The Road to Digital Publication – Part I

by Amanda S. Green

This has been both a challenging and exciting series of posts to write. Challenging because this topic really is one best taught in person and hands on with the different programs and websites involved. Exciting because, as most of you know by now, I’m a huge proponent of digital publishing. While I don’t believe print will die during my lifetime, it is moving over for e-books. All you have to do is look at sales figures for the last five years to see that.

So, what do you do to digitally publish your short story or novel? The first answer is the most obvious. You have to write it. Just like a book published through traditional routes, it needs to be edited, copy edited and proofread. Most of us simply can’t do that for our own work. So that means finding someone to do it for us. It can be a friend or family member, a member of your writing group or someone you hire. No matter who does it, you need to be sure to check the work, just as you would that from a legacy publisher.

There are some simple tips to making your conversion from manuscript to e-book easy, especially if you are not going to do your own html coding:

  • Font
    • keep it simple. Stick with Times New Roman, Georgia, or a similar font. They are easy on the eye and familiar to the reader.
    • While drop caps looks cool and “pretty” on a printed page, they don’t always render properly on an e-reader. So again, keep it simple.
  • Tabs – don’t use them. I repeat, do NOT use tabs. In the conversion from your word processing document to HTML, etc., you will lose them. Instead, go to your paragraph style box and choose first line indent. Set that indent somewhere between 0.25 and 0.33 (this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but those are my preferences. Anything larger looks odd on an e-reader).
    • The only caveat to this is to remind you to go back and remove that indent for anything that has to be centered.
  • Justification – you can but you don’t have to. It’s up to you. I do it because not every e-reader automatically justifies the right edge of text and most readers still like that over a ragged edge.
  • Line spacing – single space to 1.5 spacing.
  • Extra space between paragraphs – don’t. Unless you aren’t indenting your paragraphs, there is no reason to add space between your paragraphs.
    • NOTE: do indent your paragraphs (see above). Readers expect it and will return the e-book if the formatting doesn’t follow the general rules of a printed book.
  • Chapters and Table of Contents
    • Most novels or non-fiction books are split into chapters and most have numbers or titles or both. It is very easy using the header system in most word processing programs to create a linked table of contents at the beginning of a book. I recommend doing this (except for Smashwords, but there will be more on that in the next post).  So make sure your chapter titles are set at H1 or H2 (You can modify justification, size, font, etc.  More on that in the next post.)
    • Be sure also to have an ACTIVE TABLE OF CONTENTS, something you will do during the conversion process. More on that later. But you will get email asking why there is no active table of contents if you fail to include one.

There is more, but we’ll deal with the specifics in the next post.

Go ahead and add the following to your novel or short story as well:

  • Title page
  • Legal page (for your copyright notices, ISBN, legal language, etc. More later on what this needs to be because it is different if you use Smashwords)
  • Dedication page (if you want one)
  • Author bio
  • Other titles by the author (including short synopses of each title)
  • Excerpts from upcoming titles

I say to go ahead and include them at this phase because it is easier, at least for me, to format them all at the same time.

I also put hard returns between each section so they begin on new “pages” or screens on the e-readers. Again, this is personal preference, but it does follow the basic formatting and layout of a printed book or story.

There’s still the cover to consider, but we’ll talk about that in one of the upcoming posts.

Once that’s done, it’s time to start thinking about the actual creation of the e-book. There are a number of considerations that go into this. However, before getting to that, let’s look at the major outlets for e-books that allow an author or small publisher to directly submit their work for sale. I’ll go into more detail about them in upcoming posts, but here are the major ones. I’m including submission formats and what format they sale as well as the format(s) I recommend for submitting to them:

  • Amazon KDP: Home of the Kindle, KDP accepts submissions in a variety of formats, including MOBI/PRC, EPUB, DOC and HTML. They sell titles formatted as MOBI/PRC. I recommend uploading your work as either MOBI or EPUB files. (The reason I don’t recommend uploading as HTML is that it is easy to overlook a simple coding error that can cause massive problems with the e-book. That means the time needed to check the file to be uploaded is going to take longer. Also, there are some excellent programs, all free, that make conversion to MOBI and EPUB simple and reliable.)
  • Barnes & Noble PubIt: Home of the Nook. Unless things have changed in the last week or so, PubIt requires titles to be uploaded in EPUB, DOC, RTF or HTML formats. There may be one or two others as well. Because B&N sells the EPUB format, I recommend uploading an EPUB file. There is less of a possibility of things going strange in the conversion process that way.
  • Smashwords: This is the granddaddy of self-publishing sites. For a long time, it was the only place authors could go to publish their e-books. It is also the only place, short of going to a repackager, where you can submit your titles once and have them then distributed to a number of different markets. More on that in the next post. Smashwords requires you to submit your work as a DOC file. It then runs it through what they call the meatgrinder to convert it into a variety of formats, including MOBI, EPUB, RTF, TXT and more. They have their own guidelines for formatting. Again, we’ll discuss these in the next post.

You’ll note that I haven’t included iBooks/iTunes in this list. The reason is simple. Direct access to the Apple e-bookstore is limited to those who have an Apple computer meeting certain requirements.  Because of that, most people have to use Smashwords or another venue to gain access to the Apple store.

Your next consideration is how you are going to convert your work for upload to the store or stores of your choice.  You can go out and spend mega bucks on programs like Adobe’s InDesign, which I’d recommend if you are going to do a lot of print layouts as well as digital. But even then it’s not essential. Most of the programs you need are free or very inexpensive.  But in general terms, I recommend you have the following:

  • A text editor
  • A photo or illustration manipulation/creation program
  • Conversion programs like Sigil, MobiPocket Creator Pro, Calibre, etc.
  • e-reader programs for your computer and for any handheld device you might have (includes Kindle, Nook, etc)
  • PDF reader

I’ll talk more about the programs and which ones I use and why in later posts.

What I recommend you do is find the e-books you most like the look of and compare them to those e-books that are formatted in ways that drive you crazy. What is it you like and what is it you don’t like?

Today’s post has been a fast overview of what to do to get ready to create your e-book.  I’ll get into the more nitty and definitely more gritty aspects of it Sunday. However, if you don’t have the underlying document formatted the way you want, you are going to have a lot of headaches as you go through the process.

And, for those of you who want to build your e-books by doing your own HTML coding, don’t fret. We’ll talk about that as well.

Sunday, we’ll start the discussion about the actual conversion process. In the meantime, if you have any questions about initial formatting of your manuscript in preparation of the conversion process or if you have any other questions, post them and let’s get the discussion started.

7 thoughts on “The Road to Digital Publication – Part I

  1. I don’t know if you guys were still planning on publishing a book with the most useful MGC posts in it or not, but if so, can you make sure that this entire series gets put in it? It would be extremely useful.

  2. Jim, thanks. Whether it goes into a “best of” or it goes out on its own, we will do a compilation of these posts once they are done.

  3. I would strongly recommend for anyone just getting started to do themselves a favor and download a copy of Scrivener. It’s just a bit over $40 and well worth it for the organizational tools and built-in e-reader conversions.

    Word made .mobi and .epub formatting my first novel a lot more difficult than it needed to be. But that was the program I started writing on 8 years ago, so by the end it was a little to late to switch. The next book won’t have that problem.

    I was up against a self-imposed deadline and ended up hiring out the formatting. The results were excellent, see for yourself at

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