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The Scrivener Writing Tool for eBook Production

I searched for ebook writing tools before I began writing my book in earnest. While Word is the default industry writing tool I have been frustrated by its document management capabilities. Whenever I wrote proposals I swore I would find a better way the next time. Initial sections would be easy enough but once the document got larger it would get unwieldy for me to navigate. It may have been my own inept use of it though. But I always felt there had to be a better way than a single linear file for managing a complex writing task. Keeping sections in separate files or folders also gets cumbersome.

(Note : This is a lengthy post about how I used Scrivener to write and publish my ebook. Michael Hyatt wrote a more entertaining and digestible review that exemplifies good blog marketing : 5 Reasons I Switched to Scrivener for All My Writing

After you have been sold on Scrivener come back and read how to put it to work producing ebooks.)

The Problem With Microsoft Word

Another Word annoyance is its sheer complexity. That is a common problem for many software applications. SolidWorks CAD for example is immense. It’s difficult to get started learning a tool like that because of the range of functions available.

So my  impression of Word is that it is hard to visualize the structure of a document. It doesn’t lend itself to story or narrative development outside the linear text structure, and the breadth of tools and OS tend to intrude on the writing process.

This sounds stupid but Word has too much of a corporate feel to it. Mainly this comes from association with my work over the years so is not meant as a criticism of Microsoft. I use Windows mainly because most engineering CAD tools run only on that OS, and have used their free code compilers a lot for various software projects. For personal writing projects such as my book Word just reminds me too much of the workplace.

I have used code editors for years that provide some visualization functions but they are not geared towards document production. I have even done LaTex and considered it as a possible alternative to Word for my book writing.

Web Search Introduces Me to Scrivener

In searching the web for ebook writing tools I read raving testimonials for Scrivener. An EPUB development editor called Sigil also got high marks and I tried it out, as well as bare-bones style tools such as WriteRoom. The bare-bones editors have the appeal of utter simplicity, you just produce text and nothing else. But one must convert the text into an EPUB or PDF format and a more sophisticated tool is necessary.

Another thing you have probably experienced is that you are interested in a tool or learning something (in this case eBook publishing) so search the web to find out and are confronted with dozens of options. There are several WriteRoom clones alone for the PC. Tough to get started when there are so many choices. Hopefully this essay will give you an idea for at least one eBook production workflow.

I tried the Scrivener 30-day free trial and quickly found it useful. It had the one thing I wanted : a “project tree” for navigating and structuring my book. If you have used CAD tools like SolidWorks you will recognize the paradigm, as shown in the GUI screenshot. The chapter and sections are displayed in a tree view, with text editing in a main window. The tree function alone was worth the $40 price tag. If a software app or book saves you one hour of your time it is worth such a minimal price. Very often free tools will suck up your time because of their poor use interface. On the other hand they can provide what you need as well as commercial apps. I will cover some open-source tools that I use a lot for various documentation tasks, and that now includes Sigil as you will read later in this essay.

scrivScrShot

Scrivener screenshot, click to enlarge

There are some other view capabilities in Scrivener but I didn’t make use of them. As usual was just cranking out text and not learning tool details which might have made my work easier. I only scratched the surface of Scrivener’s tool set.

One useful view feature though is the minimal writing screen function which is similar to WriteRoom. This is good for hiding the computer distractions so you can concentrate on your writing task. In another essay I will talk about my other favorite writing tool, the Alphasmart Neo, which eliminates the computer altogether. Probably like me you are easily distracted from your work by the lure of the internet even if you are using a minimal screen view.

scrivFullScreenScrShot

Scrivener Full-Screen “typewriter” mode. Click to enlarge.

The Scrivener Compilation Function

The other feature of Scrivener worth mentioning is the compilation functon. This is a fancy name for its file export tool, that is, saving your work to PDF, EPUB, MOBI, HTML, and even Word or RTF. If you have done any software development with a coding IDE this will also seem familiar to you.

A nice thing about the compile function is that you can tag which sections to include in the compile. Thus you can quickly compile only the chapters or sections you are working on instead of the whole book.

As for Word output, it turns out that some ebook aggregators (sites that will distribute your book to multiple retail outlets such as B&N and Apple) require Word-format files. Also Word is required by some hard-copy printing vendors. After writing my entire book I compiled a Word version and Scrivener produced it without error; I was impressed.

My Book Looked Great as a PDF

When I started writing the book my first conceptual mistake was thinking it would have print-style formatting, that is, how it would be viewed in a PDF file. Turns out that for selling through Amazon for Kindle or for other reading devices, EPUB is the standard format. While PDF gives you the visual appeal that you find in a printed book, EPUB is a different viewing experience in that the text resizes to the reading device.

So I started my book in the PDF paradigm and kept it up until I finished. I set the page size to 6×9”, a standard printed book size and typical for non-fiction books. With a 12-point font this looked pretty good and I formatted the text as I wrote so the sections fit comfortably in each page with good flow between pages.

I had the following writing workflow that enabled quick compile and PDF checking turnaround :

In Scrivener, write book text
press CTRL-Shift-E to compile it to PDF
press ALT-TAB to Windows task switch to the PDF folder
press Enter to launch the file in Adobe PDF
press CTRL-L to put the PDF in fulll screen mode

Again if you have written software code you may recognize this style of workflow. Would only take a few seconds to go from text editing to PDF viewing. That may sound trivial but with a 250-page book the seconds add up to hours when you are pushing to get it done. By selecting only the chapter I was working on for compilation, Scrivener produced a small PDF that was quick to navigate during review.

