The Ebook Cover: Graphic Design for the Under-Confident

Part two of two in a mini-series on ebook covers. The first part was about meeting marketplace specifications in the simplest way possible. Here we’re going to talk about the ebook cover design itself.

Graphic Design

Books get judged by their covers. One cannot over-stress how important visuals are for making a sale. Are you a graphic designer? How many clients have contracted your services? Unless your answer to this question is a non-zero positive integer, you might want to find someone else to help you.

Of all the aspects of producing an ebook as an individual who is self-publishing or as a small business, this is the one thing you really should consider outsourcing if you do not have the skills ready at your disposal. The human beast is a visual animal. It doesn’t matter what the inside of your book is like–nobody will see it if the outside screams unprofessional and low-quality product.

That’s an exaggeration. Actually professional publishers put out a lot of mediocre covers, and those books still sell. The cover is less-than-optimal because they are keeping production costs down, while the book still makes it into consumers’ hands because they have a great big marketing machine at their disposal. The difference between you and them is that you don’t have the goliath marketing machine. A great cover can only help you overcome this handicap.

The Blue Fox by Sjon (Bjartur, 2003)

A fine cover in my opinion. Anybody else get the sense Sjón is attempting to make a brand of himself? (Image: Bjartur)

For the bold DIYer who is not frightened by this attempt at intimidation, a few basic design guidelines can help you out. Like guidelines in any artistic medium, they are meant to be broken and fudged, but in general: Continue Reading →

The Ebook Cover: How to Meet Requirements–Size, Format, Legal

As part of her series on ebook production, Anne has invited me to prepare some distilled guidelines for ebook covers. This is part one of a mini-series on the cover. In this segment, I tackle best practices in regard to the major marketplaces. Part two will be about graphic design.

Ebook Cover Requirements

Ebook cover example

You might not believe it, but you should be able to satisfy all major ebook marketplace requirements for cover size if you follow two simple rules:

  1. The small dimension (width) of your cover should be at least 1400 pixels, which sounds like overkill given that your book cover will almost always be displayed either as a thumbnail or at about 400-800 pixels when viewing the ebook on a reading device, but I guess we need to prepare for that one in a million ebook aficionado who insists ebooks are best read on a plasma television screen. (Okay, I exaggerate, but this does make the cover wider than the screen of my 13′ MacBook Pro.)
  2. Your cover must be taller than it is wide, like most physical books. Most stores will recommend that your specific ratio is close to 6:9, but will not enforce exactitude. Others such as Barnes & Noble prefer a tall aspect, but do not require it.

You should consult the literature for the marketplaces you plan to partner with, but if you make it bigger than 1400 wide, you should be set for most (I won’t claim all) stores, including these biggies: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. Also I highly recommend picking a value somewhat above 1400 pixels but probably less than 2000. In resolution, bigger is better, but you aren’t going to be putting this on a billboard or a movie screen…Or are you? Continue Reading →

Word docx to ebook — publishing iBooks

(Fourth post in a series that begins here.)

The goal of doing the clean docx to epub conversion with Calibre, which is the topic of this series of posts, was to have an epub file worthy of submitting to the iBooks marketplace. Apple’s validator is known to be the pickiest of all the four main marketplaces (Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Apple iBooks, and Google Play).

We’ve done all our ebook publishing, to date, in the Kindle and Nook marketplaces only. But Bret and I put our heads together recently and concluded we should start selectively publishing in the iBooks and Play marketplaces also.

It’s hard to come by market share numbers for the different ebook marketplaces. The last credible numbers I saw still had Kindle way ahead in book downloads and iBooks with a miserable 5% share. But this is a market where the tide can turn in almost an instant.

I’ve been seeing a lot of reports that the sales of dedicated reader devices (Kindle, Nook) is going down as the share of all-purpose tablets is going up. If true, much of the future growth in ebook sales will be to people using all-purpose tablets not dedicated readers.

