This is an excerpt from Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You ShouldIt is available from Amazon and Smashwords for  $4.99, Amazon UK for £1.99 or as a FREE PDF right here. There are some extra formatting resources at the bottom of the page that you should check out.

Step 4: Format Your Story

Different e-readers and devices use different software to display e-books, but there are a few industry standard file formats. As a self-publisher you will need to learn the digital equivalent of typesetting, known as formatting.

I recommend that you start learning how to format while you are waiting for your final edits or your cover design to be completed. You won’t be able to begin formatting your e-book until you have the edited file back from your editor, but it’s good to get some practice in before then.

E-readers can do several things that printed books can’t, but these features make formatting a little tricky. For one, e-books have no “pages,” as such. Each e-reader has its own default fonts, font sizes, and other display options each user can customize. To enable this, your e-book must be set up so that everything displays correctly on a variety of different screens, and so that your text flows and wraps correctly when a reader chooses to zoom in or out. If you do it right, e-book formatting looks really neat on any device.

The only real way to learn formatting is by doing it yourself, and you need to be on a computer. To make this easier for you, I have also copied this chapter to a section of my blog so you can read it while formatting. It has links to download all the software you need and all sorts of extra formatting tips and advice that you can consult while you are actually formatting.

Formatting 101

There’s no easy way to tell you this, but I am going to have to ask you to do something and you’re not going to like it. If you want to publish your book, and if you want to the results to look perfect, there is no way around it—you are going to have to do a teeny tiny bit of computer programming.

Alright, you got me, there is a way around it: you can pay someone to do it. But it will cost you a minimum of $100 to $200 to get it formatted correctly, more if it’s non-fiction, and more again if it’s super-long, has lots of images, or has any other visual/layout quirks you need incorporated. Add more again if you are interested in publishing to Smashwords (and you should be).

If you are still thinking about paying someone to format for you, I have listed some recommended services at the bottom, but remember that’s more copies of your book you have to sell to cover your costs, which means more time until you break even. Remember, all of your self-publishing costs are sunk costs—once you cover those, everything after that is profit, and you want to get to that point as quickly as possible.

Anyway, we are here to learn. When you get to the point that your time is so valuable it should be spent writing instead, outsource formatting. Until that time, roll up your sleeves and get ready to format.

Guido Henkel’s Guide to Formatting

Self-published author Guido Henkel has produced an amazing free guide to formatting your e-book properly. It’s a nine-part guide (but you get through it quite quickly, as most of it is patient explanation rather than actual steps you have to take). If you are serious about formatting professionally, you have to read it before you begin. I’ll summarize the key points below, but this summary is not a substitute for reading Guido’s guide.

If you are reading this on your e-reader you will need to be on your computer while reading Guido’s guide, so you can follow each step as he does it, which is the only way to learn. I do a couple of things slightly differently, but this is just a question of style. All the options are explained in my formatting guide, so you can choose the most appropriate for you.

Even if you own an e-reader, I recommend that you download the free Kindle app for your computer. It’s essential for checking your files as you format them. That link is also listed at the end of this chapter. Once you have installed the Kindle app, you can sample Kindle books for free (and see how the formatting looks for both best-selling titles and for your own work).

The Basics

There are no shortcuts! You might hear of shortcuts and think I was unaware of them. But if you try, for example, just to export an e-reader ready file from your manuscript in Microsoft Word, you are asking for trouble. Trust me.

You might also hear about programs such as MobiPocket Creator, which can produce a Kindle-ready file straight from your Word file. You might hear of people who did this and said their formatting was perfect. You might even be one of those people. However, this approach can result in problems with your formatting that you may be unaware of.

If you have already formatted some of your work by either of the steps above, you might think what I’m saying is garbage. You might have checked the file you created and seen no problems. However, what you might not realize is that there could be all sorts of hidden HTML code in your files that could cause problems on other e-readers. Your “perfect” e-book might look screwy on an iPhone, a Nook, or a Kobo reader. Also, there is no telling how future e-readers will interpret that extra hidden code, causing you all sorts of problems.

If you want to be 100% sure your e-books will be formatted perfectly on all current and future devices, you must follow these steps. If you do, you can look forward to the kind of reviews I received when they said, “This is the most professional design—both inside and out—that I have seen since I started reviewing.”

