How To Format Your eBook

The eBook is different in ‘look and feel’ to a print book in more ways than simply being read from a screen. While eReaders like Kindle accurately mimic the paper and ink look of a printed book as compared to a backlit computer screen, the entire layout of the document is usually different.

The reasons for this are all to do with things like file size, screen type and resolution, genre and personal preference. Most Books can be divided into fiction and non-fiction. Let’s look at fiction, or as I like to call it, eFiction, first.

eFiction Books

Fiction has only become accessible as an electronic download on a commercial scale since 2007 when the first eReaders started to hit the market, most notably’s Kindle. At that time the author looked at eReaders and decided to wait a while until the dust settled and things were a little more sorted. Not wanting another VHS-v-Beta debacle, it seemed prudent to wait and see if a few issues would be resolved. Issues such as format of document. At that time Portable Document File, or PDF, the Adobe developed benchmark, was not supported by many of the big name eReaders. These units seemed to want to monopolize the game and force everyone to buy only from their distribution arm. Kindle used .mobi and was linked to, Barnes&Noble had their Nook working off .epub. Other brands had their own formatting to deal with and not all read .rtf (rich text file) let alone .pdf.

After a year or two things sorted themselves out as things tend to do where vast amounts of money are to be made and, in late 2010, the author purchased a Kindle 2 with wi-fi and 3G for use in Australia. He would love a Nook color eReader but Barnes&Noble still seem unable to accept that the world doesn’t end at the Tex-Mex border.

Regardless, it has been, in the main, these two mega distributors who have helped change the eBook scene in a very radical fashion and now sell more eBooks than hard copy editions. Most of these, today, are eFiction. Few are put out in .pdf with most either .mobi or .epub via Amazon and B&N as well as other outlets online.

In real terms it is no longer difficult to convert your manuscript from a Word.doc/dcox or .rtf file into a .mobi or .epub. Of the two, .epub seems to be a little more demanding as to the technical details of the file and getting it accepted for listing on iTunes can be problematic. One way around that is to convert using the free meatgrinder software offered at You sign up for free, then take the time to read their style guide and then format your document and upload. If you try to save time and just start converting you will end up wasting far more time getting it wrong. Invest the time in learning their system as it also teaches you valuable formatting skills you can use every time you use Word.

While you can convert files to .mobi for Amazon, Smashwords does that for you, too. In fact their conversion includes .rtf and .pdf and several other formats so why run around several places one after the other when you can get it done at the one place all at the one time? They also act as an aggregator for iTunes and will place the book there when it is eligible (read their FAQ for details). Once up and online you can then begin marketing your book and making millions. We’ll discuss that side of the business in another article.

The eFiction book will look pretty much like it would as a printed book. I like indented or hanging first paragraphs with no gap between paragraphs for fiction. It makes it easy to read in both print and electronically via an eReader or PC. Sometimes the cover art doesn’t travel to the eReader but usually it does. However, most eReaders don’t do colour and few do large graphics at all well. If you want a book with lots of graphics, tables, charts and such, perhaps .mobi and .epub are not the format, but then few fiction books other than those for children feature lots of graphics.

Non-Fiction or eHow To Books

Originally eBooks were pretty much all non-fiction, ‘How To…’ books. The media leant itself to the provision of information, usually for a fee, that was instantly available via download and could be read right there where it was found, on your PC screen. Consequently eBooks were formatted with two criteria in mind; ease of reading onscreen and provision of value. Not all eBooks achieved the second objective, adding to the all too commonly held belief that eBooks were the last resort of writers not good enough to get a publishing deal with a major publisher.

The computer screen as reading space meant that pages were not really a factor. The reader simply kept scrolling down the document with one page running into the next when formatted as a web page in html, or hyper text markup language. Some documents were formatted as .exe files, but this means ‘executable’ and the growth in cyber viruses spread via .exe files meant the reader often didn’t trust the source sufficiently to risk infecting their hard drive. PDF came to the rescue in a couple of ways. It was ‘paged’ and actually presented the book as a series of separate pages. You could print it out (if that permission was enabled) and collate a hard copy to read off screen. The file could be secured and alterations, printing and even unauthorized viewing could be controlled, although this often caused more problems than it solved. The author’s first eBooks had a password to open and read them and more than once he mixed up which password went with which eBook title. Readers didn’t like having to remember passwords either and many preferred to print a copy and read it off screen.

Many ‘marketers’ use eBooks as free giveaways to build up client lists they can market to. Others sell informational eBooks that promise to solve all your problems. When you download the eBook, the content is often little more than hyperbole. The font is large, often 16-18pt, double spaced for lots of white space and many bullet point lists to add some bulk to what would otherwise be little more than a few page essay. Hardly a ‘book’ as such but then that is what the eBook market started off as for many writers.

These were and still are information products rather than ‘books’ as such. Word count, number of pages and such are or should be irrelevant and the value of the information within, no matter how scant, is what the reader should use to value the document. All the same, large font and bullet points with very large font headings and loads of space, big charts and graphs might look appealing and it is certainly easy to read, but is it giving the reader value?

Given the relatively short attention spans we all seem to have nowadays, why not? We do tend to skim and flick and surf and flutter around. Studies show you have 15-45 seconds to capture our attention and interest with your web content or else we are out of there as quickly as we surfed in. That’s the reality of 21st century online life. If you can get the message across in a few words and the reader feels it was worth the money they paid to read it, then that is fair trade. You could have an eBook to rival War and Peace in size and scope and not give good value if the information is outdated or inaccurate.

Non-fiction eBooks work best, especially if they need charts and photos, as .pdf documents. Both Kindle and Nook are getting better at offering them but even then it is the author’s experience they are offering them as .pdf and not .mobi or .epub files.

Best Of Both Worlds

What if you want to publish both as an eBook and in print? Then do more than one format. The author has each title in a separate folder and inside the folder he has a web.docx and a Lulu.docx edition of each manuscript. The web file is formatted for Smashwords and produces the .mobi and .epub versions he sells via Amazon, B&N and iTunes. The Lulu version is for publishing as a printed hard copy, a paperback which he does through He no longer offers these titles as downloads with Lulu because that complicates the efforts of the Smashwords team in marketing to iTunes and elsewhere as an aggregator. He does have his own Kindle Direct Publishing account for sales made via and an account for selling copies of the hardcopy paperback (more on that elsewhere, also). In the author’s experience, Lulu has been the best of many print on demand outfits operating online he has looked at and for those looking to learn more about publishing a book online as an eBook and to sell both print and eBook versions of their manuscript, Lulu is the best place to go.

Once you learn how to format for hardcopy and eBook versions it is not difficult or time consuming to ensure you produce the best standard of book in whatever media. Self publishing does not mean a book will look amateurish or even that such lack of attention to detail is acceptable. The only difference between a self –published book, whether eBook or hard copy and one from a mainstream publishing house is that you probably had to do everything yourself as you no doubt lack the team and budget someone like Random House can call upon. Not that that excuses putting out a book that is full of typos, orphans, widows, odd bits and so on. Modern desktop publishing software has taken all the excuses out of the end result. You just have to invest the time to learn how to use it!

2 thoughts on “How To Format Your eBook

  1. perry Post author

    No, I don’t. I should but as this site isn’t about selling anything per se I never bothered. I will give it some thought, Cheers Perry

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