Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Creating my first ePub: The details are in the margins

Prior to the launch of the iPad, I knew nothing about ePub. And now, almost a week later, I don’t know a whole heck of a lot more; other than it’s an HTML-like document format that’s best for novel-like publications.

I’ve never been a big fan of HTML

Still, out of curiosity - and while I wait to hear how Apple expects us to supply content for the iPad – I did some experimenting. I downloaded Adobe’s Digital Editions, an eBook reader that works with ePub and is available for both Mac and Windows. It's free.

When you open the application, it provides a sort of library interface, and then you “Add Item to Library” to open an ePub document and add it to the reader.

Once that was set up, I downloaded the trial version of iStudio Publisher, a Mac only application for word processing that can export to ePub. It’s actually the only thing that turns up on Apple’s site at the moment if you do a search for ePub.

iStudioPublisher and Adobe Digital Editions document

After installing the 30-day trial version, I did a very simple experiment of putting some text in a document, and exporting it to ePub. The first test went well; I opened the text file in Digital Editions, and it was pretty much as expected. I then tried adding a graphic, and discovered that as soon as I added an image to the file, iStudio Publisher would no longer allow me to export the document to ePub. Even if I removed the graphic.

In reading materials on their site, it appears that iStudio Publisher does not support graphics, just "text flows" to ePub. I also couldn't figure out how to create a TOC.

The next tool I tried was Sigil. This is a free application for both Mac and Windows. It’s much simpler in interface than iStudio Publisher, but then it’s only mission is to edit ePub documents.
Adobe Digital Editions and Sigil document

It doesn’t have a whole lot of features, but even so, creating chapter breaks and TOC items confused me for a while. It turns out that adding a chapter doesn’t automatically add a chapter item to the TOC. Instead, you have to set something to a Heading 1 style, and then it appears in the TOC (this was discovered by accident, as I couldn’t find any documentation with the product.)

Exporting went fine into Digital Editions, though I was a little troubled that the exported document lacked margins, with the text flush to the window. It lacks margins in Sigil as well, but that’s beside the point. Sigil does let you indent things, so I guess that’s the solution (though it doesn’t put a margin on the right side, just the left.) Clearly, I need to puzzle this out a bit more.

The program supports it's own file format (.sgf) as well as the ePub format, and you can use Save As to switch. I had a crash early on when I created a .sig file, then used Save As to create an ePub document, and then continued editing the document and tried to save it. The program was stable after that, editing both types of documents, though I haven't spent a lot of time with the program and can't really attest to how solid it is.

One good thing about Sigil is that it does support graphics. I added a cover and exported the file and was able to open and view it in Digital Editions. Digital Editions even created a thumbnail from that first graphic, though the thumbnail was a slightly scaled and heavily cropped version of the cover graphic.

After reading a posting on the Digital Editions forum, I tried rescaling the cover to 567x819 as suggested, but that still didn’t work. In the end, I ended up scaling down to a size of 390 x 563, which Digital Editions seemed to be happy with.

As an editor, there’s not much to Sigil, but then there’s not a whole lot to ePub either. I wish it did a slightly nicer job of presenting the document for editing; at the moment I think I’ll write in something else and just use Sigil to format the final output. It is free, so I can’t really complain about the value.


  1. As far as I can tell, inDesign is the best editing tool that can export to epub files. You need to have CS3 or CS4 to be able to export, but it works pretty well.

  2. As to documentation for Sigil: in the Help menu you have both 'User manual' , linking to , which has a whole chapter on TOC; there are 'FAQ' at .
    The author also contributes to the discussion at