The Formatting Hat: Why You Should Learn to Format Your Own E-books

(This is the next article in my Many Hats of Self-Publishing series. Read INTRO, EDITING, and COVERS here.)

So, the post about formatting is going to be two part. First, I’m going to tell you why I think—even though formatting is something very easily hired out—it’s important for you or someone close to you (like a spouse or assistant) to be able to format your own e-book files. The second part is going to sound a little bit like an advertisement for Scrivener, even though I promise that no one from that company has hired me or even contacted me for promotion.

NOTE: For this discussion, formatting refers to e-books only. Paperback formatting is a whole other kettle of fish which I may or may not tackle later.

Formatting!

The first thing to be aware of when formatting books for e-readers is what you see on the screen when you’re typing and what will show up on an e-reading device are two totally different things. Because you’re not transporting a visual file, like a paperback book. It’s an electronic file that has all sorts of info built into the background that gets transmitted along with the words you’re writing. Page breaks. Line breaks. Font style. Spacing and indents and footnotes and margins can all look very different depending on how things are formatted. In general, traditional word processing programs are not your friend.

But formatting matters. A lot! It’s important that your book is easy to read on any advice. So what do you do?

When I first started out, I hired my editor at the time to also format my e-book files. She was experienced and I was new. I knew nothing about HTML. (I still don’t know anything about HTML, just to set your mind at ease.) I did NOT want to figure out how to format my books for all the stores. So I hired someone. It wasn’t very expensive and, at the time, it was definitely worth it.

At that point, to get into all the available retailers (Amazon, Nook, and Smashwords) you needed three different files. A mobi file for Amazon, an ePub for Nook, and a Word document formatted a specific way to put through Smashwords’ notorious “meat grinder.” I had no idea how to make ANY of those, so I went ahead and hired someone.

The problem I discovered was this: If I needed to make any changes (like a horrible typo that I and my proofreader had missed somehow, or I had a new book out and I wanted to put an excerpt at the end of an old book) I was stuck! The files were already formatted, and I’d have to hire someone again to reformat and send me the new files with the additional or updated content.

Pain. In. The. Neck.

One of the greatest things about e-books is flexibility. No file is permanent. And because the first book in a series is usually the first book people read (not always, some readers start in the middle, but most like to read in order) it’s great to be able to update that first book when you write others in the series. In fact, I’d say it’s pretty darn important. Or maybe you have a new series. Maybe you publish under multiple names.

The point is, those first pages after a great book ends are a prime opportunity to let readers know about you. It’s your best advertising space! (And you don’t even need to pay for it.) You need to be able to update that as your work grows. At the end of A Hidden Fire, you can read an excerpt from the second book in my Elemental Mysteries series. You can also now read about my Cambio Springs series and the Irin Chronicles. Being able to format my own e-book files allows me to update them and keep readers current.

I promise you, I am only moderately computer literate. I don’t program. (Unless you count Logo in fourth grade, and I’m dating myself.) I don’t code. I don’t even really know what those two terms mean in any meaningful way. I spent most of my childhood running through wardrobes into Narnia and riding imaginary dragons like a good little book nerd. My friend Dave, a real programmer (Hi, Dave!), pats me on the head and gives me an indulgent smile when I talk about how cool my Macbook is because it’s so easy to use.

You might be a little bit like me that way.

BUT! Two important things have changed since I first started in this business. Smashwords started accepting ePub files, so now you only need TWO formats to publish, ePub and mobi. And a program called Scrivener was born.

Scrivener!

If there is one writing program that I recommend all writers buy, it’s Scrivener. I’m sure other people have other suggestions (and feel free to offer those in the comments for this post), but we’re talking about my own experiences here, and Scrivener is what I use and recommend to everyone.

Scrivener is a program put out by a company called Literature and Latte (Coffee! and Books! I knew I loved them for a reason.) It is not free. But it’s only $45 US dollars, which means it’s going to save you money if you can use it to format e-book files. Trust me, it’s worth the cash. It’s available for Windows and Mac and you can try it for one month for free. Here is the website.

