How eBooks are made (not born)


By Jenny Bullough, Digital Content Manager, and ebook data geek

Last week Angela posed a question on Twitter, asking “do you have a question for an editor?” One of the responses came from @thedaisyharris: Why yes, I do! Why does it take so long to get an e-book out? I’d think once it’s edited it could go live. What am I missing? Since I manage the production of ebooks for Harlequin and Carina Press, Angela put me on the spot! Ready? Here we go!

I have to preface this by emphasizing that every publisher is different, so the processes each house follows are different, but in giving you a topline overview of the process we use at Harlequin and Carina my aim is to explain why it’s not immediate for most any publisher.

Technically, you’re right – once the book is edited, it could be converted immediately to ePub (the universal, open source format created by the International Digital Publishing Forum) and go live. But most publishers want to make sure that the book is as clean, nice-looking, and error-free as possible, to ensure a good reading experience; and doing that takes a bit more time.

In terms of our process, once the final, edited, formatted manuscript has been delivered as an electronic file, it has to be formatted (or deformatted if it’s a PDF typeset for print) – things like tabs, line breaks, asterisks, etc that don’t always render the way you want them to in ebook formats need to be tweaked so that the miracle of reflowable text can happen during conversion. That can take a couple of hours per file depending on the length and complexity of the book.

Then it has to be converted to ePub.  Believe it or not, it can take a few hours to run a simple scripted conversion software, then run the final file against the IDPF ePub checker to make sure it adheres to the format specifications (if it doesn’t, ebooksellers won’t accept the file). If it doesn’t pass, it’s back to square one – reformat and reconvert, then try again.

Once it passes the ePub checker, the final ePub file is sent to our team of proofers for quality control check – our last chance to catch any typos, formatting errors, or stray code that will detract from the reading experience. If there are errors, it has to go back for correction, then be QC’d again, and lather rinse repeat.

When the ePub file has passed QC and is finalized and looking all pretty, the file has to be sent to ebooksellers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books on Board, Diesel eBooks, and many many more. Each of these ebooksellers has a different process for accepting files and ingesting them into their databases. This is often done by FTP and while it’s relatively quick to transfer one file or a few files, most ebooksellers will only accept files in big batches; so if there’s a typo or error in one file, the whole batch of 100+ ePubs waits until they’re all ready for public sale.

The other tricky part is marrying up the ePub file with the correct metadata, marketing images (ie cover thumbnails), and in the case of some ebooks, preparing special promotions, discounts, or other marketing material before the ebook goes live and on-sale.

So it can take at least a couple of days from final, edited file to sending the file to vendors – and that’s assuming there are no complications or errors. Sounds simple enough, right? You could bang that out on a slow Monday and have it on sale on Wednesday if all goes well. Where things get sticky is when you multiply this process by 300 or so – a typical monthly production load for the Harlequin digital team.

Hopefully this answers your question! If not, let us know in the comments!


17 thoughts on “How eBooks are made (not born)”

  1. Lynn says:

    Jenny – I’m impressed! It sounds like a lot of work to get these out – and though people think of how much time and effort an author puts into a manuscript – few think of all the others it takes to get that manuscript out so it can be read and enjoyed. So for all of us readers (and authors!) – thank you, thank you, thank you!

  2. Daisy Harris says:

    Thanks so much for answering. This is very informative and interesting. I have a follow-up question. Since many publishers of e-books make said books available on their own website exclusively for a period of time- does the reconciling the book to the various formats (Nook, Kindle, etc.) still have to be done before the book is released on the publisher’s site? Yes, right?

    Another question (are you hating me yet?) So is Carina Press now distributing through other online retailers- Kindle store and Nook store and iBooks? I thought your website said that right now books are only available through your website. (But I may be reading this wrong.)

    Thanks again for your real-time and helpful response!


    (Mere Temptation set to release through Siren-Bookstrand Dec 2010, Mere Passion Jan 2011.)

  3. Jenny Bullough says:

    Lynn — you’re welcome! And thank you for reading and enjoying :)

  4. Jenny Bullough says:

    Daisy — how could I hate anyone who asks such articulate and pertinent questions? Honestly, ebooks are my passion and I could discourse on processes all day long (just ask my darling husband, lol).

    The answer to your follow-up questions is yes, and yes.

    The timing depends on whether the publisher or the ebookseller is converting that final ePub file to the secondary, proprietary formats like Kindle — but it does have to be done in many cases, and in all cases, the ebookseller also applies DRM to the file.

    Happily, Carina Press books are now available on the Kindle, the Nook, the iBookstore app for iPad, and anywhere ebooks are sold!

  5. Daisy Harris says:

    Thanks Jenny, for your reply. Glad to hear you’re books are available so widely. Not sure why I got that wrong. A Twitter friend of mine is a Harlequin author and always singing the company’s praises. I’d been thinking of querying Carina when I finished my current WIP, first in a new series, but was a little reluctant because I wasn’t sure about distribution. Thanks for allaying my fears! (Is allaying a word? I apologixe if it’s not ;-) D

  6. And your authors are grateful for all the hard work you do to make our books the best they can be!

  7. Elyse Mady says:

    Hey, Jenny. You should know not just the readers want to find out about this stuff. Us writers find it pretty cool, too :)


  8. Jenny Bullough says:

    Cindy and Elyse — Aw, thanks!

  9. Jenny, thanks for taking the time to explain this process to us. For me it’s a fascinating procedure. I love ebooks too!

  10. Christine Carmichael says:

    Thank you so much for this riveting insight into the process and how much attention to detail and work goes on behind the scenes.


  11. Jenny Bullough says:

    Joanna and Christine — you’re welcome, glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for the comments!

  12. thulani says:

    thanks for bit explanation on how ebook is made. we were asked how ebook is made now i have a explanation to tell

  13. Merriott says:

    I had these same questions. Thanks you for taking the time to explain the process. I have been wondering why older books, that were originally published in the 80’s or 90’s by the same author are not all in ebook format? Some of an authors books are available and some are not.

  14. Jenny says:

    Merriott – good question! The main reason why not all older books by the same author are in ebook formats has to do with the availability of text files. If the book was published before book production became electronic in the 90s, there may not be any text files for the book, which means a hard copy has to be found, stripped, and scanned using OCR (optical character recognition) to create a digital file that can then be converted into ebook format. As you can imagine, this process takes some time.

  15. Phillip Temple says:

    Quick question- (I know; it’s NEVER quick, right? lol)
    It the process the same for graphic novels, or, as I suspect, the process completely different?

    Thank you for your attention and answers!

  16. Phillip Temple says:

    Quick question- (I know; it’s NEVER quick, right? lol)

    Is the process the same for graphic novels, or, as I suspect, the process completely different?

    Thank you for your attention and answers!

  17. Jenny says:

    Phillip – I can’t speak to that as I’ve personally never worked with graphic novels – sorry!

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