Creating an Illustrated EBook

Introduction: Creating an Illustrated EBook

About: I'm a stay at home dad looking after my twin boys. When I have a spare moment I enjoy working on wacky creative projects.

After reading countless stories to my young twin boys I liked the idea of being able to read them a book their dad had written.  Creating a book also seemed like a fun, creative project.  After coming up with an idea and writing it out I wasn't sure what the next step was.  How do I turn this into a real book (or eBook)?

This instructable details the steps I went through to turn my written idea into a finished eBook.

Please note that this is NOT a "how-to-draw" instructable.  While illustrating is discussed, it's discussed in the context of putting together an appealing book.

NOTE: This instructable has been entered into the Instructables Design Competition.  If you like it, please vote for it.  Thanks for your support! 


Step 1: My Computer, Equipment, Software and Setup

This is what I used.  It is by no means a list of what is required.

I use a 2010 Mac Book Air running OS X Lion: 1.86GHz core2 duo, Nvidia 320M, 4G ram, 128G SSD. 

By today's standards (late 2012) this is pretty ancient, but it's still quite snappy most of the time thanks to 4G ram and an SSD.  For this work I hooked it up to a Dell Ultrasharp 20.1" 2007FP and use an Apple bluetooth compact keyboard (sans numpad).

Wacom Intuos4 medium
3D Connexion Space Mouse Pro

I enjoy 3D work, hence the space mouse pro.  If you download the latest (currently Beta) drivers for it, it becomes much more customizable and a great help with other applications.

ArtRage Studio Pro

I'm a huge fan of open source software and wanted to use it with this project, but just couldn't find an application that I found easy to use AND readily compatible with OS X (ie. officially supported for mac).  Then I stumbled across ArtRage.  I am not an artist, so I can't give qualified advice, but I love it and at (the current price of) $60 for the pro version, I think it's affordable.  I don't regret this purchase at all.

That said, the rare times that my mac book air does slow down, it's using ArtRage.  Drawing/painting is fine, it's more saving or layer manipulation where things pause.  It's a little bit annoying, in this day and age you don't expect file saving to take 20 seconds, but it is what it is.  I'm working at a resolution of about 2100x2500.

Poseable for Mac:
Full disclosure: Poseable is my app for Mac and iOS ($1.99).  I made it to study anatomy and help me learn art.  It's not an all encompassing 3D software package.  It's a simple app meant to help with posing/blocking out scenes, aiding with composition, perspective and human anatomy.  I also have a free Poseable Lite out, but that app doesn't support scene creation with multiple figures and props, which is kind of needed for this work.

There are a number of posing applications around which can do a comparable or better job.  Some are free, some are not. 

Setup (spend some time on this!):
Drawing a picture for fun every once in a while is one thing, illustrating 18 pages for a book you'd like to sell is another.  Speeding up your workflow can pay back hefty dividends down the road.  Depending on what you're illustrating, each picture could take 5 hours or more to paint.  If you can speed up your work by even 10%, that's an appreciable amount of time saved.  Also worth noting, the less tedious it is to create a painting the more fun the entire job will be. 

For this kind of work my setup is a bit unique (tablets are common, space mice, not so much), I found it took a bit of time to figure out what quick keys were best assigned where, so perhaps someone will find this useful.

I specifically bought the smaller wireless Apple keyboard so that my desk could accommodate both a tablet and keyboard comfortably.  Adding the space mouse hasn't caused any (desk real estate) issues.  When I'm illustrating I usually push my keyboard up and bring the space mouse and tablet together.

Please see the attached images for my quick key layout.

Step 2: It Starts With a Story...

Lock Down the Text
Write your story and edit the content down to near final form.  It doesn't need to be perfect, but it should be close.  It is a lot easier to layout a book when the text is locked down.  Since punctuation didn't affect my layout, I cleaned it up during the final polish of my book.

Pick Your Pages
Once you have the text, you have to break it up into pages.  Remember, a kid's book isn't a conventional ebook where text can be re-sized and re-flowed.  With an illustrated kid's book, pages go with illustrations and the layout is static.  This will be a balancing act that takes a number of things into consideration.  You don't want your book to be too long or too short. 

Get a rough idea by counting the pages in other kid's books that resembles yours.   

Have a look at your story's arc and see how it best translates into separate pages.  A page break is a natural/needed transition that, when used properly, can add to your story.

Think about images that best sum up the action being described on paper.  Try not to go overboard, you don't need an illustration for every single action.  Too many pages can weigh down your book not only in terms of how it reads, but also in terms of time/cost to illustrate and cost to print (if you eventually want to print).

