Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 23, 2014

10 Reasons Why You Should Know How To Format Ebooks

By Kait Nolan, @kaitnolan

I’ve been around since the fairly early days of self publishing. My first ebook went live in early 2010. Since then, the market has exploded and a thousand things have changed. Something that’s true this month may not be true the next.

But two things have remained more or less constant:

  1. Ebook formatting, while it has evolved, is still essentially as it was when I started.
  2. People keep perpetuating the myth that it’s hard.

If you happen to have seen me around since the early days, chances are you heard me railing against the latter. I have bullied (insulted?) more than one author into taking the plunge and educating themselves. I’m here today to tell you why you should, too, even if you opt to hire someone.

1. It is not hard.

Y’all, it’s really not. Formatting ebooks can be many things—a gigantic pain in the butt (depending on how many egregious formatting mistakes you commit in drafting), tedious, headache-inducing—but not hard. If you can read instructions, you can learn to format ebooks.

2. It does not take knowledge of CSS or other coding.

This comes under the heading of formatting being not hard. I can’t count the number of folks I’ve talked to who were under the impression that they needed to be able to do complicated code in order to format ebooks. While you can do it that way, you don’t have to (and, dear God, why would you want to?).

3. Self publishing does not come without expense. Formatting doesn’t have to be one of them.

There’s this saying in publishing that the money always flows to the author. This has changed somewhat with the advent of self publishing, and there are people out there who say you can’t self-publish without spending hundreds or thousands of dollars. I say bollocks to that (because, really, I don’t have enough opportunity to say “bollocks” in real life).

I published my first ebook with only $50 out of pocket (for cover art) and every single publishing expense I’ve had since then came from profits. If you’re on a limited publishing budget, your money needs to go to the important things you can’t do yourself, like cover art and editing.

4. You will want to be able to make changes and shouldn’t have to hire out to do that.

Part of self publishing means that you should be updating your books. Fixing those inadvertent typos that slip through your editor or beta readers. Or, at the very least, you’ll want to update booklists, be able to adapt back matter, add in affiliate sales links per sales channel, etc. These are small, simple changes, but if you don’t have any knowledge of formatting, you’ll have to pay somebody to do it, and this goes back to point 3.

5. You maintain control of the final product.

This just may be the gold standard for why so many of us choose to self publish in the first place. We’re control freaks. Formatting is just another one of those aspects you don’t have to trust to anybody else. Keep that hold on your precious!

6. You need to know what you’re looking at.

If you do choose to hire out because you prefer not to take the time or effort, it’s important that you understand what you’re looking at when you get the product back. You need to know whether the person you’ve hired has truly done a good job. If you know nothing about formatting, chances are you can’t adequately judge this.

7. It only takes a handful of programs.

My system doesn’t take any expensive, specialized software. Just Microsoft Word (which most of us have) or OpenOffice (free), MobiPocket Creator (free), Sigil (free), and Calibre (free).

8. If you train yourself out of bad formatting habits, it doesn’t take long.

Okay, this is possibly one of the biggest points. Authors have all kinds of horrible formatting habits. This is what has led to the idea that formatting takes forever and is the grandest pain in the fanny known to self publishing.

But guess what? If you train yourself out of those bad habits and set up your word processing program not to screw stuff up (Word likes to think it knows what’s best—it doesn’t), then you don’t have to waste scads of time undoing your formatting mistakes. That is, by far, the most time consuming part of the process.

For my own work, I can take a full-length novel and produce the EPUB, Kindle, and Smashwords formats in approximately half an hour from start to finish—for all of them. Because I write a cleanly formatted draft.

9. The people who can’t do it will think you’re a bad ass.

Due to that whole “OMG, it’s haaaaard” perception, if you know how to do it, you can buff your nails and be nonchalant while they goggle at you for your expert knowledge.

10. Knowledge is power (and time is money—save BOTH).

I think this speaks for itself.

And just so I’m not up here doing nothing but giving you a sales pitch, I’m here to share with you the two most common formatting mistakes (a tiny sampling of the stuff that’s taught in my formatting class). Both of these have to do with indents in your manuscript.

The Freebie Lesson

How many of you use either the Tab key or spacebar to make your paragraph indents? Show of hands? It’s most of you, I wager. Well guess what? You’ve just made yourself a lot of extra work. This is not the correct way to indent your paragraphs. The right way to do indents is through Paragraph Styles. But don’t worry. I have a nice little cheat that will get rid of all those unnecessary keystrokes.

Okay, see that little backwards P looking thing up in your toolbar? That’s the pilcrow. In Word they call this the Show/Hide button. It reveals your hidden formatting. In OpenOffice, this reveals what they call non-printing characters. Consider this the blacklight that’s going to reveal all the scary, bad formatting stuff in your manuscript. Brace yourselves and go click it while inside one of your manuscripts.

