Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
If you’ve read many books by DIY authors—and chances are you have—you might have stumbled across the occasional one full of formatting errors. It doesn’t give the best impression, does it? These mistakes detract from the flow of the book and are a certain route to one-star reviews. So how can you make sure your book isn’t riddled with sloppy-looking formatting that readers will perceive as mistakes?
Whether you’re giving it a go yourself or using a company like Help For Writers to convert your manuscript into epub and MOBI formats, here are some tips to help you avoid the errors that make ebooks look amateurish.
Tip 1: Keep it simple. This is the key message at the heart of all the advice that follows. If your ebook is reflowable—which is usually the case for a predominantly text-based book with few images—readers can view it in the font and font size of their choosing. Therefore, there’s no point in selecting a fancy or novelty font that might display oddly on different screens. Stick to something safe and conventional, like Arial or Times New Roman, with a 10- to 12-point size for body text and perhaps a 16- or 18-point size for chapter headings. This ensures the text will be readable by everyone, no matter what device they’re using. In a similar vein, don’t use more than 1.5 spacing between lines, and stick with black text on a white background.
Tip 2: Get rid of double spaces. Often, double spaces between words accidentally convert to no space, meaning that words run together. It only takes a few seconds to run the Find and Replace feature on a Word document to convert all double spaces into single spaces. And while I’m on the topic, you don’t need double spaces after full stops, so it’s fine to eliminate them all.
Tip 3: Don’t use the tab key. Conversion software hates tabs. If you want indented paragraphs, set them up in the Styles pane.
Tip 4: Set block paragraphs. Incorporate the digital book formatting convention of nonindented, or block, paragraphs at the beginning of every section and chapter. You can set that up in Styles, too, to avoid having to tweak each one manually.
Tip 5: Use the Styles function. Publishers use this function extensively, sometimes setting up more than 100 styles in their template for use in different books. Be like the professionals and set up your styles in a template rather than formatting all your chapter headings, paragraphs, and so on individually.
Tip 6: Remove spaces from the ends of paragraphs. Most writers automatically type a space after every sentence; I do it myself. But please don’t put spaces at the ends of paragraphs. To check for them, click the ¶ symbol in the toolbar of your word processor; this will display all the nonprinting characters such as spaces, tabs, and paragraph breaks. (Some word processors call this the “show invisibles” tool. You can search your help tool to find this function if you don’t have a ¶ symbol in your toolbar.)
Tip 7: Avoid superfluous line and paragraph breaks. In the same vein, check for extra line and paragraph breaks at the end of every section and chapter. As with the above tip, you can do so by clicking the ¶ symbol in your word processor.
Tip 8: Insert nonbreaking spaces in front of ellipses. You don’t want ellipses (…) to get separated from the text that runs before them. To avoid this problem, insert a nonbreaking space between the text and the ellipses. You might want to do the same with en and em dashes (–, —).
Tip 9: Don’t use asterisks or fancy symbols to create a break between each section or chapter. It looks far cleaner to simply insert an extra line at the break and format the next paragraph with no indentation. Whatever symbols you place in the gap will likely jump all over the place once you’re looking at your book on an e-reader.
Tip 10: Use page breaks before a new chapter. Don’t just hit the Enter key until you reach a new page! Remove any extra paragraph breaks and insert a page break instead.
Tip 11: Don’t create flourishes in Word. If you really must have elaborate, decorated section dividers or chapter headings, ensure they display properly by using a graphics program to create them as JPGs rather than trying to make Word do a design job for you.
Tip 12: Take care when using non-roman alphabets for quotations or excerpts. If you’re writing fiction, use roman alphabets, not wingdings or other alphabets. Even for foreign words, it might be preferable to romanize rather than risk them displaying as a series of squares or gibberish.
Tip 13: Left-justify your content. Blind or partially sighted people who use screen readers can miss headings and other text that is centered or—the cardinal sin!—right-justified. Make life easier for everyone by formatting all text left-justified. And don’t be tempted to make your work look tidier by fully justifying it. That’s much harder to read, and on some e-readers you might end up with huge gaps between words.
Tip 14: Don’t worry about margins and page sizes. Just use the default margins. If you make your margins bigger, your text could appear on e-readers as a small rectangle in the middle of the screen. The same advice applies to page sizes—standard is best.
Tip 15: Don’t include page numbers, headers, or footers. With a reflowable ebook, the pagination can change depending on whether the reader has zoomed in or out on the screen. Your book might have 100 pages for one reader and 1,000 for another, depending on their settings! Including page numbers will only confuse matters. Similarly, headers and footers won’t display properly.
Tip 16: Let graphics be graphics. When a reflowable ebook file is created, tables can often look messy when readers zoom in or out. To keep them looking as you intended, create tables, pie charts, and so on in a graphics program (InDesign is good for this) and export them as JPG or PNG files to insert into your document rather than using Word’s built-in tools.
Tip 17: Avoid wrapping text around images. The best option is to center the image on the page and only place text above and below the image.
Tip 18: Make sure image files are in RGB color mode. If image files are in CMYK, convert them to RGB before inserting them into your manuscript.
Tip 19: Use ideal specs for images. The best size for JPG images is 600 ✕ 550 pixels. A resolution of 300 DPI is preferable if you can manage it.
Tip 20: Check for typos. Remember that conversion services don’t check your book for typos. You are responsible for the content. With that in mind, I recommend you invest in the services of a proofreader before you submit your manuscript for conversion or to stores. Okay, full disclosure—I’m a little biased because proofreading is what I do, but you don’t want readers to be the first people to see your mistakes!
If this advice sounds like a lot to remember, don’t panic. Just circle back to my first tip: Keep it simple! Use standard settings and common sense, avoid too many bells and whistles, and you can’t go wrong. Save this article and use it as a checklist the next time you take your work to the ebook production stage.