glass jar image CC by vns2009 The process from the first word to the first sale can be a long and complicated one.

Especially so, if it’s your first shot at the promising world of ebooks.

When I started out, there were a thousand questions rolling around in my head, like: “What software should I choose?”, “How to structure it?”, “What font size is the best?”, “What format?”, “How can I actually offer this for sale?”, “PDF or EPUB?” and so on and so forth.

In this post you will find out why I use free software to create ebooks. Also, I’m not a fan of how-to lists that state the obvious. Therefore I’m going to do something else: I’m actually giving away (for free!) tips and tricks that took me months to find out by revealing some of the inner workings behind the layout of my latest ebook “How To Teach Online Without Selling Your Soul” which is the best-selling work I’ve ever done.

But before we come to that… let’s look at…

Why a Great Layout Doesn’t Have to Cost You an Arm and A Leg

A few years ago I was introduced to an industry standard publishing software while helping a non-profit organization to get their magazine off the ground.

I’m talking about Adobe InDesign, which used to be called “Page Maker”, back when I launched that high school newspaper with a couple of friends.

It has tons of features, takes some serious time to learn and its newest version sells on Amazon for $673 which is a bit steep if you’re just starting out.

Although I have painstakingly learned how to use InDesign or Page Maker over the years, I made a decision to switch to something else, altogether for producing ebooks.

Something that you can download for free, wherever you are. Which doesn’t take ages to install and which comes with insane amounts of documentation via forum-discussions between people like you and me.

I’m talking about “Open Office Writer”.

Levelling The Playing-Field

Many people think of Open Office as just a cheap knock-off of Microsoft Office or Apple’s iWorks.

This is what I thought when I had a computer with MS Office pre-installed. “It can’t be good, if it’s free, can it?” – Until my harddisk crashed… And I was forced to actually try Open Office, instead.

It comes with a variety of products for creating spreadsheets, drawings and presentations. All of them are just as or even more powerful than their Apple and Micrsoft alternatives. They come with tons of features, each. But since this article is about creating ebooks, we’re looking mainly at the tool simply called “Writer”, here.

Creating an Ebook With “Open Office Writer”

Once you first fire it up, it’s very intuitive. You can just start hacking away at your keyboard.

But let’s say you’ve already finished your book. Let’s say it’s just plain text without any formatting, at all. (Maybe you used WriteMonkey or WritingRoom for the draft)

So you paste it into Writer and…

You’ll have lots of pages with lots of text which is hopefully structured in some kind of way into chapters or sections, headers and subheaders, etc.

But how do we go about actually embodying this structure in terms of layout?

Now, you could just go ahead and manually select each of your headers and sub-headers, highlight them, select the font, font-size and color but a) that takes a lot of time and b) if you want to change something or try a different size, you’ll have to start all over again and manually edit all of the instances.

And this is where Open Office Writer shows some real muscle. The feature is called “styles” and while at first it seems difficult to learn, it can make your layouting and formatting a lot easier, later.

Styles, Styles, Styles…

The ways you can use these styles are infinite. So, as promised, now I’m going to let you take a peek behind the curtain and reveal a few design-details from my latest book “How To Teach Online Without Selling Your Soul”

1. Headlines

I created a custom style for main headlines which includes a certain font-size, color and even an extra margin on the bottom. Once I created this style I could easily assign it to any place in the document. Additionally, it allowed me to globally make changes to the style like trying out different margins and immediately seeing the changes reflected in all instances in my ebook. Bottom line: More time invested in the actual design. Less drudge work.

2. Initials

You know those paragraphs that start with a huge capital letter? They’re called “initials”. Again, here, I created a style specifying all the details and then assigned it with one click to all the paragraphs where I wanted it to show up or globally modified the style to give all of them a bit of extra margins.

3. Page-Styles

This is a lot of fun and once you get it figured out allows you to make even complex layouts like in magazines. As an example, you can see that in my ebook I wanted to have pages that stand as dividers between the different sections of the book. So I gave them a very distinct style. (Also the cover and the Table of Contents have their own page styles) Please note that for page styles to work, you need to create manual page breaks in order to switch from one style to another. Here’s how to do it.

Even More….

For more style-ideas you can also check out the free preview of “How To Teach Online Without Selling Your Soul” here to see how it all fits together in the end.

I hope this article shone a little light on why Open Office Writer is a great alternative to expensive solutions like InDesign and how powerful styles can be.

If you’re saying: “Well, that’s all great and it really looks cool but I still don’t have any clue how to get started with those styles” check out this neat tutorial to find out more.

Also, please feel free to ask questions in the comments below. I’ll be glad to help wherever I can.

img: CC by vns2009