Formatting ebook text: hints for independent publishers

Beach Hut Surprise, text formatting by Joanna Maitland

Apart from Beach Hut Surprise, I’ve recently been republishing some of my vintage books on Amazon. In revised (and, I hope, better) editions. I do all my own formatting and I thought I would share some of the approach I use. I’ll add in tips and tricks, too.

For those who’d like to do their own e-publishing, but haven’t yet dared, I hope this will encourage you to have a go. It really isn’t all that difficult. Honest.

Though—shameless self-promo here—if you absolutely can’t face doing your own formatting, I’d be happy to do it for you.

For a fee, of course 😉

Formatting: what it isn’t

This blog is not about editing or proofreading a manuscript. Formatting an ebook starts from the point where the manuscript has already been edited and proofread. A formatter does not normally read the detailed text she’s working on. If she had to do that, the charges would be much, much higher.

exclamation mark in fireThe formatter’s job is to take your perfect manuscript and turn it into a file that can be uploaded to the internet. If the manuscript isn’t perfect, your imperfections will be translated into the e-pubbed version. And you don’t want that, do you?

As an aside, I do normally run a spellcheck on manuscripts before I start formatting. And the spellcheck does sometimes point out errors. Does that mean that the author did not run the spellcheck on her manuscript? I hope not. Maybe it’s just that my spellcheck works differently. In the end, if the published ebook contains spelling errors—or any other editing errors that should have been corrected—it is down to the author, not the formatter.

Formatting: four simple constituents

In this blog, I’ll be looking only at the central text: the story. And I’ll be concentrating on publishing ebooks for Amazon Kindle. If there’s enough interest in this blog, I’ll do a follow-up blog about formatting front and back matter—tedious, I know, but necessary. You do want to establish your copyright without doubt. And you do want to use back matter to promote your other books, don’t you?

For formatting the story itself, I recommend 4 different styles:

A:  a normal indented paragraph style
B:  an unindented paragraph style
C:  a text break style (if you use text breaks within chapters)
D:  a chapter heading style (essential for a clickable Table of Contents)

I’m assuming you’re using MS Word for the file you’re going to upload. Amazon KDP recommends the DOC/DOCX format or EPUB. (It also recommends Kindle Create’s KPF format but I don’t use that because you can’t download a MOBI file from Kindle Create.)

gold ringsNote that items A-D above are styles in MS Word. If you don’t know how to use styles, you need to get up to speed if you want to self-publish. There are loads of tutorials available but you could start with Microsoft’s basic instructions here.

The nails on the right have style. But Word Styles are different. Not nearly so glamorous, sadly. Possibly more useful?

A: Normal Indented Paragraph

This is what Amazon KDP says in its Guide to eBook Manuscript Formatting:

I would add two things so that my instructions are (with my additions in green):

  1. On the Home tab, right-click the Normal style and choose Modify.
  2. Click the Format list (the drop-down at the bottom of the dialog box) and choose Paragraph. This opens another dialog box.
  3. Under Indentation > Special, set First line indent to 0.2″ (5 mm).
  4. Under Spacing, set Before and After to 0 pt, and Line spacing to Single.
  5. Then, under Alignment, choose Left.
  6. Click OK.
  7. Choose Font in the Format dropdown menu and, in the new dialogue box, specify Font as Times New Roman and size as 12.
  8. Click OK.

word "clarity" with spectaclesSetting these variables gives the reader the most options for reformatting your text in Kindle. I have found that if I upload justified text, it’s not always possible to change it to left-justified on Kindle. But if I upload left-justified text, I can make it justified on Kindle, if I want to. Obviously, I can change the line spacing and the font, too. The point here is to keep it simple and clear with your normal paragraph format, because fancy can lead to problems for the reader. Fancy can also lead to problems when you try to upload your file.

B: Unindented Paragraph

This is where KDP and I part company. KDP thinks that all paragraphs should be indented. I think that the first paragraph of a chapter—and the first paragraph after a text break, too—should not be indented. I reckon it looks much more professional that way.

Now you’d think, wouldn’t you, that the answer is simply to specify a new paragraph style with no indent? So, at instruction 3, under Indentation > Special, you’d choose (none).

