How to Prepare for Self-Publishing: Ebook Formatting

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

self-publishing, authors, indie publishing, writingThis is part three of a six-part series.

You’ve got your finished manuscript in Microsoft Word and you’re ready to turn it into an ebook. You need to convert it into MOBI format (for Amazon Kindle) and EPUB (for everywhere else). There are various companies, tools and programs that can convert your file for you, but how can you make sure it ends up looking right? You already know that ebooks behave quite differently from Word documents, so how can you be confident that your carefully crafted file will work as an ebook?

Keep it simple

Don’t forget that most ebooks—unless you’re specifically opting for a fixed format to handle lots of illustrations, charts, tables, etc.—are reflowable, which means that the reader can choose the size of the text and some other elements like font, line spacing and margins. So your careful choice of 12 point Palatino won’t always render exactly as you envisaged. By keeping the formatting as simple as possible, you reduce the risk of introducing anything that will be too distracting to the reader. After all, you want her to focus on what you’ve written, not on what it looks like.

Before you submit your book for conversion, there are a few really basic things you can do within Word to make it look more professional.

Switch on the “Show nonprinting characters” option—click the button that looks like this: Show nonprinting characters

This displays the formatting marks, showing all the formatting you’ve used: spaces, line breaks, paragraph breaks, tabs, page breaks—the works. This makes it easier to see what you’ve done and will help you to strip out extraneous formatting.

Remove rogue spaces from the beginnings and ends of paragraphs. This can be a tedious job, but it’s worth it, because extra spaces often stand out on an e-reader.

Full stops

Don’t use double spaces after full stops. You can use the “Find and replace” tool to remove them. You might have been taught to use them at school, but in an ebook they make the text look gappy and unprofessional, and professional typesetters don’t use them. If you’re a heavy-handed typist, you might also want to check for the odd accidental triple space—they have been known to occur!

Hyphens & line breaks

Turn hyphenation off and don’t force line breaks. Even if you don’t like where a line breaks, remember that if the reader changes the font size, the line breaks will shift anyway. If you add a hyphen manually, there’s a danger that it will end up stuck in the middle of a line at random, looking like a mistake. Similarly, don’t try to correct widows and orphans.

Page numbers

Don’t include page numbers. Ebook files don’t have universal page numbers, but some devices will allocate page numbers depending on the reader’s settings. E-reader devices usually tell the reader how far along in the book she is—e. g. “Page x out of y” or “43 percent completed.” This also means that page numbers in your table of contents will be irrelevant.


Decide whether you’re going to use block or run-on paragraphs and stick with the same format throughout. Block paragraphs have a line space between them, while run-on paragraphs don’t have any line space between them but have the first line indented instead. If you use run-on paragraphs, remember not to indent the first paragraph of each chapter. And don’t use the tab key to indent your paragraphs; use the “First line indent” tool on Word’s ribbon.


When you want to start a new chapter, insert a page break. Don’t just keep hitting Enter until a new page appears! Use the “Show nonprinting characters” option to help you get rid of extra paragraph returns at the end of each chapter.


Use Word’s Styles palette to organize your chapter headings, subheadings, body text, etc. If you don’t know how to use this, or any other tools within Word, there’s a wealth of information online. Before you submit your manuscript, check that you’ve applied the relevant style to each part of your text.

Out of the ordinary

If you want to use “fancy” formatting—such as headers, footers, borders, special fonts, colored text, multi-column layouts, etc.—you might want to consider opting for a fixed layout ebook rather than a reflowable EPUB. Certain elements, like decorative drop caps, can be inserted as images, but if there are a lot of them, you’re better off getting some professional help with the conversion to make sure you get the result you’re after. You can certainly include images in EPUB and MOBI files, but some e-readers display them in grayscale, so make sure that your images work in grayscale as well as in color.

Use the style guide

This final tip might sound blindingly obvious, but it can make the difference between getting your ebook accepted or rejected by stores: if you’re submitting your document to a site that has a style guide, use it! Sometimes it can look complicated, but take the time to work through it and you will reap the rewards later.

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7 thoughts on “How to Prepare for Self-Publishing: Ebook Formatting

  1. Michael W. Perry

    Sorry, but some of us consider Word an abomination. We write in Scivener, which has powerful export tools for by epub and mobi built in. They’re not easy to learn, but once you’ve created a set you like, you can reuse them for later books.

    And if you’re going both print and digital, you can’t beat the formatting power of InDesign. It can make the print version look absolutely marvelous and export that print version as a fixed-layout epub that looks identical to the print version. That’s great for books that need to look the same digitally as in print, such as cookbooks, textbooks, or books with a lot of visual content. InDesign also lets you export reflowable epub that Apple’s iBookstore loves and Amazon doesn’t seem to have any problem converting that epub to Amazon’s own KF8 and mobi. For $20/month you can get a single-app license in Adobe’s Creative Cloud to InDesign, access to a host of top fonts for free and a Behance website to display your books. Here’s mine:

    A Scrivener to InDesign workflow beats the socks off working in Word. Scrivener was designed for writing and InDesign. Word was designed to create business memos and letters. It’s clumsy when used for anything else.

