Formatting issues and concerns

While talking with Cedar Sanderson yesterday, the conversation turned to e-book formatting. Her comment was that she has noticed how e-book formatting has evolved over the last few years. For a moment, I wasn’t sure what she meant. Then I realized she was right. Formatting for e-books has come a long way over the last few years. Part of the reason is because e-books are being read on more advanced and powerful e-readers, tablets and smartphones. Another part of the reason is because we are no longer limited to uploading our e-books to sales sites in HTML format (Let’s face it. Too many of us either don’t know or don’t want to know how to code in HTML and it does take time to do it, time we’d rather spend writing.)

But this change in formatting has brought up a new worry for indie authors and small presses. How do you find the right template to use for you e-books? (There’s another associated question: should your e-books look like your print books?)

What really drove the issue home with me was opening my email this morning and finding a LinkedIn conversation about templates. The initial commenter linked to a site that sells interior templates for Word for a mere $87 (yes, my snark is on with the “mere”). Then he asked if anyone else had any other links to templates. From his comment, it is unclear if he is doing anything but e-books.

There are five answers to his question and, yes, five different pieces of advice. One basically says to run out and buy Adobe PageMaker because they think it is easy to learn and is perfect for the job. Another notes that she uses InDesign (but she also says there is a learning curve and that there are issues with it, as there are with almost any other program, when you upload a non-MOBI file to Amazon). Then there’s the commenter who recommends the templates from Createspace.

All of those recommendations are valid and based on personal experience. Two require major monies be laid out for the programs. But at least they addressed the original poster’s question. The other two comments don’t. At least not directly.

One says that all new authors should spend at least three months learning the ropes of self-publishing and then, if it is too much, they should consider hiring someone to do the layout work for them. Then there is the “vague questions like this produce vague answers” comment that had my hackles rising. The question — where do you find your templates — was not vague.

But it was the remaining comment that had me absolutely seething. According to this person, you MUST hire someone to do your layouts to avoid your book looking like it was self-published. There is no way a mere writer can learn how to put out a quality looking project is basically what he says. What he doesn’t say is that he works for a site/company that does conversions and printing.

So, here’s my take on it. If you are preparing your book only for digital release, it doesn’t matter what program you use. Most sites that allow you to upload an e-book for sale (ie Amazon, B&N, etc) accept Word files, HTML, etc. Experience has taught me that if you upload their native format (EPUB for Apple and B&N, among others and MOBI for Amazon) you have fewer conversion problems. The key is making sure you actually check the file after you’ve uploaded it to insure nothing odd happened.

There are free — and easy to learn — programs available to do the conversions from your original working file to EPUB or MOBI formats. Sigil and Calibre are two examples. Atlantis is a relatively inexpensive word processing program that actually cleans up a lot of the junk code in a Word file and will convert to EPUB. There is also a free plug-in that allows it to convert to MOBI. I’ve found the MOBI conversion a bit lacking but I know others who are happy with it.

As for your interior formatting for e-books, the first thing to decide is if you are also putting your work out in print. If you are, I recommend you use the same basic formatting for chapter headings, first lines of each chapter, etc., in your e-book that you do with your print version. In other words, make them look as much alike as you can. This is something we are now doing with NRP and we will be going back to all our novels and updating the digital files as we bring out the print files.

So, here are some basics I suggest:

1. Use a font that is easily read. The most common are Georgia, Garamond, Times New Roman.

2. Don’t use fancy fonts or symbols that will have to be embedded in your document. The reason for this is because not all e-book readers/programs will recognize them and that will result is odd characters showing up in the e-book and upsetting your reader.

3. Line spacing should be set at 1 or 1.5. Do not use double spacing.

4. Do not add space between paragraphs (either by having an extra return or by using paragraph formatting to do so.)

5. Insert a section break at the end of your chapter. This will cause the next chapter to open on a new screen for your e-book (by using section break instead of page break, you are also setting up your working file for easier conversion for print. You can program the break so that the new section begins on an odd page — which is what you want for print.)

6. Chapter Titles should be set as “heading 1” — which you can modify so that they are centered, black or auto color, etc. By doing this, you are putting in the necessary code for your active table of contents to be built and you don’t have to go in and do it by hand (building in hyperlinks and bookmarks).

7. Paragraphs should have first line indent active in the paragraph formatting options. My recommendation is not to set it at anything higher than 0.33. The default is usually 0.5 and that is too much for an e-book.

8. If you choose to follow standard print formatting, the first line of the first paragraph of every chapter will not be indented and the first few words or first clause of the sentence will be capped. You can remove the first line indent by simply highlighting and going into your paragraph options and unclicking first line indent. The caps can be done either by manually doing it or by highlighting the appropriate section of the first sentence, going into your font options and clicking “All Caps”.

Along this line, the fancy first letter of a chapter/superscript letter/etc., doesn’t translate well into digital format so avoid it.

9. Be sure if you have scene breaks in your novel or short story that you remove the first line indent at the *  *  *  or whatever you use to denote a scene change.

10. If you are writing a novel, you don’t have to have a table of contents in the beginning of the book. By using Heading 1 etc., your ToC will be built during conversion and added either in the drop down menu or at the end of the book depending on what store and e-reader/e-reader program you are talking about.

11. Be sure to include a list of your other works available for download and, if you have something coming out soon, note that. Also include an author bio and an excerpt of your upcoming work or another of your titles that might relate to the book you are publishing.

