Here a format, there a format

A week or so ago, I mentioned that I was busy formatting and, in some cases, reformatting, my books for print release. If there is anything I’m slow to do as an author, it is to sit my butt down in the chair and prep my books for print. There’s no excuse for it. I have generic templates built that I can use. It is just a mater then of dropping my book into the template, tweaking it as needed and then shoving it out the door. But I’m getting ahead of myself. In this day and age, before we worry about the print version, we need to worry about formatting our e-books. That’s where I’m going to start. I’ll do the print version next week.

So, how do you format your book for digital release?

The first thing I’m going to suggest may raise some eyebrows, but bear with me. Instead of writing your draft in standard manuscript format (1-inch margins, double spaced, Times New Roman or Courier font), write your draft in the same basic format that you are going to upload later. It isn’t much different and it will take a step out of your conversion process on down the road.

The down and dirty version is simple. Leave your margins at 1-inch. You can have your headers and footers for page numbers, title, etc. They will disappear when your book is converted into an e-book. Leave your paper size at the standard 8 1/2 X 11. From there, the decisions begin.


Keep it simple. In my experience, both as a reader and as a writer, the best fonts to use are Times New Roman, Georgia, Garamond and similar fonts. I like the way Georgia looks, so that’s the one I use.

Line spacing:

I generally use 1.5 for e-books. Double-spaced can look odd (too much white space) in an e-book and single space can be too little. I would recommend no less than 1.15 for your line spacing. Play with it, not in your working file but in a converted file, to see what you like best and go with it.

Paragraph indents:

This is where a lot of authors really muck it up.

  • The first rule of paragraph indents is do NOT use the tab. It won’t translate over to your converted e-book.
  • Instead of hitting “Tab” at the beginning of each paragraph, use the “first line indent” function in your paragraph formatting dialog box.
  • Set your first line indent to 0.3 to 0.33. (This is my preference. The old standard of half an inch is simply too much of an indent for an e-book. Again, this is one of those personal preference things that you have to play with. And, as with your line spacing, I recommend looking at it in a converted format to see if the indents are deep enough or too deep for your liking.)
  • Do not have a 0 first line indent. That gets distracting and can wind up with one great big wall of text for the entire page, scene or chapter.

Other paragraph formatting tips for the body of your text:

  • Alignment should be set to left. Do not justify your text.
  • Spacing before and after a paragraph should be set to 0
  • Widow and orphan control should be unclicked.

When you look at print books, you will see fancy drop caps for the first letter of the first line of a next chapter. That line, or a portion of it, may be all small caps and possibly intalicized or bolded or both. It looks great in print but that doesn’t mean it will in digital format. The problem is that not all e-book reader apps are created equal and neither are all tablets or e-readers. So this is where the KISS rule comes into play. Don’t do fancy drop caps or the like for that first letter. For one, it probably won’t survive conversion. Even if it does, it might not appear the way you want it to and then you run the risk of your readers getting a sub-par reading experience.

So what about other ways to fancy up that first line? Small caps don’t translate well during the conversion process. They tend to turn into standard capital letters. So, if you want to set that first line or first phrase off — and I recommend only a few words or short phrase — bold or italicize it. If your chapter heading is in bold, offset that with italics on your first line. One word of warning here. Because e-books give readers the ability to change font size, etc., I would not recommend doing the entire first line in special formatting. Choose a set number of words – 3 or 4 –for special treatment.

Chapter Headings

These are easily done and can be used to build your active table of contents. Type your chapter title, whether is it Chapter One or “And so it starts”, highlight it and click on Heading 1 (or 2 if you are nesting your headers. More on that in a minute.). The default in Word, at least, when you do that is Calibre Light, blue font color in font size 16. It is also left justified. So, if you want to change that — again, I am working in Word, so the process to modify may be slightly different in other programs — is to right click on the Heading 1 button and then click on modify. That will open a dialog box that will allow you to change the font, color, size and alignment. If you want to tweak it a bit more, look at the bottom left hand corner of the dialog box and you will see a format button. Click that and various options will open.

For me, I use the same font as my body text but increase the size to 16, center the text, change the color to automatic and both bold and italicize it all. (Yes, this does vary from genre to genre.) Again, it is a matter of preference and also a matter of what is common in the genre you are writing in. So look at e-books from not only indies but traditional publishers and see what you like and then do your best to replicate it. Just be consistent throughout your work or do modify your Heading settings and use them.

