Creating a Workable Book Publishing Workflow

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November 2012
by Susan Daffron

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Countless book-publishing articles and seminars have discussed how big publishers might add e-books into an existing book-publishing workflow. You read about “Starting with XML” and a lot of other ideas that sound good in theory. However, they rarely take account of the tools most independent publishers actually use.

Here at our tiny publishing company, we have established a book-publishing workflow that works for us mostly because of one core concept: The creation of our books’ text and the formatting are separate activities.

Our process relies heavily on the use of Styles. In Word and in InDesign, a Style lets you apply a name to each formatting attribute you use for a particular kind of text, such as a heading.

Whether or not you’ve ever consciously applied a Style, Styles lurk in the background of every document. That lone paragraph mark you see when you open a blank document in Microsoft Word has a Style called Normal applied to it.

Virtually all word processing and graphic design software uses Styles, even if the software calls them something else, such as style sheets or tags. In HTML, the formatting tags (or styles) are defined in a cascading style sheet (CSS) file.

No matter what tools you use, if you can get the Styles to carry forward from one format to another, you can reformat your text easily, whether it’s for a print book or an e-book.

For our company’s production workflow, we use an admittedly odd collection of tools, but they all tie together, and the system works because we use Styles from beginning to end. If you don’t use Styles (or, worse, don’t even know what Styles are), your book production workflow is going to be slow, error-prone, and painful. If you’re just starting to use Styles, get basic information from “Save Time and Money by Designing with E-books in Mind” by Jonathan Scott (February 2012), available via ibpa-online.org.

Using word processing or graphic design software without taking advantage of Styles is like riding a bike with training wheels; you can get where you want to go, but you can’t get there quickly. The menus and toolbar buttons in your software may serve for formatting the occasional single-page document, but they won’t give you what you need to design and produce books. (Formatting text using the menus and toolbars is called local formatting.)

Suppose you do book layout for a living (as I do). Your client has taken three weeks to review your carefully crafted book. Then the client comes back and says the font you used for the body copy looks “wrong” and maybe “we” should change the headings from 13- to 14-point type so the book looks more “impressive.”

If you’ve set up the book using Styles, you won’t have to scan through all 250 pages, laboriously changing each heading one by one (and missing your deadline). Instead, you make one change in one dialog box, and that change instantly and automatically ripples through the document.

How the Workflow Works

Using Styles consistently for the text of a book also lets you move that same text into a variety of other formats.

Here’s how this plays out in real life with the tools we have available. Although your tools may be different, keeping the core idea of Styles in mind can save you a lot of work and a lot of grief.

Start with text. We believe that writers should not be concerned about formatting while they write, so we created writing software called IdeaWeaver that we use to write our books. Other similar tools, such as Scrivener, also force you to focus just on the words. For us, writing without worrying about formatting makes a big difference in productivity.

Export to Word, edit, and apply Styles. We export the text we create with our writing software into Word, spell-check everything, and do initial editing. Then we apply Word’s built-in Styles for headings and apply custom Styles that we’ve created to other elements of the text, such as bullets. We don’t use any local formatting except for bold and italic, and we never use anything but the simplest Word features. Because Word lets you apply Styles with keyboard shortcuts, you can format a long document quickly.

We’ve standardized the names for the few custom Styles we need. For example, endorsements often have special specs. Whether an endorsement is in a Word document, an InDesign file, or a cascading Style sheet, the Style name we use for that text is “Endorsement.”

Move to InDesign. We use Adobe InDesign to lay out the print editions of our books, and we create our InDesign template with Style names that exactly match the Style names in Word. When we flow the text into InDesign, we map the Styles so they are formatted with the InDesign Style. Then we do final pagination and tweaking and create any additional Styles we need. We also put tables or graphics into the InDesign file and do our final proofing on the file.

Export the InDesign text to RTF. Once the files for the print book are ready and off to the printer, we move on to our e-book editions. We export the final text from InDesign to RTF, so we can open it in Word.

Tweak for e-formats. The print layout often has a few formatting features that we can’t or don’t want to replicate in an e-book. For example, drop caps generally need to be converted to raised caps. So we go through the Word RTF document and tweak the Styles as necessary.

Generate HTML. To convert this Word document to HTML, we run an in-house program that maps Word Styles to HTML styles (or tags) and generates simple, clean HTML. (Note: we do not use the built-in HTML export tools from Word because in every version of Word we’ve seen, the export generates bloated and messy HTML code.)

Since we use Word’s built-in Styles as much as possible, it is easy to reliably map a Word Heading 1 to an HTML H1 tag. Similarly, our custom Styles, with their standardized names, can easily be matched to corresponding HTML tags. All the HTML tags are defined in a separate external CSS file. If we need to change the way a particular HTML tag appears, we make formatting changes in the CSS file.

Our HTML converter is homegrown, but you could get similar results by pasting Word text into Dreamweaver, which is fairly smart about “reading” Word headings as HTML headings, and so forth.

As an aside, some people have asked us why we don’t use the EPUB export from InDesign. The reason is that the version of InDesign we are using (CS3) doesn’t do a good job with the export. It was more work to clean up that mess than it was to go from RTF to HTML.

Assemble an EPUB File. We assemble the HTML files for the book by hand to create an EPUB file. Several tools on the market are designed to accomplish this step, but we’ve never found one that gives us the level of control we want.

A linked table of contents is arguably the hardest (and most time-consuming) part of an EPUB file to create by hand. We use another homegrown tool to help us assemble the TOC and insert hyperlinks in the HTML.

Run Epubcheck. Most vendors that allow you to upload a book as an EPUB file require it to pass an industry-standard validation program called Epubcheck. We always validate our EPUB files with Epubcheck before we send them out, and correct any errors we find.

Once the EPUB file passes Epubcheck, our book as digital product is ready to be uploaded to Barnes & Noble PubIt! and the other vendors that support EPUB files.

Run Kindlegen. To generate a version for upload to Amazon, we run the EPUB file through the Kindlegen program, which is a free download at Amazon that converts EPUB files to Mobipocket files. Then we upload our book’s Mobipocket file to Amazon’s KDP for Kindle sales.

Although Mobipocket supports proprietary HTML tags and styling tricks, we’ve been able to get good results without tweaking the HTML specifically for the Mobipocket editions of our books.

For Smooth Segues

One thing to note about this process is that it runs one way. If we need to make changes after a book has been published, we have to go back to the InDesign file and the EPUB file and make them there (the Mobipocket file will then get regenerated from the EPUB file). For a completely new edition of a book, we’d need to start the whole process over again.

As I’ve said, we created some homegrown tools to help with our workflow. But if you make sure you use Styles consistently, you can probably create a workable workflow for yourself, using the tools available to you.


Susan Daffron, aka The Book Consultant, owns a book and software publishing company called Logical Expressions. She reports that she spends most of her time writing, laying out books in InDesign, or taking her dogs out for romps in the forest. She and her husband, James Byrd, also put on the annual Self-Publishers Online conference (SelfPublishersOnlineConference.com).

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