eBook Formatting 101

Formatting frustration!Formatting a book for publication as an eBook can be easy, but it can also be frustrating. eBooks are much simpler than print books, simpler in that they allow fewer frills and so have more rigorous constraints. Here is a nuts-and-bolts review of the basics for eBook formatting.

Size/Margins

If you’d previously prepared your book for print publication, you can pretty much undo all that. eBooks do not need headers or footers or page numbers, so get rid of all of those. If you had sized your print book to 6”x9” or 5.5”x8.5” with a ¼” gutter, toss out all of that. Format your book to 8-1/2”x11”, normal margins (as opposed to mirror margins) with a 0 gutter.

Justification

Again, if you’d formatted for print and had your text fully justified (lined up on both the left and right side of the paragraph), now make it all left justified with a ragged right edge. eReaders are a completely different animal than print pages, and because your text will flow from one screen to another based on the size of the text chosen by the reader, right justification will only cause you (and your reader) grief.

Font

Choose a normal, commonly-used font like Times New Roman or Arial for your text; nothing fancy. If you want to use a fancy font for titles or chapter headers, see below. Size your text somewhere in the 9 pt to 14 pt range, generally about 11 or 12. Remember that readers can adjust the type size to suit them, so you don’t need to do that. Also remember that most eReader screens are small, so never go above a 16 pt type. Keep it in the normal range.

Titles/Chapter Headers

To make your title and chapter headers stand out, you can use bold type, make them slightly larger in size (like size 14), and center them. If you want to use a non-standard font, you will actually need to make images for those titles. Most eBook conversions will only have a handful of the most commonly used fonts; if you use Scriptina or Caeldera, the conversion process will likely change that font to a common one. Once you’ve made image files (jpg or png), use the Insert function in Word to add the title image—do not use copy and paste. After you’ve inserted your image file, leave the text wrapping to “In line with text.” If it’s not centered, center it, but otherwise leave it alone. [Note – since eReaders generally do not allow for enlarging images – if you use an image, there is a chance it could look disproportionate compared to the type.]

Text Boxes

Save yourself a ton of trouble and never, ever use text boxes in eBooks. Again, if you want different text set apart as in a text box, you’ll need to create an image (above) and insert it.

Paragraph Type

There are two types of paragraph style: block and indent. Block paragraphs are like the style I am using in this post. There is no indent and the first sentence is left justified along with all the rest of the sentences in the paragraph. Normally this style is best used with non-fiction and there is generally an extra space left between paragraphs.

…..Indented style is like this, with the first sentence indented and the remaining sentences left justified. This style is most commonly used for fiction and there are no extra spaces between paragraphs unless you wish to convey a break in the action or a jump to a different time or location.

…..If you choose this style, your indent should be between 2 and 5 spaces. However, never use the space bar to move to your indent point; use a Word style sheet with the type of indent you like (or create your own–we show you how to do that here).

Choose one style of paragraph that best suits your work and use that one style only; do not mix the styles (as I’ve just done 😉 ).

Spacing

Because eBooks flow through the eReader without actual pages, you do not need page breaks to delineate chapters. It’s generally advisable to have no more than 4 empty lines between chapters or anywhere else so the reader does not ever see an empty screen. Having to advance the screen twice instead of once is simply unnecessary and can be irritating. You really want your readers to have the most enjoyable experience with your book, so avoid building in extra spaces that are only going to cause them irritation.

Front Matter

Most readers want to dive right into your book and not have to wade through multiple screens of front matter. Beyond the title and the publication information, move all other front matter to the back of the book. This can include acknowledgments, tables of contents and lists of all your other books. However, just in case that rare reader does want to read this material first, put links up front so they can navigate there if they choose.

Bookmarks and Links

To create a bookmark to your acknowledgments, for example (which are now at the back of the book), set your cursor just in front of the title A and from the top menu choose Insert and Bookmark. A dialog box will come up asking you to give that bookmark a name. You can abbreviate as much as you like, but make sure it’s a name you will recognize. Bookmark each of the separate sections you have at the back of the book.

Now go back to the front of the book, typically directly after the publication page, and type in your section titles: Table of Contents, Acknowledgments, Books by the Author, About the Author, etc. One at a time, highlight one title and in the top menu click on Insert, then Hyperlink. Again, a dialog box will open up. It may show you a choice of files in the main window; if so, click on your book file that you’re currently working in. Then on the right, there is a button that says Bookmark. Click on that and the bookmarks you created will show up with the names you gave them. Choose the appropriate bookmark for that section. Now when the readers want to jump to the material in the back of the book, they have an easy way to do that. You can also include a “Return to the Front” hyperlink that takes them back to the front of the book once you create a bookmark there, as well. [We have a step-by-step tutorial for this, if you’d like one.]

Cover

Do not put an image of your book’s cover at the beginning of the eBook file. The cover will be uploaded separately, so if you include a cover image, it will show up twice. Again, try not to irritate your reader with these common mistakes.

Keep it Simple

This should be your motto: keep it simple. The fewer gyrations and complications you build into your eBook file, the better it will flow for your readers. The place to really get fancy and try out all your creative ideas is in the print book format, not here. Your readers will thank you for it.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

43 thoughts on “eBook Formatting 101”

  1. Hello, thank you for your informative post. I have a book in the edit stage that uses bolds, bullet marks and underlines frequently. Will these convert to an ebook format, or should I convert them all to paragraph breaks instead?

    1. The bold and underline should translate to the e-book, but to tell you the truth, I’m not sure about the bullets. I’ve never used them but I know those can be troublesome. Anyone else out there done an e-book with bullets? Any words of advice?

    1. Thank you, Stephen; I appreciate that. It’s all pretty basic, but needs to be, because getting cute with the formatting can cause major problems. Luckily I’ve had lots of experience fixing mistakes!