  2. Julanna

    Love how the comments end up being used to advertise products. Off topic! On topic would be:

    It’s very difficult for authors (and some publishers) to get past creating a book with a certain look but letting go of an image is so needed for e-books. As a reader I will always change the font to sans and a larger size simply because that’s easier for me to read, and I’ll make a point of not using e-readers that don’t give me that choice. For paper versions the choice is the creators, for e-books the choice is mine. “Keep it simple” is the only way to go.

    Thanks for the extra points.

  3. Catherine Dunn

    It’s true that Scrivener and InDesign are both great tools (and there are others out there too). My post was aimed at authors who either do not want or are not confident to use these. For most people, Word is well within their comfort zone and the vast majority of manuscripts we receive are written in Word. If people feel happy formatting their work in a different – more suitable – programme, that’s great and I would never want to discourage anyone from doing that.

    Formatting for print is a whole different ball game. I love InDesign for that, but it’s one of those programmes that can be a little daunting at first if you haven’t learned how to use it yet. It’s definitely the way to go for print formatting/layout, though.

  4. Paul Cain

    Word is fine for the editing process between Editor and Author however once you get to the eBook creation stage there is no way I would trust Word. At our small Indie Press we use InDesign for creating the physical print files to send off to the printer and then use the InDesign files to create the eBook in-house (we are fortunate to have excellent in-house IT skills who are comfortable with HTML). The InDesign features for creating eBooks have improved significantly over recent years but we still do need to use Sigil for the final polishing or editing the HTML directly. Once the ePub is ready then we use the Amazon Kindle Previewer utility to create the Kindle files.

    The result for us is we have beautiful eBooks formatted exactly as we want them.

  5. Kimberly Hitchens

    All these comments are hoots. It’s the “My way or the highway” route, apparently.

    At my shop, we use all of these tools. We create eBooks from anything and everything, from Markdown in .txt files to Word to PDF to InDesign (the latter which we use ourselves for print layout as well). I like INDD for any number of reasons, but I would *never* pull it out just to make an eBook. It would be make-work. (I mean…once you do prelim clean-up in Word, and then pipe it to INDD, and then pipe the ePUB out…you’ve added an entire step that is utterly unnecessary. You can clean a Word file, export to HTML, do further cleaning & styling, and kablammo!, your ePUB is pretty much done. Why inject INDD into the process?).

    And I’ve used Scrivener, which many people love. To me, the big “wow” about Scrivener is the document pane–which you can do already in Word, and use drag-drop for chapter/scene ordering, etc. The challenge is, so few writers (or users of any kind) really know HOW to use Word, that almost nobody knows that you can do 80-90% of what you ADORE in Scrivener in Word already.

    Catherine, with regard to two spaces, versus one, after full stops/periods: that advice is unnecessary. HTML recognizes, but will not display, two spaces in a row. Sure, it’s tidy to clean up the double-space after a period, in Word (or whatever program you’re using), but completely unneeded.

    Moreover–forgive me for disagreeing with you–there is NO reason on the face of the earth to use Fixed layout simply to achieve “fancy” formatting consisting of special fonts, colored text, dropcaps, etc. Any competent commercial eBook-making firm can do that in reflowable. The advent of the Amazon KTC has created a host of unintended consequences, the biggest being that there are now thousands of eBooks on Amazon, fiction and simple, that should NEVER have been created in fixed-layout, but which are. That makes them unreadable on ~40% of the Amazon devices, which certainly cannot help an Indy author’s/Publisher’s ROI (return on investment). I see at LEAST one post a day, sometimes more, on the KDP forums alone, about how someone used KTC, simply because it’s easy (drop in PDF, and go), or because they can’t let go of their preconceived notions about running headers, footers, etc. Fixed-layout elements should be closely analyzed, by someone familiar with the realities surrounding eBooks, to ensure that only those books that truly *need* fixed-layout are created that way. Otherwise, you are unnecessarily burdening the book–and the reader who buys it. I would not be a happy reading camper, if I purchased a fiction title and found out I had to pinch-zoom, pan-scan my way through the entire thing. (Not pimping here, but to see what regular old reflowable eBooks *can* look like, done right: . In that entire set of galleries, those books that were done in FXL are shown as such. As you’ll see, an awful lot can be done with nothing more than some expertise and few fonts/fleurons/techniques.)

    For those using Word, the two BEST Word-toots websites on the Net are still Shauna Kelly’s tutorials for beginners: and once you’ve gone through ALL of those, Charles Kenyon’s FAB Word features site/toots: . I still use Charlie’s stuff, and I think that most people would consider me a Word power-user/expert. (I am NOT affiliated with either of these individuals or websites; I list these solely to help people to learn how to use Word–for their own benefit, not mine.)

    Hope that helps someone.

  6. Ashok


    Thanks a ton for such detailed DIY tips. I was stuck in ePub creation and I could make a lot of progress with your expert advice.

    Got a question. I am using a regular, white background word document, as manuscript. The below URL is used for ePub creation.

    The ePub document has a light grey background color. I would like to have white background instead. Please help me with this.




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