Four Things I Learned From Creating My First Ebook

I didn’t plan on making an eBook two years ago. At the time, I was fresh out of college and doing contract work for Stone Bridge Press, a small publisher in Berkeley, Calif., that I had discovered by way of one of the most prized books in my collection, The Way of Taiko. It was a small, out-of-print book about the art of Japanese taiko drumming, and as an avid taiko drummer myself, the book was formative for me. I had quite literally read mine to pieces.

The process began with an off-hand comment in the Stone Bridge office: “You know,” I said, “The Way of Taiko would make an amazing enhanced eBook.” After pointing out all of the opportunities to enliven the text—-audio pronunciations for Japanese words, narrated stories, audio-enhanced sheet music and videos—-the wheels were set in motion. Stone Bridge’s chief editor helped get the author, Heidi Varian, on board, and she in turn enlisted help from her talented community to help me transition this book into the digital world.

Meanwhile, I was also dabbling in a new digital authoring tool in active development—-Inkling Habitat—-six months before its public release. Inkling allowed me to use their tool to publish The Way of Taiko, while I offered feedback on the experience. Fast forward two years, and I’m doing the same work, only now it’s at Inkling HQ itself.

But, of course, I had to start somewhere. The last few years working in various digital publishing capacities at places like Stone Bridge Press, Chronicle Books, and now Inkling, has given me some perspective on that inaugural project, and I reflected upon the top four lessons I learned from creating my first eBook.

1. Start small

The Way of Taiko is roughly 140 pages, many of which are full-page images. There was enough content to grapple with, but not so much that it was overwhelming. I followed Inkling’s guide in making a content map, identifying the structure of the book and all the places that I wanted to enhance. The design spec, where I determined book’s colors and general styling, wasn’t too complicated either; the process of transitioning a print design into a digital design was less daunting than coming up with a whole design system from scratch. Starting small helped me get started, period.

1. Learn (at Least) A little Code

I was a relatively green coder when I started this project, but I wanted to push those skills. So, I buckled down and learned the standards for HTML and CSS. Inkling Habitat has an excellent balance of convenient WYSIWYG editing alongside its code editor. Truthfully, WYSIWYG editing can generally get your content 90% styled and structured, and it allowed me to easily pull an image onto the page. But then I would inevitably crack open the code to get a better understanding of how it was working. Knowing a little bit of code can nudge your project closer to 100%; it gives you the power to troubleshoot your problems as well as elevate the design. The more comfortable I became switching back and forth into “code-mode,” the better the book became.


3. Test on devices

If you’re working in an environment that has a live preview, like Inkling Habitat, it’s easy to get lazy about testing your book on devices. But it’s a critical step for stress-testing your design and putting yourself in the reader’s shoes. While testing in-device, I often saw problems in the design that weren’t obvious before. Preemptively catching these bugs and fixing them as they came up meant that, by the time I built the final draft of the enhanced eBook version of The Way of Taiko, I was confident that it was robust and ready to go out into the world. Side note: creating digital books in ePUB and Mobi formats across a variety of eReader devices requires an even more rigorous dedication to in-device testing, which I learned later at Chronicle Books.

4. Get ready to wear lots of hats

While working on The Way of Taiko, I was constantly switching between design, development, editorial, copywriting, and marketing and production. If you have a dedicated team helping every step of the way, that’s fantastic, although you may miss out on the know-thyself power of going at it solo. Juggling these roles was a little mind-bending, but coming at an eBook from all angles gave me insight into what part of the process really spoke to me. Without a doubt, I most enjoyed solving problems in the book’s visual design; I loved the challenge of adapting the print design into digital while still retaining the spirit of the original.

Final thoughts

I was very lucky that The Way of Taiko was my first eBook. I was able to meaningfully enhance an influential book in a topic I care deeply about and was free to re-imagine the design. I had an enthusiastic and hands-off partner in Stone Bridge Press and wonderfully talented taiko community members to collaborate with. And, of course, I learned a lot; the only way to really understand the challenges of creating an eBook is to create an eBook! So, what are you waiting for?

What was your experience making your first eBook or piece of digital content? Let us know in the comments below!