  2. Melissa, one other thing that probably should be mentioned is this: Don’t let CreateSpace convert your print book file to a Kindle version for you. I’ve heard from several people that they have a track record of mucking it up.

    1. Seconded. DON’T let CreateSpace make your e-book. I’ve seen nothing but headaches. Start with the e-book file and make your CreateSpace book from that.

      1. I have page breaks before every chapter in my ebook, but it didn’t result in blank pages. Of course, some pages before the new chapter are only partially filled with text but they are not blank. Was this a happy accident 😉

  3. Well it’s not a bad idea to put a cover on it for SmashWords, where it goes to a lot of places that might not handle the cover. AND, you can optimize it for B&W…sometimes color covers render very badly on an ereader screen.

    If you go for the non-indented paragraph, you will find that Kindle indents anyway. This can drive you nuts on headlines, poetry… all sorts of things. Solution is to set first line indent to .03. It has an indent to make it happy, but it’s not visible.

    I generally work out of a 5×8 page size for several reasons, one of them better visualizing of images. No margins… and if you indent, set it at .2 or .3. The default .5 is just too big for the small ereader page.

    A huge problem is size of images. I’ve been using 96 dpi, 520px width, but it’s not always the best. I generally go in and set them to width=”100%” in the html.

    It’s not a bad idea to run through searching and eliminating multiple spaces, tabs, etc.

    And be sure not to be running “smart” quotes and apostrophes.

    1. Lots of good detail here, Lin; thanks a bunch. While I was keeping my post to the broader issues, there are a lot of these “under the surface” details that can trip up an e-book and people need to be aware. Thanks for sharing.

    2. What’s wrong with smart quotes? I set MS-Word to switch to smartquotes automatically (as recommended by Mark Croker, if my memory’s not playing tricks)

  4. Very useful article, Melissa. One small point I would add (I used to be a typographer!) is that generally for fiction, the fist paragraph beneath the chapter title, and any that follow section breaks (those pesky * * * breaks) should be set flush left, not indented. Not every manual of style agrees this is a hard and fast rule (Chicago allows either), but it is by far the most common way to do it. It’s a simple thing and it helps to make the book (whether ebook or print) look ‘right’.

    1. Alan, good point. I’ve never done it that way, but I know it is done. When I started, I looked at several books in my own library, and the one thing I noticed was that there were very few hard and fast rules; seems like everyone had their own variation. And, as you say, even the manuals don’t agree. I always figure an author should do what works for them.

  5. Don’t forget if you use Tracked Changes between you and your editor that the document is “clean” and all changes are accepted before formatting. Otherwise, those changes will show up! Especially in a KDP book. Yeah, I speak from experience…

  6. Hi,

    Just a few remarks:

    “If you want to use a non-standard font, you will actually need to make images for those titles”

    You should NEVER make text as images. The reason is quite simple: people with disabilities.

    Text as image won’t be accessible to them, they won’t even know there is a new chapter in some cases if headers/chapters are made as images. Therefore, it is an absolute no-no.

    “Because eBooks flow through the eReader without actual pages, you do not need page breaks to delineate chapters. It’s generally advisable to have no more than 4 empty lines between chapters or anywhere else so the reader does not ever see an empty screen.”

    No, no and no.

    All chapters in one big flow fails at showing there is a new chapter in most ebooks I’ve read, page-break is actually preferable as it leaves no doubt. And again, accessibility, chapters in one huge flow may not be perceived by dyslexic readers for example (1 people out of ten is).

    You should not have more than one empty line anywhere in the book, this is a non-debatable advice. More and you are opening the gates of low quality.

    The best you can do is using the proper style (title) + a page-break.

    1. Nick, thanks for weighing in. I’m afraid I had never considered people with disabilities, so I’m very glad you brought it up. Just goes to show how “blind” we can be when we don’t have a sight issue ourselves.

      1. Just want to agree with Nick here. When I read the “don’t use text boxes, make an image and insert it” bit, I was ready to scream “accessibility!!” at you.

        Any important text within an image needs to also exist as text within the document. Likewise, important images need captions that give an idea of what the image is supposed to convey in context, because sometimes alt text just isn’t enough (although, for purely decorative images an empty alt attribute (alt=””) is the way to go, as they become invisible).

        Accessibility in ebooks could have benefitted from the people building the early e-readers looking into web accessibility guidelines when deciding html was the way to go. Since that didn’t happen it’s up to authors/ebook creators to work out what web accessibility measures can be applied to the medium if they want to reach as many potential readers as possible.

  7. Thanks, Melissa. I must say, I’m going to keep hiring the amazing Rich Meyer to do my formatting. However, your tips will help me make it easier for him:)

  8. Bullets works fine. I just published an ebook manual full of them. I did use the html-formatting though. You make the bullet list with by

    list item

    I’ve never used word as a basis for an ebook since there are so much behind the scene code that gets included and will mess things up.

    But as a primer on how to prep ms before opening it in an ebook editor like Sigil, this post gives great advice. (someone else already noted the chapter headings as images issue).

  9. I disagree with the idea of omitting a space between paragraphs in fiction. I’ve tried it both ways and on most eReaders, text reads easier and smoother with a definite space between all paragraphs.This is especially true for dialogue segments. I use a 6-point space; anything larger does look odd. A quick inspection of Amazon’s eBook selection shows how no books are the same in this regard, generally speaking. When it comes to scene changes, either use a 10-point gap, or the first three to five words in all caps. if you use the caps as a designator, then the first line to all chapters will need to use the same 3-5 words in all caps. Just my opinion, but I think if you make the comparison, you’ll like the version with spaces between paragraphs. And so will your readers.

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