12. Finally, look at print books and see how they set up the front matter. Have a title page, a legal page, a dedication and/or acknowledgement page. If you want, put in a second title page and then start with Chapter One.

I really do recommend you convert your titles to MOBI for Amazon upload and EPUB for B&N, Kobo, and Apple. For one thing, you get to embed the meta tags you want associated with your titles this way. For another, you can look at your files in a native e-reader program or on your e-reader/tablet/smartphone before you upload to the site and see if there are any problems that need to be fixed. Always convert to EPUB first and from the EPUB convert to MOBI and not the other way around.

This is how I do it today. How I do it six months down the road will probably change. Why? Because tech changes and along with it the programs we use. So the best advice is to do it the way you think it looks best and keep your eye on what everyone else is doing. No, you don’t have to pay someone to format your e-book for you. If you take a little time — and it doesn’t take three months — to learn the process, it is worth the effort.

I’ll look at print formatting later. That is  bit trickier and will take a bit more thought to put together.

In the meantime, check out Kate Paulk’s post on Mad Genius Club about advice on story telling and Sarah A. Hoyt’s post on Talent and Other Fairy Tales.

In other news, Nocturnal Interlude is now available on Amazon for download. The print version will be available for purchase in a couple of weeks.


    1. You make some good points in your post, especially for geeks like me. Most of what you talk about I do — when I have time. However, my post was mainly aimed at those who are using Word or another standard word processing program for their initial file and conversion base. Since that is the standard right now, I wasn’t going to try to go into any more depth.

      That said, there are much cleaner, if more time consuming, ways of preparing your e-books. But they aren’t necessary at this time (at least not in my opinion). With a little tweaking, you can go from a DOC file to a well-formated and attractive e-book without ever having to break out your html coding knowledge, much less CSS worksheets.

      1. There’s a difficult balance between too technical and leaving out information that’s needed. But as I said in my post, if the finished book is going to look professional, someone in the book-production process is going to need to understand basic HTML typography. And if you’re self-publishing that someone is going to have to be you or someone you hire.

        Perhaps there’s a market for freelance e-typography. For a few hundred dollars, clean the Word files and generate clean EPUB and POD-ready PDF files.

        1. Joel – in indie books terms “a few hundred dollars” per title could be “a year income” — particularly for smaller or reprint novels.
          Also, as an FYI, as a power-consumer of ebooks, the WORST formatted ones, with arbitrary pages of space between paragraphs, etc, are from the major houses, which presumably (but not necessarily) have dedicated html people. I find if I convert with Atlantis word processor I either get a clean product or it’s obvious where I need to clean. Now, my early books I didn’t do that — didn’t have Atlantis — but now, it’s a really simple process.

          1. Thanks, Sarah. As someone who, like you, does this as part of my living, I like to think I have a pretty good idea about how the process works. I’ve done everything from straight html coding of a book to stripping out the Word — or any other word processing program — junk code. And I can tell you that what you and I put out is much better about that than what most of the so-called pros do.

            While I try to be open to all opinions here, it does bother me when someone blithely suggests that an author should shell out “a few hundred dollars” for something that isn’t needed, especially if they may be using a site like Smashwords to upload their books through.

            1. Well, smashwords does unspeakable things to books, but we can’t do much about it.
              The only author I know who pays for this professionally is a bestseller putting out his backlist, and he pays $100 per book for “all formats.” But the person working for him does it as I do. (Shrug.) IT MIGHT be better with html, but Dan tried that, and is now doing Atlantis. As for me, if I had to wait for html, I couldn’t do it. I’m html retarded…

          2. Wow; I knew the profit margins were thin, but … wow.

            Thinking back to the books I fixed up for my own use, it’s a couple of hours work per novel; maybe a full day or two if the original was long and badly formatted. So a better estimate would be somewhere in the vicinity of $50–$100.

            And you still want a real editor…

            And I’ve also seen poor formatting from professional houses. (Even Baen, though that’s generally been uneven use of curly & straight quotation marks, nothing really egregious.) So perfectly clean source isn’t needed, just a bit better than the publishers.

            Yeah, the simple rules Amanda posted would work.

            (“Joel,” I say to myself, “it’s an engineering problem; optimize for cost. The formatting only needs to be robust enough to work on Kindles, Nooks, and the one or two other devices that comprise the bulk of the e-reader market.” Myself grumbles a bit about “do a job right,” but concedes the point.)

          3. Thanks for setting me straight, Sarah. And I’ve also seen poor e-book formatting (even from Baen, but that was inconsistent use of straight and curly quotation marks). So I suppose even Amanda’s simple rules can be enough to make a book at least as professional-looking as what the publishers put out.

            (I wrote a longer reply but whether it’s in the moderation queue or lost in the ether I can’t tell.)

            1. Well, the last thing I want to do is add to people’s anxieties, Joel — I spent a year afraid of putting anything up because I was sure it wouldn’t “look professional” — but you know, when I did, my stuff was more professional than what Bantam puts up. (Just read a mystery. No, you don’t want to know. TRUST me.)

  1. What if your story requires foreign text (i.e., specially-accented characters on the one hand, or small phrases in a completely different script – e.g., Chinese) ? Is this overly-problematic?

    1. Not really. Most word processing programs have the ability to input those characters. If there is a problem in the conversion, it’s easy to find the html coding for them and to then insert it into the document — especially if you use a program like Sigil or something similar.

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