I know I don’t need to say this but I will. The way you set your heading is to type the text you want as the heading, highlight it and then click Heading 1, etc.

Nesting Headings:

If you have a book that is split into sections and each section has chapters, then I recommend you nest your headings. The way you do that is you use Heading 1 for your section title, which will be on a separate page from the next chapter. When I do that, I follow the same process I laid out above but change the font to 18. I bold the text and use all caps for the section title.

I then use Heading 2 for chapter headings and modify the default for Heading 2 in the same manner as I did above.

What this does is it will show the section headings in your table of contents with the chapter headings under them.

Right now, there is a lot of talk about tables of contents and where to put them, etc. Until Amazon gives more information on it, don’t sweat creating a table of contents and placing it as a separate page in your e-book. If you use the section headings as I’ve described, you will create what is called an active table of contents. It will save you some time and headaches by not having to put in the hyperlinks and bookmarks to create the ToC. Doing so prevents two potential problems. The first is that the ToC, if placed in the front of your book, becomes part of the preview and could mean the reader would get little, if any, of your actual prose to preview. That can cost potential sales. The second is that it avoids the problem of putting it in the back of your book and possibly having the wrath of Amazon come down on you by circumventing the “pages read” algorithm of the Kindle Unlimited program. Use of headings creates those nifty ToCs that appear from the menu of your e-reader or app. Besides, how many print novels have a table of contents anymore?

Page breaks:

This is the one headache that can come back to bite you in the butt when you are converting to print. But we will deal with that in the next post.

When you reach the end of a chapter, you are going to want to put a page break in. You can do this by holding CTRL and hitting ENTER or by clicking on the layout tab. There will be an “breaks” command that will open up to show different sorts of breaks you can insert. Choose page.

Nitty gritty here. You can insert your page break immediately after that last period of the chapter or you can hit enter, drop down one line and then insert your page break. I don’t recommend dropping down more than one line. If you do, you risk having a blank screen showing up for your reader. Then there is the reality that not all e-book distributors follow the same formatting rules. The last time I worked with Smashwords, they had a rule against more than 5 (?) returns. If you had that many returns, they read it as a break in your manuscript. So type that last line, hit return and then insert your page break.

That’s the basic nitty gritty of formatting for e-books. I’ll continue this tomorrow on my blog with what you need in your e-book besides just the novel and then how to convert it. If there is anything else you want me to talk about then, put your suggestions in the comments here. If you have any questions about what I did today, let me know.

In the meantime, you can check out my books here.




25 responses to “Here a format, there a format

  1. Anachronda

    When you reach the end of a chapter, you are going to want to put a page break in. You can do this by holding CTRL and hitting ENTER or by clicking on the layout tab.

    This one is frustrating. I do a lot of writing, manuals for software that I’ve written. Back in the day, we had these things called “conditional page breaks”; I could tell the word processor “insert a page break here if there are fewer than 5 lines left on the page.”

    RUNOFF could do conditional page breaks. WordStar could do conditional page breaks, even the CP/M version. Word? Nope.

    A lost technology that annoys me dang near every day.

  2. Skip

    As far as font goes, I heartily concur. I have at least one book that I bought that I’ve never managed to read, Corrupter by Jason Cordova, because for some reason it’s formatted in a fixed-width font, courier I think, with large letters, that makes it extremely uncomfortable to read. If I ever get my to be read pile down small enough I’ll probably crack the mobi and fix that, but right now the pile is more than 100 books deep so that will probably be awhile.

    My suggestion? Don’t specify a font at all, so I can pick the font in my kindle. But apart from that, please pick something readable.

    • sabrinachase

      This. Let the reader pick the font, since it is often device specific. Also be aware that some extended-ASCII type characters, if inserted in the “special character” mode, may be from a *different* font that is not supported. I recently read an ebook from a much-loved author where the formatter neglected to proof the final ebook, and the cedilla in “facade” got disappeared for that reason. “faade” is a weird word, let me tell you.

      • Use of “smart” punctuation is another such offender – or was. At one time the norm was to strip out all “smart” punctuation. Since I tinker with it on the HTML level, I replace them with HTML entities, just like it was a web page.

