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The rise of ebooks means there’s more interest in converting documents into formats that the devices can read – we’ll show you how and the limitations to keep in mind.
Ebook readers can officially view a variety of formats but sometimes these formats don’t display very well. For example they often can view PDF files but there are problems with how they show up on the screen making them hard to read.
The same goes for other devices and other formats. For the best reading experience, try to convert to the main format supported by the reader. All these formats are designed for ebooks but don’t support complex formatting like sidebars, text boxes and even tables can be a problem
For the Amazon Kindle, that’s MOBI (the AZW books you get from Amazon are MOBI format with proprietary DRM protection). The Nook and Sony Reader support EPUB format.
This article will shows the basics of converting from Office documents to MOBI and other ebook formats. It’s intended for the occasional user who wants to copy something to their device for later reading. For example a long document you want to peruse over time or some reference document.
Microsoft Office has many 'Save As ...' options to a range of document formats. Since Microsoft 'discovered' the PDF format with Office 2007, there's usually no need to convert documents outside of Office. The rise of ebook readers means external conversions are necessary again.
Professional needs, for example making an ebook for sale (like our Kindle editions) requires different tools such as MobiPocket Creator and the Kindle Publishing Resources and is beyond the scope of this short article.
Amazon has a document conversion service available for Kindle users - which can be free or has a small charge. It's results can be good or bad depending on the document. We prefer the method below because it gives you the chance to change the source document in ways that suit the ebook readers limitations.
We’re going to focus on MOBI conversions, the format we know best because of our experience making Kindle ebooks. Similar steps can be used to make other ebook formats.
Convert to RTF
First step is to ‘Save As… ’ your document to the Rich Text Format. RTF is the format used by the conversion program.
To do that, use Save As in Word or PowerPoint to make an RTF copy of the document or text from a presentation.
Excel doesn’t have an RTF export option so you need to copy the worksheet to a Word document and proceed from there. Note that Excel conversions don’t work very well because MOBI has very poor table support and you can’t properly display a worksheet without tables.
Review the formatting
The MOBI format has limitations in what it can display. MOBI wasn’t designed as a full fidelity display option like PDF or XPS nor does it have the powerful features of modern web pages. In addition there are the limitations of the ereader such as narrow screen and grayscale screen.
Don’t expect the ebook version of a document to look exactly the same as it does in Word … it won’t. You need to rearrange the document into a form which the ebook readers can handle, though it’s hard with more complex documents.
Technically MOBI is a stripped down set of HTML formatting that’s then compressed to reduce file size. It’s designed for ebooks that are mostly text such as novels and to allow the text to be resized and reflowed on the device.
Images are supported but should only be used ‘in-line’ not wrapped around text. Obviously, the images will only be displayed as greyscale, not color.
There are table options in MOBI but they are so primitive that tables are effectively unavailable.
You need to go through your document and simplify the formatting where necessary. Keep in mind that ebook formats are designed for things like novels with a basic “ Heading then Text then another Heading “ structure. Try to ‘massage’ the document into that form.
Some things to look for:
- Standardize the headings. A simple ‘Heading 1’ ‘Heading 2’ etc structure is best because that’s the same as the HTML/mobi tags use.
- Fonts should be standardized and simplified. There is limited font support on ebook readers. Bold, Italic and Underline are pretty much the limit of your font decoration options.
- Remove text boxes. Remove and make the content part of the main text, probably under a sub-heading.
- Images should have the Word default ‘in line with text’ positioning with no wrapping. Make sure that images have enough contrast for a greyscale screen. You might prefer to convert them to grayscale yourself in Word so you have more control over how they appear and to reduce the size of the final document.
- Embedded charts, SmartArt, Shapes etc should appear as images in the RTF version, make sure they show up as you expect.
- Tables need to be converted. Simple tables can be changed to a list with headings and details below each. Word has Table to Text options that might help. Another option is to take a screen shot of the table and insert an image of the table instead. Admittedly, they aren’t very good conversion options but it’s all you can do with the MOBI shortcomings.
This takes some experimentation; don’t expect your documents to convert smoothly the first time. It’s likely you’ll have to check your final MOBI file then go back to the RTF and make some more changes before trying again.
Convert to MOBI
To convert from RTF to the ebook format, go directly to Calibre.
Calibre is an excellent ebook library organizer by Kovid Goyal leading many contributors. It can not only organize your ebooks it can also convert unprotected ebooks between the different ebook formats.
Calibre is free but we strongly suggest you make a donation. Kovid regularly updates the program to fix bugs and add new features. That kind of dedication deserves acknowledgment and reward.
We can’t go into all the setup and features of Calibre here, there’s a good ‘Quick Start’ guide which is added to your library during setup.
Firstly add the RTF document to Calibre, simply drag the RTF file from its folder to the Calibre library. Calibre will copy the file and add it to the library automatically.
To convert the document, select the item in in the library and click on the Convert Books button. A big conversion dialog will appear but don’t panic because most of the options can be ignored.
The Input format (top left) should be RTF already. The Output Format (top right) should also be correct (eg MOBI for Kindle users, EPUB for most other readers) because Calibre will choose the correct format according to whatever ebook reader you chose during setup. You can change the Output format if you wish.
Click OK and Calibre will do the conversion in the background. It usually only takes a minute or two.
Once you have an ebook version of your document, you can view it in Calibre using View | View specific format.
To copy the ebook to your device either use Calibre (Send to device) or open the folder in the Calibre library and copy the file to your device manually.
Article posted: Wednesday, 24 August 2011
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