Formatting eBooks: Final Touches

So we’ve talked about the basics of formatting eBooks, and why it’s important to do it well. Today we’ll look at a couple tips for going that extra mile.

I should say that I got most of these ideas from others, and you can find the relevant links on my Writers Resources page under formatting. Special thanks to Cameron, Guido and Piotr.


The main things you want to look for when you’re formatting is that your line spacing is correct (Word can really mess with this), and that you’ve got a working Table of Contents. We’ll start with the TOC–Sigil makes it really easy for you.

The bold text is your Heading and will show in the TOC.

The picture above shows a heading–the bolded text. At the beginning of each section, you’ll want to highlight the chapter title (in this case, the story title, as it’s a collection of stories), then click the H1 button on the top left of the program. This gives it the <h1></h1> tags, which tells the final file that it’s a heading. Do that for all your sections. When you’re done, go to Tools and click on TOC Editor; this will allow you to select which Headings will appear in your TOC. Deselect things like the copyright page and other front matter if you like, and there you go. On the right side of the picture above is the complete TOC. When you run the finished ePub file through Calibre, you’ll be able to further codify the TOC, which will then appear in the final book.

In professionally published books, you’ll often see the first words or letter of a new chapter highlighted somehow. Sometimes the first few words will be in bold text, sometimes the first letter is an image file of an ornate letter, with the rest of the text wrapped around it. This is something you can accomplish in Sigil.


Note the first few words are capitalized. Neat!


Here, I’ve highlighted the first few words and used another feature of Sigil: the All Caps button. You find this in Word as well, of course, but if you carry it over to Sigil from there, it’ll mess up the formatting. You want to do this in HTML, so don’t do it in Word, let Sigil do it for you. Highlight the text you want, click the button (it’s the one I’ve circled in Red) and there you go. This nicely sets the first few words apart, a simple way to give a nice polish to the book.

I’m not sure I like it for my book–my second story, Room With a Corpse, looks a bit silly when I do this–but it’s an option. You could also just bold the text. If you want to add the ornate letter I mentioned (you can see a nice example on the Sigil page), just delete the first letter, then right click in that spot and click “Add Image.” You’ll need to find an image of the letter or make one yourself, but that’s all there is too it.

Which brings us to the next example. Because you’re effectively editing in HTML, you can’t use different fonts without going into the “back end” and editing font tags. Even if you do that, there’s no guarantee that your fonts will display on all readers, so it’s not advised. But there is a way around it.

Open up an image editor–I use–and make a small canvas that’s 500 by 375 pixels. This is a good size for most e-readers. Then click on the Text tool and type the title of your book in whatever font you like.

Title Block

Here’s the Title Block for my book–nice font!

You can use some of the main fonts you’ll find installed on your computer–but they’re pretty boring, and people will recognize them. (Remember when Stephen Spielberg used the Papyrus font in Avatar?) Look for other fonts online–they’re easy to install and use–but be careful, because many of them are licensed, and you’ll need to buy them. Don’t go stealing fonts! Instead, go to Font Squirrel, where you can download fonts for free. In the picture above, I’ve used League Gothic, a popular font that “pops” nicely.

So make your image (make the background transparent) and save it as a jpg file. Then create a new section wherever you want your title block to appear. Instead of adding text, just right click and Add Image, throw in your new title block, and ta-da! A nice attractive font to act as your title page without screwing up the user-end e-reader.

Finally, you’ll want to do the same thing with your cover by adding a new section at the very beginning and adding the cover as an image. This will display it on readers not only as a thumbnail when the user is looking through their library, but when they first open the book. I don’t have an example, but check out the link by Cameron above for a nice one.

So there you have it. A few quick tricks that will give your finished book just that much more polish. It’s true what they say: the devil’s in the details. It may seem like a lot of work to add things people probably won’t notice much, but as I said in my last post, people will notice if they’re not there.

And now a quick plug. You might have guessed that because I’m in the final stages, I’m ready to release my book soon–and you’d be right! Watch for The Astrologers and Other Stories to be available on Amazon and Kobo stores by October 23.

