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?
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.
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.
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 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 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 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.
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!
- Visual Basic for Applications, BASH, and regex; but let’s just keep that secret between us friends, OK? ↩
- Articles. ↩
- Also: zip files, zip folders, zips, and zip-a-dee-doo-dahs. ↩
- 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). ↩