The Kindle and Nook Reader apps are free and available for almost any device from desktop to phone. So you can, already, read your ebooks from Amazon or B&N on your iPad or Android tablet without ever having to own a Kindle or a Nook. But Bret believes that the users of iThingies, in particular, are eventually going to want an iBuying experience for their ebooks.  And I’m inclined to think he may be right. So I want to make sure the books we publish are in the right boat if the download tide does turn. Continue Reading →

iTunes Producer ERROR ITMS-9000 calibre_bookmarks.txt

For our first test of direct Word docx to ebook conversion via Calibre and of publishing in the iBooks marketplace, we have been working with a tiny little novella called Runaway.

Everything about the process went pretty smoothly until we tried to upload the book for sale via Apple’s iTunes Producer.  The book popped into review and then out again with a validation error:

iTunes Producer error itms-9000

This was particularly odd to us because Apple’s validator is said to be based on a public validation tool that had already ok’d the same file: Continue Reading →

Word docx to ebook — Calibre conversion

(Third post in a series that begins here.)

So, let’s move on to the actual ebook conversion of our little novella using Calibre.

First, a word about Calibre itself. The website says that Calibre “is a free and open source e-book library management application developed by users of e-books for users of e-books. It has a cornucopia of features . . .”

It’s exactly the range of features — ebook library manager, news feed reader, ebook converter, etc — that can make Calibre a bit bewildering to those of us who just want to use its GREAT ebook conversion tool. It will really help you, as you use Calibre for ebook conversion, to remember that, from the software’s and the developers’ perspective, conversion is just one feature among equals. The developers who contribute to this open source product have clearly invested an enormous amount of time and attention in this feature. But it doesn’t get top billing in the user interface (UI).

Frankly, the whole UI is a bit unconventional. Literally unconventional. It doesn’t follow the conventions of the Windows interface — no File/Open menu item to be found. It doesn’t follow the conventions of the Mac OsX interface — the menu bar has none of the standard File, Edit, View, etc entries.  On the other hand, the product is absolutely consistent in look-and-feel across platforms — the Mac and Windows versions are identical.

Continue Reading →

Word docx to ebook — generating a clean docx file

RunawayCoverAmazon(Second post in a series that begins here.)

I’ve got two files that Mom mailed me when we first agreed to publish these two short works in the Kindle and Nook marketplaces.  Both are .doc files, probably from Microsoft Word 2003, definitely from before MS Word 2007 when Microsoft switched to the .docx format.

There are two options for converting the files to .docx. If I thought the formatting in the files was super clean, my guess is they’d be equivalent.

  • Import the .doc to my Google Docs account, letting Google convert it to the native doc format, then export it as a .docx.  (But note that this will only work for relatively small files; there’s currently a 2mb size limit.)
  • Open the .doc in a current version of Word and resave it as .docx.

I’m going to do the latter.  Since I think the internal formatting for these two documents needs to be cleaned up to make Calibre’s conversion go more smoothly, I want to work with them in Word anyway. However the process I’m going to describe should work equally well via Google Docs for a short manuscript.  In other words, if you have an old .doc file (or even an old WordPerfect or Ami Pro file) and don’t have a current copy of Word, don’t despair.  Free and open software can come to your rescue.

Please do try this at home.  Please do NOT try this on the only copy of a file that you have.  BEFORE you start this process, make sure you have made a safe copy, other than the one you are about to work on. Pretty please? Continue Reading →

Word docx to ebook — overview

Simpler than ever but still not quite ‘just a click away’


Runaway — on sale in iTunes!

In June 2013, with no fanfare, Calibre, the wildly popular, free ebook management and conversion tool, added support for direct conversion from Microsoft Word docx to ebook formats. This is Big News for self-published ebook authors and for small, specialty publishers alike. It is not getting the attention it deserves.

If you’ve never tried converting a Word document into an ebook, it would be hard to convey how complex and frustrating the process has always been.

