Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Our eBook has arrived

Writing about Literature in the Digital Age is now online and available for download.  I wont lie, it has been a pretty stressful and at times frustrating experience, but it has been one that I will always remember with a smile.  My assignment for our eBook was to write a chapter (like everybody else) and to work on the Design Team with Ben Wagner and Annie Ostler to get our book put together in an organized eBook, preferably in the ePUB, MOBI and PDF formats.  These formats, it was decided, would make our eBook available to the most people without requiring us to make too many different versions. Sounds exciting right?  It was, but oh was it hard to do.

We decided to use Adobe's InDesign CS5 to compile and format our eBook into the ePUB and PDF formats.  From the ePUB we converted to a MOBI format for Kindle and I have to say all three formats came out quite nice.  Several different versions of our free eBook can be downloaded here.  Also, if you are on Goodreads, you can download the book here. If you like it, please remember to give us a good rating.

So, what goes in to making  an eBook with InDesign?  It's not as simple as you think.  I'll talk a little about our process.

I had never used InDesign before, but I am more or less familiar with other programs from Adobe, so I figured InDesign wouldn't be too difficult to learn quickly.  We had, however, about two weeks to do the book so I started devouring information about InDesign.  I Googled tutorials and video tutorials about making ePUB books with InDesign.  It seemed a little more complicated than I thought but entirely possible.  It wasn't until this week that I realized how important some of those videos would be to us.

Ben Wagner had previously mentioned a program called DropBox that allows you to easily sync files on multiple computers, eliminating the need of flash drives.  I had the idea that it would be good to share an ebook folder on DropBox with the design team, in order to make collaboration much easier.  I think it worked out great.  We were able to do much of the preliminary work on our own, and the others immediately had access to it on their own machines.  I would recommend DropBox to anybody who is looking to do collaborative work and needs a quick, free way to share files that is much more convenient than email.

In theory, making the book with InDesign shouldn't have taken too long. In reality, it took many many hours during the last weekend and beginning of this week to iron out the kinks.  InDesign is a very complicated program, and being someone who had zero experience with it, I was forced to spend a lot of time in trial and error, trying to figure out how to do even basic things, like import an image.  I figured it out though, and we met on monday as a team to put the pieces of our book together.  Who would have thought that it would turn out a total disaster.

First, we had to make certain elements uniform throughout the book, such as image citations, font size, author name. . . things of this nature.  Then, because we needed an example to show the class, we tried to export the book for ePUB.  It looked horrible.  The formatting was all wrong and most things didn't look readable, let alone enjoyable.  In what was to become the first of many frustrations, we made a PDF version, which looked a little better, and asked the class to mark any changes that they felt needed to be made to their chapters.  This was both beneficial and a set back, as we had to spend a lot of time fixing and making small changes to almost every chapter. After class, we worked for several hours, and still nothing was coming out that was worthy of even being called a work-in-progress.  It was frustratingly impossible to fix everything that was going wrong.  At this point it was 8:00 p.m., the lab was closing and we decided to regroup and meet in the morning to figure out why we were having so many formatting errors.  We needed a break, and we needed to clear our heads.

Tuesday, we got together at 10:00 a.m. to try to hammer out a finished product. The last version of the book we had tried had missing chapters, missing images, missing information, some of the links didn't work and the formatting was still strange.  So, as we were trying to fix things inDesign crashed on us and we had to start over.  This turned out to be a good thing.  We made a new book, importing all of the most recent versions of the InDesign documents for each chapter.  Then, we gathered and organized all the elements like chapter pics and bio pics this made it much easier to fix problems with images in the actual book.  We had previously been getting the images from everybody's Word documents, which didn't work because InDesign couldn't find it later when trying to compile the book.  Ultimately, we had to make a few sacrifices like interior links for the annotated Table of Contents. We just couldn't get those to work.  Finally, around 2:00 p.m. we exported a working, good looking ePUB version of our book.  It was so nice to see that our efforts were finally rewarded.  The book was finally to a point that we could consider publishing it.

