Self-Publishing #3 — Formatting


Starting Off Clean

In the previous post, I said that of all the expenses self-publishers face, the one expense they shouldn’t skip is a professional edit. But when it comes to formatting, you can save some money doing it yourself. Should you? Just ask yourself a couple of questions.

Does your book contain complex formatting, such as images with captions, tables, footnotes, and bullet points? The more complex the content, the more time you’ll spend learning how to create clean formatting that will convert without error to other file types.

Do you have the time and talent to learn the ins and outs of formatting? If, for example, you can’t grab more than an hour at a time to work and have never been very tech-savvy, you may have a difficult time using formatting guides.

For more, read “Understanding Your eBook Formatting Options” by Marcy Kennedy via Fiction University.

Doing Your Own Formatting

Let’s say you have a fairly simple book to format, and you’re gung ho to learn how.

Starting off, if you plan to release both an eBook and a print edition, you'll need at least two versions of your story file. Why? Because one version will need to adapt to the conditions in which it’s being read and the other exists in a fixed state that will always look the same.

Think of it this way. Do you ever visit a website on your smart phone that isn’t “mobile-friendly?” The site looks the same as on a desktop or laptop, but now you’re reading on a much smaller screen. The font is so tiny that it’s illegible. Zooming in by stretching your index finger and thumb across the screen blows it up to a readable size, but now half of the text is hanging offscreen. You also can’t use the drop-down menu because you can’t hover a mouse pointer over it.

Compare this experience to visiting a site that always looks good no matter what device or browser you’re using. Font displays at a legible size and wraps correctly (no need to pull the screen right or left to see all of a paragraph), and you can interact with navigational menus using the tap of your finger. The underlying code for these websites uses what’s called “responsive web design.”

You want your digital book to work in the same way, to look legible on any screen no matter the font face or size—typically whatever the reader or their device deigns to be optimal. The amount of story that appears when viewing your book on one model of e-Reader will be different from the amount that appears on another model or the amount that appears on a smartphone, a tablet, and so on. For all devices, your story should be as easy to read as possible.

This means not forcing your digital book to display only one font size; some readers need to read a larger font for the same reason some readers go for large-print editions. This means not embedding a non-standard font into your digital version and forcing readers to use it; not only do some readers have a preferred font that they find the least distracting, but sometimes authors embed a bad font that unnecessarily bloats the file size.

Conversely, the version of your manuscript file meant for print publishing will have a set font, set margins, and a set page size because readers will all get the same physical product.

Creating a Master File

To create these two versions of your book, you’ll need a master file. And it has to be clean. Free of superfluous spaces at the end or beginning of paragraphs. Of accidental straight quotes when you meant to use all smart quotes. Of junk data hidden in the underlying code of your Microsoft Word document. (Word's "Track Changes" feature especially will introduce junk data into your manuscript.)

Most sites and expert-advice books assume you’re using Microsoft Word to format your final draft. Why? Because not only is Word still one of the most popular word processors, but also because the biggest e-book distributor, Amazon KDP, recommends uploading in either .doc(x) or .html format “for best results." Thus, those of you writing your masterpiece in Scrivener or another alternate word processor may end up formatting your final draft in Word or one of its free equivalents simply out of convenience.

Whether or not you decide to publish through Smashwords, I’d recommend referring to the Smashwords Style Guide for a clear, step-by-step explanation of how to create a clean master file and then format a digital version of your book using that clean master file. Other very popular guides exist, so feel free to search out the one you like best!

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File Type Conversion

As with formatting, you can decide to outsource your e-book conversion rather than do it yourself. Joel Friedlander at The Book Designer discussed reasons both for and against each option and, for those who choose to outsource conversion, recommends looking for a service at the aptly named E-book Conversion Service Directory. Friedlander himself has used and

But let’s say you want to do it yourself, and you wish to distribute your next masterpiece through Amazon and iBooks.

First, read this (somewhat cynical) article by Matt Buchanan at Gizmodo going into detail about all the different eBook formats and why so many exist. Matt also talks about Digital Rights Management, or DRM. Once you’re done, let’s get into our example scenario.

The file type you upload to Amazon can be Word (.doc or .docx), HTML (.zip, .htm, .html), MOBI (.mobi), EPUB (.epub), Rich Text Format (.rtf), Plain Text (.txt), Adobe PDF (.pdf), or Kindle Package Format (.kpf). Amazon then converts your file to their proprietary Kindle format, .azw. (Well, basically. It gets complicated.) Note that while the Kindle can display more than just the .azw file type, .azw is what gets churned out when you upload to Amazon KDP.

