This is an excerpt from Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should. It 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.
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).
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 Should, available from Amazon and Smashwords for $4.99, Amazon UK for £1.99 or as a FREE PDF right here.
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.