The Syllabus (kinda); or, What You Need to Know to Make Ebooks like a Pro

There are many ways to make ebooks. You can use a graph­i­cal design tool like InDe­sign, code every­thing by hand, or style a Word doc­u­ment and hand off the actu­al con­ver­sion to an auto­mat­ed pro­gram. Or, as I do, you can use mag­ick!1

Regard­less of the process you use, it’s very impor­tant to under­stand what’s going on “behind the sce­nes.” At some point, you’re even­tu­al­ly going to run into some­thing that isn’t work­ing the way you expect, and you’ll have to learn the hard way by div­ing into a bunch of code that you prob­a­bly won’t under­stand.

Alter­na­tive­ly, you can take Easy Street and learn how an ebook is built from the ground up. Under­stand­ing how an ebook is put togeth­er will help you tack­le man­u­al fix­es, and the insight into what the design tool is doing under the hood may even save you from hav­ing to dig into the code in the first place.

Over the next few Adven­tures2, we’ll be tak­ing a look at the six essen­tial tech­nolo­gies that go into mak­ing an ebook.

So what are the­se tech­nolo­gies, and why do you need to know them?

HTML

Hyper-Text Markup Lan­guage is a plain-text doc­u­ment for­mat that uses embed­ded codes (called “tags”) to define struc­ture with­in a doc­u­ment. Every­thing you see while read­ing an ebook is, in one way or anoth­er, the result of HTML markup.

CSS

Cas­cad­ing Style Sheets is a lan­guage for describ­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion of an HTML doc­u­ment. Eread­ers provide a min­i­mum lev­el of default styling for things like head­ings, bold, and ital­ic. But if you want any­thing fancier than that, you’ll want to use CSS.

XML

eXten­si­ble Markup Lan­guage is close­ly relat­ed to HTML. With­in an ebook, XML is used for adding meta­data, defin­ing the struc­ture of the pub­li­ca­tion as a whole (rather than the con­tent itself), and for imple­ment­ing some addi­tion­al nav­i­ga­tion fea­tures.

Digital images

Dig­i­tal images are an impor­tant tech­nol­o­gy for ebooks. Even if a book only con­tains text, it’s going to need a cov­er by which to be judged, right?

While it’s not nec­es­sary to know every­thing about dig­i­tal image cre­ation and manip­u­la­tion, there are a few key ele­ments that you should know before you call your­self a “pro­fes­sion­al” ebook devel­op­er.

Text encoding

Text encod­ing relates to how text is stored with­in a doc­u­ment. There’s real­ly only one thing you need to know about text encod­ing when it comes to ebooks: UTF-8 w/o BOM. But more on that in an upcom­ing Adven­ture.

Zip archives

Zip archives3 are incred­i­bly impor­tant things to under­stand when cre­at­ing ebooks. Yes, real­ly. In fact, ebooks in EPUB for­mat4 are actu­al­ly just zip files with a dif­fer­ent exten­sion and some spe­cial rules about what goes inside.

Next steps

If you have a basic com­mand of the­se six tech­nolo­gies, you’ve got every­thing you need to make most books into great ebooks.

In our next Adven­ture, we’ll take a look at HTML and the most com­mon tags used when for­mat­ting ebooks. Per­haps with a lit­tle Side Quest to gath­er some tools we’ll need in our trav­els.

See you next time!


  1. Visu­al Basic for Appli­ca­tions, BASH, and regex; but let’s just keep that secret between us friends, OK
  2. Arti­cles. 
  3. Also: zip files, zip fold­ers, zips, and zip-a-dee-doo-dahs. 
  4. The most wide­ly used, but not most wide­ly read, ebook for­mat. Offi­cial­ly spelled “EPUB” (often styled as “ePUB” or “ePub”), but I’ll be using “epub” from here on out, because I like it (and my pinky gets tired from all that shift­ing). 

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