Chapter 7: Ebook Technical Know-How

The Authors Guild Guide to Self-Publishing

The Authors Guild Guide to E-Publishing

Chapter 7: Ebook Technical Know-How


The industry standard ebook format is EPUB, and it’s the most desirable format to have on hand when uploading to ebook retailers and distributors. It is essentially HTML, so if you’re familiar with building websites or using HTML (e.g., to write blog posts), then the prospect of creating an EPUB file may not be very daunting for you. However, for the average author without any technical skills or background, there are few user-friendly tools that will allow you to easily create an EPUB file from scratch or create an EPUB file from a Microsoft Word document without somehow using one of the major ebook retailers or distributors.

Should you hire a professional?

Before you embark on the process of creating your own EPUB file, ask yourself if it would be more efficient and professional to hire someone who has expertise and experience in the field. Generally, here are the scenarios where it would greatly benefit you to hire someone:

  • Your book is highly illustrated. For even those familiar with HTML, it can be very difficult to build a professional EPUB file that handles illustrations and captions consistently and well across all types of devices.
  • Your book has complex styling. If you’re publishing a textbook or nonfiction book with a lot of different styles or components (tables, sidebars, lists, graphics, and so on), then a professional will be indispensable to rendering all of it correctly.
  • You want to include multimedia. Given the compatibility issues you are likely to run into across different devices and retailers, you’ll want a professional to guide you through what is and isn’t possible.
  • You have more money than time. It’s not uncommon for the same EPUB file, when uploaded to three or four different services, to behave very differently and render differently—potentially throwing errors or looking less than ideal. Ebook formatting professionals are usually familiar with the quirks of each retailer or system and can better avoid problems.

Reflowable EPUB vs. Fixed Layout EPUB

You may hear about two distinct types of EPUB files: reflowable and fixed layout. Reflowable means exactly that: the ebook is designed to reflow based on the size of the screen, the orientation of the device, and the size of the text on the screen. Think about how websites are responsive depending on how you resize your browser or which direction you hold your phone or tablet—it’s the same concept. You want the text to fit the screen rather than remain static.

Some books, however, need to retain the integrity of their page layout. This is the case with most children’s picture books, other illustrated works, and some nonfiction books. In such cases, an EPUB is prepared with a layout that will not reflow—or the way in which it changes is otherwise strictly controlled. This is why Amazon and other retailers and distributors have a separate tool or interface for self-publishing authors of children’s books or educational textbooks. If you suspect you need a fixed layout EPUB, it’s usually best to hire a professional to prepare it for you. One of the best ebook formatting companies is

If your book is a straight narrative (e.g., a novel or memoir) with little more than chapter breaks, then it is possible for the average author to handle the EPUB formatting on her own (although there’s nothing wrong with hiring someone to prepare the files for you). Here are the most common ways to produce an EPUB.

Creating an EPUB from scratch

The following software and services will help you:

  • Sigil: This is an open-source (free) software for building EPUB files. For those accustomed to HTML, this will be a very comprehensible and usable program.
  • Jutoh: If you are allergic to code, but still game to learn new software, you can try a free demo of Jutoh. It costs $39 for the full version.
  • Apple Pages: It can export your document as an EPUB file.
  • Scrivener: It can export your document as an EPUB file.
  • Reedsy’s Book Editor: You can compose your work in its free cloud-based editor and export the document as an EPUB file for free.
  • PublishDrive: They offer a free converter tool (from Word to EPUB) that doesn’t require creating an account. Visit
  • Vellum: Available to Mac users, this professional software allows you to create highly designed and professional ebook files. It costs a few hundred dollars but is worth the investment if you plan to do a lot of ebook formatting.
  • Atticus: This is a cloud-based writing and layout software that’s similar to Vellum.

Sigil and Jutoh are also very useful when you have an EPUB file (generated from some other service provider) that you’d like to open and edit.

Creating an EPUB from a Word document

The most common approach is to “unformat” the Word document according to the guidelines provided by the ebook retailer (everyone from Amazon to Smashwords offers such as guide), then upload the document during the publishing process. The retailer or service will then use an automated conversion process to pop out an EPUB on the other side. What the results look like depends on how well you unformatted your Word document. (Perhaps it goes without saying, but this process is not recommended for heavily illustrated books or those that require complete formatting.)

Unfortunately, this “unformatting” process often leads to frustration and unprofessional results since you can’t control the conversion process. That said, Draft2Digital is generally recognized by authors to have one of the smoothest and cleanest conversions to EPUB from Microsoft Word. Its terms of service give you the freedom to take the EPUB file generated (even if you don’t distribute through the company!) and upload elsewhere—or otherwise edit through software such as Sigil or Jutoh.

Alternatively, you can import (or copy and paste) your Microsoft Word document into another piece of software that can export an EPUB file, such as Reedsy’s Book Editor or Apple Pages.

Creating an EPUB from a PDF

Some authors wonder if it’s OK to upload a PDF directly to ebook retailers or distributors, since they are accepted by some channels. While there are some exceptions, this is almost never a good idea. However, if you have a printer-ready PDF, an EPUB is closer than you might think. It’s possible to use the free ebook management software Calibre to convert a PDF to an EPUB, although you’ll almost certainly need to clean up the resulting file if you want a professional result. Ebook distributors such as BookBaby can also convert your PDF into an EPUB, or you can hire a service such as to handle it for you.

