Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Free ebook formatting: do it yourself?

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Ebook formatting. Huh?

Believe it or not, it never occurred to me that you can’t just upload your pretty .doc file onto Smashwords or Amazon and expect it to come out the other side as a perfect ebook. The .doc file is to writing as fresh water is to civilization, isn’t it? Shouldn’t it be the Perrier of self-publishing?

I know, Amazon says you can just upload your Word file and they’ll take care of the rest, but according to David Gaughran, author of Let’s Get Digital: How to Self-Publish And Why You Should, you open your ebook to unpredictable coding errors when you do that and risk coming across to readers as unprofessional. Anathema to us, right?

Gaughran recommends Guido Henkel’s guide, “Take Pride In Your Ebook Formatting,” a free resource on the web, which takes the neophyte through a foolproof formatting protocol that will work with all self-publishing outlets. The only problem is that you have to use HTML.

Henkel’s thinking is that only you can ensure that your book will turn out exactly the way you want it. Automated conversion services are just that — automated — and they can introduce funky code that will make your Great American Novel look like a survivalist’s internet manifesto. (We all know what a great impression those make.)

I started playing with this yesterday, on a small document, and learned that it isn’t exactly a piece of cake. Some of Henkel’s painstaking instructions don’t work with my word processing software (Nisus Writer Express for Mac), so I killed a lot of time figuring out how to fix what went wrong. Still, after a couple of hours trialling and erroring, I’d managed to come up with an HTML version of the document that can be viewed on a web browser and checked for problems. I also learned how to make style changes, including font size, spacing, centering, bold, and italics — everything the average novel needs to look identical to anything the traditional publishers put out. There are some more steps for me to go through before I try it with my novel, but I feel a lot more confident about it now than I did twenty-four hours ago.

My question for other self-pubbers out there is, How did you handle the formatting of your ebook? Did you use the Smashwords style guide? Upload a .doc to Amazon? Pay somebody to do it for you? And were the results what you hoped for?

Gaughran makes it sound like you’re asking for trouble if you don’t do it yourself. Henkel’s way, he says, is the only way to make sure your ebook looks good on any device, from a Kindle to an iPhone. What’s the consensus?



13 comments on “Free ebook formatting: do it yourself?

  1. Creating and ebook is not the same as designing a PDF file, but unfortunately, that is the misconception. eBooks – meaning epub and mobi (Kindle) files are HTML based.

    if you spent hours, months or even years on writing your novel, then you want the best result possible. Just throwing it up without understanding what an e-book really is, is, sad to say, poor strategy.

    Yes, eBooks are HTML, but you don’t need to know a lot to produce a professional ebook. Novels (fiction) are the easiest as they only require Normal paragraphs and heading 1 tags for chapters. However, there are hidden elements to a book that are necessary and add to the function – the toc.ncx file and the content.ppf file. (What are those?)

    Rather than going into a long explanation of what they are, I will tell you how you can easily create them without knowing ANY HTML…. use Sigil ePub Editor. Sigil is a free open-source WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) program. It works similarly to Word but has all the elements required for an ebook, including a built in Epub Check program (Flightcrew.) In addition, you can upload the epub file directly to Amazon KDP, where they will automatically convert it to a mobi7 and mobi 8 file for you.

    Yes, you will need to know some HTML and Yes, you will have to spend time on a learning curve. But the result will be a well-formatted ebook. Now, if that is not your thing – then hiring a professional if the best and most cost effective answer (after all time is money – I once knew someone who spent 16 hours trying to create a TOC for his Kindle book – I did it in minutes to his specifications for $20).

    I personally use Sigil and Dreamweaver to build ebooks (InDesign for POD). And since every book needs a cover, you may be able to get a package deal for the entire project (Epub, Mobi, POD and cover)

    Understand that there are many ways to get your book from point A to point B – as evident from all the formatting books out there. And many will serve you well. My preference, after a lot of research, for most non-techy people is Sigil – because it provides the most consistent professional formatting results with only a little technical knowledge required.