You can try it. I have. It doesn’t work.
Because Amazon is determined that all paragraphs should be indented and so KDP assumes you have made a mistake. KDP will kindly correct it for you and will indent all your unindented paragraphs. Grr.

There is a solution for which I am indebted to Mark Coker’s FREE SmashWords Style Guide which I thoroughly recommend. It hasn’t been updated since 2014 so it doesn’t include the latest versions of Word, but the detailed instructions about formatting still work pretty well. And the Guide is over 100 pages long, so there’s a lot more information than I can include here.

When you are defining your new No Indent paragraph style, you set the First Line Indent to 1/100th of an inch or 1/10th of a millimetre. That is so small that the reading eye almost certainly won’t detect it. The paragraph will seem to have no indent. But KDP, being a computer, will detect it as an indent and will not insert a larger indent that the reader will spot. At instruction 3, your screen should have something like this:

It works. Can you spot that there is a teeny-tiny indent at the beginning of the paragraph after the chapter title below (in a screenshot of Beach Hut Surprise from Amazon’s Look Inside)?
I promise you there is one.

C: Text Break

pancakes for break

Not that kind of break, though they look scrummy

If you use text breaks, you want your reader to be able to see them. In print books, it’s easy: you include an extra line space between paragraphs. In ebooks, with reflowable text, the extra line space may occur at the bottom of a screen, so the reader may not be aware of it. It’s better, in my view, to include a more obvious marker.

When I’m writing, I use 3 tildes as a text break, separated by spaces and centred: ~ ~ ~  And because the tilde is not a character I normally use, the text breaks are easy to find. Some people use asterisks in the same way. Some don’t centre.

For my text breaks, I use yet another style: text break centred. I base it on my No Indent paragraph style because, if I based it on the Normal style, it wouldn’t be properly centred on the page. The only change from the No Indent style is that instruction 5 becomes:

  1. Then, under Alignment, choose Centered.

Easy, no?

Optional: Using Glyphs as Text Breaks

When it comes to formatting for publication, I like to replace my ~ ~ ~ with a glyph, chosen to match the subject or setting of the book. So, in Beach Hut Surprise, text breaks were signalled by a set of waves that looked like this (and which you can see in larger format in the screenshot above, too):

But using glyphs is purely optional. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t signal a text break with just a few asterisks. It’s a lot less work, because it uses standard text characters and doesn’t involve importing and inserting glyphs. Your choice.

How To Tip: Glyphs are pictures so they’ll only work properly if they are inserted using Insert/Photo/Picture from File to replace ~ ~ ~. But you only have to do that once. You can then copy the inserted glyph—using Ctrl+C—highlight your next text break and paste the glyph in to replace your tildes or asterisks—using Ctrl+V.

Glyphs come in all sorts, including Santa reading his mail which could be kinda fun

D: Chapter Headings

The Beach Hut Surprise clickable TOC from Look Inside

How often, while reading an ebook, have you wanted to go to Chapter/Story X in the book but couldn’t, because the Go To screen didn’t include a clickable list of chapters or stories? I know that some writers don’t think a clickable chapter list is necessary for fiction. I recommend that you do include one. If readers want to use it, they will, and they might get cross if there isn’t one; if they don’t want to use it, what harm have you done?

In order to create a clickable Table of Contents (TOC), you need to format your chapter titles using Heading styles. Then creating a TOC in Word for Windows is a doddle. (Sadly, I have not found a way of creating a clickable TOC in Word for Mac, but I’m using the 2011 version. Newer versions may have solved the problem.)

This is what Amazon KDP says about Chapter Titles in its Guide to eBook Manuscript Formatting:

I normally format my Heading 1 style for chapter titles as follows:

  • Based on No Indent so that it is properly centred on the page
  • Paragraph/Alignment set to Centered
  • Paragraph/SpacingBefore set to 48 ptAfter set to 36 pt
  • Format/Font: set to Times New RomanBold14 pt (ie 2 pts bigger than my normal text)

That produces a chapter title that looks pleasing at the top of a new page and is neither too cramped nor too spaced out. Don’t forget to ensure there’s a page break at the end of the previous chapter—using Insert/Break/Page Break.

