Activism Work stuff

Quick guide to making ebooks

One of the projects I’ve been working on recently is producing an ebook version of a report for the ONE campaign. I thought I’d put together a simple guide to making ebooks which might be handy if you’re thinking of doing the same. 

Campaigning organisations like to publish and produce a lot of reports about important stuff, and usually publish them in a variety of ways – sometimes resulting in stacks of out of date printed paper reports cluttering up the store cupboard.

Traditionally producing online versions of reports – particularly long ones – has been difficult as reading 130 pages of a report on a PC screen isn’t a particularly easy thing to do.

Creating ebook guide illustration
Oops I hit print by mistake

However with the popular rise of ereaders, it’s now possible to produce online copies of long reports which can be easily read offline anywhere. Consultants Deloitte estimate that a third of UK households now own an ereader – and sales are holding up (thanks to their low cost) compared to tablets. Ereaders are also more popular with those aged 45-54.

First to consider is the format – most organisations produce documents as pdfs since this is the format provided by graphic designers- these work well on iPads and android tablets – but work badly on Kindles and ereaders. Pdfs also often require a lot of zooming to read the text which can make them difficult to read on phones.  

Fortunately it’s quite easy to convert between the different ebook formats used by kindles, kobos, ipads and other mobile readers – here we can use a very handy program called Calibre.

But first – here’s how to get your ebook ready:

Step 1: Preparing your files

Most ebooks will start life as a long Word document – you’ll need to convert this into a basic HTML format. Don’t worry about fonts, css, or any fancy formatting – just stick to as few HTML tags as possible. 

You can cut and paste from Word into Dreamweaver and it’ll do most of the reformatting for you – or you can use a free program like Textwrangler to sort out your HTML code. Word often inserts it’s own bizarre brand of HTML into documents, so you need to make sure you clean this up before converting into an ebook. 

To make the process as simple as possible use heading tags to divide up your ebook into a heirachy of chapters and sub headings – 

  • <h1> for chapter titles
    • <h2> for subheadings
      • <h3> for figures and charts within each section

This part is important – the tool we’ll use later uses heading tags to generate the table of contents. 

Divide up your text into paragraphs using <p></p> tags. 

Ebook formats also work with most simple HTML tags so you can use things like table <table> tags to organise information, anchor tags, <strong> for emphasis and <a href=”> for links. For more info there’s a simple guide to HTML here

Some tags like superscript <sup> and subscript <sub> don’t display reliably. If you’re not sure, test the html output in an ebook using the steps below.

Top tip: keep it as simple as possible.

For images bear in mind that most ereaders display in 16 shades of grey – stick to bold, high contrast images. You can use GIF (for diagrams) and JPEG (for more fuzzy images like photos). As a rule of thumb I make the longest side of each image 1000 pixels – some ebooks can display larger images, but this makes it easier to stick to a size that’s compact and resizes easily.

There are some more tips on ebook images here from Amazon.

Link the images into your HTML page as you would normally and save them in a subfolder next to your HTML file. 

Step 2: Generating the ebook

Next you need to import the HTML file you’ve created into an ebook tool. I use Sigil – it’s an open source tool that’s free to download and available for Mac and PC. 


Open Sigil and import the HTML file. If you click generate table of contents Sigil will build a chapter list on the right hand side based on the <h1> <h2> <h3> heading tags in your document.


Another handy feature in Sigil is the split at cursor option – this splits the HTML file into 2 or more separate files, but has the effect of forcing a page break in your final ebook – this is handy if you want chapter headings or image titles to appear on a page on their own.

Step 3: Finishing up and testing

Once you’ve got your ebook finalised in Sigil, save it in epub format and then import the book into Calibre. Calibre is a really useful piece of free ebook management software which converts between the different formats and lets you take control of your ereader. 

In Calibre select edit metadata individually – this lets you set the cover (with a useful crop function) and edit the author and publisher information. 

Once you’ve got your ebook finished export as an ePub (for Apple and Kobo readers) and .mobi (for Kindle) and test. You can check for things like alignment of images, and any part of the book that uses tables or any HTML more advanced than headings and paragraphs. 

Finally you can publish – Amazon don’t allow small publishers to create free ebooks (unless you agree to only publish on Amazon) so it’s generally best to publish directly on your site – an example is here with ONE’s first ereader report: The Beginning of the End of AIDS – with links to the PDF, Kindle (.mobi) and iPad (epub) versions. 



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