Want to produce a properly formatted ebook in MOBI format for Kindle? Working with Kindle Create software should be the best route. But unless your book is the simplest text-only layout, Kindle Create is a struggle.
Kindle, Epub and PDF
There are numerous ways to produce PDF and EPUB files for e-readers, but the Kindle’s proprietary .mobi and .kwz files are something else. If you want to ensure the best Reflow format compatible with the lengthening range of current and legacy devices, Amazon’s own Kindle Create software should be the safest route to production.
E-books are not print, however. If you are a stickler for exactly how your magnum opus appears to the reader, prepare for disappointment. The screen sizes, aspect ratios, supported fonts and colours available on the multitude of Kindle devices makes layout every bit as challenging as laying out pages for a website. Try getting HTML to render consistently across browsers and devices from phones, tablets, laptops and TV’s. There’s no guarantee, either that the device will play ball and honour your intentions (if it understands them), or that the human at the controls won’t do something that blows your visual masterpiece to smithereens.
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.
You can crank out a formatted PDF, one of the most useful cross-platform document formats of all time, but the innate limitations of fixed-layout PDF’s become all too apparent on e-readers. It may preserve every illustration, table, indentation and artistic font, but PDF’s become increasingly difficult to resize on e-readers. And don’t mention the amount of vertical and horizontal scrolling that goes on.
So how do you produce the most usable, compatible format while preserving the best of your page layout?
Design versus Reflow
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.
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, a smattering of bold and italics, converts 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 style. 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 the Previewer which emulates a number of devices and screen sizes. Go through the pages to ensure that the manuscript is formatted as consistently as it can. That doesn’t actually mean consistent. You’re working on a best-efforts basis to achieve the most readable results on as many devices as possible. It will not be consistent across the board, that is inherent in the Reflow format.
That said, you could issue a new edition of a Jane Austen or Hemingway classic in a matter of hours. Or a brand new Dan Brown (please don’t). All-text, non-fiction manuscripts can convert for Reflow in the same way.
After that, things get tricky. Complex texts using 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 happily import them, at which point they are greyed-out artefacts in the text with no options to change them. An upgrade is allegedly on the way but there’s no release date that we know of. So those elements just sit there. Kindle Create doesn’t attempt to do anything largely because the e-readers rendering the .mobi file can’t re-flow or adjust lists and tables. They are just not in the specs. Not to mention the huge variety of markup in the source file that can be interpreted in so many ways, between word processors or text file formats.
You would think images would be better handled. They are as long; as you are happy with no text flow or float and only the choice of small, medium and large display size. There’s no other adjustment of brightness, contrast, cropping or spacing other than bashing in carriage returns above or below the image.
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.
Tables of contents are a glorious mish-mash, given two distinct versions within an e-book. The sidebar navigation 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 usually 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
With the import facility being a one-shot deal, format the source document the best you can, get it into Kindle Create then inspect it for problems without doing any edits. This is a first pass. There may be issues that simply can’t be fixed in Kindle Create; best to go back to the source document (work on a copy, not the original) and iron out the problems there. That may mean alternative 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 text into Kindle Create. If it all checks out without recreating the original problems – or creating new ones – in the layout, then you can do final formatting adjustments in Kindle Create to produce the finalised ebook for publishing. That’s at least a second pass. 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. While you can copy-paste fresh text from an external source, it may not paste in a format consistent with the text already in the project file.
Crawling on the edge of a breakdown
Lastly, Kindle Create can also run incredibly slowly. We gave up running it in a Windows virtual machine, only to find the performance almost as bad 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 version, a tendency to crash frequently and not recover gracefully (or at all). When a program is that paranoid about losing work, you should be, too.
Ultimately Kindle Create has to deal the limitations of the end output 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. The inconsistency ruins some good ideas in a UI 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. It belongs to a different piece of software called Sigil which will produce Kindle files AND regular EPUBS 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