What You Need To Know About Formatting Your Own E-Book

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So, you’ve just finished your novel. You’re ready to lie down, have a little cry, sleep for a week, and then put it up for sale. Not so fast – you’ve still got to jump the indie author’s final hurdle. That Word/Scrivener document is going to need to be formatted and optimized, otherwise you’ll end up with an unreadable mess of an e-book. Thankfully, it’s not as difficult as you might think to do it yourself.

You can always pay someone else to do it for you – rates tend to be rather reasonable – but maybe this isn’t an option, or maybe you’re set on doing the job yourself. Either way, you don’t need to be a coding genius to get your book ready for popular e-readers (though if you’re a real technophobe, you’re probably better off hiring someone, since you will need to know your way around Microsoft Word). If formatting your own e-book still seems like the best path for you, here’s everything you need to know.

Note that I’m assuming here that you’ve already sorted a book cover, an ISBN, and all the other admin that precedes final conversion. If not, save this article and come back when you need it! I’ll also be focusing on Word documents, since the majority of authors are comfortable with Word, and it’s common for other writing software to allow you to export files to Word, making it a viable avenue for the largest possible audience without turning this article into a textbook.

Keep it simple

This is the mantra to keep repeating to yourself when you’re formatting your document. EPUB (the open-source, widely used e-book file format) and MOBI (the awkward Kindle file format) are extremely flexible – after all, they have to be read on thousands of different devices with different capabilities.

Text in e-book is ‘reflowable,’ meaning that it’s fluid and allows for readers to adjust font size without messing up the formatting. As such, if you’re trying to keep your document static and fixed, you’re setting yourself up for trouble. This is why you see so few e-books with complex graphical designs, decorative lettering, special characters, or isolated blocks of text – these fancy elements don’t tend to survive the conversion process.

E-book conversion rewards simple, adaptable formatting.Click To Tweet

Instead, keep it simple. Use the preset Word styles for your headings and blocks of text, keep your indents and paragraph breaks consistent, and avoid decorative lettering. Never use double spacing, avoid manual line breaks (use paragraph breaks instead), and utilize Word’s alignment tools to arrange your text – don’t center your text with spaces or tab. You can use Word’s ‘Show Formatting’ button to view all the formatting in your document – it’s that weird backward ‘P’ symbol on the ‘Home’ tab.

Pay attention to style guides

Before I go into more detail about formatting, it’s worth pointing out that several online retailers insist that writers submitting their e-books follow their style guides when it comes to formatting. Amazon, for example, have both a wiki-style guide to formatting for Kindle and a far more intimidating 100+ page PDF of publishing guidelines. Obviously, you can still host your book on Amazon even if you don’t follow all of their instructions (there are certainly hundreds of poorly produced e-books on Amazon whose writers never even Googled ‘Amazon publishing guide’), but there are a few hoops you have to jump through regarding images, layout, and marketing copy. It’s always worth being informed.

Online retailers provide style guides on formatting your e-book – read them!Click To Tweet

Use free software

This is the easy part. There’s loads of free, quality software you can use to convert your Word doc, rich text file, or PDF into an EPUB or MOBI file. A cursory Google search will bring up dozens of options, some of which require you to download software, and some of which are entirely browser-based. My personal favorite is Calibre, which is a real swiss army knife for all your e-book needs, but almost any web-based converter will do. There’s not really any need to pay for software here – many of the premium features are superfluous and unnecessary.

Whatever program you opt for, it’ll almost certainly work by asking you to upload your .doc, .rtf, or .pdf file. You’ll choose the output format (MOBI or EPUB) and a few options (depending on the program) and it’ll do the rest for you. Of course, you’ll need to prepare your document beforehand and go through it and check everything’s okay before publishing it!

Spaces and indents

You might have been taught in school to use double spaces when typing or after periods, or maybe you’ve been happily using the ‘Tab’ key to indent your new paragraphs. Whatever works for you, but before you try to convert your document into an e-book, you’re going to want to scrap all of these. Sorry.

