Formatting an Ebook for the Indie Author

I often see posts on Facebook and Twitter lamenting ’s or other sites when self-published attempt to upload their book for the first time and struggle to make a professional looking product. There are certain customer expectations and technical guidelines that one must follow if they wish to appear professional. You’ve done the hardest work, writing the book, now allow me to start this 2/maybe 3 part series on an that will upload to any online store, giving you the chance to reach new customers and not scare them away with an ugly looking book. As they say, people do judge books primarily on their cover, and secondly after they open the novel and peak inside.


Look at an Ebook

Before you jump in to creating one, you should either rent or buy an eBook and actually look at it. It seem most authors are stubborn to the ways of and prefer to read print books, and sometimes I wonder if those attempting to publish an eBook have every actually read one. Like regular books they have front matter, back matter, and content. Ebooks should have an embedded Table of Contents as well as proper Meta-Data, where in print this is usually up to the author and featured mostly in young adult or non-fiction books.

I want to draw your attention to the content of an ebook. You will see that things like font, word spacing, etc, are left up to the readers device. Do not try to override these settings and force a user to view it with a specific font or font size. When you are formatting an Ebook, you will set all content to be of paragraph type, and that is all. The readers computer/device will select a default font. Chapters and headings should be formatted at the same level – I prefer all chapters be Heading 3. The heading number (1, 2, 3) matters less, as long as it is consistent throughout the eBook. If you think you are above the law in this case, you will lose future readers because it will not render how the reader expects to see the content.

Another item to notice is paragraph spacing and indentation. Automatically, there should be an extra line break between every paragraph and all but the very first paragraph will be indented. Again, do not try to override these settings, this is how EVERY eBook should look. This works well for digital devices as they can range in size from very small hand held devices, to tablets, to wide computer screens. This helps the device scale the words to both what the reader prefers in size and to break up chunks of the information.

For making a eBook, you will create an epub file. Do not try to upload a docx, or other format and expect it to just work. This will look extremely sloppy and the reader will know. You are trying to project that you are as professional as a traditionally published author, do not fall short on these final steps. If the eBook looks wrong, or chapters don’t begin in the right way, your potential fan will have left before they can spot any grammar mistakes.

Tools and Technology

You’ve written your masterpiece and edited it a billion times. It’s now ready to upload to an online store and you are ready to be a published author. Congratulations! Now, if you are using software like Vellum or Scrivener, you can probably skip this part as these tools have all of these things built in. But if you are like me (refuse to pay for anything), or funds are tight, or you need to make small tweaks to the final product here are some tools that can help.

Let me preface, that I intentionally use and support Software. As indie authors, we have so little help, that finding tools that work well is truly amazing.

Sigil is a free eBook editor, works on Mac, Windows, and Linux. You’ve written all of the words in your favorite text editor, Sigil allows one to copy each chapter as a new page and it handles all of the formatting mumbo-jumbo. Using this tool gets you like 98% of the way to a professional eBook. For Front and Back matter, each item should be a separate page. Meaning Title page, copyright info, dedication, quote, Etc, should be it’s own page. This separates it on the device so a user has to “turn” the page and it helps draw the reader into the story as it feels more like the real physical version. Sigil also has tools that allow you to generate a Table of Contents and edit Meta-Data. Which is super important for digital books.

If you already have an .epub file but need to change one or two small things, Sigil can be used to spot edit a fully made eBook. If you need to do more advanced stuff, you can edit the raw html which explains with code how to render your text properly to the device.

All the things I wrote about paragraphs, font, heading size, etc, mostly apply to this program. As this is where you are stitching each chapter of your book together to form fully realized novel.

Calibre is an open source eBook manager software, works on Mac, Windows and Linux. You’ve produced a beautiful eBook, but you want to make sure it looks right and see it as a reader. This software allows you to import any epub file and view along with any other eBook you may have. More Advanced features allow one to convert between a multitude of like 20 digital formats (like Mobi for Barnes and Noble, and others) and also edit Meta-Data, add cover photo. If you have an E-reader, one can even use Calibre to upload to their device and take the book for a spin on some dedicated hardware (feels great).

Epub Checker

The Epub checker is what Smashwords uses behind the scenes to verify your ebook passes some basic guidelines and will not break when read. There is an online tool, but it is limited to 100MB file, but I prefer the offline tool. It is a bit more hands on and can be more confusing but it’s worth it to ensure my readers get a consistent and working file every time. As a prerequisite, one must have Java installed on their system.

java -jar epubcheck.jar file.epub

If there are errors, it will spit out the section, line number and reason. One can then use Sigil to go back and fix the issue. Ah! the circle is complete.

You can run it as many times as needed to work through and fix each error. I’ve found that most errors occur when I try to do something funky with line spacing or special formatting for like an epic poem in fantasy novel.


Wrap up

Those are the three main tools I endorse and use to produce a professional looking eBook. Remember that an epub ( or other digital format) is your text + html ( super basic web formatting, think Myspace and websites from 90’s ) + Meta data.

If you get stuck, or fear that you are going down the wrong path, please reach out to me on Twitter @StewStunes and I will try to help.

Be on the look out for part 2 or this formatting series, where I discuss how to produce a professional PDF for printed books.