Guest Post: Formatting An E-Book Is Not Rocket Science

Today’s guest post comes from Misha Burnett, fellow WordPress blogger and author of the sci-fi/urban fantasy novel Catskinner’s Book. Take it away, Mr. Burnett!


Formatting an e-book is not rocket science. Seriously, it isn’t. You may have heard that e-book conversion is a highly technical process requiring specialized software and trained professionals, and if it is done wrong your years of work on your book will be absolutely ruined.

Well, odds are you heard that from someone who wants to sell you an e-book conversion package starting at the low, low, price of 199$ (plus extra charges if your book contains specialized elements such as words). People who make money from e-book conversion aren’t going to tell you that it’s a simple process that most people can learn in an afternoon.

I will tell you that. In fact, I am telling you precisely that.

E-book conversion is a simple process that most people can learn in an afternoon.

What’s more, you have absolutely nothing to lose by attempting to do it yourself. All of the software that I recommend is free. Make sure that you make a clean backup copy of your manuscript before you try anything, and then, no matter what happens, you’re not risking the book itself. Even if you decide that you don’t want to keep messing with it and pay someone else to do the conversion, all you’ve spent is time. (Unfortunately, your wasted time will not be refunded.)

Okay, let’s get started. I’m assuming that you have a clean, proofed and edited copy of the manuscript that you want to convert? Good. Now the very first step is to make a new copy of it—that’s what you play with. If you totally mess it up, it’s no big deal, just delete it and make another copy and start over. Never experiment with the original copy of your manuscript. (Yeah, that sounds obvious, but it can be easy to forget.)

Next, let’s get some software. I have collected links to some of the more important ones on my E-Reader Apps Page, because I live to serve. Calibre is the most important one, but I also advise getting the desktop apps for Kindle and Nook in order to see how it will look on different devices. (You’ll also want to see your book on any handheld devices you own—yes, you can do that, too.)

I also recommend getting Open Office, because it does everything that MSOffice does and it’s free. Furthermore, because MicroSoft has some serious control issues, people who write open source applications find it easier to start with .odt files rather than the propitiatory .doc format.

I am not going to tell you how to use these programs. All of them have plentiful documentation, and they explain how to work them much better than I could. What I will do is encourage you to try things out. Calibre has a huge number of buttons and switches to fiddle with, so much so that it looks a little intimidating, but the basic concept is simple.

Convert the file in Calibre, load the converted file into your e-reader and e-reader apps, read through it and see how it looks. Make notes on what you think could be changed, then look up how to make those changes in the documentation.

Then do it again. It’s a lot like the editing process—wait, actually it is an editing process. Unlike the strictly mechanical process that a text converter like the one Smashwords uses, Calibre allows you a great deal of input into the process. Take some time figuring out what looks good to you, what makes your text easy and fun to read, because that’s the bottom line, making sure that none of the mechanical issues get between you and your readers.

Yes, it’s time consuming, and it can be frustrating. It took me a number of tries to get the table of contents, for example, to work right. There was, in fact, no small amount of cussing involved.

However, when I was done, not only did I save myself money, I had a product that I could feel proud of, and I knew how it was done. When it came time to format sample chapters from my new book for Kindle, Nook, and pdf for my beta readers, it took no time at all.

Granted, I have a lot of experience playing with different computer programs and tweaking them to get the results I want. You may decide that it’s worth it to you, personally, to pay to have your book converted.

However, I think that it’s a good idea for authors to get a feel for the process and to understand how it’s done and what can be done. That way, if you do decide to pay for a service you know exactly what you are paying for, and what it’s worth to you. To be honest, I have seen “professionally” formatted books that have glaring mechanical errors—extra spaces, broken lines, bad links in tables of contents. I’ve seen e-books put out by major publishing houses that were all but unreadable. So I would also advise anyone who uses an e-book conversion service to make sure you have the chance to examine the file before it goes live, and don’t pay for it until it is done right.