Once you undertake these steps you will realize that Microsoft Word is not your friend. All those bells and whistles they have added over the years, the automatic indenting, the “smart” quotes, on the bullet lists, are about to cause you problems.

You are going to have to get into some HTML; there is no avoiding it. If you are smart enough to write a book, you are smart enough to do this. Don’t fret. It’s not that bad if you take your time and follow the instructions exactly.

You will need some new software, but don’t worry, it’s simple to use. In Guido Henkel’s guide he recommends TextMate for the HTML, which you must pay for and is only available for the Mac. For a free program that can do much of the same tasks try TextWrangler. If you have a PC, I recommend Notepad++ (which is free). You will also require an e-book conversion program called Calibre which is free for both the PC and the Mac.

The Nitty Gritty

There are a whole host of sales channels for your e-book, and to maximize your revenue you should upload to as many of them as you can. Essentially, what you need to produce are three separate documents:

1. A MOBI file for Amazon;

2. An EPUB file for Barnes & Noble (and other retailers if you go direct); and,

3. A clean Microsoft Word document for Smashwords.

If you follow Guido Henkel’s step-by-step guide you will end up with the MOBI and EPUB files. It took me quite a few painful hours to do my first, but the next time was a breeze. Even something much more complicated—like this book—was less than a day’s work.


The clean Microsoft Word document for Smashwords you will have to produce yourself, as Guido Henkel’s guide doesn’t cover how to format it. It’s a frustrating process, essentially about taking out all of the formatting Microsoft Word puts in automatically and re-entering things a different way.

Smashwords has a style guide, available free, to help you through the process. Read it all. It’s no page-turner, but you can get through it in less than an hour and it’s essential to having your documents accepted by Smashwords.

How quickly you can work through the style guide and convert your document will depend on your level of familiarity with Word. My document took me less than an hour, but only because my editor had cleaned a lot of it up. At worst, it will take you a day—the first time.

Sales on Smashwords aren’t big, but it’s the only way to get onto Kobo, Sony, and Diesel, and the easiest way to get into the Apple iBookstore, as well as the only way for international authors to get their books on Barnes & Noble. It’s also one of the only ways that most international readers (outside of the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia and Germany) can purchase your work and avoid heavy surcharges (explanation here). It’s worth the hassle.


Before you begin uploading your files, I recommend testing them as much as possible. As Guido Henkel recommends in his guide, you should be testing the files in your browser as you make changes. When you are done, also test them on a Kindle or the free Kindle app. If you don’t have a Kindle, I recommend reducing the size of the screen to mimic one, as some problems with your layout will only become apparent then. I also recommend seeing what it looks like with a larger font size, again to sniff out hidden problems (and because many readers will view this way).

Once your files are ready, you can begin uploading your e-book. Excited yet?

That was an excerpt from Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Shouldavailable from Amazon and Smashwords for $4.99, Amazon UK for £1.99 or as a FREE PDF right here.

Additional Resources:

If you insist on paying for your formatting, both Guido Henkel and Rob Siders are consistently recommended, and charge reasonable rates.

I will be adding further formatting tips in the coming days. In the meantime, if you are struggling with your Smashwords doc, this very helpful guide from indie author Heather Adkins will save your bacon.

49 Responses to Formatting

  1. Pingback: Let’s Get Digital: Launches Tomorrow | David Gaughran

  2. Pingback: Sunday Roundup: Blog Anniversary, New Releases, and a Link Party | David Gaughran

  3. Jay Sprout says:

    Love your book – I’m eating it up and wrote a short but glowing review on my blog. The link to Guido’s book goes, sadly, nowhere. Can you help a brother out?

  4. Andrew says:

    Awesome…thank you so much! (And…since you’re as big a fan of editing as I am…”if you want to the results to look perfect”)

  5. Sean McGuire says:

    Thanks for pointing out this guide. Did you ever have any problems inserting and into your document on Notepad, by any chance? Guido’s advice for that coding doesn’t apply to Notepad++’s software.

  6. Sean McGuire says:

    It seems WordPress eliminated the HTML tags I was attempting to describe in my first comment. I am referring to the ones used to mark paragraphs.

    • I don’t remember having problems with that, no. Are you talking about the process to do a search and replace to automatically put tags around the paragraphs? I think I had to do that manually, but I don’t mind that as I format slightly differently from Guido (I don’t indent the first paragraph after a scene break – a stylistic choice, either is acceptable).