Step 3: ... Pick a Format, Make It a Fixed Layout...

How you want to distribute your book will play a large part in what format you choose.  If you primarily want to distribute on Kindle, your format will be KF8/AZW and you'll probably use Amazon's authoring tools.  If you want to distribute with Apple, your format will be iBook or EPUB.  Think about how you want to distribute your book and read up on the different formats.  Also, see if there are ways to convert between formats to allow you to easily migrate your book to other platforms.

I decided to first publish with Apple's iBookstore.  I did this for a number of reasons: I have an iPad to test on; I already have an Apple account, so I know how their administration works; creating a fixed page layout is very simple with iBooks Author; Author exports to PDF so I could easily sell my ebook on sites that support selling PDFs.  I'm not saying this is the best way, just the way that I chose.

Fixed Layout
In general, eBooks are minimally formatted to allow for different screen and font sizes.  That means the number of pages in an eBook are not fixed, it depends on your screen size and selected font.  This is not conducive to illustrated books where text, page and illustrations are linked.  You need static pages, just as if it were a real book. 

Each format supports fixed layouts in their own way.  Your next step is figuring out how to fix the layout with your chosen format.  As I said, with iBook's Author it's very easy, dragging and dropping your text and images.  With EPUB, I believe you need to create (or find) a fixed layout EPUB template.  While PDFs are fixed layout by default, it's generally not easy to convert to other formats from PDF, while everything converts to PDF.  If you pick another format to start with, usually you can create a PDF version very easily.

Some common formats are:

EPUB       - most common ebook format (except for Kindle!)
KF8/AZW - Kindle formats
iBook        - Apple format
PDF          - supported by virtually all readers.

While PDFs are supported by every reader, they are not very common for commercially sold ebooks.  I believe the reason for this is the ability to re-flow text in a PDF is either not supported, or not well supported.  Since we are making a fixed layout book, PDF becomes a more viable format.

Step 4: ... and the Layout Follows

Once you have your fixed layout template and your text broken up into pages, you're ready to begin the layout of your book.  Now you need to decide what kind of screen you're going to display your book on.  This may have already been decided for you based on the distribution method/format you chose.  Most tablets/reader screens fall between a 4:3 / 3:4 (iPad) and 16:10 / 10:16 (Galaxy/Kindle Fire) aspect ratio. 

The layout of text and illustrations is a very important part of an illustrated book.  It may be tough to find a layout that displays nicely on multiple devices.  If you can't find a common layout, you will need to reformat your book for different devices / screen sizes / screen orientations.  Keep this in mind as you finalizing your layout.  Even if you have to re-layout your book, hopefully you can keep the same illustrations.  You don't want to have to redraw your book!

In iBook Author there's an option to lock the iPad in landscape, giving a fixed 4:3 (width:height) aspect ratio to work with.  I felt locking to landscape was the best option for my book.

Pictures and Pages
Now you can layout where text and illustrations go for each page.  This is simply a matter of finding a balance between page, text, font and illustration. 

Start with the extremes, take pages with the least and most text and lay them out first.  If you can find a good fit for those extreme pages, the rest should follow.  At this point you may decide to merge or split up pages to better accommodate your layout.

I decided to go with a simple layout of text on the left, picture on the right.  I came up with this by looking at a 4:3 blank canvas, typing some page text and drawing squares to represent the picture.  I felt this layout would be the easiest to draw (all pictures are the same size), and allow me to reuse all pictures if I needed to reformat the book for different screen sizes. 

The text area looked a bit empty all by itself, so I added a top and bottom border to fill things out.  I made them in about 5 minutes using Gimp.  Making a path, adjusting the handles to curve things nicely, then stoking the path.

Print Consideration
Illustrated books lend themselves to physical, printed books (I think parents still -mostly- read to their kids using actual books).  If eventually printing your book is an option you want to keep open it's important to understand monitor resolution and print resolution.

Computer monitors generally have a display resolution of 72 dpi (dots per inch), while printed books have a print resolution of 300 dpi.  While you can scale a 300dpi image down to 72dpi, you cannot scale up a 72 dpi image to 300 dpi without things looking very bad. 

Think about how big, in inches or cm, you'd like your printed book to be.  When it comes time to make those images using a computer, make sure your digital canvas is the right size (in inches or cm) and the resolution of the canvas is set to 300dpi.  Making it bigger always gives you the option of making it smaller later on.  If your illustrations are too small, there's only so much you can enlarge them before things start looking bad.  The trade-off of working on larger images are bigger file sizes which may bog your computer down a bit, but in this day and age it shouldn't be much of a problem.