Double spaces wreak absolute havoc on e-books, often making documents appear fragmented and scattered on small, high-res e-reader screens. Thankfully, there’s an easy way to get rid of all your double spaces: Word’s much-loved ‘Find and Replace’ function. Press ‘Control’ and ‘H’ at the same time with Word open and type two spaces into the ‘Find’ box and one space into the ‘Replace’ box. Word will now scour your document and replace all your double spaces with single spaces. Sorted. It’s worth repeating this a second time to catch any accidental triple spaces that have just dropped down to doubles.

Similarly, you’re going to want to get rid of all your tabbed indentations. This can’t be done on ‘Find and Replace’, but you can scrap your tabbed indents and insert new, e-reader-ready indents by clicking ‘Paragraph’ under the ‘Home’ ribbon on Word and choosing a standardized indent length under the ‘Indentation’ menu. Note that on small e-reader screens, indents of one centimeter or greater are going to look bizarrely large – keep them small.

Paragraph breaks vs. line breaks

Those among you who don’t live their lives on Microsoft Word might not know the difference between line and paragraph breaks, but when it comes to e-book conversion, its a matter of life and death. Paragraph breaks are your friends – they’re used to mark the end of a character’s utterance in sections of dialogue and, obviously, are used to mark the end of a paragraph. The line after a paragraph break marks a new paragraph and will be indented. Typically, you enter a paragraph break into your text by pressing ‘Enter’.

Paragraph breaks or line breaks? If you’re formatting an e-book, it’s a vital question.Click To Tweet

E-books respect paragraph breaks. They know that they need to jump to a new line, possibly with some space between (double paragraph breaks are also respected!), and they know to recognize the indent and arrange your story’s text as you’d want it to be arranged. It’s ready for font resizing and will adapt to whatever device your reader is using.

You can recognize a paragraph break in Word by clicking the ‘Show Formatting’ button (It’s that backward ‘P’ symbol I mentioned earlier). Paragraph breaks are marked by that same backward ‘P’ symbol.

Line breaks, on the other hand, are laughed off by e-readers. Word has thankfully made it more difficult to enter line breaks in its newer versions of Word – you have to hold ‘Shift’ as you press ‘Enter’. Their formatting symbol is an arrow heading down and to the left – the same symbol that’s probably on your computer’s ‘Enter’ key.

E-readers simply don’t recognize line breaks, and so your efforts to order your text and keep it static will be dismissed. Sections you thought you’d arranged tidily will converge in a solid blob of text – not good for you, not good for the reader.

Happily, you can use Word’s ‘Find and Replace’ tool to replace all your line breaks with paragraph breaks. Open up ‘Find and Replace’ (‘Control’ plus ‘H’), and in the ‘Find’ box, type ‘^l’. Then, in the ‘Replace’ box, type ‘^p’. Click ‘Replace All’ and you’re good to go.

Page breaks and justification

Often, writers move on to a new page by simply filling the blank space with either paragraph breaks or spaces. This might seem like a good idea – after all, you achieved what you wanted in the short term – but this method will ruin your e-book layout.

This is because of the ‘reflowable’ quality of e-books I discussed earlier. Since your document isn’t going to be static as an e-book, your page of spaces can be pulled up from where you wanted it and distributed elsewhere, meaning you’ll have one chapter beginning three-quarters of the way down the page and the next beginning a few lines from the top. Not very professional.

Instead, we use page breaks. These smart breaks recognize individual pages and ensure that your spacing remains consistent throughout. This means all your chapters will start in the same place on the page no matter where the text ended on the previous chapter’s closing page. Perfect.

To enter a page break, simply click the ‘Insert’ tab on Word, and then click ‘Page Break’. On older versions, there might be a drop-down menu you have to navigate. Remember to insert page breaks wherever you need to fill white space on a page – not only chapter endings, but title pages, epigraphs, dedications, back matter, etc.