On the one hand, you have the absolutely dominant word processing package’s standard file format, docx. On the other hand, you have the two dominant ebook formats, epub and mobi, that, between them, let you publish your book in all the major marketplaces (Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook, Apple iBooks, and Google Play).

How could there NOT be a solid, simple way to go from docx to epub and mobi?  But there has not been.

You generally had to choose from a variety of bad conversion options that fell between two extremes:

  • Submit your Word file directly to the Amazon Kindle Desktop Publishing (KDP) dervish and be appalled by the resulting ebook full of apparently random formatting variations. Even if you could ultimately placate the dervish with small, iterative tweaks to your doc, you ended up with a manuscript good only for Kindle, not Nook or iBooks or Play.
  • Export your text from Word (or InDesign) to HTML, thoroughly scrub the output to remove extraneous styles and classes and other cruft, add a bit of restrained CSS, then use a tool such as Calibre to convert to your ebook format(s) of choice. While this process could result in a great product, working with raw HTML files and CSS is not necessarily attractive to Every Writer or even every small publisher.

But now, with Calibre’s new feature, you can take a well-formatted Word doc, hand it straight off to the “industry standard” conversion tool, and generate well-formatted files suitable for submission to the Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and Play marketplaces. Continue Reading →

Ebook versus PDF

This post is the first in a series we have planned on “ebooks for the specialty/technical publisher”.  If you would like to know more about the series, would like to be notified when new posts are available, or would like to suggest specific topics we should cover, please email us at


In this post, I take a look at the readability trade-offs between using PDFs and ‘real ebooks’ (.epub and .mobi files) to distribute your technical publications.

Executive summary:  PDFs give you great control over layout and can be opened on almost any device.  Ebooks require the phone or tablet user to have and know how to use an additional app but can increase the readability of your content dramatically on a small device.  If you expect your content to be accessed frequently via phones, versus tablets and laptops, you probably want to be publishing ebook versions of your material.

Why bother with anything but PDFs?

Using PDFs to distribute books, pamphlets, and field guides electronically has some huge advantages:

  • Adobe Reader is not just free and easy to install.  It is as ubiquitous as any piece of software in the history of computing, available across all modern hardware platforms and operating systems.  Everyone from Great Uncle Henry to Big Boss Betty has it and knows how to use it.
  • If you are a professional book designer, you already use PDFs as the camera ready copy you send to your printer.  What could be easier than using exactly the same file or, maybe a slightly lower resolution version, as the electronic copy available for download?
  • Even if you are not a pro, PDFs have become easy for EveryWriter to produce.  You don’t need a full copy of InDesign or even Acrobat any more to ‘print’ your pamphlet, brochure, or full-length-novel to PDF format. Macs do it.  Google Docs does it.  Even Microsoft Word can now do it.

In the old days of, say, a year or two ago, when you could count on your audience reading your eBook on a desktop or laptop computer, PDFs were clearly the way to go.

But then came the mobile revolution. Continue Reading →

Spanish ebook title garbled — problem solved

We generate our ERG2012: Quick Lookup ebook using a combination of Ruby scripts and the Calibre ebook-convert tool. The last step for each ebook is to launch the ebook-convert.exe from a Ruby script, passing it a long list of commandline options.

This process was working well for us right up to the point where we were began to generate review copies of the Spanish language version, GRE 2012: Guía de Referencia Rápida. We could generate the ebook just fine and it had all the right contents but the embedded title was garbled: GRE 2012: Guía de Referencia Rápida.Screen shot 2013-06-21 at 10.59.21 AM

It took me a long time to track down what was really going wrong. The title was right in the localized text file it came from. It looked right in the printed version of the commandline that we were logging. But it was wrong in the title text embedded in the book.

A word of warning: Gory technical details lie beyond this point. If you aren’t interested in automated ebook generation or multi-lingual ebooks or how Ruby kernel methods work on Windows, you may wish to turn back now.

Continue Reading →