    If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 28, 2013

      Thank you for this! I’ll definitely look into Sigil. I did just successfully format a short document and viewed it on both a Nook and a Kindle, and it looked great. A larger file like a novel? Maybe Sigil is a better approach…

  2. 1WriteWay
    June 28, 2013

    I have problems copying and pasting into WordPress sometimes. Hope you get some responses, because I would like to know too 🙂

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 28, 2013

      Marie, see below. Suzanne may have a solution for you.

  3. Suzanne Fyhrie Parrott
    June 28, 2013

    Copying and pasting from MS Word into A WordPress blog can sometimes cause issues due to the coding MS adds to their documents. Some WordPress templates have a “Paste from Word” feature that will strip out the oddities to Word, but not all. The best way around this is to not format anything in your Word file. Just type and apply your styling after you have it in your blog. If you still have issues, copy and paste your word text into a plain text editor — such as NotePad of Typetext — then copy that clean version into WordPress and add your styling. 90% of the time I type directly in WordPress, so eliminate any issues Word may cause.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 28, 2013

      Good advice. You never know what’s lurking in a Word file. 😉

    • 1WriteWay
      June 28, 2013

      Thanks for the info. I usually type directly into WordPress but every so often I just want to copy and paste from a document into my blog. Even copying from one blog post to another can be squirrely 🙂

  4. Kevin Brennan
    May 29, 2014

    Reblogged this on WHAT THE HELL and commented:

    Reblogging this from last year, since I’m about to embark again on the process for my new novel, Wish I Were Here. If you formatted your own book, let us know how it went. Or, if you hired someone who made the whole thing a piece of cake (freeing you up to worry about a host of other things that come up in self-publishing), drop names and links in the comments.

    At this moment, I’m inclined to hire a pro again, though I wasn’t particularly happy last time through. On the other hand, as Guido says, there’s only one way to make sure your book looks the way you want it to…

    • Suzanne Fyhrie Parrott
      May 29, 2014

      I format my own books, but then, I am well versed in HTML and CSS. If you embark on hiring someone, be sure they are a professional – not just someone who is converting the word file. There is a difference between “conversion” and “building” and ebook.

      Ask for references, examples of work they have done. Some of which should be on Amazon (and their name on the copyright page)—You can download the sample of look at the “Look Inside” feature. Check out their website – does it look professional? Even contact them by phone. Do you like them?

      They need to understand the differences in formatting between epub and mobi as well as the different requirements of Apple, Barnes & Noble, etc. Your epub file should validate with “Epubcheck”. And even if you are just getting a Kindle file — it should be perfectly formatted for both the older Kindles (mobi7) and the newer (mobi8)

      Lastly, it is a plus if the person is more than a “formatter.” Your goal is to sell the book, so the “designer” should understand the aspects of “advertising & marketing” – title, the elevator pitch, keywords, categories, basic marketing, etc. They should give you more than just a formatted book (in my opinion) —

      Hope this helps…


  5. francisguenette
    May 29, 2014

    I think I mentioned Doug Heatherly ( dh24@lighthouse24.com ) over at Lighthouse24 ( http://lighthouse24.com/index.shtml ) I’ve been really pleased with his e-book formatting. He included everything I needed (mobi file in zip folder with all graphics etc., verified epub file and a special file for Smashwords – I discovered that the regular epub doesn’t work on Smashwords the way it zips up to Kobo. All this was at what I felt was a reasonable cost – approx. 135.00 for a 360 page novel). He was very responsive to working with me to get the final product I wanted and he gave me detailed instructions on doing a few things myself that would reduce cost.

    CreateSpace tells you that you can simply press a button after formatting your book for print and it will be turned into an e-book. Don’t believe it. It was explained to me that most people would be very unhappy with how their ebook turned out doing that.

    I was able to manage my own formatting for print and I’m pleased with the way that turned out. It wasn’t without a lot of hair-pulling over the CreateSpace free templates and a bit of a learning curve. I just don’t have the same confidence working with things like HTML and zip folders and coding as I do with Word.

    Good luck.

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 29, 2014

      Thanks for the tips, Fran! I’ll look at Doug when it comes time. My main issue with the person I used before is that she wanted to do zero follow-up in terms of little things that didn’t turn out quite right. Very quick n’ dirty. So, indeed, as Suzanne advises, it’s good to get references and even see some of the work the formatter has done for other books.

      I might be picking your brain about CreateSpace, if I may…

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