And don’t include more than one or two spare lines before the page break. If you include lots of spare lines, your uploaded file may be rejected. Worse, your reader may think there’s no more text and may discard your book. Not good.

This is what Amazon KDP says about creating a TOC in Word for Windows in its Guide:

It may sound daunting, but it’s actually pretty straightforward. Try it and see.

Is this helpful? Do you want more of it?

I’m sorry this blog was so much longer than usual. Hope you weren’t bored to tears.

The important question is whether it is helpful to you. It is intended to be. Honest 😉

If Libertà visitors want it, I can do a future blog about what to include in front matter and back matter and how to format it. If no one finds it useful, I’ll drop the idea, with apologies for having done this much. Your choice, folks. Thanks for reading this far…

Joanna the frenzied formatter

14 thoughts on “Formatting ebook text: hints for independent publishers

  1. MaryK

    “C: a text break style“

    Bless you! This is a major pet peeve I have with ebooks, self published and traditionally published. No text breaks! You’re reading along and halfway through an incomprehensible paragraph you realize there’s been a scene change but there was no indication of that in the formatting. Or there’s been a POV change but there was NO INDICATION of that in the formatting. Arrrgh!

  2. Helena Fairfax

    Joanna, thank you so much for that tip for non-indenting of the first paragraph. That has had me tearing my hair out on KDP, and I had no idea why I couldn’t resolve it. Now I know!

    1. Joanna Post author

      KDP (since it knows SO much better than authors) doesn’t bother to tell us what it’s doing to our formatting. Had it not been for Smashwords, I wouldn’t have known this either. Glad to have helped.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Welcome Ros. Glad the blog was helpful. I think glyphs are great fun but they do take more work than plain asterisks so not everyone will want to bother.

  3. Sophie

    This is so helpful, Joanna. Thank you.

    Mary and Ros, I am absolutely with you on the importance of text breaks. As a reader I deeply value them and I find a lot of e-books are really bad at it.

    Recently I was reading a terrific mystery series. The author uses multiple character points of view and, in print, leaves a triple space between the end of one character and the start of another. It’s not clear in the e-book and several times I have found myself reading on, getting more and more puzzled. And then I would suddenly see that we had changed POV character and, often, time and place as well. So I would have to adjust and backtrack. Maddening.

    1. Joanna Post author

      As you know, Sophie, I’m with you on text breaks. Anything that pulls a reader out of the story — like suddenly realising the POV has changed — is a mistake in my view.

  4. Imogen Howson

    That was so useful! I have a couple of out-of-print books I’d like to self-publish, but the issue of formatting has always made me think no no no no no.
    Thank you so much!
    Immi x

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Immi. I’m obviously doing myself out of clients by publishing this guidance 😉 but then, we in the RNA have always supported one another, haven’t we? I do it for the greater good [she writes, smugly]

  5. Elizabeth Bailey

    Very useful, Joanna, though have been doing it myself for a while now. I’m afraid I use a much simpler structure. Also have abandoned putting *** etc in text breaks. So far the gaps seem to work okay. Fingers crossed. But the great thing about ebooks is you can adjust and re-upload if it’s a horrendous mess!
    I’ve not been doing my own contents but sending to my VA. However, now you’ve shown me how to do it on Word – and I have an updated version – I might try it myself. Thanks for that.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Liz. I’d say you’re in a minority on the text break thing. For me, it’s like including a TOC. If the reader wants one, it’s there. If it’s not there, she’s going to get cross with the author. If the reader doesn’t want obvious text breaks, or a TOC, I don’t think any harm is done by including them.

      I do a lot of formatting on a Mac laptop and it has been a pain in the butt that it’s not possible to do a clickable TOC on it. I complained to Amazon, more than a year ago, and — once they’d finally worked out what I was on about, which took several iterations — they said they would look into it. Since when, total silence. They haven’t fixed it. But I am lucky enough to have an old desktop PC that I can use to do my TOCs. Can’t afford to move totally to Apple because of that one crucial thing.

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