Hands-on review of Sigil 0.6.0, free EPUB editor
The new version of Sigil, a free EPUB editor by John Schember et al., is a significant improvement over the past releases. You'll find authoring ebooks with Sigil quite an enjoyable task, and here is why.
First of all, as an avid user of my own Sigil builds from Git I have to admit that my judging is slightly biased towards less excitement. I got all the new features one by one, but you are getting them all at once, in an instant.
Even so, I'm pretty excited, because John Schember, Grant Drake and Dave Heiland delivered, with a D.
What's in v0.6.0?
- extensive workflow and user interface improvements;
- an index editor and generator;
- inline TOC generator;
- reusable code snippets and search/replace presets;
- clipboard history;
- advanced document statistics and cleanup of unused iages and styles;
- easy linking to CSS files for XHTML documents;
- built-in Webkit's code inspector instead of the Split view;
- internationalization improvements and new interface translations;
- all around better performance.
This couldn't be all done in 8 months by mere 3 developers, could it? Why, it could and it was done.
Interface and workflow changes
If you asked me to summarize v0.6.0, I'd eventually come up with something like "Less stupid work that should have been done by computers from the very beginning".
Here is one example. When you need to link to a particular part of a document, you don't need to manually type in the anchor's code and a link anymore:
- Go to the location where the anchor should be.
- Click a button to add an ID.
- Type the ID.
- Go to the point in text where the link should be.
- Click a button, pick your ID from the list.
The updated toolbars also have subscript and superscript, RTL/LTR switches, text case toggles, special character insertion and more.
In fact, many things you had to use a "real HTML editor" for in the past are now perfectly handled by Sigil, out of box.
And speaking of workflow, Clips and Saved Searches are among the most useful new features.
With Clips you can build your own custom library of useful code snippets, group them and then share, if needed.
Note that just like with Saved Searches, most useful commands are in the context (right-click) menu. Speaking of which, you can use right-click menu in Book view to insert entries from Clips.
Saved Searches will be a time-saver for pretty much everybody who needs to process texts submitted in another file format. If you've seen a typical Word document produced by a newbie, you've seen it all:
- empty paragraphs for paragraph breaks;
- hyphens instead of em dashes;
- total lack of non-breaking spaces;
- anything else that makes you just lie down and cry.
The good news is that Saved Searches dialog comes with a bunch of useful predefined presets like removing trailing spaces, and it supports regular expressions.
If you need an inline table of contents, Sigil is now capable of creating a chapter file for that and then filling it with the TOC data.
Be warned, however, that the inline TOC builder doesn't analyze chapter files in their current state and instead relies on toc.ncx. If you change the text of headings or add more chapters, you will have to first regenerate the TOC file (via sidebar or menu) and only then re-run the "Create HTML Table of Contents" menu command.
For proofreaders Sigil now features a "Next misspelled word" command with a handy Ctrl+Shift+V shortcut for it.
The former Split View is now gone. Instead Sigil now has a Preview View mode which combines Book View mode (WYSIWYG editing) and Webkit's code inspector.
Quality of WYSISWYG editing
In the past editing text in the Book view wasn't quite recommended. Sigil tended to mix div and p elements, so after a while you would end up with a text that looked more or less reasonable, but was a complete failure in terms of markup.
I'm happy to say that these days are in the past. I've yet to see a single serious escrew-up for a typical text, but then again I don't do any kind of fancy work with the code like custom IDs or classes. WYSIWYG mode has proven to be safe enough for me.
On the other hand, the way groups are built and marked-up in the index definitely needs an improvement. If you want a group name to look differently, you need to create your own CSS rule and enclose each group's text into a span with the relevant class.
Becoming the master of your e-books
There are several new features in Sigil that go beyond merely improving your workflow. They help you better understand what's up with your documents.
The new Reports dialog is one of them. It provides a very handy overview of length (in words) and amount of misspelled words for each chapter file, how large your images are (both in KB and pixels), which elements each chapter files uses and in which CSS files those elements are described, and so on.
While at that, Sigil now also makes it possible to remove unused images, CSS files. See the bottom of the Tools menu for that.
It will also reformat the contents of the CSS files for you, in case you prefer single-line selectors over multiline ones, or vice versa.
And here's another time-saver: you don't have to manually add the code for linking to a CSS file anymore. Just select all your HTML files in the sidebar (click on the first, press Shift, click on the last), right-click, select "Link Stylesheets", pick the CSS files to link to. Bang.
And because the dialog lists CSS files that your HTML files already link to, you can easily unlink a stylesheet exactly the same way.
In case you've no idea what an index is, it's a section of a book that lists terms along with pages where those terms show up. It's quite useful for documents like all kinds of reference books, textbooks and so on.
I'll keep a detailed explanation of creating indexes for a tutorial, but you'll be glad to know that you can make quite complex indexes with Sigil:
- You can make groups, e.g. for an alphabet-based index.
- You can use regular expressions for matching the text.
- You can merge synonyms into a single index entry.
The primary tool here is the Index Editor:
It's where you define the matching text, the final index entry (if it should be written differently) and hierarchy.
Sigil 0.6.0 is (at least partially) available in 23 languages. New translations are: Galician, Indonesian, Central Khmer, Korean, Romanian, and Uighur.
Additionally far more UI elements were made translatable, including advanced metadata fields. Internationalization was also improved, e.g. in several user-visible cases plural forms are handled properly.
Upon picking the project John Schember analyzed the diversity of ebooks authoring workflows and deliberately defined Sigil as a tool for power users rather than self-publishers or professionals working for large-scale companies.
At this point it would be fair to say that Sigil is moving in that very direction at the speed of sound. The newly released version makes it easy to produce good-looking ebooks in EPUB, especially if you care to come up with a sensible workflow that, among other things, involves writing your own stylesheets and reusing them.
In my opinion, attention to details is what ultimately defines software as applicable for professional use. The amount of work that went into polishing Sigil during this development cycle is a sure sign of professional attitude.
I could think of many further workflow improvements, like moving all inline CSS rules in all XHTML files to a new or existing CSS file, or managing book templates. But truth to be told, Sigil is getting there anyway.
One thing that the self-publishers among you probably won't like is that Sigil won't create MOBI files for you. Which is a bit of a bugger especially since internally EPUB is quite similar to MOBI. On the other hand, creating a MOBI file out of an EPUB is a quite manageable task.
There are still open entries in Sigil's todo list, including EPUB v3 support and a plug-in architecture, so there's plenty of room for further excitement. The present of ebooks authoring with free software is already looking rather good, and there's more to come.