Creating Prizeworthy Digital Books, by DBW

Digital Book World recently hosted a webinar called “Creating Prizeworthy Digital Books.” For this post I want to focus on the advice Joshua Tallent, chief e-book architect at Firebrand Technologies (formerly eBook Architects), gave. Tallent knows pretty much everything there is to know about e-books, and he’s the one who presented an excellent webinar a while back about the features of Amazon’s KF8. In this webinar, Tallent outlined eight steps to making amazing e-books.

Although it was directed towards publishing houses, and I don’t necessarily agree with everything he said, most of the steps can be applied to self-publishers. Some of the steps require at least intermediate knowledge of e-books. If you are a beginner or curious to learn more about e-books, please consider taking my Udemy course, “How to Create Beautiful E-Books.”

Step 1: Make sure everything works

E-book developers should test e-books on ALL devices. Sometimes an error in the code, or a limitation of a device, can cause issues, and it’s important to know the cause in order to fix it. Some things that should be tested are hyperlinks, whether or not the e-book is readable, and if the e-book displays/works on all devices.


Tallent also warned against using automated systems to convert e-books, especially if converting PDF to KF8/MOBI for Kindle. See above for an example he shared of a poorly converted PDF.

Step 2: Make sure it works across ALL the platforms well

Testing e-books is so important Tallent created two steps for it. For small publishers or self-publishers who may not be able to afford buying all the e-readers and tablets available, developers can test the lowest common denominator. Tallent recommended Kindle Previewer and said it did a good job of emulating Kindle, but in my personal experience developing e-books for a couple small publishers in New York, I found Kindle Previewer was very inconsistent and not a reliable test compared to loading the file on an actual Kindle. Also, when testing on a Kindle, he said to make sure the e-book looks the way you expect it to look, and that there are no error messages when you convert using KindleGen (you can also convert with Kindle Previewer).

Tallent also recommended having one iPad, whether it be a mini, or even a 1st or 2nd generation. But if iPads are too expensive, he said Fire reader was a decent substitute. Adobe Digital Editions could also be used, though he said not to rely on it too much, because it’s not always the best example of what readers want to see. However, the way I see it, if it looks decent on ADE it will most likely look decent on all other devices.

Step 3: Make it intuitive and accessible

Tallent said to think about how the reader will use the book. The book should not just be visually appealing, it should also be usable. And Tallent stressed that the table of contents should NOT be in the back of the e-book.

This is contrary to what some big self-publishers recommend. David Gaughran, for example, has said that the TOC should be in the back of the book because readers are given a limited sample and a TOC is just a waste of space.

Though I have followed Gaughran’s writing and think he has some great advice about marketing and self-publishing, I disagree. I personally think the TOC is useful because it shows readers what to expect in the book (especially in non-fiction, such as in my latest book, How to Create Your First E-Book).

Tallent also said that some platforms, such as Kindle, sync the last reading location to all devices, so if a TOC is in the back of the book, and the reader keeps referring to the TOC, it can be hard to navigate the book.

It’s also important to have good semantic markup. Tallent said one way to test the code is to open up the HTML file without the stylesheet—meaning open up a file in the browser. If you can tell the headers from the regular text, and see lists without the CSS, for example, he said that would mean the HTML code is solid.

He also recommended building EPUB3 files when possible, since all retailers now accept them (though none of them accept EPUB3 on their self-publishing platforms, yet), and they are backwards compatible.

Step 4: Give it functionality beyond what the print book does, and beyond what a print book can do

Readers want to access content, especially in non-fiction, Tallent said. E-books should interact with the reader in a different way. One example is with tables and charts. EPUBs can support tables and charts, but Tallent recommended also making them available as a PDF on a website that the reader can download.


In Apple’s iBooks, readers can see a PDF preview and download to use as a handout. The handout PDFs must be a single page, but it works in EPUB on iBooks and displays as a pop-up window. Readers will not be able to print it or interact with it, but the PDF can be useful to show someone a page they can’t otherwise see in an e-book.

Tallent also recommended including indexes in the e-book and linking the page numbers. He said the best way to create an automated index is to embed it in InDesign, and click on the option for exporting that will link to exact locations. However, for publishers who don’t have InDesign, he said you will have to add “page numbers” as anchors by hand and then link the index.

Step 5: Include thoughtful enhancements

Don’t include video in an e-book for the sake of having video, Tallent said. Instead, he said to think about how an enhancement will enhance a reader’s experience. It must be relevant to the content.