But eBook Publishing Requires a Different Formatting Paradigm

So I did this workflow a lot to drive the book to the final PDF version. It looked great to an old guy like me who had grown up with printed books. I felt satisfied that all the careful formatting was just the way I wanted the finished book to look like. I imagined men absorbed in reading it because it had the ambiance and allure of a classic rogue guide book.

And that’s when I discovered that I needed it in EPUB file format to sell on Amazon as they do not sell PDF versions on KDP.  I simply had not considered this as I cranked out my book. So that is a mistake you can benefit from. If you are thinking of writing an eBook, understand this fundamental concept of flexible EPUB formatting to run on various size digital reader screens. The EPUB format is like a web page that gets loaded onto the reader and can be resized. PDF is static in that you may be able to zoom the page but the text won’t flow when the font is resized.

Fortunately generating an EPUB was just a compile flag in Scrivener. It just threw me for a loop when I had to shift from PDF-print visualization to EPUB viewing on a reading device such as a tablet or smarty phone. All the careful PDF formatting I had done did not translate to EPUB because it’s a different way to look at books. The printed-page mystique I had carefully crafted seemed gone from the EPUB version. All is not lost however as the PDF format will be used if I ever make a print edition.

The initial EPUB version uploaded to Amazon without error and my book was up for sale within hours. Registering for Amazon KDP (Kindle Digital Publishing) was also easy since I had an existing Amazon account.

Book Aggregators Require Validated EPUBs

When I tried to load it on a book aggregator though the file got rejected. Apple in particular is strict about the correctness of submitted EPUB files. There is an online tool for checking your EPUB files, which are a type of HTML-style markup code. It produced pages of error for my epub. I had no inclination to fall into a hole debuggin EPUB code.

But I was able to figure out that the main offender was simply the bullet lists I had created in Scrivener. I couldn’t make Scrivener produce correct bullet lists so tried something else, the Sigil tool I mentioned earlier. Sigil was interesting in how it showed the Scrivener EPUB as a collection of HTML files. I soon figured out how to use the Sigil bullet function and tested out the EPUB with the online checker. With that fix I thrashed through the rest of the book and fixed all the bullets, as well as the table of contents mess that Scrivener produced. No one tool is perfect.

sigilScrShot

Sigil proved invaluable for fixing EPUB files. Note that you can also edit in WYSIWIG mode, so can use Sigil for the entire book writing process. Click to enlarge.

 

The EPUB Generating WorkFlow

My workflow at that point was :

Edit in Scrivener
press CTRL-Shift-E to compile it to EPUB
press ALT-TAB to Windows task switch to Calibre (an EPUB reader)
load and launch the EPUB in Calibre
repeat until editing done
make final edits and fixups in Sigil before uploading to book seller

The Calibre load and launch could probably be done in another reader tool with faster keyboard shortcuts.

Generating to EPUB had a few more compilation flags to consider than PDF. There is the “metadata”, a fancy name for the book synopsis and author details. Scrivener has compilation fields for you to enter the metadata. Also the book cover handling is different than PDF.

So that was the workflow I developed to produce my book. I like it. It’s the alternative to Word development that I have struggled with in the past. When you are trying to produce something by a deadline you don;t have much inclination for learning other tools that might make your job a lot easier, because there is also the risk that the tools will be useless. My book project gave me the motivation to try something new.

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone and Try a New Way of Writing

Scrivener is more of a narrative and idea development tool than a text formatting tool. There are a lot of features I haven’t explored yet that are geared towards script outlining and writing.

Getting back to Word for proposal development, it really becomes a challenge as I get toward the final product. That’s when Word’s small annoyances pile up and I feel like I am spending more energy fighting Word than writing good narrative. By then I am always muttering (no, swearing expletives) that I will find a better way next time I write a proposal. With Scrivener I think I finally have. And since most business and government organizations require Word for reports and publishing, Scrivener sensibly compiles Word output. In fact the underlying default file format for Scrivener (how it stored the files your disk) is in Word-compatible RTF (Rich Text Format). Many publishing firms also require Word formatted files. Scrivener also compiles to Open Office format.

That is my new paradigm, by no means the best and you will find many opinions from others on how to do it. Some even advocate Word as the best tool. In a future essay I will discuss 3D modeling and how the complexity of the tools can be overwhelming but once grasped will produce amazing photo-realistic graphics easily. That was a similar challenge to picking up Scrivener and EPUB writing; just knowing what the various tools were and what they were used for.

The important things to remember are that eBook publishing requires EPUB formatting, which has a different viewing paradigm than PDF. Uploading your ebook to Amazon is a snap. You may need to fix up your EPUB file for other retailers. Lastly you can do it all from Word but there are other tools such as Scrivener that are worth exploring to develop your own efficient text production workflow.

A final comment regarding tools. What you want to achieve is transparency of workflow so you can produce your end product using the minimal energy required for using the tool. In CAD this means knowing how to use the software well enough that you can create drawings and models as soon as you mentally conceive them. It takes time to learn all the functions in a software application to attain a state of Gestalt. That creates inertia because you are not sure if learning the tool will pay off.

Learning Scrivener and associated utilities such as Sigil has paid off for me by improving my writing workflow.

As for this essay I wrote it on my Neo, uploaded it into Scrivener for completion, and posted it through Worpress.

Useful links :

Scrivener

5 reasons I Switched to Scrivener for All My Writing

How Scrivener Helped Me Organize All My Writing

Sigil

WriteRoom

Calibre

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