Book Formatting: Can I Really Do It Myself or Should I Hire a Professional?

Book Formatting: Can I Really Do It Myself or Should I Hire a Professional?

Book Formatting: Can I really do it myself or should I hire a professional?

Book formatting can be an afterthought when preparing to publish, but it shouldn’t be. Why is it so important? Because you want to cast the right impression when you publish a book.

Do you want to look like an amateur or a professional?

Proper formatting will distinguish your book and not only give you a better chance of getting in bookstores but also leave your audience wanting more.

This month we’re focusing on the nuts and bolts of formatting and DIY vs. professional.

Easy As An Email

These days, it’s as easy to publish a book as it is to write an email.

Ok, I’m joking, but there is a kernel of truth there.

And that is: millions, maybe billions of potential authors now have access to a global digital marketplace, provided they can access basic word processing software.

That sort of breadth of platform is unique to human history. It’s a big deal.

It’s one reason I became a publisher. I love helping people harness new tools to tell their story, find their tribe and reach their goals.

The Importance of Book Formatting

Since publishing today is the easiest it’s ever been historically, there’s a lot of competition.

Digital readers in particular are past the stage of novelty, where simply having a book available to download in an instant is enough to generate some sales.

And for print editions, whether they can articulate it or not, readers have heuristics to recognize quality.

If you want credibility and good reviews, get the details right so readers can focus on your message instead of tripping over your presentation.

Making Mistakes

When I began creating print editions in Microsoft Word, I spent a lot of time looking at commercially available books, trying to identify what they did and figure out a way to reproduce it adequately on my own. I didn’t know the first thing about formatting except what I could discern through observations and reading web forums.

I made a lot of mistakes. For my first project, I selected a font way too small and received a proof copy around 40 pages in 6X9 trim size. It seemed like a pamphlet more than a book.

I used the space bar and counted the number of spaces between the end of the chapter name and the page number in my manually created Table of Contents. If I went back in and shifted content later, I would sometimes forget to update the page numbers and the TOC would contain the wrong information.

Or if I rephrased the chapter title, or added another digit to the page count (99→ 100), I might end up with the page number out of alignment with the rest, since the number of manually inserted spaces was no longer exactly right, like this:

The first several books we published did not have justified margins. They looked like this…

…instead of like this:

I didn’t know how to use headers and footers to add chapter titles or author name, or page numbers.

It wasn’t until later that we started to figure some of that out:

Later still, we developed some artistry, adding flourishes like incorporating cover design elements into the header, or genre-appropriate glyphs:

Great book formatting takes insight and experimentation to learn, and will elevate the first impression you cast to your reader. Our quality developed over time.

You can do it on your own, but it may not happen overnight. Reflect honestly on how much time and energy you have available to invest. Then calculate the cost-benefit analysis of DIY production versus bringing on outside help.

Digital Formatting

eBook formatting in some ways is easier. You don’t have to worry about bleed and margins, or RGB vs CMYK color modes, and you don’t have to worry about fixed layouts or font sizes (much).

But eBooks have their own peculiar nuances. They are designed to be customizable by the end-user, meaning an average Kindle or Nook reader should be able to change the font size and style, the page width and line spacing of their book. Any images should render appropriately at an adequate resolution, and look good relative to the text. The Table of Contents should be active and clickable, as should any footnotes/endnotes and external hyperlinks.

Your formatting should be robust enough to easily and consistently distinguish different elements of the book (e.g. chapter headings vs main text vs block quotes), but not so micromanaged that readers have a hard time keeping track of the styles, or losing customizability. For example: block quotes set with margins too wide and/or font size too big relative to the body text may not render well on narrower screens, as you end up with just a few words per line, reducing readability.

There are also idiosyncratic elements within some word processing apps that may have an impact. Two examples:

  • On Microsoft Word for Mac, the Table of Contents doesn’t auto populate reliably, so I always make a manual TOC.
  • Bulleted and numbered lists can behave oddly when converted to EPUB or MOBI (the primary eBook file types), so make sure to test and research workarounds if necessary.

When you begin, anticipate many rounds of testing and revising to pin down the results you want. DO NOT attempt to format your book in the eleventh hour thinking if you start it on Friday, you’ll give yourself the weekend and upload to publish flawlessly on Monday.

The best resource I know of to recommend if you’d like to do it yourself is the Smashwords style guide: www.archangelink.com/smashwords It’s very detailed and gives a step-by-step guide on the principles and best practices of formatting an eBook that will render reliably.