Got questions? Feel free to hop on over to my blog and drop me a line. I may not know the answer, but I might be able to point you in the right direction.


Semi-related media of the day (courtesy of Misha Burnett!):


Categories: Guest Post | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

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17 thoughts on “Guest Post: Formatting An E-Book Is Not Rocket Science

  1. Once you get stuck into the process, it really IS very logical (although not without the odd gnash of the old molars). Google Guido Henkel’s ‘Formatting your eBook with Pride’ for a tutorial that can appear daunting at first. But trust me (I’m an author), it works!!!

  2. I can see myself doing this. I can also see my husband fleeing the house with a child under each arm, dog at their heels, terror on all of their faces, and the most horrible gnashing and wailing noises coming from wherever I happen to be working.

    I’m not gifted with computer stuff, but it’s worth a shot, right? 🙂

  3. I didn’t find it hard at all when I did it. I think people mistake the time-consuming part for difficulty. Though, I found that Smashwords does a format check when you try to publish with them and lets you know exactly what’s wrong. This helped me fix my Amazon Kindle format problems. It doesn’t replace really formatting, which should be done beforehand, but I found it takes the nervous edge off.

  4. Reblogged this on Legends of Windemere and commented:
    Important information on how formatting an e-Book is not as difficult as you might think.

  5. Thanks for the info! I’m actually planning on re-formatting my book over the weekend. It seemed to have uploaded fine the first time. My page breaks and centered formatting for chapter titles were intact. Everything looked great (I also used calibre). But then I looked it at via the Amazon preview a few months later and the formatting was all gone. It was really strange. Has anyone ever had this happen before? Any advice to preserve the formatting after uploading the file to Amazon?

  6. I’m sold on Calibre. I use Sigil to do a check of the EPUB file.

  7. Well said, Michelle. I think you’re dead right about all those people trying to sell you expensive services you don’t need. It might take time and patience but we’ve all got that, right? 😉

  8. Pingback: Guest Posting Again | mishaburnett

  9. Reblogged this on The Ranting Papizilla and commented:
    Some common sense ideas people, check it out!

  10. Great blog, thanks for the info!

  11. Didn’t I tell you it wasn’t too hard, and to use Calibre?

  12. Great tips there. Misha, I would in fact recommend LibreOffice over Open Office. Open Office has been neglected by Oracle and they’ve since handed it over to Apache (Makers of the famous webs server) Development and bug fixes seem to have stalled. Libre Office has apparently been taken over by the original OO development team and is flying along in terms of fixes and features. And best of all LIbreOffice 4.0 allows comments over text ranges! Great for proofing/editing.
    Another thing: I used Scrivener and Amazon’s KindleGen (all on Ubuntu Linux) to give myself a warm buzz by putting my incomplete novel on my Kindle. That was easy enough except the Linux Scrivener I have doesn’t do tables of contents. But Calibre is available for Linux! Happy!

  13. I found it tricky the first time, but once you get over that initial ‘learning experience’ it gets much easier 😉

  14. Since I don’t own an E-Book reader nor have a manuscript ready to convert, I guess I won’t be using Misha’s great advice anytime soon. But thanks for the heads up, Misha. I wonder if it works on blogs? Just saying.

  15. Pingback: Promotion! | mishaburnett

  16. I downloaded Calibre months ago but haven’t had chance to investigate it properly yet. I’m thinking I need to do that soon. Thanks 🙂

  17. I agree that professionally designed e-books can be full of errors, but unfortunately most of the DIY authors don’t have the expertise needed to design the e-book properly. This is especially true when specific elements, for example chapter images etc. are required. The end product tends to look awful. I’m all for designing your e-book yourself if you have the skills, but the same way you’re annoyed with the fact that an author should hire someone to design his/her book, the readers are annoyed when they buy an e-book and find it’s awfully formatted. And the readers’ opinion is the most important one.

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