Even if you don't plan on printing, it's generally a good rule of thumb to work on images larger than you'll actually need.  It gives you more flexibility if you later decided to crop or resize.

Layout Ready to Go
At this point your book is laid out in a simple sense.  You have all your pages and you know where the text and illustrations go.  It's just a matter of filling in the blanks.

Step 5: Blocking Out Pictures, Laying Out the Book

If I had artistic ability, I'd probably start sketching out all my ideas page by page, or I would have already made a bunch of brainstorm sketches.  Unfortunately I don't have any artistic ability and something gets seriously mangled when I try to draw straight from my head.  I had lots of ideas of what I wanted the pictures to look like, but no way to get them on paper.

Virtual Puppets
Poseable allows me to experiment with what I'd like each scene to look like, without having to worry about the artistic direction.  This helped me a lot.  It let me solve problems step by step without getting in over my head.  As I said before, there are plenty of other scene creating apps/packages out there.  Find one that you like and block out each page.  Don't forget to block out your book cover too.

Roughing out Your Book
With all your pages blocked, you can now create a rough edit of your book.  Fill in the page text and images, add your title cover and copyright page.  With Apple authoring software you can export as PDF, that's what I did to create a rough copy of my book.

You can now mull over your book.  Go over it, changing pages and/or blocks until your are happy with how everything is laid out.  At this point you could even pass it off to someone else to illustrate.

... but we're not going to do that!

Step 6: Deciding on Art Direction (and Maybe Getting Some Help)

While I'm advocating that you stick it out and illustrate your book, you may need some help.  I sure needed some.  I had everything planned out, but still no art direction.  Was my book going to be more like a cartoon, more realistic?  Detail oriented?  Flat colors?  I didn't know and I didn't know how to decide.   

At this point I sent my rough copy to a cousin, Veljko Vulanovic, who is a better artist than myself.  I asked him to come up with concept drawing of the main character and some scenes.  In exchange, I paid him a flat fee and offered to give him credit for creating my concept art.

For me, that little bit of help was invaluable.  While he only supplied me with a few drawings and I illustrated everything myself, I feel like I couldn't have done it without that initial help.

This is how I decided on my art direction, how you decide yours is totally up to you.

Try googling: "color theory".  Colors play an important role in children's books.  Reading up on these theories can help you create more dynamic and engaging illustrations.

Step 7: Seeing If You Can Draw!

The Test
At this point I don't think I'd really ever drawn more than a doodle in my life.  With art direction in hand, I decided on a test: take two of the most different scenes I had, draw them to the best of my ability and see how it goes.  I wasn't concerned with working fast.  I think I drew the first two illustrations over 5 days.

Working in your Drawing Program of Choice
Right from the get-go try and organize your illustrations to make editing easier.  All drawing applications have a standard feature set these days.  Some of those features include layers and layer groups.  I separated color from line drawings and foreground from background.  See what works for you.

Create a palate of colors commonly used through out your book.  This will help keep your illustrations consistent.

Pay attention to small details like line thicknesses (if you're drawing lines).  Line thickness should be consistently used throughout your book, if it's not it can throw things off.

The illustrating software I used (ArtRage) has a smoothing function for pen strokes.  Even with a tablet, drawing broad smooth strokes can be hard, I found it extremely helpful to be able to smooth out my pen strokes.

Happy with Result!
If you're happy with your two drawings, congratulations!  They don't need to be perfect, and they sure won't be final.  Right now they serve as a proof of concept, a boost of confidence, and a further refinement of your art direction.

Step 8: Focusing on the Main Characters

The main character is what you want the reader to focus their attention on, hopefully connecting with her/him/it.  For that to happen your main character should be engaging.  Unfortunately creating an engaging character is beyond the scope of this instructable and this author. 

What I can tell you is that your main character needs to be consistent! 

You need to be able to draw your main character (from all the angles that you previously blocked) in a way that the reader feels they're looking at the same character each and every page.  You do not want the reader focusing on discrepancies in the illustrations.  For an experienced artist perhaps this wouldn't be a problem.  For me, it was.

To solve this problem, you're going to have to focus on the main character.  You're not going to be fully drawing out one page at a time.  You're going to go through each page and only draw the main character.  You are then going to make a collage of all your drawings.  By doing this it's much more easy see how your main character looks throughout your book. 

