Making eBooks

I try some software to add formatted hypertext documents to my Treo.

I’m one of these people who can’t spend more than a few minutes without some kind of mental stimulation. I have puzzle books under the seat in my helicopter, so if I’m stuck on the ground waiting for a passenger, I can do a few crosswords. I use my Treo to send Twitter tweets and tumblelog photos. I carry a tiny notebook and small digital camera with me to make notes or take photos. And my iPod is always full of podcasts, in case I get stuck taking a long drive or long flight by myself.

My Treo offers an entire new range of possibilities for me — beyond texting to Twitter and e-mailing my tumblelog. I can convert texts that I’d like to read into eBooks, load them onto my Treo, and take them with me.

Enter ManyBooks.net

I started exploring the world of tiny-format eBooks on the ManyBooks.net Web site. I learned about the site only a few days ago in an article on Miraz Jordan’s Web site, TiKouka.

ManyBooks offers over 17,000 free eBooks. Because most books are created based on out-of-copyright works that are now in the public domain, don’t look for today’s latest bestseller here. Instead, you’ll find works by classic authors such as Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, and one of my favorites, Mark Twain.

The Books are offered in a wide variety of formats. Not sure what format my Treo would support, I downloaded the eReader format of Mark Twain’s book, The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories. It arrived as a .pdb file. Double-clicking the file opened the Missing Sync (which I use to sync my Mac and Treo) and loaded the file into it for installation. Pressing the button on my tether cable (with the Treo plugged in, of course), loaded the book. I could then open the book with the eReader application on my Treo.

The resulting document was perfectly legible on my Treo, but a bit disappointing none the less. The problem centered around the eReader software’s Contents feature, which hadn’t been set up properly in the downloaded file. Instead of having a Contents entry for each story, there were a handful of entries for chapters that appeared in some of the stories. The book resulting book was awkward to navigate.

The Gutenberg Project

One thing I noticed about the ManyBooks.net book I’d downloaded was the source of the text: The Gutenberg Project.

Project Gutenberg, which was founded by eBook inventor Michael Hart in 1971, is a volunteer organization that is transcribing all out-of-copyright books and other works to electronic format, making them available as plain and formatted text in a variety of formats — including, more recently, audio formats. The goal is to build a free library of the world’s greatest works.

Project Gutenberg texts are, by definition, public domain. That means that they can be downloaded, read, and otherwise used by others. ManyBooks.net has obviously drawn upon this vast library of more than 20,000 works in English and other languages to distribute books in additional formats.

I saw ManyBooks as a middleman. I decided to get the texts I wanted directly from Project Gutenberg and format them myself as eBooks.

But how?

Enter eBook Studio

I went back to my Treo. The software I was using to read the ebooks was something called eReader. I Googled eReader and came up with the eReader.com Web site. The site appeared to be a source of books — both current and non-current — in eReader format.

eBook StudioBut what caught my eye was a link to eBook Studio. I followed it and found what I was looking for: a Mac OS application that would enable me to create my own, custom-formatted eBooks. (Yes, a Windows version is also available for download from the site.) I downloaded the demo, tried it, liked what I saw, and paid $29.95 for the full version.

A while later, I was dumping the raw text of Twain’s book, downloaded from the Project Gutenberg Web site, into eBook Studio. The software displays a long, narrow window that clearly shows how text will wrap horizontally on a smartphone’s pages. I could specify headings as chapters, insert page breaks, make text bold, and create anchors and links within the document. I could even insert an image of the book’s cover (or any other small image) in the document.

Once finished, I used the Make Book command to convert the document into a .pdb file. I then installed it on my Treo and was able to read it on the device.

eBook on TreoMy first attempt was good, but not perfect, so I tried it again, fine-tuning my formatting. Because I could save the source file, it only took a few minutes to tweak the formatting and spit out another book. This one was up to my standards. Download it and see for yourself: The $30,000 Bequest by Mark Twain in eReader ebook format. I subsequently did the same thing for Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, The Raven.

I should mention here that if you know the Palm markup language (or don’t mind learning it), you can create an eBook without this $30 piece of software. Instead, you’d use the markup language to add formatting to your plain text document and use the free DropBook and MakeBook utilities to convert it into a .pdb file. The way I see it, I already know more markup languages than I want to know. Adding more to my stuffed-with-junk brain will only confuse me. (Like trying to learn German and Spanish at the same time did in college.)

More than Just Existing Books

Now that I know how to create these books, I can make more of them based not just on existing texts that come my way but on my own material that I might want to store for reference on my Treo. Although there are quicker and easier ways to put notes on my Treo — none of which I’ve explored yet — I like the idea of formatted documents with links and chapters for navigation. That’s the beauty of this particular eBook format — and why I’m likely to depend on it for all my personal portable documents.

What do you think?