If You’re A Tabber

See all those right pointing arrows? Those are your tab marks. This is probably THE MOST COMMON bad formatting habit people have. It’s a quick and easy way to insert an indent at the start of a paragraph. And it’s BAD. WRONG. DON’T DO IT.

Open up your Find and Replace box (To do that press CTRL+H). In the “Find what” line enter ^t. The caret t is the symbol for tab. On the Replace With line, don’t put anything. You’re going to leave it blank. Then click Replace All.

If You’re A Spacer

So what if you aren’t a tabber? What if you’re a spacer instead? See that trail of dots in the middle of the line at the start of that paragraph? Same idea applies. Hit CTRL+H to get your Find and Replace box. Then, in the find what box, you’ll hit the space bar however many times you tend to do that for an indent, leave the Replace with box empty, and click Replace all.

Now, after you do that, you may find that in some places you still have one or two space bar spaces before the first lines of your paragraphs. If that happens to be the case, you can’t use the same process to zap all your single or double spaces because that’ll cause you to delete the spaces separating sentences. So the answer is to do a Find and replace on ^p space space, and then replace with ^p only.

This ^p is the symbol for a paragraph return (which looks like a pilcrow in the text), so basically you’re telling Word to replace all instances of two space bar spaces that immediately follow a paragraph return. This way, you isolate the space bar spaces that precede the start of a new paragraph. After THAT repeat it with a find and replace on ^p space, then replace with a ^p by itself.

The Right Way To Indent

Now, in Word you have these things called PARAGRAPH STYLES. These allow you to globally control the styling of your ebook. You’ll apply a different style to different elements of your book, and then to change the styling, you’ll just change the style ONCE and the change will take effect all through the whole book.

Paragraph styles control everything from font to spacing to indents. You’ll use it in the main body of the text, on your chapter headings, on the front matter, title page, etc.

You’re going to start by selecting your entire manuscript (CTRL+A) and setting it to what Word calls the “Normal” style. The default settings for the “Normal” style probably aren’t right either, but don’t worry, we’ll fix that in a bit. Why do we start with normal everywhere? Because the vast majority of your book will be the body—the words and paragraphs that comprise the main narrative. Then later, we’ll change the styles of certain areas, like chapter headings, front or back matter, etc.

Okay, now you’re going to modify the Normal style to actually be what you need it to be. In order to do this you need to click on that little expansion arrow in the bottom right corner of the Styles Box.

That will give you this menu that lists all the various styles Word has. If you hover over the pilcrow beside Normal, it will give you a drop down arrow. Click on the arrow and you’ll get a submenu. (In my class I have slides with screenshots from each point in this process). From there, select Modify.

That’s going to take you to the Modify Style box. In the bottom right corner, click on Format. That will give you another menu from which you need to select Paragraph. That’s going to give you this box.

 photo ParagraphStyles_zps6cbdf5f2.jpg

Now, particularly in newer iterations of Word, there will be all kinds of stuff to fix here. See under Spacing it’s got 10pt in the “After” box and has line spacing set at Multiple 1.15? Yeah, that’s all bad.

You NEVER EVER want it set to read EXACTLY or AT LEAST followed by some kind of point size specification in the At box. There should NEVER EVER be any entry in the AT box. You want just basic single spacing. No spacing before or after. And THIS is where you set your indent properly.

  • For print, the standard is usually half an inch.
  • With ebooks you often see less, anywhere between .25” and .5”.

I tend to prefer 0.3” for the first line indent. Some people prefer block paragraphs without indents. For fiction, I prefer a standard paragraph indent. Block paragraphs often work better for non-fiction. This is a decision that’s up to you, but pick one or the other, not both. I’ll come back to block spacing in just a minute.

You will keep your alignment set to Left, NOT Justified. Justified does funky stuff in ebooks. Now, when you click on okay in the paragraph window, you come back to the Modify Style page. Click okay again, and look at your manuscript. If you did things right, everywhere you have applied the Normal style, you should have properly indented paragraphs.

Ebook Formatting From A to Z

This is just a small sampling of the detail I go into in my ebook formatting class. Make no mistake—this is a class, not a quick seminar. It’s comprised of four lessons and designed to be done over time.

Each lesson is a streaming video that you can watch on your own time (as many times as you want). Then you’ll have access to interactive classrooms and discussion boards for more in-depth problem solving, as the need arises. At each step you will be expected to upload your manuscript for me to check over and help you correct so that you’re in good shape to move on to the next lesson.

I’m a teacher in real life, so I believe in the power of feedback for proper learning. At the end of my class, you will know how to take your book from a Word doc to all industry standard formats. You will be ready to self publish on any and all major platforms. Click here to register.

And if you’re still not convinced to learn how to do it yourself, I offer my services for ebook formatting over at The Forge. But I know y'all can do it.

Have you formatted your own ebooks already? What were your pitfalls or successes? What questions do you have for Kait?

** Writers In The Storm is getting a makeover! **
We're moving to our new digs June 2nd. Stay tuned for party news (and giveaways)...

