will it open and append multiple HTML files like eCub does? Ah: It does not. No biggie... 10 minutes in Dreamweaver and I'm ready again.

The new HTML file opens just fine. There's a tool for adding chapter breaks. I'm so excited I danced a little happy dance of joy right there in my chair. An automated and editable Table of Contents tool? I'm in heaven.

Except... wait. I can't make the TOC show up.


I take a look at the code.

There are some codes that ID where there chapters break... but there is also a comment that says not to touch them and that they get deleted when you convert to ePub anyway.

Well, phththttp.

The rest of the code looks like straightforward HTML.... which means my "hallelujah ePub app" isn't adding much to what I already had.

OK... the instruction manual helped before, let's try this again. Well, I'm getting deeper into open source stuff, so that means less and less actual documentation. There is a nice set of instructions on doing an initial conversion. I follow them to the letter.


No table of contents.


Frustrated, I walked outside into the beautiful 70+ spring day that I'm totally missing because I'm working on this. Think, Amy, think. Well, the best documentation is on Calibre. Let's to back to that.

I started reading those instructions more carefully. More links to more software. Hmmmm.... here's something that is supposed to convert directly from Word by integrating with Calibre. I know how to format in Word... maybe that will work better. I downloaded BookCreator Tool. That one says if you really want this to work (*grumble*), you need eBookPublisher from yet another place.

I know this dance. It's called the "Open Source Web App Hustle" and it almost always ends up with me laying on the ground with a headache because I've been banging my head on my desk in frustration.

It also almost always winds up with a crashed computer.

*sigh* Well, maybe just two more before I dive back into Calibre.

Hmmm. That's not bad. It was a direct conversion to ePub... it doesn't look too bad. Pity that I've spent the past two days editing the HTML text so that now my original Word doc is significantly out of date.


I'm going back outside.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

ePub-ing for an iPad

Lulu.com (where I self-publish my books) said they might give me an iPad if I convert my book to the mobile ePub format. OK. I can do that. I got to thinking... that might mean that Lulu doesn't have a lot of content for the iPad ebook reader when it comes out in a couple of weeks (hence the prize). Being on the "bleeding edge" has its advantages. If my books are some of the few that are available, perhaps they will be read by more people.

That's worth messing around with some new software.

The Lulu blog made several suggestions for converting to ePub format... the first of which was to let them do it for between $175 and $495 (depending on word count of my book). Ahhh... no. I started with eCub and Calibre software. Google has a toolkit as well, but it relies on Java and my XP computer is currently on a Java-free diet after having a Java-induced stroke recently. No Google toolkit. The other tool recommended is Adobe InDesign but I don't have an extra $600 sitting around so here we go.

There was also a link to someone who had posted instructions for just doing it by hand. The instructions looked.... complicated. After living for years in an intimate relationship with computer programs, web browsers, and gadget software, I've learned that there is usually no margin for error and no hint about what you did wrong when you try to DIY some complex coding.

I'll start with the apps.

Both software packages were easy downloads and installs. Calibre has nice videos about how to navigate it's interface. While that's usually a good sign that you are dealing with a bad interface, watching the video helped in other ways. It helped me figure out sort of what the software is doing behind its GUI. That lets me make educated guesses about what goes wrong.

It also helped me figure out eCub.

I started with the Word doc that I used to create the PDFs on Lulu. I have two books I'm working with: a straightforward novel and children's book with some little illustrations. I got spoiled by PDFs. I can include graphical drop caps and pretty little pictures here and there. I can make a page break where I want it to. It prints out all pretty. It's predictable.

Not so much with the ePub format.

The Word docs were of no use to me at all. You need either plain text or HTML. The graphic designer in me screamed and had a small cow on her chair when she read the words "plain text". I got a hold on myself and thought about it. I do actually read ebooks. Most have formatting. Not a lot of them have pictures, but there is definitely typography.

Hmm. It must be the HTML.

So I pop open Dreamweaver, copy and paste a clean version of the children's book into a new page, remake all of my graphics and start linking it together. It took about two hours and I learned an important lesson: Never spend two hours on something that is just going to be a test. *banging head on desk* Seriously... one story or two would have been more than sufficient.

...Particularly because it didn't work anyway.

I put the HTML through eCub. I got a book... sort of. Actually, I got a cover, a first page with a single hyperlink and about 60 blank pages. The hyperlink took me nowhere.

Alrighty then... Moving on.

Calibre did a little better. I got the text of my book and it even gave me the images I had linked in. The formatting was a bit weird, though.

That was Calibre's built-in ebook reader. I tested it on the Sony reader I also have on my system.

Oh, goody. It's inconsistent.

I poked through the Calibre preferences a bit. It gives you output customized to specific ebook readers -- a bunch of them including the Sony series, the Nook, Kindle, and Microsoft. Hmmm. Apple isn't here yet. Well, let's stick to broadest format.

