This is an excerpt from the revised, updated, and expanded second edition of my self-publishing guide Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should which is available from all major retailers. I’ve also added some extra formatting resources at the bottom of the page which you should check out.
Step 4: Formatting & Killer Layouts
There’s little point spending endless hours writing and polishing your work, and then splashing out on a swanky cover and a professional edit, if you’re going to fall at the final hurdle. To keep your words neat and tidy and easy to read, you will need to employ the digital equivalent of typesetting, known as formatting. Careless errors aside, nothing will annoy a power reader more than a poorly formatted e-book. I recommend that you start learning how to format while you are waiting for your final edits or for your cover design to be completed. You won’t be able to begin formatting your e-book until your editor is done, but it’s good to get some practice in before then.
E-readers and tablets can do several things that printed books can’t, but those features make formatting a little tricky. For one, e-books have no “pages,” as such. Each e-reading device has its own default fonts, font sizes, and other display options that a user can customize. 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. If you do it right, your e-book formatting will look 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 of the software you need, as well as extra formatting tips and advice that you can consult while you are actually formatting. That link is also in the Resources section.
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.
All right, you got me, there is a way around it: you can pay someone to do it. But it can cost $100 to $200 to get your book 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. If you are still thinking about paying someone to format for you, I have listed some recommended services in the Resources section and on my blog, but remember that means more copies you will have to sell to cover 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. Even if you’re going to pay someone, you must read the next section on killer layouts. The formatter will only work with what you send; you first need to add front and end matter. Don’t skip this step! Effective book layouts can drive sales of your other titles, boost review count, and help develop connections with readers.
Traditionally published e-books tend to lag behind the best practices of savvy self-publishers when it comes to effective layouts. You may have noticed having to wade through pages of extraneous stuff to get to the actual start of a book; this is a relic of print publishing that has no place in a digital world. Most online retailers allow readers to sample 10% of your book, and you are far more likely to convert samplers into purchasers if they can get to the meat quicker.
As such, it’s highly recommended that you move most of this traditional front matter—such as About The Author, Acknowledgements, and Other Titles—to the back. Even the Table of Contents is better placed in the back, as e-readers and tablets make it easy to access these sections at will. The only exception is perhaps for certain kinds of non-fiction. If you’ve written a book on dieting, it might be important to keep your About the Author section in the front as it lists your qualifications and experience. For reference books, you might wish to leave the Table of Contents up front too, as this will enable those sampling your text to see exactly which topics are covered. But if you’re a novelist, move all of your front matter, with the exception of a one-page combination of your title page and copyright page (check this book for an example), to the back. Let readers get drawn into the sample as soon as possible.
Some authors have recently experimented with placing a short blurb up front (often including a link to the author’s mailing list) to remind readers what they downloaded in case they choose to read the sample or the novel at a much later point. I think this is a nice idea, and something I will experiment with soon. But the rest? Move it to the back.
When it comes to end matter, the order is crucial, because many readers won’t read all of it. Put the most important stuff first—your mailing list sign-up, links to your other books, links to your website and social media pages, and a polite note requesting reviews. All of this material is covered later, in marketing chapters, but for an example, check out the end matter of this book.
Of course, this is something you can play with after you publish. I’ve gone through numerous iterations of front and end matter to see what’s most effective. I used to include a lot more—lengthy blurbs and review quotes for all my titles and even an excerpt from another book—but I’ve since realized it’s best to keep it snappy and focus readers’ attention on what you would like them to do next, which could be to review the novel, sign up to your mailing list, or buy the next book in the series.
Once you are done fiddling, you’re ready to start formatting.
Guido Henkel’s Guide to Formatting
Author and game designer 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, preliminary 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, the link to which is repeated in Resources and on the formatting page on my blog.
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 of the options are explained in my formatting guide, so you can choose the most appropriate for you.
A Kindle is the perfect device for checking your formatting. If you don’t own one, you really should consider getting one, even if just for this purpose alone. You can also download the free Kindle app for your computer. Once you have installed the Kindle app, you can sample Kindle books for free and see how the formatting looks for both bestselling 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 the resulting 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 not noticed any problems. However, what you might not realize is that there could be all sorts of hidden HTML code in your files, which 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 (as some self-publishers found out when the Kindle Fire was launched).
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, and 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 it 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++ (also 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 two separate documents: a MOBI file for Amazon and an EPUB file for all of the others. If you follow Guido Henkel’s step-by-step guide, you will end up with both 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, which has more than 200 links—was less than a day’s work. Just remember to put a smaller version of your book cover inside the e-book itself. Amazon’s file delivery charges are pretty steep, so getting that size down can make a big difference to your take.
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, as well as on the online previewer included in the KDP upload process, which allows you to check formatting on a variety of Kindle and Apple products. If you don’t have a Kindle, I recommend reducing the size of the screen in the free Kindle app to mimic the device’s dimensions, as some problems with your layout will only become apparent then. Once you are satisfied, you are almost ready to publish. But first you must decide on your price.
This was an excerpt from the revised, updated, and expanded second edition of my self-publishing guide Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should which is available from all major retailers.
If you insist on paying for formatting, the following services are are consistently recommended:
Heather Adkins – Cyberwitch Press
Paul Salvette @ BB eBooks
Jason Anderson @ Polgarus Studio
Rob Siders @ 52 Novels
You should also check out this book:
Zen and The Art of E-book Formatting by Guido Henkel
And this blog: