Polish Before You Publish – Formatting

Welcome back, everyone. Last week we talked about editing, and why it’s one of the most important steps to take before you publish. This week we’re going to go over formatting, for both print and ebook, and how this is an area you may be able to tackle yourself.

Why is formatting so important?
Simply put, a poorly formatted book is hard to read. Why is this? Well, as Diana Vreeland famously said, “The eye has to travel”. The human eye wants to move across the page in a certain way; in Western parts of the world this is typically a ‘Z’, or zig-zag pattern, as our eyes have been trained to read from left to right. A properly formatted book helps the reader’s eye travel smoothly, without interruption or eye strain, and ensures that they’re not going to miss sections of text or images. Making sure that you adhere to formatting guidelines isn’t just following the rules; it’s helping your readers have an enjoyable reading experience. It also keeps your reputation and your brand intact: a poorly formatted book will usually result in a dissatisfied reader, who’s dying to tell the world about how unprofessional your book looks. As a self published author, this is the last thing that you need.

The Formatting Basics
So, what do you need to think about when you’re formatting a book? Whether it’s for print or eBook, your book needs to have:

Margins: This is the white space that surrounds your text. Margins exist to give the eye a little breathing room, a place to rest for a moment before moving on. They should be at least half an inch on the three exterior sides (this would be the top, bottom, and the open side). Your gutter margin (the side where the paper is bound, also known as the “spine side”) should be at least three-fourths of an inch. Margins that are too small can make it hard for the reader to concentrate on the text; margins that are too big are simply distracting to the eye, and look sloppy.
Tabs/Indents: This would be the space at the beginning of each paragraph. You can omit this on the first paragraph of each chapter and use a drop cap on the first letter instead; a drop cap is a large capital letter at the beginning of a text block that has the depth of two or more lines of regular text. This is another resting area for the eye, as well as a visual indicator that tells the reader they are starting a new passage.
Spacing: You’ve seen it everywhere; agents and publishers want you to send a manuscript that’s double-spaced. Many self published authors mistakenly believe that their book needs to be formatted this way as well. When it’s time to format, you’ll want to remove those double spaces. Omit the spaces between your paragraphs as well; they don’t belong there. If you’re formatting for print, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the following terms: Leading, Kerning, and Tracking. You’ll be using these methods to space your text in a way that is pleasing to the eye.
Justification: For most books you’ll want full justification, which means that the text lines up evenly on both the left and right sides. In some cases a justified left (also known as a ragged right) is acceptable; this means that the text is lined up on the left side, but not on the right. Full justification is considered to be a more formal format, where as justified left/ragged right is considered informal. Keep this in mind when choosing which justification option is best for your book.
Readable Fonts: You need to choose a font that is easy for the eye to read for long periods of time. For the most part, interior text should be a serif font (FYI: serif fonts have “feet”, sans serif do not). Unless you’re putting out a large type edition, your font size should be no bigger than 12 points and no smaller than 10. Do be aware that your font choice will affect the size of your book, as some fonts are significantly wider than others.
Chapter Titles/Breaks: This seems like a no-brainer, but many self published authors completely skip this. Readers like to know what chapter or short story they’re on; the person who routinely says “Just let me finish this chapter!” is going to have a hard time if you don’t let them know just where that is. An important thing to note when formatting books for print is that chapters should always start on a right facing page. Additionally, eBooks need chapter breaks! Just as with a print book, each chapter needs to start on a new page. Running your chapters together in one long document will likely net you some bad reviews, so be diligent about this.
Headers and Page Numbers: If you’re formatting your book for print, these are an absolute must! eBooks, on the other hand, do not need this, as the eReader or app will insert them automatically (Beware: if they are already there, they will be added again). The header appears at the top of the page, and typically includes the title of the book and the author’s name. Make sure your headers appear on the proper pages; omit them from blank pages and the first page of each chapter, as well as the front and back matter. You’ll want to do the same with page numbers.
Table of Contents: While not always necessary in print books, you’ll definitely want to make sure your eBooks have a Table of Contents, or ‘TOC’. This helps the reader to easily jump to a chapter or story on their eReader of choice. Many of the big eBook distributors require a TOC, and will pull your ebook from their site if it’s missing; so make it a habit to include one in every book you format.

