DIY eBooks and pdf's: Tools, Options & Obstacles

With more and more people using tablets and e-readers, ebooks are starting to look like a very nice way to share resources with students.

This is especially true if:

  • you have more than ten pages of material,
  • you have it ready to distribute all at once–not in dribs and drabs.

Adobe Acrobat’s proprietary pdf format is also a widely-available export option in many software packages.

One of the big benefits of packaging material inside an ebook or a pdf is: navigation.

  • It’s easy to search for any word.
  • A multi-level table of contents (or something similar) lets users get to any section with only a couple of clicks–no searching or scanning or scrolling.

Of course, there are complications.

Basically, every common software tool has limitations. No one tool does everything. ‘How bad could it be?’

Take Microsoft Word, please. Most people have a copy of this software on some hard drive somewhere.

  • The current version of Microsoft Word can make a table of contents. But when you save your document as a pdf, the table of contents is inert: it’s not live hyperlinks within the pdf.
  • MS Word doesn’t export to any ebook format.

Pages is Apple’s answer to MS Word–and it costs only $20. Sweet.

  • Pages can export to ebooks in the widely-supported EPUB format. I’ve tried this, and they look quite nice.
  • Pages will make a table of contents, and that table will be clickable (live hyperlinks) in a pdf. But this requires scrolling back to the table of contents very time you want to find something.

OpenOffice is a free alternative to MS Office. And it has extensions that export your work to EPUB.

  • But the extensions aren’t supported and can be buggy.
  • A pdf from Open Office will have a nice pdf navigation structure (if you define headings and subheadings in your document).
  • But a table of contents in a pdf from OpenOffice is not clickable (live hyperlinks).

Apple’s offers a tool for writing ebooks: iBook Author. It’s free. What’s not to like?

  • Apple’s tool creates ebooks only in Apple’s proprietary .ibook format. You can understand why: they want more titles to sell in their iTunes-like bookstore.
  • iBook Author will also turn your draft ebook into a pdf. But there’s no table of contents.

So why not explore selling your book on Kindle or as an iBook?

  • Proprietary ebook formats–like those for Kindle and iPad–generally prevent printing (or make it very difficult). So if you want anyone to print pages from your book, forget those formats.

Can’t I just pull together my pdf’s and make some kind of table of contents?

  • Yes. Adobe Acrobat X Pro allows you to bring together pdf’s into a larger pdf.
  • You can also highlight any text and make it into a “Bookmark.” You can then drag-and-drop the Bookmarks to sort and even hierarchize them.
  • But this is a separate step, after authoring using another tool (such as Word or Pages or OpenOffice).

If you munge all these options and obstacles, there are a few bright shining pathways.

I want people to print the pages of my ebook–and I want the printed pages to look just the way I made them.

Make a pdf, not an ebook. One virtue of ebooks is: reflowing. If you want a bigger or smaller font, the text re-arranges itself on the pages. Nice for reading, not for printing. Also: many ebook formats make printing difficult. So if printing is important, stick to pdf.

I want lovely layout. All my students have iPads or iPhones. And I have a Mac with a recent operating system.

Use Apple’s free iBook Author tool. It runs on a fairly recent version of Mac OS X. There’s no Windows version. And the books can currently only be viewed on iOS–Apple’s operating system for iPhones and iPads.

I want students to have an ebook that is easy to navigate and can be read on many devices.

Use Apple’s $20 Pages software. It will export to EPUB in a highly navigable way. You can also make a pdf with a clickable table of contents, but it won’t have the lovely navigation structure in the pdf form (unless you add it seprately using Adobe Acrobat Pro, or something similar).

I want to compose in a familiar format and then make a pdf that is easy to navigate.

Use OpenOffice. Apply Styles for headings and subheadings. When you export to pdf, your headings and subheadings will be hierarchized Bookmarks in the finished pdf. But if you make a table of contents (using the built-in tool that generates it automatically), don’t expect it to be clickable.

In short, there are many inexpensive and free options for making ebooks and pdf’s. But each has its limitations. If what you want fits within these strictures, you’re golden.

Go thou & make ebooks.

--Edward R. O'Neill


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