    • I recall a great deal of head shaking at the Passive Guy’s blog several months ago because of an article talking about a specially-crafted e-book with lots of fancy fonts and typographic techniques, rather like some poetry uses. The author and editor labored long and hard over the MSS and were talking about how it would elevate the e-book to true literature et cetera. And about how they really did not want readers to try and change things. The sense among the commentariat was “Good luck with that! My [e-reader] defaults to [font].”

      • Yep. There are simply too many variables where the different apps and e-readers and everything are concerned. The KISS principle is your friend here.

  3. Skip

    Oh, and one other thing – don’t excessively indent anything. I generally have one book going on my phone at all times, for reading when you’re stuck in line, etc., and more than one book from a major publisher has had the quotes at the beginnings of a chapter indented so much that I get one character in a thin line down the middle of the page.

    In general I think that page layout is wasted time on an ebook, it rarely improves the read, and is quite often detrimental to it for anyone who’s reading on a small-format device, or who has increased the font size for readability.

    • Agreed. Conversely, too little indent is as much of a problem imo. As much as I love Baen, some of their e-books have maybe 3 letters’ worth of indent. That’s not enough.

  4. Whole heatedly agree with first line indent and no space between paragraph for fiction. Non-fiction is a slightly different critter, and there the preferred method seems to be no line indents and space between paragraphs. Shrug.

  5. B. Durbin

    “Instead of writing your draft in standard manuscript format (1-inch margins, double spaced, Times New Roman or Courier font), write your draft in the same basic format that you are going to upload later.”

    Heh. I’ve also seen the advice that you basically write WITHOUT any formatting at all—just your basic automatic settings in a straight text program. It’s basically another way of saying “format only once.” Either way, learn the commands to make the program do the work, because then you don’t have anything to undo later. (I once copy-edited a manuscript that was a bit of a formatting hash; I mostly blame Word because the author in question had learned to type on typewriters, and several automatic habits had shown through… and Word tried to “fix” them.)

    • sabrinachase

      The worst formatting job I ever did was for a book I had been writing, in Word, on a laptop I used on my long bus commute. I discovered every time the bus hit a bump Word “helpfully” saved the section I was writing at the time as a new style. It took me DAYS to untangle that mess, and my profanity reached Master Gunnery Sergeant levels of ionization.

      And to conclude, Word delenda est

      • Skip

        Word tip of the day – copy the entire document into notepad. Save it. Create new document. Paste it back in from notepad. Gets ride of all the screwy style stuff, then you just have to go reapply it once.

        • Tried that… it took all of the paragraphs away. Turned into wall-o-text, and it would have taken even longer to re-paragraphize the whole thing. I was well and truly screwed.

        • Mary

          Hope you don’t use italics.

          I’ve used the Notepad trick on many an occasion, but make no mistake — it removes EVERYTHING.

          • Yep. I use it when I have a manuscript that has gone between different WP programs or — in some ways worse — between operating systems. But it does require going back and putting in all italics, bolding, etc.

      • Ouch. That’s when you select all and apply a body text style. Then simply find your chapter titles and apply your headings. Of course, you will have to redo any italics, etc., you might have in the work.

        Ask Sarah my thoughts on converting her work when she was still using an old version of Word Perfect. The words that came out of my mouth would have made the most hardened Master Guns blush.

    • I’ve seen that too, usually from folks who hate Word or most other word processing programs. Since most of us are looking for the easiest way to put out a good looking product, using Word or its equivalent, setting up your formatting at the start and sticking with it keeps you to a single conversion.

  6. Basara549

    Not sure what the Word equivalent is, but in Wordperfect there are “SmartQuotes” – and turning them off (and having them set to be off by default) is vitally important if you’re going to be typing anything you’ll be putting online, be it as HTML, a fanfic page, or converting to e-book.

    I would occasionally forget to turn it off, then have every double-quote, single quote and apostrophe mark disappear when it hit the net.

    BTW, if persons are looking for a commercial product alternative to Word, WordPerfect is still around, and has its X8 (18th) edition coming out in a couple months. The WordPerfect X7 Home & Student version is about $50, and comes with a product key that can be used on up to 3 machines.

  7. Synova

    This stuff is all kept under a subheading someplace, right? Because I really need it, I just don’t need it tonight. 🙂