TRY IT.

TAKE THE TUTORIALS.

FALL IN LOVE WITH IT BECAUSE YOU WILL SOON BE FORMATTING YOUR OWN WORK LIKE A BOSS AND WILL BE ALL, “YEAH, I CAN TOTALLY SEND YOU AN ADVANCED COPY OF MY NEXT AWESOME NOVEL, WHAT FORMAT DO YOU WANT THAT IN? OH, EPUB? NO PROBLEM!” (Okay, maybe that didn’t need to be all in caps.)

The point is, Scrivener is an easy to use program (IF you take the tutorials! Nothing is learned by osmosis alone except the cowbell part on “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”) And it allows you to format all the files you will need to publish. I’m sure there are others out there, but in my experience, Scrivener is the best. I write my books in it. I edit in it. It’s a great program that is more than worth the very reasonable price.

If you have other questions about formatting, the uber-expert in Indieworld is Guido Henkel, who is both a mad formatting genius and a super generous guy with his expertise. This is his website. You can do all the formatting research there you want and it will be far more professional than my advice. He’s also a programmer, designer, and author. So yes, he really knows his stuff, and I think all his formatting advice is now being put into an e-book (which will be beautifully formatted, I’m sure.)

Anyway, that’s the formatting hat. It does take a little work to figure it out, but I promise it is well worth it. It IS absolutely something that you can learn yourself with a mild amount of effort and it’s something that will save you a lot of money in the long run. More importantly, it puts the look and content of your book in your hands, allowing you the freedom to publish like the professional that you are.

Happy formatting! And next week, we’ll talk about the magic publishing step. (SPOILER: It’s really easy. Please don’t ever pay someone to upload your books for you. Please.) Leave any questions in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Have a great week, Elizabeth

Posted in Publishing, Self-publishing, The Many Hats of Self-Publishing, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , .

14 Comments

  1. Very valid reasons! I think it’s best to do your own formatting, too 🙂

    I’ve just begun using Scrivener, and I understand where you’re coming from: sometimes I feel like I sound like a commercial, but the fact is it rocks. I’ve written one book using it, am in the middle of the second, and I can no longer imagine going back to MS Word. Best investment ever!

    That said, since you mentioned using it… do you know if it allows you to use images as scene breakers? Moreover, do you reckon that’s a good idea, or should we follow the “Keep It Simple, Silly” rule?

    • That, I don’t know. I know I have included graphics like book covers or banners in my end matter that seem to translate with no problem, but I don’t know if using them as breaks would be an issue. I’d recommend trying it and seeing what happens!

  2. I write Urban Fantasy and Mystery, and I bought Scrivener about a month ago. OMG. Where was I all those years I didn’t use it? It’s fabulous, and so are your tutorials…not to mention your books rock.

  3. Elizabeth- you are my hero. I’ve been going back and forth on traditional publishing vs self-publishing. I’m 99% convinced that I’m going to take care of it myself after reading this blog series. That last 1% will be decided after I read the last entry you write in two weeks. I’m in love with your work and can’t wait to read what you come out with next! Thank you so much.

  4. I have found my knowledge of html coding has been invaluable – real basic stuff. I have been able to weed out troublesome Word coding and stick with basic styles. I do this in a text document and check it in Kindle Previewer downloaded on my desktop. But who does basic html anymore? Sounds like Scivener could be a good investment if you’re producing lots of books.

  5. Pingback: The Publishing Hat: Put Your Dress Clothes On. | ELIZABETH HUNTER

  6. Thanks for recommending Scrivener! It looks like exactly what I’ve been waiting for, ever since I saw a precursor of its type of software years ago, written by some nameless engineer for his own use and put up in his public directory for anyone who wanted a similar tool (unfortunately, it was windows-only). Running through the tutorial now….

  7. Great post. Amazon KDP nows will format from Micro Word and PDF into Kindlebook. I do not understand why this is not the norm all around. Thanks for sharing, MG.

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