Amazon’s MOBI format for Kindle is strictly proscribed and validated whenever a file is uploaded to Amazon. Working with Kindle Create software should be the best route to a valid e-book file. But unless your book is the simplest, text-only layout, Kindle Create is a struggle.
E-books are not print. Hardware and software readers have different capabilities and interpret them differently. If you are a stickler for exactly how your magnum opus appears to the reader, prepare for disappointment. Screen sizes, aspect ratios, supported fonts and colours available on the multitude of Kindle devices makes it impossible to fix the layout on screen, even if you use Fixed layout PDF to create your Kindle file. Nothing’s quite as fixed as you thought.
That isn’t the point of e-readers anyway. The objective is to make books as readable on small screens as possible, so that the medium fades to the background and the reader can be immersed in the content.
PDF format has been around for years and is well understood for writing and reading by lots of software. On e-readers, PDF ‘fixed’ layout still produces some weird results. Tables, lists and illustrations are all retained (in some form), but the text wants to break, wrap and resize in strange ways, not to mention scroll sideways out of the viewport.
The Kindle’s proprietary .mobi and .kwz files exist in Kindle’s walled garden. You’ve a choice of Fixed and Reflow format and files need to work with a lengthening range of current and legacy devices. You would think Amazon’s own Kindle Create software would be the safest route to produce valid Kindle e-books. While the simple layout of most novels and text-heavy non-fiction books is well-catered for in Kindle Create, anything with a more complex layout such as instructionals and how-to’s or study guides presents a real challenge to retain the layout AND meet the Reflow format.
So how do you produce the most usable, compatible format while preserving the best of your page layout?
Design versus Reflow
Importing a formatted and copy-edited MS-Word file into Kindle Create allows for a quick conversion to e-reader format. Any manuscript that is basically a block of text divided into chapters, perhaps with sub-headings and a smattering of bold and italics, should convert just fine. From there, you can choose from the small handful of templates and styles to fix the general layout of the book. Any tuning can be done using the dialogs for editing page elements, which you can set to apply as individual or document-wide styles. Just remember this isn’t a word processor or DTP program and you are not stamping ink onto a fixed position on a sheet of paper.
Moreover, Kindle Create is not a what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG ) editor, more of a ‘what you see is what you might or might not get,’ depending on the display device, software and resolution in the reader’s hands.
Fortunately, there is Kindle Previewer to accompany the Kindle Create Editor. With one click you can inspect your masterpiece using Kindle Preview which emulates a number of devices and screen sizes. It allows you to go through the pages to ensure that the manuscript is formatted consistently. That doesn’t actually mean consistent. Kindle Create is ‘best-efforts’ to achieve the most readable results on as many devices as possible. It does not guarantee consistency across all software and all devices, the Reflow format leaves it to the e-reader to do its’ best with the file.
It it’s simplest, you could issue a new Kindle edition of a Jane Austen or Hemingway classic in a matter of hours. Non-fiction that is all-text can convert for Reflow in the same way. After that, things get tricky. Complex texts including images, lists and tables quickly run into trouble.
Lists and Tables
Kindle Create has a decent set of options for formatting layout, spacing, indents and basic text effects. It doesn’t support re-formatting of bullet lists or tables. At all. It will import them as greyed-out artefacts in the text with no options to change them. A future upgrade may bring additional capabilities. Lists and tables are just not well described in the specs and the huge variety of markup styles across word processors and file formats can be interpreted in so many ways.
You would think images would be better handled. There is no text flow or float and only the choice of small, medium and large display size. There’s no adjustment of brightness, contrast, cropping or spacing.
Net result: if there’s anything vital in tables or images, you need to render it out as a flat graphic and re-insert it into the document in Kindle Create. Bear in mind any text-to-speech software will be blind to the contents unless you put it in the image description.
Tables of contents are a glorious mish-mash, given two distinct versions within an e-book. The sidebar table of contents sits in the reader controls. The in-page table of contents with hot-links sits in the book body. In an attempt to simplify navigation, the sidebar only supports top-level chapter headings, no sections or sub-headings. Merging sections is easy; moving or removing sections is not. Especially if they contain lists and tables. The in-page table of contents supports multi-level linking within the text. It is as ugly as sin.
If you have an alphabetical index, forget it, leave it at the door. The e-readers don’t handle it so neither does Kindle Create.
Test and Trace
The import facility is a one-shot deal, you can import a whole document, but not parts. Copy paste of partial text does not retain any useful formatting in Kindle Create. The best you can do is format the source document the best you can, get it into Kindle Create then inspect it page by page for problems without making any edits. This is a first pass. A lot of issues simply can’t be fixed in Kindle Create; best go back to the source document (work on a copy, not the original) and iron out the problems there. That may mean changing list formats, rendering tables as graphics, flattening image annotations onto the image and so on.
At that point, dump the first conversion you made and re-import the whole file into Kindle Create. Only when you fix all the import issues should you do formatting adjustments to produce the finalised e-book for publishing. That’s at least a two passes. You may need more.
If this sounds like a painful, iterative process, it is. There is no substitute for repeated passes through your converted manuscript before you make any formatting changes in Kindle Create itself. There’s no way to merge converted versions to combine the best bits of several conversions into one. Copy-paste will not preserve formatting from a source document in a Kindle Create project file.
Crawling on the edge of a breakdown
Lastly, Kindle Create can also run incredibly slowly. Even on a Windows 10 desktop with plenty of RAM, storage, graphics memory and a competent GPU. Whatever goes on under the hood soaks up a lot of processing cycles. It also insists on prompting you to save your work about every two minutes or so. That raises suspicions that it has, or had in some previous version, a tendency to crash frequently and not recover gracefully. When a program is that paranoid about losing work, you should be, too.
Ultimately Kindle Create has to deal the limitations of the end format. It could so this with a little more grace in the user interface which is slow, unintuitive and in some areas feels half-baked and incomplete. Inconsistency ruins some good ideas in a program that is frustrating and time-consuming, all to produce a proprietary output format for Amazon’s benefit. It’s not a good user experience.
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Another piece of software called Sigil can produce Kindle files AND regular E-pubs without the messy conversion through Word or PDF. If Sigil is as good as the word on the street*, we’ll be ditching Kindle Create as soon as. RC