With so much of the publishing world going digital, it’s important for authors to wade into the e-book tsunami that is flooding the industry. Some authors may assume the e-book format is exactly like a physical book format, which is a large mistake. Others may assume formatting for e-books is terribly difficult, another mistake. Actually e-books are an entirely different animal and somewhere in between, but they are definitely doable.
With print books, you (or your editor) control exactly how that book will appear; you control the size of the font, the white space, the size of the page. Whatever you decide the format should be is exactly what your reader will see.
With e-books, it’s not that simple. Readers may have any of a dozen reading devices, not even counting the Cloud on their computer or their smart phones. What this means is that an e-book must flow into any of these devices, whatever the size or shape of the screen, and still be readable.
Okay, how do you do that?
You do that by simplifying.
First of all, use a common, easy-to-read font. You might choose Times New Roman, Arial or Garamond, but don’t use an exotic or fancy font that may not be supported by e-readers. The best size font is 11 or 12, 14 at the very most. Don’t forget that most e-readers allow their owners to magnify or decrease the size of the font to suit them. If you want to use a particular font for your title or chapter headers, the best way to ensure that the reader sees what you want them to see is to create an image and insert that in the proper place. More on images below.
Choose your paragraph style. Either use a block paragraph format (as this blog is: no indent and a blank line between paragraphs) or a first-line indent style. Either is fine, but choose one and be consistent, and don’t mix the two. If you choose to indent, don’t use tabs. Indent by choosing or creating a paragraph style and format all your paragraphs with that style rather than manually. It’s also a good idea to get rid of total justification in text, allowing ragged edges which spread the words from margin to margin. Fully justified text sometimes shows up with large gaps between words.
Don’t use page breaks, section breaks or large quantities of blank lines to separate sections of your book. Because e-books flow continuously through an e-reader, page breaks (and page numbers, for that matter) are useless. If you want to show some separation between chapters or sections of the book, use “hard” line returns, but no more than four at a time. More than four blank lines could simply show up as blank screens on the e-reader, confusing and annoying your reader.
Along with getting rid of page numbers, get rid of any headers or footers. Text boxes are an absolute no-no, and you will need to convert any tables into images.
As you can see, what we are doing is essentially “stripping down” the book to its barest essentials. Once you’ve done that, though, you need to check and make sure no unwanted and unnecessary formatting remains. How do you do that?
In MS Word, there is a button on the top Home menu that looks like a paragraph symbol ( ¶ ); clicking this button allows you to see all formatting in your document—spaces, tabs, indents, section breaks; it makes all the invisible visible*. You may be surprised at how much junky formatting is left over, even after you’ve stripped it down. Word tries to be “helpful” by having quite a bit of automatic formatting, plus any mistakes made while typing can insert an invisible but problematical bit of formatting. This way, you can see everything that’s in there and strip it out even more than you already have.
(*This sentence should be true, but it’s sometimes not. Recently a friend found that her e-book contained the number 3 centered alone on lines between paragraphs of her book, and she could find no evidence of anything to account for it, even when she made all formatting visible as above. She was then forced to go to the next step.)
If, however, you’ve done this and still have some weird results that you can’t trace, there’s a method to “nuke” all formatting. This method is endorsed by Smashwords, but with a caution. Doing this will get rid of all formatting, so that means that you’ll have to go back in afterward and re-format the book the way you want it. Here’s how to do it:
Open your Word document and copy the entire thing, then paste it all into Notepad or some other text application. You’ll see all your formatting disappear. Now copy the entire body of text in Notepad and paste it into a NEW blank Word document. Now your document is as clean as you can get it, but you will need to go back in and re-format your chapter headers, etc. (For more about the Smashwords style guide, go here.)
Images can be particularly annoying in e-books; they have a tendency to jump about or not appear correctly. I’ve found the best way to deal with images is, again, simply. Insert your image where you want it, but do not change the text wrapping to anything from the default “in line with text.” You can certainly change the placement of the picture to left-justified, centered or right-justified, but beyond that, just leave it alone. Type in captions below the picture (choose a different style for those to set them off from the main text), but do not use the automatic caption feature of Word or a text box.
Finally, because so often e-reader devices support wifi and the internet, you can do something with your e-book that you can’t do with physical books—connect your reader to you online. It’s a simple matter to add an About the Author section to the end of the book with links to your Facebook, Twitter, blog or website.