Another resource is the downloadable Skeleton File that we created, available at www.archangelink.com/skeleton. It provides a template that you can actually copy and paste your project into, and apply the embedded parameters for good effect. These include recommended font size and paragraph spacing attributes, built in chapter navigation and pre-set specifications for other styles like subchapter headings, lists and block quotes. Coupled with reading the Smashwords guide, an enterprising DIYer should be able to produce a basic eBook that works well and doesn’t interfere with content delivery.

(Projects with multiple images, tables, lists, foot- or endnotes, or other complicating elements may require more research and are out of the scope of this post’s recommendations.)

Once you have your finished DOC or DOCX file, I like this online tool to convert to MOBI (Kindle) format: https://ebook.online-convert.com/convert-to-mobi (They also have options for converting DOC→ EPUB and DOC → PDF, among many others.)

Generate your converted file, then test it, making note of any issues so you can adjust your source file as needed. It can take several iterations of trial and error to get it right, but it will become easier as you create projects and get a feel for it.

NOTE: This is another reason to consider outsourcing. If you are not sure you’ll be formatting multiple titles, there may be little payoff to the time investment spent learning the ropes.

Next Level Production

These days we no longer use Microsoft Word for formatting either digital or print editions. We prefer a program called Adobe InDesign.

I reached out to our designer Tyler and asked him to speak on Word vs InDesign, and here’s what he said:

InDesign has a steeper learning curve and costs more. This is a big reason why Word is the most used document creation software. It takes time to become familiar with InDesign’s tools, layout, master pages, and the process of creating and building page layouts. I would sum up the real advantages of InDesign with the following:

  • InDesign offers very powerful find and replace features. You can create your own complex find/replace queries that you use all the time and save them to use for other projects. For example, I use saved find/change commands for removing multiple paragraph spacing, double spacing, spaces at the beginning of paragraphs, removing trailing whitespace, assigning bold/italic/underline/hyperlink/superscript character styles, and changing/applying paragraph styles in complex ways if needed.
  • InDesign’s paragraph and character styles are much easier to work with and they offer more advanced capabilities. 
  • Images are much easier to work with in InDesign since it offers far more features and layout customizations for images. 
  • InDesign offers a direct EPUB 3.0 export option which properly exports your document in a standardized EPUB 3.0 file. There are many built in EPUB features that can be tweaked in paragraph/object styles which allow for better EPUB functionality. Microsoft Word does not have any EPUB exporting options. 
  • InDesign has a hyperlinks panel so you can see/edit all the hyperlinks in your document. You can apply mass character styles to all hyperlinks at once if needed. 
  • InDesign offers powerful scripting and plugin add-ons. There are many 3rd party scripts and plugins (free or can be purchased) that greatly extend the usefulness of InDesign. For example, I use a purchased script called “Mastermatic”. This allows me to apply a specific master page to all pages according to a specific paragraph style. So for instance, I have created a separate master page specifically for all Chapter start pages. I also have a specific paragraph style such as “Heading 1” being applied to all the Chapter titles. This script then will automatically set my Chapter master page onto all pages that have a “Heading 1” paragraph style applied to them. It’s incredibly time saving when lots of shifting and layout changes occur. 
  • InDesign also lets you export proper high-quality print PDFs. Word does not have this feature.
  • It lets you import Word documents where you can map over paragraph and character styles to save time. The import feature works surprisingly well.

That’s just a quick list off the top of my head. Once you go InDesign, you never go back!

Summarizing

Book formatting is important because you care about your readers.

You need to demonstrate quality and avoid unnecessary roadblocks that might cause them to hesitate or second-guess you.

This is especially true if you are just developing your following and want to enlist as many fence-sitters as possible. Any reason to dismiss or discount you as a new author may be enough to lose them forever. When a browser finds your listing and looks inside at your preview, an attractive, error-free interior reassures them that you’re trustworthy.

You needn’t be perfect, but the more polished you are, the more you let your words speak for you instead of potentially distracting details.

For more, check out a couple of videos I put together:

Or reach out to us. We’re happy to take a look and get you set up to put your best foot forward.  If you’d like to get on the line and ask some questions on book formatting (or any other element of self-publishing), we offer free 30 minute calls, no strings attached.

I wish you all the best in your publishing.

– Rob and the Archangel Ink Team

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