I used an app called SnagIt to capture screenshots and to create my collages, but any variety of apps could be used, from photoshop to gimp to whatever app you are currently using to draw.  Grab is an included Mac app for screen grabs.  In Windows, the printscreen button on keyboards copies the screen to clipboard.  For me, I only drew the top half of the body, not worrying about details such as hands and shading.  But I did color and draw my lines in as final a form as possible.

Draw the first third to half pages, then stop and create your collage.  Are you on the right track?  If so, keep going.  Once all your main characters are drawn out, complete your collage. 

Try and study your main characters style.  Pick out your favorite illustration and see if you can fix the others to match.  You might not be able to, you may have to compromise on the final look of your main character.  I did.  I had a favorite drawing, but simply couldn't recreate it from all the different perspectives throughout my book.  I don't know why, I certainly tried. 

There were also a few scenes where I had to go back a tweak my blocking shots, either because the perspective was too hard for me to draw well, or it just didn't look as good as I thought it would.

I've attached a number of my collages.

Secondary Characters
Once you are happy with how your main character looks you're ready to move on.  At this point the next step is up to you.  If you have other secondary characters in the book you may want to go through and rough them out like you did the first character.

Step 9: Filling in the Rest

After roughing out my main character for each page I felt I had the experience to finish up the rest of the book.  If you've gotten to here you're proven you have everything it takes to roll out your book, it's just a matter of grinding through the rest of the work.  This is where having a streamline setup helps with the tedium of drawing, drawing and more drawing.

The steps for finishing off your illustrations are pretty straight forward:
  • finish foreground (or character) lines
  • color foreground
  • draw background lines
  • color background
  • shade foreground (or characters)
  • shade background
Depending on what artistic direction you take, your steps may be different.  But by using layers, you should be able to break up the drawing of an entire illustration into parts that allow for quick and easy corrections without ruining previously finished work. 

For example, if drawing the outline of a hand proved difficult, I'd draw the body on one layer then the hand on another.  That way I could easily erase and start the hand over without affecting the body.  After creating a hand I was happy with I'd merge the layers together to cut down on layer clutter.

Step 10: Final Polish

With all the illustrations done, put your book together in its final form.  My suggestion would be to send your book off to a few friends for comments and leave it alone for a while.  It's easier to catch errors after you've taken a little break from obsessing over your creation.  Also, there's no doubt some aspects of your work will nag you, but you're not sure if things need to be changed or fixed.  If the same things nag you after a couple of days rest, chances are you should fix those issues.

At this point most of your concerns with the art should be about consistency.  Make sure all your illustrations flow nicely from one to another.

Give your text a final polish as well.  Make sure spelling and punctuation are correct and consistent.  Also, make sure your formatting and font is consistent. 

You may find that you've run into a few niggles regarding your text.  For example, your formatting works perfect except for one or two long lines that run over a newline.  Or a long page where the text *just* doesn't fit.  You don't want to drop the font size and shrink the text for every other page, this would ruin the entire book.

In these cases you should be able to fix just the problem text.  Apple's iBook's Author allows you to adjust the line spacing and letter spacing of selected text.  Adjusting the letter spacing of a single line can help bring in longer lines, while line spacing can help shrink a paragraph.  Judicious use can fix problem text without drawing any attention.  I'm sure other authoring packages have these capabilities as well.

International Standard Book Numbers are not always needed to publish books, but it is preferable.  It allows your book(s) to be formally cataloged in a standard and accepted manner.  Sites that require ISBNs usually can also provide them (sometimes for a fee).  I believe the steps for acquiring an ISBN for yourself vary from country to country.  Look into what it takes.  If you plan on publishing more than one book it may make sense to acquire your own ISBN block.  In Canada, getting your own ISBN is an online government service that's both free and easy.

Copyright Page
Don't forget to include a copyright page.  Looking at other books and googling can show you what goes into a copyright page.

Publishing and Selling
Once your book is all done, selling it shouldn't be too complicated.  You probably already have a good idea of the steps involved based on the distribution format you chose.

If you've managed to finish your first book, congratulations!  Creating a book leaves you with an end result that can easily be shared across space and time.  For this reason, having your own book in hand (even if it's an ebook) can be hugely rewarding. 

Books are an amazing part of our culture and being able to add to that culture shouldn't be taken lightly. maybe we should look into printing it!

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    4 years ago

    Really a great Instructable and book. I have a book i wrote and scans in jpeg. How do I turn it into anebook? I want to make it a page turning book


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Great advice, thanks for posting! Your story and illustration are really sweet.