The file type you upload to iBooks can be “books created with iBooks Author (.ibooks) or books in the EPUB (.epub) format.” A reader with an either iOS device (iPhone/iPad) or a Mac with iBooks installed can read either file type as well as several others.

Which File Types Should I Create? And How?

Your choice depends on which distributors you deign to use and the software you prefer. Using the above example, an author might create a DOCX for Amazon KDP, EPUB for iBooks, and the most popular formats for ARe: PDF, MOBI, and EPUB.

Another author with a different distribution plan and different software might choose to upload an RTF file to Amazon KDP and make use of the benefits of KDP Select, meaning they won’t distribute through anyone else for the time being.

As for how to convert to some of these file types, one of the most popular programs is Calibre, a “free and open source e-book library management application.”

Calibre does have a bit of a learning curve. I struggled for a while to figure out how to convert .docx into a .pdf that had normal-looking pages, and I still haven’t figured out why a Calibre-converted eBook doesn’t have a proper thumbnail on a Kindle. But enough time reading forums and testing files will see you through.

For other options, see “Jump in the Convertible: Ebook Conversion Tools” by Joel Friedlander via The Book Designer.

Front and Back Matter

When you grab a book from your shelf and open the cover, the story does not start on the first page. Typically, you’ll find copyright information, a title page, a table of contents, a dedication, and sometimes even a preface, prologue, author note, or introduction.

Similarly, the story doesn’t end on the last page of the book. You may find the author’s acknowledgements, their bio, a bibliography, a glossary, a list of other books by the same author, and sometimes one or more excerpts from these other books, especially upcoming releases.

This extra content is called “front matter” when it’s found before the story and “back matter” when it’s found after the story. Hop on over to The Book Designer to see a comprehensive list of what kinds of supplementary content a book might have at the beginning and end of its main content.

I’m not going to break down each potential item an author might use in their front and back matter. Most of it is self-explanatory, and if you need guidance, you’ll find plenty with a quick internet search.

I will, however, point out a few things I learned while creating front and back matter for the first time. (I’ll discuss the copyright page in a future post.)

Let’s talk about front matter first. When you pick up a physical book to read it, you’ll most likely flip to the page that has the first big block of text—y’know, where the story begins. Readers don’t care much, if at all, about the copyright page and they merely glance at the title page or dedication. Depending on the book, they might peruse the Table of Contents (TOC), but it’s mostly there for later referral.

Note: it’s typical for print fiction, especially fiction with simple chapter titles (e.g. “chapter one,” “chapter two”), not to have a TOC at all, but you should definitely include a TOC in your digital version so readers can hop around your story (perhaps to re-read their favorite part) without a great deal of tapping/swiping in one direction or the other.

This tendency for readers to head right for the story is part of why current advice recommends keeping front matter brief, especially for digital books. You don’t want your reader to have to click/swipe a dozen or so times to get to the story. The other reason is that the Amazon Kindle opens new eBook purchases by taking the reader to whatever is listed first in the Table of Contents you created, which for some authors might be their prologue or first chapter. So, the reader ends up never seeing your front matter. (Not that it isn’t there. Readers simply have to navigate backward to see it.)

Some authors like this feature because they don’t want to put too many clicks/swipes between a reader opening an eBook and actually reading it. Others take steps to ensure the Kindle starts earlier in the eBook file. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an easily digestible explanation of how the “opening page” is decided based on one’s formatting or how to set the opening page to your preferred location (here are a few candidates for troubleshooting), but I’ll try to write up a mini-post in the future and will update this paragraph if I feel satisfied with it.

Now let’s talk a little about the important role of back matter, which is where the some of the best marketing happens, and it’s far more powerful in an eBook. Why? Because eBooks can and should use live web links for instant engagement. Readers act on calls to action much more often when it’s only one tap away.

What is a call to action? It’s encouraging a satisfied reader to leave a review (some e-readers have a built-in review feature), add your book to their Goodreads shelf, sign up for your newsletter, follow you on social media, and buy other books you’ve written. And as a self-published author, you have the power to upload new versions of your book to keep this back-matter marketing fresh. Whet your readers’ appetites by offering an excerpt of your next book, especially if it’s the next in a series or at least in the same genre.

One trick to keep in mind: use redirects to make sure the links in your back matter always go where you want without uploading a new version—a process best left for things like appending a new excerpt or new titles to a series. See author Bree Bridges' post about how to set up redirects: "Formatting Tricks (2/?): Linking With Redirects." If you're not keen on using a WordPress plugin and your needs run toward redirects that flex based on country or device, take a look at smartURL.

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