For book lovers, it’s an age of plenty. Thanks to e-books and ubiquitous computers, not to mention other devices, millions of titles are available cheaply or free, often as easily as clicking on a link. We’ve never been able to read more, for less money and effort, and that means a revolution in culture comparable to the invention of print, or pulp serial novels.
Part of this revolution is the ease with which you can make your own e-books. In a previous article I explained why you might want to, and gave a few hints as to how. Now it’s time to look at one way to do it—a personal approach that worked well for me. Consider it a taste of what is possible, a morsel to whet your appetite for discovering this new frontier on your own.
So, Sigil. You can get it at sigil-ebook.com for Mac or Windows (Linux users, check your distribution’s package repositories). It’s free and open source software, so you don’t have to worry about restrictions, and if you have an older computer you’ll notice it’s also very light on system resources. I can’t help you with the installation process; let me know how it works.
Anyway, the first time you start the application it should look like in the screenshot below, possibly with more buttons because I have an older version:
The center column is a text editor. Simply start typing your document. Save it when you’re done, and that’s it! You have a perfectly good e-book that should work out of the box on your favorite e-reading device. (Unless that’s a Kindle, in which case you’ll need to convert it first. But that’s outside the scope of this article.) It’s really that simple to get started.
Of course, this first e-book you just made is going to need a bit of work before it starts looking professional. But first things first.
Acquiring the content
The first thing you need to understand is that the EPUB files Sigil works with are little more than archived web pages. If you happen to keep a blog, making e-books in this format will feel most natural. Otherwise, things might take a little adjustment. Let’s look at a few ways to get your content in the right format:
- Copy-pasting from your web browser or office suite. Beware, that only works right for text; if the pasted content includes images, it will look like it worked, but you’re going to have unpleasant surprises down the road. See below for how to handle image files properly in Sigil.
- Saving from your web browser. In the former case, make sure to choose “Web page, complete” in the save dialog if you want to capture images as well. Then select File -> Add -> Existing Files… in Sigil and point it at the saved web pages. Notice how it also imports any images referenced from these, but only if the images were also saved to disk.
- If all else fails, you can type your book directly into Sigil. It’s not the best solution, as the in-app editor is rather barebones, but it works, and some people like it minimal.
As for me, I use a more technical method: writing in Markdown format with a programmer’s text editor, then converting to HTML (that’s the language of web pages) and finally importing into Sigil as described above. I mention this for completeness, as it’s not for everyone. But your mileage may vary.
Either way, once you have your content in one place it’s time to start turning it into something resembling a book.
Organizing the content
On the left side of the Sigil window there’s a list of folders (labeled Book Browser): Text, Styles, Images and so on — you can ignore most entries for now. When you first open the application, or create a new document, there is only one entry under Text, called “Section0001.xhtml”. You can right-click on it and choose Rename… if you like. You can also add more sections in several ways:
- with File -> Add -> Existing Files, as described above;
- with File -> Add -> Blank HTML File;
- by splitting the current section with Edit -> Split At Cursor.
It’s a good idea to use multiple sections, both for easier editing and to help lower-end devices render your book without straining. How to divide your content is another story; for example, a novel might have each chapter in its own section, with the title page, acknowledgements and so on each in yet more sections (so you can mark them as such).
Note: Sigil calls these sections “files”, because they are in fact just files inside an archive. That’s what your EPUB file is: a container for even more files. From now on I’ll just call them files like Sigil does. Just don’t mistake them for your finished e-book. The latter is the one file with an .epub extension that Sigil saves to disk.
Naturally, you can manipulate files in many ways: reordering them with drag and drop, merging them — select two or more consecutive files and right-click to get the menu option — and even delete files you no longer need. Just be careful that operations on files can’t be undone. Save often and keep backups.
Once you have all your content in the right order and properly divided, you can in principle stop here. Most readers are going to read your e-book in order from end to end anyway. But have you ever seen a book without covers, table of contents and so on? Only if it’s been torn apart, and it’s just sad when that happens. So let’s see how to add some needed elements to your masterpiece.
The table of contents
You can of course create your table of contents manually by typing it in somewhere close to the beginning. Use the ID… and Link… options in the Insert menu to create bookmarks and point at them, respectively. But that’s a lot of work, you must remember to update it, and you’re forcing people to keep jumping back to the beginning. Worse, some apps or devices may not have support for links in the text.
Luckily, there’s a better way. EPUB files can have a special table of contents that can be accessed from anywhere in the book at the press of a button. And Sigil can create it for you automatically. You just need to let it know the outline of your book.
In the upper left corner of the Sigil window, on the second toolbar, there are buttons labeled h1, h2, h3… These indicate heading levels. H1 is for chapter titles and the like — top-level entries in the table of contents. H2 is for subheadings, and so on. Apply them as needed, then choose Table Of Contents -> Generate Table Of Contents… from the Tools menu. You’ll get a dialog where you can pick which entries to include. You can also select the maximum depth, and if your book has a fancier structure, with multiple parts and such, you can use the arrow buttons on the right to indicate the proper nesting without having to go back and mess with the headings again. Hit OK, and you’ll see the results appear in the rightmost column of the Sigil window. Voila!
(You can also single-click ToC entries to open them in tabs for editing, while in the Book Browser you need a double-click.)
Adding covers and other images
Unlike in print, e-books only need one cover image — the front cover, as it were. Graphics design is outside the scope of this article, so I’ll assume you already have one. Now, Sigil has an Add Cover… option in the Tools menu, but I never used it. Rather, I import my images manually, using the same File -> Add -> Existing Files… dialog we already encountered. Notice how they appear under Images in the Book Browser. Now all you have to do is right-click on the desired file and select Add Semantics -> Cover Image. That’s it! Now any piece of software handling your e-book file will know where to look.
You can also insert images right in the text, with the Insert -> File… dialog. Note that you have to import them first as above. Stick to formats like JPG and PNG, there’s no guarantee e-readers can handle anything else. Choosing the right size is another story, but many devices still have small screens. 1-2 megapixels should be large enough for a while.
Store or library records wouldn’t be very useful if books were just stuck on a shelf with no information about them. Any online retailer will at the very least give you the title, author, cover and a blurb. These are called metadata — data about something else, in this case a book. (The table of contents is also part of that.) I already showed you how to set the cover, but what about the rest of it? Sure, you probably have them all on the title page. Too bad your e-reader doesn’t know how to pick them out.
Enter the Metadata Editor (you’ll find it in the Tools menu). Upfront, it will ask you to fill in the title, author and language. Use the Add Basic button to fill in other details such as a description (the blurb), additional authors, creation date (you want it, trust me) and so on. There you go! Now your e-book can benefit from automatic indexing by various applications, such as catalog generators.
A lot more! Sigil is relatively simple, and we’ve still only scratched the surface. I didn’t say a word about styles and fonts, for example. That’s because working with those requires more specialized knowledge. Also, you don’t really need that stuff. E-reading software already takes care to make e-books look pretty, and you never know what kind of device your e-book will be read on. It’s best to just make sure titles are marked as titles (with those buttons in the toolbar) and so on, to make your intentions clear. Looks can then be changed easily.
Do look at e-books from other sources. Smashwords for example gives them to you without DRM, and you can use Sigil to edit any EPUB file, regardless of origin. See how they’re put together. Maybe you’ll even learn a trick or two.
Most of all, have fun. And never stop loving books.