  7. Sean McGuire says:

    I was. Some hours ago, I resigned myself also to manual replacement. So much for cheating.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • I’m pretty sure there is an auto replace that works (but need a little massaging). Let me see. Yes. I can’t cut-and-paste here because WordPress will try and be smart and convert the code. It’s the para in Section V (about half-way down just above the image of the search box) that begins with this:

      Open the search and replace window in your editor and make sure Regular Expressions are enabled. Occasionally you may find a checkbox in the search window, so give it a quick look. Now enter...

      I think the first method he suggests doesn’t work with Notepad++ but the second does. Try it.

  8. Pingback: Notes Of A Storyteller: The Day Notepad++ Vanquished Sean McGuire | The Kingdom Trilogy

  9. Pingback: Ebook Madness: Preparing “Yseult” for Kindle | Ruth Nestvold – What’s New

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  11. Frank Coles says:

    Hi David, I enjoyed Let’s Get Digital. I took your advice and tried Guido’s guide. Unfortunately it doesn’t format my books anywhere near as nicely as yours – and I can code and edit too. did you only use Guido’s guide for Let’s Get Digital – which looks the business btw – or did you use any other service/relevant info?

    Cheers. F

    • Hi Frank,

      Sorry I missed your comment – I thought I had replied. I did use Guido’s guide, but there are a few things I do differently, stylistic choices more than anything. I’ll post about that soon, but feel free to email me with any specific questions.


  12. Pingback: “Why Is My Book Not Selling?” Guest Post by David Gaughran | Yaminatoday - A Literary Blog That Entertains & Educates

  13. Pingback: How to Self-Publish – Phase 2: Uploading | Write Edit Seek Literary Agent

  14. Brian says:

    eCub is a wonderful solution as well. Create an eCub project for your book, then feed it html files for your chapters, title page, copyright page, etc. It’ll create the ePub file and can also call MobiPocket (kindlegen) to create Kindle books. LibreOffice html-exported files work great with eCub and both software programs are free. There’s a small learning curve, but if you’re a do-it-yourself type it’ll save you some cash give you flexibility.


  15. is a great option for producing clean html :-)

  16. Very helpful stuff here. Thank you!

  17. Pingback: Formatting your ebook files |Monica T. Rodriguez

  18. Pingback: Author interview: Ellie Stevenson / Rachel Pictor

  19. F. Poj says:

    Hey David,
    After uploading a couple of short stories to Smashwords, I realized I could totally follow their guidelines and get my items in the premium catalog pretty quickly. The Style Guide is free and the most important items are in the first few pages. Did not need to read the whole thing. It is pretty straight forward. With my third item, no corrections were necessary at all. It’s truly exhilarating to see how quickly you can publish your own work and within a few days, see it on places like B&N. The coolest thing is, when you try to look for a publisher the whole process is difficult and depressing. Once you realize how simple it is to self publish, it motivates you to write more, because it is that easy to get it out there.
    I would have never done it without this blog of yours. Keep making writers happy!

  20. F. Poj says:

    Question about formatting. I haven’t tried anything with graphics or lots of images. Is it much more complicated to get it in the Premium Catalog?

  21. kenben says:

    I have published a book on Blurb. I am also able to get it converted to epub. You can view it here

    Now I need to clean it up. There are a lot of photos and poetry. The poems need to be corrected. I can also save a PDF file. I created the book using Adobe Lightroom 4 in book module. Thanks

  22. Doug Philips says:

    I wish I read your book before I published mine. I have 40 reviews so far and the only negative remarks have to do with typos. No, I did not have it professionally edited. I didn’t really expect anyone to read it. I’ve had it exclusively on KDP, but I’m going to venture out to the other platforms for more exposure. Hopefully your formatting direction can get me through the process. Great book! Fantastic tool.

  23. Pingback: Free ebook formatting: do it yourself? | What The Hell

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  25. josois says:

    As a writer trying to self-publish my story while spending the least amount of money doing so, I found this post very helpful. I’m looking forward to implementing the information about proper formatting with my own story “Before the Legend” so I can get it as close to professional as possible. I’m trying to publish through Booktango so I’m not sure how the formatting works with that platform. Either way those resources you provide are a good start. Your insight would be helpful to my own blog.

