Publishing eBooks on a Shoestring Budget

    October 21, 2002

I recently received an email from a hockey coach with a Web site. He was searching for a way to create an ebook to sell on his site. But since he just wanted to create just one ebook, he didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a program to do the job. His question – is it possible to create ebooks for free?

The dilemma piqued my interest, and I mulled over the idea of inexpensive ways to produce documents for distribution over the Internet. One way to do the job, of course, is to convert documents to HTML. Since HTML is not only easy to steal but also easy to alter, I dismissed any solutions immediately that offered that option. My quest was, therefore, to find a program that would make an ebook that either had an associated proprietary viewer or was in PDF format.

This is a lot to ask – the most obvious solutions are very expensive. Adobe Acrobat, for example, costs between $200 and $250. PageMaker can also do the job, if you’re willing to spend $500, and FileMaker Pro will do it for around $250. While these are excellent choices if you want to publish many ebooks with the expectation you’ll not only make back the initial investment but also make a profit, they’re hardly suitable for a one-book e-author addressing a limited audience, like my hockey coach. And so my quest began.

Before experimenting with freeware and shareware on the Internet, I needed a book. I’ve never written a book, so I found one instead. My test book was The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy, downloaded from Project Gutenberg. The book was in plain text format and was 138 pages in length. I also enlisted the help of fellow editor and willing guinea pig Garrett French, who wanted a copy of the book in question, but didn’t want to read it in Project Gutenberg’s format.

The first software I tested was eBooks WriterLite!, which I had high hopes for since the Lite version is free (the Pro version costs $99). This program is not without excellent features. You can easily control the colors in your documents, and you can select your fonts and styles. The program also suggests it’s possible to insert hyperlinks, insert pictures, and perform some fairly advanced formatting. When individuals receive ebooks created with this software, they must install the proprietary reader. This is a simple procedure and Garrett (my test subject) was able to do it with ease.

Sadly, eBooksWriterLite! did not do an excellent job on The Kreutzer Sonata. I found it frustrating that I could not easily select the entire text using keyboard commands (138 pages is a long way to drag a mouse). When I imported my book in rich text format with pictures and hyperlinks, eBooksWriterLite! stripped the links and pictures, letting me know these options were only available in the pro version. Another limitation appears to be the length of the book. Garrett reported that he only received the first 13 chapters of The Kreutzer Sonata – apparently there are length limitations on this program (whether that goes for the Pro version as well I am not sure, since I did not get any messages about excessive length but merely noted that the book only spanned 13 chapters). Another drawback of this program is that you’re able to select and paste passages of text from the completed ebook. Most authors won’t like this, since stealing a book in this format is very simple (it has the same drawbacks as publishing in HTML). Some may see the ability to copy as an advantage, as it does make copying sections for reference easier. Is it a feature or a bug? You can decide for yourself.

Fortunately, I fared much better with the next program I tried. Called PDF995 and based on GNU Ghostscript, it does one thing and it does it very well – it creates PDF files. This program is free, and the only annoyance is the sponsor page that displays each time you run the software. This is a very minor drawback, especially if you’re only creating one or two ebooks. You certainly won’t notice. If you feel moved to do so, you can register this program. At $9.95, it’s an excellent deal, although registration is not required.

I copied my text version of The Kreutzer Sonata into Word. I added a few pictures (including a photo of Tolstoy himself), a few hyperlinks, and even formatted portions of the text using Word styles. When I finished, the book looked quite nice. Making the PDF was very, very easy. I simply selected Word’s Print option and chose the PDF995 printer option. Word prompted me to choose a name and a location for the saved PDF, and took a minute or two to process all the pages. Afterward, I had a beautiful PDF document. Garrett thought so too, and all he had to do to view it was double-click on the saved file. Since most people have already installed the Acrobat plugin, there’s nothing extra to install.

The nice thing about a PDF is that it’s not easily modified. This makes theft or alteration through copying and reformatting more difficult. The file size is also compact – my 138-page book turned into a 430 KB PDF file.

There are some things that Acrobat does that PDF995 does not, so the free program certainly isn’t a 100% replacement for Adobe Acrobat. While text color seems to translate perfectly well into PDFs, hyperlinks do not. Also, if you attempt to make your page background any other color than white, PDF995 will ignore it and revert to white in the final copy. It’s also not possible to build document structures. In short, PDF995 lacks all of the advanced features that people who probably should buy a commercial product will need, but has all of the basic features the small time author will appreciate.

It’s rare that I find a truly useful free program that’s easy to install and easy to use. PDF995 certainly fits into this category, however, and I do recommend it to anyone who wants to distribute PDF files over the Internet. If you are considering selling materials, be sure to make yourself aware of basic copyright laws first. The publishing industry is not exempt from the copyright disputes plaguing the music industry and the movie industry, as the unauthorized duplication and redistribution of digital media is illegal but simple.

A final note:

I hope Rob the hockey coach does well with his book, and I hope Garrett enjoyed reading the Tolstoy stories. A big thanks to Garrett, too, for letting me distract him with lots of questions about impressions of software and ease of opening files. And good luck to you would-be authors out there – you have the tools now, so get writing!

Jackie Rosenberger is an editor with iEntry, Inc.