If videos are relevant, he advised putting them on a website instead of inside the e-book. He said that sometimes there is a negative effect with adding video, namely publishers limit their sales opportunities. Only iBooks, Nook, and secon generation Kindle Fires currently support audio and video in e-books, so Tallent thinks videos may be better on websites. However, publishers can also do what NBC Publishing does, which is to create both a vanilla and enhanced version of their e-books, so they can still sell to all channels.

If sharing videos on a website, however, it may be a good idea to password protect the content, either by placing a code in the back of the e-book or asking people to sign up for an account with a valid email. Tallent said publishers don’t want to make the e-book less important by having all video content available for free, but the videos should also not be password protected on a file basis.


In the example above, Tallent said his company created a map in the book that readers could tap to be taken to a secondary map, which zoomed in to specific restaurants. Readers could navigate to restaurants included in the book that way.

Maps can be good enhancements for travel books, Tallent said. Another example of an enhancement is a recipe in a cookbook. He said developers could also offer study guides.

Step 6: Interact with the web

“An e-book is already in some ways connected to the web,” Tallent said. For example, an e-book can point people to a website to get more information on a topic. Amazon already has a feature where readers can get more information and interact with Shelfari.

Developers can also link an e-book to videos on a website, as well as worksheets. For non-fiction books, it may be a good idea to link to a list of resources, or other information. Publishers can capture newsletter leads in exchange for access to this content.

However, keep in mind that most retailers have rules about what you are allowed to link. For example, you cannot link to a competing retailer’s product page. This means you cannot link to a Nook book in an Amazon book.

Step 7: Include connections to the print book when appropriate

Again, Tallent recommended connecting worksheets, since they are hard to do in e-books. You can make them available as a PDF download.

He said developers should consider what readers want and are able to do, and to build connections between the print and e-book versions.

Step 8: Don’t just think about the e-book, think about how you will market the content

It’s important to think how a book will work in the long-term. This especially works for novels and/or books in a series.

Tallent gave the example of Pixar’s movies. They thought about what kids would want, such as cars, and they made a movie that extended into toys, books, and more. There can be more content than just the book, so it’s best to research what other authors and publishers do.

Tallent recommended listening to the ebook Ninjas podcast, as well as follow the Twitter group using #eprdctn, and check out the e-book wiki,

More on E-Books

Tallent had more advice to give during the Q&A session of the webinar. Someone asked if fixed layout was a good option and how well supported it is. Tallent said it was a great option, for children’s books especially. It could also be done for non-fiction, but with more limitations. He said it could do well in iBooks, in both iBooks Author or Apple’s EPUB2 or EPUB3 fixed layout standard. Kobo also is EPUB3 compatible so it has some support for fixed layout, but the e-book must be tested on multiple Kobo devices. Nook does not have a fixed layout format, but Amazon does have fixed format for children’s books. However, a publisher could redesign non-fiction content to fit the 7-inch screen. One thing to do would be to make the font sizes larger. You wouldn’t want an 8 x 10 print cookbook to be automatically converted to a 7-inch screen—it would be unreadable.

Regarding embedded/special fonts, Tallent said that the biggest problem was licensing, but using special fonts are great. However, most devices give readers the option of turning off publisher fonts, so developers should make sure the e-book looks okay both ways—this is actually the reason I don’t recommend self-publishers worrying about embedding fonts, at least not for narratives.

Tallent said it’s best to be flexible, and to not get locked into a specific platform for everything you publish. Some platforms work better for certain types of books than others, so it’s best to try and test everything, if possible.

Although InDesign is a popular development platform for publishers, Tallent said using it is a workflow issue. If a publisher already uses InDesign to create a print book, then it makes sense to build an e-book workflow at the end of the print workflow.

However, he said he thinks it’s best to use any text editor for HTML development (he recommended Sublime Text 2, and Dreamweaver, without the WYSIWYG). The important thing is to get comfortable with the tool and know all its features.

“In my opinion, there’s not really any great tools for building e-book files,” he said, though he admitted there are some good proprietary platforms.

Being an e-book developer is “kind of like being a web designer,” he said.

Tallent said he was against using Calibre and Sigil, because they make changes to the code. “If you have really good understanding of HTML and CSS, you can do more interesting things with the code,” he said.

I agree with him about Calibre, but I’m a big fan of Sigil and I think it’s easy to use the program in a way to quickly and easily code e-books the way you want them.


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