Building E-Books: A Tool Overview for Technical Writers

top 12 technical communication articles 2As e-books become another option for publishing technical content, writers are faced with more choices among the tools to produce them. In my previous articles on e-book readers and formats, I noted the similarities between e-book formats and the online help formats that technical writers have been using for many years. In this article, I’ll look at some of the tools you can use to create EPUB books, the most common e-book format. I’ll also show how you can convert an EPUB to Amazon’s Kindle format.

EPUB is a well-defined format and is now supported by RoboHelp, WebWorks ePublisher, and Help and Manual, although not by any of the other tools listed on the site. While it’s possible to create an EPUB book directly from hand-coded files, I don’t recommend doing that. Given the deadline pressures and resource limitations faced by many technical writers, it’s just not a viable option. If you want to know more about how to do it, read How to Format Your eBook for Kindle, NOOK, Smashwords, and Everything Else by Paul Salvette. Keep in mind that you should know HTML well enough to be able to debug and correct formatting problems by editing the output of the tool you are using. HTML familiarity is especially important, because neither EPUB nor Kindle support the full range of HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) formatting.

Using your help-authoring tool

If you have RoboHelp, WebWorks ePublisher, or Help and Manual, you should be able to create an EPUB book since these programs offer EPUB as a standard output format. You may have to make formatting adjustments to your content, especially if you use tables or graphics, and you may need to compensate for features that EPUB doesn’t support (context sensitivity and indexing).

For more information about creating EPUB with RoboHelp, see Neil Perlin’s article on Adobe’s RoboHelp Developer Center: Creating eBooks using RoboHelp 9. Perlin makes some suggestions that you should follow no matter what tool you’re using. Always use CSS for formatting, and keep your style sheets as simple as possible. Use relative sizes rather than absolute sizes – for example, use ems instead of points – because you probably can’t know the screen size or even the type of device your readers may be using.

If you’re using a tool that doesn’t offer direct EPUB output, such as Madcap Flare, you’ll have to export to XHTML, and use another tool to build your files.

Using FrameMaker or Microsoft Word

If you’re using FrameMaker without a help authoring tool, your EPUB options are more limited.

  • For unstructured FrameMaker, you can use Elmsoft’s new EPubFm plug-in, although that tool currently only works with individual FrameMaker document files and not FrameMaker books.
  • You could also use Omni Systems’ MIF2GO to produce either RTF or HTML files, which you can then import into another tool.
  • If you use structured FrameMaker and DITA, you can use oXygen or Elliot Kimber’s DITA for Publishers (still in development, but usable) to produce EPUB from your DITA files.

Microsoft Word users have more options for converting to EPUB format.

Although it’s not widely used in the technical communications industry, Adobe InDesign’s sophisticated layout and typographic controls make it a popular choice for book publishers. InDesign can output EPUB files directly. This Adobe whitepaper describes how to use it to create e-books for Apple’s iPad.

Speaking of Apple, they recently announced a new e-book format, iBooks 2  and a new authoring tool, iBooks Author, aimed at textbook publishers. Keep a close eye on this one. There’s nothing in the Windows world that comes close to iBooks Author for ease of use, and the interactive features supported by iBooks 2 are likely to make this a popular format, at least for Apple devices.

Dedicated EPUB tools

Because the EPUB format uses XHTML for the content of e-books, you can use the HTML output from other programs, although you’ll probably have to do some cleanup of the files, either manually or with scripts. You aren’t limited to the standard commercial tools I’ve described previously. There are several open source programs that will build EPUB files from HTML or convert other formats into EPUB. The most notable are Calibre and Sigil.

Calibre is the Swiss Army knife of e-book programs. To describe all of its features would take a whole article, but for technical writers, the most important are:

Figure 1: E-book conversion in Calibre

If you need more control over your content than Calibre offers, look at Sigil. It’s very similar to help authoring tools like RoboHelp, but with EPUB as its native format. Because you’re working directly with the XHTML content files, you have complete control over how your information will appear (at least within the limitations of the EPUB specification).

Figure 2: Sigil has a split view option to view code and layout


Converting e-book formats

Although you can create Kindle format e-books directly with Amazon’s KindleGen program, it’s easier to create an EPUB book first, then convert it to Kindle format. You can use Calibre to do this and generally get good results, as long as you don’t have complex formatting requirements – the Kindle format is even more basic than EPUB, particularly when for tables.

Of course, you can go in the other direction, and convert Kindle format e-books to EPUB. Calibre will convert between several formats, as long as they’re DRM-free, that is, not copy-protected. There are tools that will let you strip the DRM applied by the various online bookstores, so you can buy a book from, for example, and convert it to a .mobi file to read on your Kindle. If you live in the United States, doing this is a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. DRM likely won’t be an issue if you’re producing e-books for corporate use, rather than selling them through one of the online bookstores.

Next up, a review of some books about e-books and electronic publishing.

E-Book Resources for Technical Writers


All About E-Readers, by Keith Soltys

Creating ebooks using RoboHelp 9, by Neil Perlin

E-Book Formats, by Keith Soltys

eBooks: From Adobe® InDesign® to the Apple iBookstore, Adobe White Paper

EPUB Standard, International Digital Publishing Forum

From LibreOffice to ePub, Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield’s Blog

HAT Matrix

How to Format Your eBook for Kindle, NOOK, Smashwords, and Everything Else, by Paul Salvette


<oXygen/> XML Editor by Syncro Soft

Calibre e-book Management (open source)

DITA for Publishers by Eliot Kimber (open source)

EPubFm by ElmSoft

ePub Maker by Epingsoft

MIF2Go by Omni Systems

Sigil WYSIWYG  Ebook Editor (open source)

Twister4Word by Backspin Software

Writer2ePub extension by Open Source Lab


Keith SoltysKeith Soltys - 07/03/2012 - Category:e-Books - 6 Comments - tagsebooks