On a similar note, instead of trying to center titles, quotes, and other headings using spaces and the ‘Tab’ key, use Word’s inbuilt orientation tools. Highlight the text you want to align (either left, right, to the center, or justified), click the ‘Home’ tab, and, under ‘Paragraph’, click on the appropriate symbol (they’re little images that look like aligned text). This will ensure that your e-book treats your titles, headings, and quotes as you intended, instead of simply regurgitating unwelcome lines of spaces into the middle of your paragraphs.

Headers, page numbers, and pictures

Remember: keep it simple. This means that you should remove any headers and page numbers from your document. E-books don’t respond well to page numbers (after all, they have to be adaptable – an e-book’s length will vary depending on what device and what font size the reader is using), and instead rely on their own ‘location’ systems.

Similarly, e-readers insert headers themselves with your book’s necessary information. They won’t recognize manually inserted headers, and you risk messing up your entire book’s formatting by trying to muscle them in.

Pictures bloat your e-book’s file size and can cost you money. Click To Tweet

Pictures are a different matter. You can of course include pictures in e-books (so long as you keep the formatting simple), but make sure that they look good in grayscale – after all, many e-readers use grayscale displays. Another thing to be aware of is that Amazon charge you for delivery (download) costs – this means that, the bigger your e-book is, the more you’ll get charged (unless you opt for the 30 percent royalty scheme, in which case the fee is waived). Since pictures are typically far larger files than documents, you can easily bloat your e-book to a huge size by adding too many pictures. You’ll then either have to live with lower royalty rates from Amazon or fork out for substantial delivery fees. If you’re determined to include pictures, it’s going to be worth sitting down to work out which option is best for you.

Your e-book awaits

While there’s more to be said about the more complex processes and details of e-book conversion, I’ve covered all you need to know to produce a simple e-book in no time. If you’re still determined to include decorative fonts, footnotes, or complex graphs and graphics, it’s probably worth paying someone to do it for you, but if you’re just looking to publish a simply formatted novel or memoir, you’re now prepared. Go forth and convert!

Have you had trouble converting your own e-books? Did you find the whole process remarkably simple, or have you simply paid others to do it for you? Let me know in the comments. For more information, check out Writing For Digital Publication: The 3 Things You Need To Know and 6 Great Pieces Of Writing Software You Need To Try.


8 thoughts on “What You Need To Know About Formatting Your Own E-Book”

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t mention Vellum, a book formatting software. I’ve used it in on a few ebooks and it does a fantastic job. It also allows you to put in vendor-specific book links for Amazon, Kobo, etc. to entice readers to buy your next or previous work.

    I haven’t yet formatted for print yet (Vellum 2.0), but I’m looking forward to doing it with my next book launch.

    1. Hi Dharma, thanks for the comment. I haven’t used Vellum myself, but I’m sure our readers will find your recommendation helpful. Thanks!

  2. I’m surprised you did not mention programs to clean out the thousands of lines of html code generated by MS Word .doc or docx when saving as a filtered html file as required by Amazon.

    1. Hi George, a great point and something I’m sure our readers will find useful. The reason I didn’t mention it is because it’s beyond the scope of this article – I assume here that you’re converting to .mobi or .epub before submitting to Amazon or any other publisher.



  3. I want to use numbered tables – that is:

    1. Line 1 blahblah (then this line should wrap around and keep the indent for following lines until …)
    2. I reach point 2. Again, this might be multi-line but keep the indent, if you know what I mean.

    What’s the best way to do this?

  4. Can you use section breaks instead of page breaks? Seems like a simple question and I can’t find an answer.

  5. I have my first children’s paperback picture book written and published on Amazon(shameless plug: My Mask and I, A Covid Story). My problem is that there are horizontal lines at the top of some pages where the artist has scanned her pictures and it shows on the mobi file. There are lines on my pdf as well but when it was printed, the lines aren’t there. Do I need to worry about those horizontal lines once it is published as an ebook?

  6. Genaro Andrade

    I was wondering if you can help me upload my book to Amazon. Or maybe you can recommend someone. Please let me know.

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