Tuesday Tips for Self-Published Authors: Why Formatting Matters

[image credit: raider of gin]

Once you’ve written a great book, edited the crap out of it, and designed or commissioned a super-amazing cover, you’re ready to take your Word file and throw it up on Amazon as a Kindle book (and/or Smashwords as a multi-format ebook) for all the world to read. Right? Not quite. You still have to worry about formatting.

The way your ebook looks on the page is really, really important. Bad formatting will ruin the reader experience – and people will not be happy. Here’s a few examples from Amazon reviews of self-published books with Formatting Gone Wrong. From a three-star review:

“The other reviews cover the material quite well, I wanted to mention the Kindle formatting.

It’s really bad…Speaking of whitespace, the spacing is bizarre throughout the text, with large blocks of vertical whitespace appearing for no good reason.

I could go on and on with examples. It’s clear they just did a quick and dirty conversion of whatever they had to the Kindle and said “ship it”.”

This one, after a reviewer that was basically happy with the story but gave it two stars overall:

“Finally were the many format / layout and punctuation errors. Indents disappeared for whole chapters then reappeared and the paragraph spacing was inconsistent. I put up with these and the punctuation issues because of the story, but this is basic stuff that shouldn’t be present. The overall impression is of something rushed out, which is a pity.”

And a one-star review:

“Do NOT buy this in Kindle format! 90% of the text is unreadable. Wasted money. I’ve tried playing with the page orientation and text size but nothing works.”

There are thousands of review examples like this, and many where the reviewer would have enjoyed the story and left a high star rating – if not for the terrible formatting.

When you convert a Word document or a PDF to one of the popular ebook formats like .mobi (Kindle) or epub (Barnes & Noble, Apple iStore), it’s not going to look the same way it does in the original version unless you have the formatting right. If you already know how to prepare a .doc or text file for e-publishing – great!

If you don’t…read on.

You’ve got basically two choices when it comes to formatting your self-published title. You can do it yourself, or hire someone to do it for you. It’s possible to do it yourself without a high level of technical proficiency (you will need to know your way around Microsoft Word and understand the basic ideas of file conversion).

Formatting: The DIY option

Here’s the best explanation ever for preparing and converting a file for publishing to the Kindle format [Warning! The lovely Katie Elle, who wrote this post, is an erotica author, and some images on her site (not this particular page) are NSFW (not safe for work) – so read this from home]: Hopefully bulletproof KISS e-book formatting with Word & Calibre.

Katie’s instructions are easy to follow, and helpfully illustrated with screenshots. Obviously, you’ll need Microsoft Word for this (OpenOffice or its newest incarnation, LibreOffice, may work – though I’ve heard of people having problems getting OO to work properly). If you’ve never heard of Calibre, it’s a free ebook management and conversion program, and you can download it here.

Smashwords: If you’re planning to self-publish to more than just Amazon, Smashwords is a great place to cover just about all the other distribution channels. However, you can’t use the .mobi file created in the above method to upload to Smashwords. They do have a .mobi option for uploading ebooks – but it’s in beta, and many users have reported formatting problems.

Instead, what you’ll have to do is prepare your Word document for Smashwords’ “Meatgrinder” – a program that converts the book into all the necessary formats for distribution. Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, offers a free style guide that explains just how to do it, appropriately titled the Smashwords Style Guide.

Formatting: The outsourcing option

If you’re not confident that you can prepare a great-looking ebook interior, you may want to consider hiring someone to do it for you. This one-time investment doesn’t have to be huge (in fact, you can find an ebook formatter for $50 or less, as long as you don’t have a lot of interior images, charts, tables and such – and if you’re writing fiction, you probably don’t) – and the peace of mind knowing that your book will be presented in error-free format is worth it.

Where do you find ebook formatters? Smashwords can help with that, too. They maintain a list of low-cost ebook formatters (and cover designers!) for the price of an email request. Find instructions to get The List on this page.

So make sure your ebook formatting is the best it can be, and avoid detracting from the reading experience. Don’t let bad formatting get in the way of your great story!

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