At this point we brought Dr. Burton down to the lab and he worked with us to fix a few details to make the book look a little better.  I ran the ePUB through a free program called Calibre that makes excellent quality conversions to other eBook formats and we tested the two versions on our own devices.  I used Amazon's Kindle Previewer to see what our book would look like on the kindle.  This has a cool feature that lets you see what it would look like on the Kindle device and also the Kindle app for the PC.  It looked great and we were very pleased.  Ben and Dr. Burton tested the book on their iPads and found that, although the formatting for some small things wasn't the same, it still looked pretty good. I also tried out the ePUB on Adobe's free ereader Digital Editions.  Lasty, we made the PDF and looked at it on the computer and the iPads.  The PDF looked really good too.  We were finally done.

Looking back, I see this was a great learning experience and something that will be of value as I collaborate on other projects and apply for jobs.

What is my advise for people who want to make their own eBook?

Give yourself time:  We did this in two weeks and the issues with time were always in the front of our minds.

Get organized:  If I did this again I would make everyone submit their pictures for their chapters instead of including them on the Word document.  The same with bio information and thesis statements.  We had to hunt all over blogs and Word docs and send out a lot of emails to get the right information we needed. It would have been easier to have each element separated from others and stored and organized in its own folder.

Establish Standards: If you want uniformity to your book it is easiest for those working on design if everyone knows exactly how they should do their own chapters before submitting their work.  The editing team can check to make sure everything is done properly and tell them where to make the needed changes.

Hold everyone accountable for their part: Along with standards, you should hold everyone accountable to making sure that their part is done properly. We didn't necessarily have too many standards for formatting but if people don't follow the conventions and standards decided on then this will create a much bigger workload for the team putting things together and trying to make it nice.  If we could have done this it would have given us time to figure out some more of the InDesign issues we had to deal with.

Paragraph and Character styles: For those who aren't very familiar with InDesign, every bit of formatting, be it centered paragraphs or italicized words, has to be done with paragraph and character styles.  I recommend you make one document together as a team and use it as the template for paragraph and character styles.  Since you'll be sharing files in DropBox, everyone can just load the styles from that one document and they will all be the same.

Find help: If you decide to use InDesing, remember that it is very complicated.  Find someone who is familiar with the program and can show you the ropes as you get started.  We were lucky enough to have Annie on our team. She had taken an InDesign course and was able to show us a lot of the basics. (I would have saved a lot of time firguring out how to import files if I had just asked her at the beginning).

Finally, here is a list of tools we used to put together our eBook.
  • InDesing - Adobe's publication software, powerful but difficult to use
  • Photoshop - Photo editing software by Adobe, much easier to use, one we are more familiar with
  • Word - used word files for the chapters that were being imported into InDesign
  • DropBox - a key element to our successful collaboration. We could easily share files and have access to others' work.
  • email - I think I had to email almost everyone in the class to ask questions or get information
  • Blogs - I used this to share parts of the project with the class, also to get some information for chapters or student bio's.
  • Digital Editions, iBook, Kindle Previewer, Kindle App for PC, Kindle, PDF readers - We had to make sure everything looked nice before we sent it to marketing and distribution
  • Calibre - this is a great program to manage eBooks, also will convert to almost any format. This made a better mobi version than the Kindle plugin for InDesign. Go figure.
  • Chat - I used chat several times to collaborate with Dr. Burton and Nyssa on the editing team.
  • Google Search - this is how I found many tutorials online to help me learn InDesign as fast as possible
  • Crowdsourcing - Fixing erros was a big task. We had the whole class help us look over the eBook at one point.
  • and Flickr.  We got all of our pictures using sites like this, with creative commons licenses.
If you decide to do an eBook project, I think it is something that will be rewarding and educational, well worth it. But recognize that it involves a lot of work.  To see more of my process see everything in my blog tagged "ebook project."

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