About Kait

Kait Nolan, DIY epublishingKait Nolan is stuck in an office all day, sometimes juggling all three of her jobs at once with the skill of a trained bear—sometimes with a similar temperament. After hours, she uses her powers for good, creating escapist fiction. This Mississippi native has something for everyone, from short and sweet to Southern contemporary romance to action-packed paranormal—all featuring heroes you’d want to sweep you off your feet and rescue you from work-day drudgery. When not working or writing, Kait’s hanging out in her kitchen cooking and wishing life were a Broadway musical.

A passionate believer in helping others, she has founded a writing challenge designed for people who have a life (aka we NaNoWriMo rejects who can’t give everything up for the month of November). Please check out A Round of Words in 80 Days.

You can catch up with her at her blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and Pots and Plots.

32 comments on “10 Reasons Why You Should Know How To Format Ebooks”

  1. You're right, I've always thought I didn't want to do this! Are you telling us that when we before we even write a book, we can format it correctly for e-books?

    1. YES. A whole lot of what is hard about formatting is completely avoidable. If you unlearn your bad formatting habits and set up your word processing software to not create MORE work for you, it's really quite simple.

  2. This was an incredibly helpful post! I had no idea I wasn't supposed to use "tab." Thank you!

    I'm not this far along yet in my own MS (too little to submit for feedback, anyway), but once I'm close to publishing I would love to take your class.

    1. It's worth mentioning that you don't lose access to the videos, so if you wanted to sign up and check out the first one (which has to do with making Word behave) before you get too much further in your manuscript, you can totally do that, then come back to the rest whenever you finish.

  3. What a fantastic post! You've just made me believe I can fix those pesky tabs at the beginnings of paragraphs. Now off to give it a try. Thank you!! Tweeted,shared.

  4. Finally, a class on formatting that I know will teach me what I need to know but then, it's Kait Nolan teaching, and it is WANA offering it. Great news and great post. Thanks, all!

  5. I LOVE THIS POST, Kait! I hope a gajillion people sign up for your class, which is a better value than paying someone else twice as much to do the book formatting.

    Y'all, I was one of Kait's guinea pics and her videos are amazing and detailed. She literally walks you through step-by-step. Awesomeness!

  6. Okay, I'll be the dummy of the bunch. I clicked the link to register, and it says the class was March 2014. Is this a flashback of some sort? Or have I finally lost my marbles for good?

    As for the content of this post, I am excited. I currently use Scrivener to format my ebooks. I've had no problems, but I'd still sort of like to learn this.

    1. Catie, we just talked to Jay Donovan about this. The class was set up as an OnDemand, but he's changing it to read May 31, which is when Kait will be providing her magic. 🙂

      You can' still register, and all will be well. I promise.

  7. Kait:
    "There is no such thing as coincidence... it is 'synchronicity' " -- C.J.Jung.
    Last night I published my first e-short-story via Calibre and Smashwords. You are correct. It is EASY (well... not that difficult.) As a technical writer, I must know Word. But yes, from time to time, I TAB and now and then use spaces. having resolved that issue, I joined the e-pub Revolution. PUBLISHED ! Now... where do I market for some decent sales?
    Thanks for the article.

    Jack Bybee.

    1. I sent the tab and leading spaces to the Devil a long time ago, but there's other tricks still to be learned in getting my Global Settings right for eBook. Will the four lessons to begin on May 31st, and approximately how many weeks should I plan? Like, one lesson a week? Thanks!

      1. They'll all be available from day 1, so it depends on how quickly you work. Lesson one is all about settings, so you can go from it to Lesson 2 pretty quickly. Lesson 2 is generally the longest, depending on what particular formatting sins you committed that have to be undone. After that it's a combination of how fast you submit and how many people I'm "grading" at that time (because I comb through THE WHOLE THING for each person checking stuff). But 3-4 weeks at a conservative estimate wouldn't be out of the ballpark.

  8. Fabulous post Kait!! I am bookmarking this since I am not ready to publish yet. But you did a great job at breaking it down. No wonder you're a teacher. lol. And Jenny, can't wait to see the new WITS website. 🙂

  9. […] Kait Nolan tells us that even if you are not going to self-publish, you should know how to format fo… If you use writing software like Scrivener, you’re a lot of the way there, but if you use Word, her post also includes many important tips about cleaning up Word’s formatting to make eformats much easier. Check out her convincing reasons for understanding how to do a pretty straightforward process. […]

  10. I've always formatted my books. Sometimes it makes me want to scream. Have you tried Jutoh? I started using that a year ago. I like it because I can get a little fancier, which makes me feel like I have more control. Great post. http://mpaxauthor.com

  11. Reblogged this on How Do You Pronounce Eynon? and commented:
    I'm enjoying a little sun, sangria and paella at the moment, but I just read this and had to reblog it.
    It contains some really good tips and essential information for self-publishers on ebook formatting.

    Thanks to Writers In The Storm for the original.

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