  26. Pingback: Bianca’s Weekly Wonder List 1.09.13 | B.G. Bowers

  27. suttonharlow says:

    Do you or any of your readers have any experience with Pressbooks you can share?

  28. Pingback: Self-Publishing: DIY or Hire Help? | Molly Greene: Writer

  29. Pingback: Formatting | WRITE HERE - WRITE NOW

  30. Hi David,

    “Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should” has been instrumental in helping me finally make the decision to self publish. Thank you for publishing it.

    I have a question regarding formatting. I’m reading a book on the subject of CreateSpace and Kindle, and the author is suggesting starting with CreateSpace and using CreateSpace’s feature of “Also publish to Kindle store” as the way of getting your work to the Kindle marketplace. I’d really love to hear your opinion on this. It seems to me as if there would be a couple of problems with this: 1) do you still control the formatting process for the Kindle edition? 2) It seems like it would be impossible to nail down a release date, since the CreateSpace process can take 5 or more days once you approve the proof.

    My goal is to have my book published in both formats on Amazon, I’m just not sure what the best approach is to accomplishing that.

    Any advice you can give would be greatly appreciated!

    • I can answer this one quickly: absolutely do’t use that Createspace feature. Make your own Kindle edition (or hire someone to do it for you). I’d also disagree with that author’s advice that you should do the print edition first. I think you should do the e-book first and worry about the print version later. Reasons:

      1. Making an ebook is cheaper and easier, and your book will be out quicker (and cost you less).
      2. The likelihood is that 95%+ of your sales will be ebook.
      3. No matter how rigorous your self-editing/editing/proofing process is, you will want to make changes after it’s published – whether that’s typos, or how the front- and back-matter is laid out, etc. It’s a relatively trivial process to update an ebook. Print is trickier – and you can’t do anything about copies already sold.

      As such, I know plenty of writers who will release the print version a few weeks after the e-book. Some will delay the e-book release until the print edition is ready, but I don’t really see the benefits.

  31. Mel says:

    David, have you heard anything about Booknook?

  32. Pingback: Writer McCrankypants on formatting manuscripts | Andi Marquette

  33. thestilling says:

    Hi David, I tried doing an initial kindle formatting by going very slowly through Guido’s guide & following his instructions. I got to the end of Part VI and finished the early search & replace functions, replacing single and double quote marks with the letter codes, and all the others. Saved it as html doc, and brought it up on my browser and had just a mass of text worse than the Notepad version I was working on. I used Notepad 6.5.5. How did you find using the Notepad? Is it reliable? I wonder if I should buy the textmate software, but it’s probably something I’ve done I guess, not the software. I left a question for Guido of course, but I thought I’d ask you about the Notepad angle. Thanks.

  34. thestilling says:

    I just read Nat Russo’s question, and I thought Amazon only allows people to self-publish there through the KDP Select platform. I published 2 books last year through Kobo, and 1 at Lulu. I’ve pulled out the long ebook I had at Lulu and I’ll publish it as 2 ebooks through Smashwords, plus the 2 new ebooks I will finish in the fall. I realized I could be bringing out a different ebook every 2 months till the end of next year, for broad release at the many outlets that Smashwords serves. Exciting! But anyway, is it true I could publish ebooks at Amazon outside the KDP Select option?

  35. thestilling says:

    I read your advice to Sean McGuire above, and your advice works partially. I got the paragraphs to show now when I bring it up on the browser, but the shows instead of a long dash. And the quote marks are coming up as a Euro symbol + TM in some cases. It’s sort of a mess. LOL. Well, I’ll work on it again tomorrow I guess! On the smashwords thing, I have 2 other books at Kobo only, which I’ll re-release through smashwords to the world! … ha ha I’m looking into trying to get 10 or more reviews for these books as I bring them out gradually this year & next. And smashword’s coupons is such a great idea! There’s no excuse not to have a range of reviews supporting each book. But I’ll ask about that another time! Ciao.

  36. thestilling says:

    ya, the code was replaced by wordpress, the &mdash code just comes up not the long dash, and others like that, and bizarre stuff I’ve never seen before. whoa!

  37. Bob says:

    Any thoughts about Lulu?

  38. Pingback: Divas on Writing: It Takes a Village to Publish a Book - Write Divas

  39. Pingback: Formatting | Indie Author News |

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