Creating an EPUB from a print book

There are services available that will use your print edition—if that’s all you have—to produce an EPUB file. Again, can help you, as can BookBaby. Look for “book scanning services.”


When experts talk about optimizing books to be seen and discovered online, metadata comprehensiveness and strategy is a big part of what they’re talking about. Metadata can be a confusing term, since its meaning varies by industry and context, but generally, it means everything that is not the content itself, but how we describe and classify that content.

The original, “analog” form of metadata in publishing was the book jacket. Now, it’s the information and keywords on a book’s product page on a retailer’s website, and it requires the same care and attention as the cover. Metadata includes such information as cover image, author bio, contributor names, book description, excerpts, reviews, region codes, prizes or awards, target audience, table of contents, and more. One industry study showed that when a book’s metadata is improved or complete, online sales can lift by as much as 28 percent. That’s because it allows distributors and retailers to better surface the right books when a search is conducted.

Among the most important discoverability mechanisms in the bookselling world is Amazon’s search box. When a reader enters a few words into that box, Amazon’s algorithms must decide what books best match those words. What books it surfaces will depend on a book’s metadata, its rating and reviews, and other factors known only to Amazon. Since it’s impossible to know exactly what goes into the secret sauce of any retailer’s search algorithm, or how those algorithms will change over time, your metadata shouldn’t seek to game the system or understand the complexities of the algorithm, but rather help retailers and distributors “see” and identify your books better and more accurately.

In online retail environments, your book’s categories and keywords are among the most important pieces of metadata and play a significant role in driving discoverability and visibility of your book.

Categories and BISAC codes

At every retailer and distributor, you will be asked to categorize your book. Sometimes you can stipulate only one category; other times you can designate several. Usually it’s best to apply as many as categories as you’re allowed, assuming they are all accurate.

Categories at book retailers are generally based on the BISAC system, developed by the Book Industry Study Group. BISAC codes are used almost universally by book distributors and wholesalers; even if they’re not called BISAC codes by the retailers or distributors you may use, ultimately what you’re choosing is the equivalent of a BISAC code.

The worst possible category to choose for your book is the broadest, such as “Fiction: General” for a mainstream novel. The more specific you can be about your book’s category, the more likely it will find its target audience. To some extent, this is about understanding your book’s genre or subgenre and how the industry (as well as readers) talks about books similar to yours. Every category or genre has certain expectations surrounding it—for example, romances should have a happy ending—so the category you choose should be a good fit to avoid disappointing readers.

Here’s an example of a well-categorized thriller novel that takes place in India, with a female protagonist fighting a terrorist plot (we’re using Amazon’s categories in this instance, which can slightly differ from BISAC categories):

Literature & Fiction > Action & Adventure > Women’s Adventure

Literature & Fiction > Action & Adventure > Travel

Thrillers & Suspense > Spies & Politics > Terrorism

To become more familiar with the potential categories for your book, research competing or comparable titles on Amazon; for each, scroll to the bottom of the page and look for the categories the title is listed under. This should help you determine the categories appropriate for your book. Using Goodreads or LibraryThing can also be useful, since categories play a strong role in discoverability.

Note: On Amazon specifically, if the category you want to apply to your book isn’t available in the list of options when you upload your book for sale, then you can contact customer service and request that it be applied.


In addition to categories, nearly all retailers and distributors allow you to designate a range of keywords that describe your work on a more granular level than a category. A keyword should be a word or phrase associated with the characters, themes, or ideas in your book. But here’s the tricky part: You want to use keywords based on the words that people actually use to search online. Often the language you would use is not the language that your reader might use.

A keyword doesn’t have to be just one word. For example, if you were writing a novel set in eighteenth-century England, then “eighteenth-century England” would become a keyword associated with your work.

Before you publish your work, brainstorm a list of words and phrases that might be associated with it. You might ask editors, friends, and family who’ve read the manuscript to suggest keywords as well, or how they would go about searching for a book like the one you’ve written. There are also paid tools that help expedite this research and give you an idea of which keywords are most searched for and/or profitable. Publisher Rocket is one of the leading tools in this area; another is KDSPY.

Be sure to test out your keywords by searching Google and Amazon for them. This works as a verification of the kind of language that people use when searching. Pay special attention to the auto-complete features of Amazon and Google; they will attempt to guess what you’re searching for. This can provide really helpful clues as to how people conduct searches in your category. Also, when using Google, check at the very bottom of the search results page for similar terms that people have used to search for the topic.

In almost all cases, more specificity is good, and vague or generalized terms are bad. For example, “family relationships” could pertain to many different types of stories, but “father-daughter relationships” is much more specific and better for the search.

Amazon keywords

Amazon allows you to specify up to seven keywords. Whenever possible, you should also use the keywords in your book description that customers read. However, do make sure your marketing copy is reader-friendly and not just a list of data points. Your goal is to have the keywords used in your description and those behind the scenes in your keywords metadata box match.

It’s also helpful to pay attention to the “themes” that Amazon applies to certain types of works and allows readers to search by. For example, when readers are browsing mystery novels on Amazon, they can browse by type of character (amateur sleuth, British detective, female protagonist) and by moods and themes (action-packed, horror, humorous, noir). According to Amazon, “themes” were implemented for fiction books because, well, consumers were searching for these things! Take advantage of this knowledge when you add keywords to your metadata and write your book descriptions.

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