How to easily convert documents to ebooks

laboratory blogIf I’ve ever given the impression that I know what I’m doing, I sincerely apologize. My usual approach is to decide I want to do something that I have no idea how to do and then go watch how-to videos on youtube until I figure it out. This approach pays off for me about 85% of the time for DIY home improvements and 50% of the time for auto mechanics, but every now and then I find myself getting stuck in a project where I can’t find easy step-by-step instructions. Creating ebooks was one such project.

Note that if you’re publishing through Kindle, Smashwords, or another storefront or storefront proxy, you probably don’t need to worry about any of this. This is only if you want to make your own books without going through another service first.

You don’t have to be a rocket surgeon to convert ebooks. On the downside, there will always be some unpredictable results and a high probability of running into a few brick walls, so if you have the money you might still consider hiring a pro to prepare your book for you. On the other hand, if you’re like me and you have only a shoe-string budget, all the software is free, and with a little patience you can make your ebook as fancy or as streamlined as you want.

Plus, you’ve got what I didn’t have: this step-by-step guide that will allow you to turn anything you write into an ebook in about 60 seconds and then ship it off to your Kindle, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you prefer.

I’m sure there are plenty of others out there who know better ways and better software than what I used, and I welcome your comments on this post. I love to learn!

The Software

The software I used was Calibre (version 1.39), which isn’t actually meant to be a big powerful ebook editing tool but works wonders on that front anyway. Later in the process, I also used Sigil to do some post-conversion editing, but if anyone is interested in what I know about Sigil, let me know in the comments and I’ll do another post on that.

Calibre has a perfectly good user’s manual and ample user support resources and forums on line. What I’m writing here isn’t meant to replace any of that, simply to give you a quick-start guide to the workflow as well as a few notes about how to avoid some of the pitfalls I experienced.


Step 1: Importing

The first step is to transform your document. The only tricky part about doing this with Calibre is that you don’t start with Calibre. Actually, there’s a secondary program that will be automatically loaded and installed with Calibre, so find the app called “Edit Ebook 64 Bit” and start by opening that. (You can also access this from within the Calibre library, but I want to stick with one thing at a time.

The dashboard will look like this:

edit ebook

Step 1.A: importing

Open the File menu and select “Import an HTML or DOCX file as a new book.” I ran into some trouble here with some documents that wouldn’t open, so you can use your word processor to “save as web page” and then open the new HTML version. You can also do this if your word processor doesn’t save as DOCX.

Step 1.B: Table of Contents

Click on the little box that says “T” to open and edit your table of contents. If you don’t want to add a table of contents, do this anyway and then erase it.

Step 1.C: Bug Check

Click the little ladybug to run a bug check. You can then select “automatically fix” to take care of most problems. If there are other problems that you don’t know what to do with, you can ignore them, search online for what they mean, or go back and re-save your document as an HTML and then start over from 1.A.

Step 1.D: Embed Fonts

If you want to use any special fonts, click on the first “A” tile and then the other “A” tile. The first one embeds the fonts you used and then the other one gets rid of all the info about the embedded fonts except what you actually use (which helps cut down file size, but you might not want to do that if you expect to do some post-conversion editing.

Don’t forget to save early and save often! The “save” button looks like a weird square yin-yang thing. (I know a floppy disk is a totally obsolete icon, but this seems like a weird thing to replace it with…)


Step 2: Prepping the ebook

If all went smoothly (and it doesn’t always go smoothly), Step 1 allowed you to create a fledgling ebook in the “.EPUB” format which can be used on most non-kindle devices. If you just want bare bones stuff, you can stop here. Otherwise, open the “Calibre 64 bit Ebook Management” app, which should look like this:

calibre desktop


Step 2.A: add the .epub

Add the book. Simply click this and find your .EPUB document that you converted.

Step 2.B: metadata

Click the big “i” in the blue circle to edit the metadata. Fill in all the things you can. This is also where you can add your cover and do a few other things. It will look like this:

calibre metadata

Step 2.C: Convert for Kindle or other formats

Once you’ve got all the metadata squared away, click “Convert Books.” This will allow you to change the format to fit other e-readers, including PDFs and all Kindle formats. (see step 3 below for more on this.)

Step 2.D: Preview

Whatever you do, don’t assume that it’s going to turn out looking the way it should. Check it out in the previewer. If you’re preparing it for the Kindle, you might want to download the “Kindle Previewer” app from Amazon so you can see how it looks on different devices. Of course, you can always load it on your device and see what it looks like there, too!

Step 3: Converting to other file formats

You only need to do this if you want something different from .EPUB.

calibre conversion 1

Step 3.A: Select Ebook Format

Select this first or else it will reset all your other settings when you change it later.

If you have a Kindle Fire or an Android device, select .AZW3 because it will support more fonts than the .MOBI.

If you have a Kindle e-ink device (such as the paperwhite or the DX) of if you want to use “Send to Kindle” desktop app, select .MOBI—but be warned that .MOBI doesn’t support many of the fonts that .AZW3 can.

Kubo, iBooks, and Nook all use the .EPUB format and maybe a few others. Check your device’s documentation to find out for sure.

Calibre can create MANY other options. Find out what works for your device or play around with the options, because there are lots to choose from!

Step 3.B: Embed Fonts

Just to be safe, click on “Look and Feel” and then check “embed referenced fonts” and “subset all fonts.” If you’re feeling brave, you can try out the other options. Let me know what they do!

calibre conversion 2

What if it doesn’t look right???

If you want the book to look exactly, specifically, precisely a certain way, you might be disappointed. As web designers know, the better you make it look for some devices, the worse it will look on others. In the worst cases, you may have to go back to the original document, make changes, and then run it back through all these steps. You can also get Sigil, a WYSIWYG ebook editor. If you’re interested in that one, let me know in a comment and I’ll give a quickstart guide like this one.


That’s it! Go enjoy your new ebooks and revel in your power to make things appear on your e-reader.

If you have any questions or advice to add, please leave them in the comments.

About Sechin Tower

Sechin Tower is a teacher, game developer, and author of MAD SCIENCE INSTITUTE, a novel of creatures, calamities, and college matriculation. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
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