An ebook artisan’s toolbox: The best, mostly free, and nearly workflow-agnostic tools for building, validating, and QAing ebooks

Photo of Melissa deJesus

Melissa deJesus is often the first person to find out that a retailer has an issue with one of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s trade ebooks, like 1984The Lord of the Rings, or The Handmaid’s Tale. Then she’s the person who tweaks the file or the metadata to fix the problem. For more recent titles, she was usually the person who decided if and how to make it into an ebook to begin with, and then made it. Which is to say, she’s a Boston-based associate production editor who develops ebooks for hundreds of frontlist and thousands of backlist adult trade titles every year, including fiction and nonfiction, reflowable and fixed format. She’ll be delivering a hands-on workshop at ebookcraft called So You Think You Can Code? #eprdctn Life Hacks.

Ebook QA: Beyond validation

The most exciting elements of ebook development can’t be automated. In March, I’ll be running a workshop where ebook developers can demonstrate, test, and discuss those parts of ebook QA. Until then, I want to share my tips for some things you can automate. Below are what I think are the best, mostly free, and nearly workflow-agnostic tools for building, validating, and QAing ebooks.

Free tools for ebook build

InDesign: Many workflows include InDesign, but some ebook developers (like me!) appreciate other workflows for processing manuscripts.

eCanCrusher: This app unzips ebooks to folders and vice versa. It hasn’t been updated since 2013, but we’ve barely updated hammers in, like, millennia. So…

Textwrangler: I like this free version of BBEdit, though I recently started trying out Brackets. As far as I can tell, choice in HTML editors comes down to preference more than functionality.

W3Schools and IDPF: Maybe you’re so good you never need to reference anything, but I have the W3Schools and IDPF sites bookmarked in my browser. Just in case.

ImageOptim: Lossless file size reduction for images is a win, as long as you’re cool with 72 ppi.

Graphemica: Your workflow may reliably handle character entities for you, but I consistently need Graphemica. Its lovely interface is a soothing stop for all my glyph and symbol needs.

XML Validator: I arrive at most of my EPUBs via XML, so a reliable XML validator is clutch. I like this one at xmlgrid.net.


Validation tools are worth paying for

EPUBCheck: I never release anything until I run it through EPUBCheck. Its value to ebook developers cannot be overstated, which is why I recommend you consider donating to help support EPUBCheck and the amazing work of the folks at the DAISY Consortium.

FlightDeck: For titles that I think deserve special treatment, FlightDeck provides fancy insights, like retailer reports and stats. It’s the only paid tool on this list.

Accessibility Checkers: Accessibility is definitely one of the un-automatable things I’ll touch on at ebookcraft, but tools can be useful along the path to meaningful improvement. My accessibility guru and So You Think You Can Code–winning coworker Katy Mastrocola recommends the Born Accessible Content Checker for a quick check and Ace by DAISY for addressing specific issues.

Kindle-specific tools

Kindle Previewer: Kindle claims Previewer is robust enough that I don’t need to sideload to devices. But I hope you don’t believe them any more than I do.

KindleUnpack: I avoid working inside Kindle files, but if you have to, you need KindleUnpack.

Kindle Comic Creator: KCC has an interface for creating positioning code for fixed-layout MOBI files. It’s slow and it eats books: I’m talking, indiscriminately mangling and deleting code. But if you’re desperate, use it sparingly on a separate KCC working file and pull any salvageable bits of code from the unholy Franken-ebook it spits out.

When it comes to swapping ebook advice, it can be tough to compare across different workflows. I’d love to hear in the comments if you use any of these tools and like (or hate!) them. Do you recommend different tools instead? Have I left out any steps or tools that you think are must-haves?

If you’d like to hear more from Melissa deJesus and e-production life hacks, register for ebookcraft on March 18 and 19, 2019 in Toronto. You can find more details about the conference here, or sign up for the mailing list to get all of the conference updates.