And, if you’d like a free copy, why not join my mailing list? Anyone who signs up before October 23 will receive a copy as soon as it’s ready for distribution.

Who doesn’t like free books?

Formatting eBooks–for Newbs

Last time, we spoke about the very basics of doing a book cover–today, another integral piece of the puzzle, formatting!

Before I got into e-publishing, I thought I knew what publishers wanted when you submit your manuscript. There are certain protocols you’re supposed to follow–name in the upper left corner, word count in the upper right, etc. The purpose of this is for the agent or publisher to have a quick reference, and for the editor to be able to easily get around your work. In e-publishing, though, the writer is filling most of those roles, so the game is completely different.

So why not just write the book in MS Word the way you want it to look, upload it to Kobo or Amazon, and press publish?

If you do that, I’ll guarantee you one thing: the end product will look horrible.

The thing is, a lot of the formatting in MS Word–or other word processors for that matter–is done in the background, where you can’t see it. Here’s an experiment: go to the View tab,

Word Formatting Marks

Formatting Marks: note there are even dots to indicate the space between words.

and find the option that shows your formatting marks. (In Word, go to Options, Display, and Show All Formatting Marks.) Your manuscript will be riddled with symbols; this is coding Word inputs into your file as you’re writing to determine what the output will look like. What many people don’t realize is that Word is not a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get program. Far from it!

Here’s another experiment. Copy a paragraph of your manuscript, open a blank file in Notepad, and paste it. The text should go, unbroken, on one line, and you’ll have to scroll to the right to see it all. This is because .txt files, unlike files from word processors, don’t have “Word Wrap,” meaning that the text will go on forever until a new paragraph is started. Looks hard to read, right? Surely we want our manuscripts to “wrap” when we format them for eBooks, right?

Actually, no. The thing is, there’s no standard for electronic books. Many–I’d even say most–go with the ePub format, while others–like the ubiquitous Amazon Kindle books–are .mobi files. There are several other formats; the point is, they’re all programmed differently. So when you upload a particular file to, say, Kobo, it might look vastly different when Amazon gets a hold of it. The difference comes in how those files interact with the formatting marks I mentioned earlier.

I haven’t experimented with every kind of file, so I can’t tell you yet which works best–what I can say is that, for the sake of your own sanity, the easiest thing to do is start with a raw file. I do a lot of my writing in MS Word through Google Docs–because it’s accessible anywhere, even on my phone–and copy and paste the text into Scrivener. Scrivener can output into several file types, including Real Text Format (rtf) or the MS Word .doc. Of, you can export it as a text file. This is the raw text–no formatting at all.

What I’ve been doing is exporting as a text file, then opening up a program called Sigil, a WYSIWYG editor (unlike Word!). Sigilis basically an HTML editor, meaning you’ll be coding in the same way you would a web page–or an eBook. It’s really simple to use, and you don’t need any experience with HTML. Just copy and paste your work, create headings (which will create a table of contents for you), and images if you have them, italicize and bold your text if need be. That’s it! There’s a handy tutorial here, and the whole process isn’t very long or arduous (though poetry is another story–it took a while to get Muzak for the Metro to look right).

It might even be simpler, though. I haven’t tried it yet, but I imagine you could output your Scrivener files as an eBook, which would open in Sigil. This way, you do most of your formatting as you work in Scrivener, and use Sigil for touch-ups.

Once that’s done, you use Calibre to tweak things like metadata and making sure everything is “just so.” But that’s a topic for another post.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to eBook formatting, but it’s a start, and it’s a lot easier than some might lead you to believe. If you want to check out a sample of just how this turns out, you can go to Amazon to find the eBook I created with this process (including a cover) this weekend, Muzak for the Metro. It’s only $0.99, and it includes a poem that wasn’t in the original collection–plus an excerpt from “Room With a Corpse,” a short story which will appear in my forthcoming collection The Astrologers and Other Stories. Check it out!