Many authors out there, like myself, have found themselves needing to convert their Microsoft Word files (.doc or .docx) into a number of other popular formats. While it’s all too easy to tell the neotype author to ‘just use the conversion tools included with Amazon or Smashwords,’ the simple truth is that this doesn’t account for every need. In example, that answer is not appropriate for beta copies of a book that you might be distributing to friends and family. Such a method also has limited utility for free books or short stories that you’re providing via your own website, files your converting purely for you own use, and ARC copies that you might be distributing before finishing a final rewrite or edit.
As a result of this, I’ve personally had a number of frustrating moments and the same has been true for just about every writer I’ve ever spoken to. While there are any number of free conversion tools out there, the simple truth is that most of them are absolutely terrible. Either they are extremely awkward to use, laden with attempts to install other ‘free’ software, or fail spectacularly when asked to convert anything more complicated than plain text. After running head-on into this issue again a few days ago, I decided to try out over a dozen conversion methods, downloadable software and websites alike, and write a quick article about the two best options.
Note that his article only covers FREE options. No free trials either, only software/websites that are 100% free. It also doesn’t cover preparing your ebook for conversion (i.e. formatting or cleaning out anywhere you’ve committed the cardinal ebook sin of using a tab instead of a first line indent). For that entirely separate issue, I highly recommend this page. I actually prefer her older method, hence why I linked directly to it, but the page also contains a link to an updated methodology. Now, on to the best two options I found!
Method 1: Using calibre: E-Book Management
I’m going to go ahead and freely admit that this one surprised the heck out of me. After all, calibre is far more known as an e-book reader and library/management tool. However, while it has a single limitation some might find mildly annoying, both the ease-of-use and end result of calibre was hands-down better than the other options I tried. Also, no, I’m not failing to capitalize correctly. The official spelling of the software is, for some bizarre reason known only to developers, entirely lower case.
Getting it out of the way up front, that limitation I mentioned is that calibre can’t convert a .doc/.docx file directly. Instead, the .doc/.docx file must be first saved in a Filtered HTML document. However, since this can be done by the simple expedient of using the ‘Save As’ option in Word, only the truly inept will stumble over this minor requirement.
Aside from that one extremely mild issue, using calibre for the conversion was child’s play and produced the single best overall result as well. Adding a file to the software was as easy as dragging it over and dropping it into the open application, and the conversion option is right there on the main toolbar after you do so. Even better, not only could calibre quickly convert into both .epub and .mobi formats, but it also allowed you to edit in things like a cover and metadata with virtually no effort. It even passed a harsh test I gave it, converting a number of special characters that most other converters stumbled over.
The entire process was quick, intuitive, and provided plenty of advanced options for users who know a bit more about what they’re doing. Overall, I had absolutely nothing to complain about and will be using this for my personal conversion needs for the foreseeable future.
Method 2: Using Instascribe
Instascribe earns its inclusion as the other viable option for one big reason…it’s a website. This might not seem odd, conversion websites are nothing new, but the honest truth is that this was the only conversion website I tried that wasn’t completely horrible. I tried a half dozen such websites and every single one of them fell flat, often in a fairly spectacular and frustration manner. None of the others handled even something as basic as adding a cover, and they generally failed utterly at converting special characters. As most of them had highly suspicious agreements I’d also be leery of without reading in detail, I was left with an extremely bad proverbial taste in my mouth overall. I’d almost given up on testing for a decent conversion site when I finally stumbled upon the relatively unknown Instascribe.
This site isn’t without some issues of its own. While the sign up was easy, the actual importing of a document wasn’t very intuitive. There were also a few issues with moderate load times and a single instance during testing where the site got stuck loading a document and I had to restart, but overall these were minor irritants rather than critical issues.
On the plus side, like calibre, Instascribe has some easy-to-use tools that allow you to edit metadata and add a cover. Likewise, the actual conversion process was simple and produced a high-quality result. Better yet, it was able to convert .docx files straight across into .epub and .mobi, something that even calibre can’t do. Since the end result of the conversion also passed my test for special characters, I’m quite happy to call this site a good alternative for calibre. That it offers conversion without the need to download and install software will likely make it the preferred choice for many of you, though I myself will still prefer calibre.
I hope this helps a few of you have less moments of frustration with your ebooks! Do remember to properly format your Word files before trying these conversions, the website I linked earlier has a very good procedure for getting that sorted out. Good luck, everyone!