Maybe I can edit the code.

I opened it in Notepad (still my most trusted web coding tool) got gobblygook.

Neither eCub or Calibre give me a way to edit the code. They are designed much more as simple conversion tools and less as authoring tools. I do wonder if InDesign is allows more tweaking of the appearance but I have a sneaking suspicion that it doesn't. The idea, after all, is to lock up the content in this digital format. It's supposed to be hard to hack.

Well, maybe the illustrated children's book can wait. Let's convert the novel.

Again, the Word doc did me no good. *grumble* I don't want to convert this whole thing to HTML... wait... hold the phone.... I already converted this to a blog. BWAHAHAHA! I just export the content out of Blogger, convert that bad boy, upload it to Lulu, and pat myself on the back for a job well done.

Blogger exports XML. The conversion programs don't take XML. I open the XML file in Notepad. Screens and screens of unorganized lines of code gets vomited out on to my screen.

*sigh* I don't think so.

I'm not done yet. I pulled out my trusty Backstreet Browser (an application that copies a web site to my hard drive for later off-line browsing). That gave me what I needed. The eCub interface is a bit simpler and more straightforward so I started with that.

I get another book with a cover, a table of contents, and 80 blank pages.

I'm starting to hate eCub.

Calibre comes through for me again, but there is a catch... it looks like my blog.

There's the background image, there's the archive links, there's the widgets... yeah. That won't work. I'm going to have to get back into Dreamweaver and clean those HTML files up. I did learn that the automated table of contents works like a champ. The fact that the background image worked is interesting, but not good for ebook usability. You need all of the black-on-white contrast that you can get.

It looks like Calibre will be my tool of choice... at least for the novel.

Stay tuned for more adventures in ePub conversions coming soon!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reviewing Rework

I have a love-hate relationship with business "how to" books. I find most of them have the informational satisfaction of a microwaved tofu burger: They look promising on the outside, but are boring, tasteless, and a bit cold and gooey on the inside. Each one promises a silver bullet solution to one or more of business life's little problems, but they never do.

Wait... is that too strong... "never"? *thinking* *thinking* Hmmm... nope. That's right. NEVER!

That said, I can rarely pass by one of these books without picking it up and scanning through it.

Hope springs eternal.

The most recent one of these books was Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the founders of 37signals (software). The basic idea behind the book is to debunk what the authors consider myths about starting and running a small business. Some of the common business practices they consider wrong are:

  • Learning from mistakes
  • Strategic planning
  • Growing a business
  • Working long hours
  • Getting outside financing
  • Finishing a product before releasing it
  • Sweating the details
  • Having meetings
  • Watching your competition

There are more... 88 in all -- statements about what to do and what not to do. Each statement is followed up by a page or two of cheerful text supporting the statement. No... "cheerful" is an understatement. I'd say the tone was a bit more like a team of junior high school cheerleaders on espresso (ohmygodohmygodohmygod we could start a business ohmygoooddddd).

It was a quick read, anyway.

I looked at their suggestions as someone who started two businesses and who, due to the current job market, might be staring down the barrel of a third. Some of the assertions rang true. I've always thought long-term strategic planning was a stupid waste of time and resources. Forcing an team to stick to an 11-month-old plan when the business environment has significantly changed in that time is heartbreaking. Like the authors, I think that giving away your product (to some level) is always a good idea. It not only builds an audience, but the feedback of that early audience will always make your product better. I also agree that a certain amount of transparency between you and your audience builds credibility and trust.

Some of their assertions sounded a little off, though.

In my experience, working long hours is just part of what you have to do. If you are in a small business or if you are the small business you are, by necessity, doing all or most of the work all of the time. If you are essentially holding down eight jobs (business development, scheduling, product development, fulfillment, marketing, finance, billing, janitor), you are going to have trouble fitting all of those tasks into a 40-hour week.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but that's life. It doesn't mean that you are working inefficiently, it means that you have eight jobs. Starting a business with any expectation that you will be working 40-hour weeks is setting yourself up for a major disappointment.

The "Learning from mistakes is overrated" chapter is an example of the microwaved tofu hamburger thing.

"Another common misconception: You need to learn from your mistakes. What do you really learn from mistakes? You might learn what not to do again, but how valuable is that? You still don't know what you should do next.

Contrast that with learning from your successes. Success gives you real ammunition. When something succeeds, you know what worked -- and you can do it again."

OK. I get that... but this isn't a terribly tactical advice for starting or running a business. That's feel-good advice. It's when-life-gives-you-lemons-make-lemonade advice. Yeah. OK. Whatever. Now tell me how to get my billing up so I can buy groceries next month.

It's not a bad book. There are some good reality checks and it is, like I said, cheerful. Don't expect any "silver bullet" solutions, though, or thoughtful insights into business practices. It is an entertaining business book for a public transportation commute, but don't expect it to change your world.