If you’ve got the time, you can Do It Yourself!
I began my journey into the world of publishing when my partner decided it was time to turn his first book into an eBook. At the time he was publishing through a small press that didn’t provide ebook formatting, so I took to the internet to find someone who could handle the job. Hours of searching lead me to discover that this was an area I could handle myself. I learned how to hand code eBooks in HTML, thanks to Guido Henkel; his nine-part blog series, “Take Pride In Your eBook Formatting“, walks you step-by-step through the entire process. It’s helpful to know a little bit about HTML before you dive into this series, so take some time to learn the basics before you start (Codecademy is a great place to learn). Do make sure to take his advice and TEST YOUR EBOOK BEFORE YOU PUBLISH! Yes, I shouted that, because it’s that important. There are a lot of folks out there who think they’ve done a great job formatting their book simply because it looks good on their computer; but when I download it to my iPhone, it’s a jumbled mess. Every single eReader or reading app will display your eBook differently, so make sure it looks good on all of them.

When it was time to start formatting books for print, I turned to Adobe Indesign. I will freely admit that it took quite a bit of time to learn how to use this program, but it was well worth it. A bonus is that their ePub export function has enabled me to produce eBooks that look as much like their paperback brethren as possible, in much less time than hand coding would take. Because I think every author should be releasing their books in print and digital formats, I would encourage you to give InDesign, or any of the other layout programs (like Quark), a try if you’re serious about formatting. Be aware that formatting books for print is a bit of an art; if you don’t think you can devote the time to learn how to do it properly, consider contacting a professional.

Word processors and layout programs are not the same thing
Yes, you can upload a Word document to many of the eBook distributor sites…but you really shouldn’t. I only know of one author that successfully publishes her eBooks by formatting in Word, and I’m fairly certain she’s got some magic up her sleeve that she’s not sharing with anyone else. Actually, I think she’s just really good at following a lot of directions to a ’T’, which is what you have to do if you’re going to try this option. For the most part, a Word document is going to result in an eBook with missing chapter breaks, too much/too little spacing between paragraphs, and quite possibly a lot of shifted text. Why is this? Well, read that section header again…I’ll wait. Okay, so hopefully you’ve noticed two key words: Word and Layout. They pretty much tell you everything, don’t they? A word processor is a program developed to process words, and a layout program is designed to put those words, as well as any other elements, into place. This really boils down to using the right tool for the job. You wouldn’t use a blender to work on your car; don’t use a word processor to layout your book.

When time is an issue, who do you turn to?
There is no shame in admitting that hand coding makes you want to tear your hair out. Formatting for print and eBook takes a lot of time, and for that reason alone many authors turn to professional formatters. This is an area that can be relatively inexpensive to source out. However, as with editing, you want to make sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck. I highly encourage you to ask potential formatters what software they’ll be using on your book; if they tell you it’s being formatted in Word, move on to the next person on your list. Ask for examples of their work, or check out the “Look Inside” feature on eBooks they’ve worked on. Make sure that their formatting looks professional, that their books look like something you’d see from one of the traditional publishing houses.

All that being said, there’s a reason I see this as completely doable: it’s part of my job. I can’t imagine writing books and taking on all of these auxiliary tasks on top of it, and neither could my partner. Being able to dedicate all of my working time to the business aspect of publishing has freed him up to write even more. As I get more experienced at these tasks and their details, they come easier. I was fortunate to be able to sit down and dedicate myself to learning to do things properly, and I continue to allocate time to learning in this ever-changing world of independent publishing. For the author that would rather write than pile more things onto their schedule, we are committed to helping out in any way we can.

Check back next week for the last step in the publishing process, Cover Design, and learn why this is an area you can’t afford to get wrong.

Dawn Marshall is obviously not a writer (she actually got stuck on the end of this blog; Jay saved her butt this week and wrote that last paragraph). She is, however, the resident Book & Graphics Designer at Sudden Insight Publishing, and a big fan of indie authors. You can find her design work and read her smarmy tweets at dear23.com.


  1. Jude Johnson says:

    Thank you for explaining this. People don’t realize it takes time and effort to make a book look professionally constructed. I would also point out that is you are using CreateSpace, do not just submit your pdf file to be published on Kindle. The formatting goes wonky as all get out. Use Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and download their Kindle Preview app (free) to preview your book on all sizes of Kindle displays, including mobiles.

    • Jude Johnson says:

      *If* (also check for typos before hitting “send”)

    • jknorry says:

      Thank you for the comment, and the Createspace/KDP information. We use IngramSpark for our print books, and I tend to forget that the author that’s going it alone often uses Createspace instead. One of these days I’ll write a blog comparing the two.

  2. First of all I want to say terrific blog! I had a quick question which I’d like to
    ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out
    how you center yourself and clear your thoughts before writing.
    I have had a hard time clearing my mind in getting my
    ideas out there. I do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first
    10 to 15 minutes are usually lost just trying to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or hints?

    • jknorry says:

      Jay has some great tips on writing at his blog. I’d recommend reading his “Why I Love To Write” series. You can find it at blog.jaynorry.com

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