This post last updated 1/24/2021

Hello Lovelies,

You have finished your novel, and you have decided to self-publish. Everyone’s doing it, so why shouldn’t you? After having your book edited, and getting the book cover designed, you are ready to throw it up on the Zon, or wherever, and sell some copies, right? Before you do that, please take some time to learn about formatting. Formatting a book properly can be the difference between a forever fan and a1 star review.

Oh… formatting. A very important step that people forget. Formatting is to the inside of your book, as a good cover design is to the outside. In other words, it’s really important. But many authors don’t think about it. They are just so excited to get their book out there that they don’t consider the final polish their book needs to be really successful. And you know why? Because so few people talk about it.

This is a shame, because there are quite a few indie-published books that I had to set aside because I just couldn’t get past the poor formatting.

Don’t let that be you.

Here are five formatting secrets that will help you build forever fans.

Warning, this is A LOT to consider. If you find it too daunting, don’t give up on your dream of self-publishing. You can hire a professional typographer, like me, to do your formatting for you. But if you are on a tight budget, these tips will help you to up your publishing game.

1 Formatting for E-book

This is actually really easy, because in the case of an e-book, the LESS formatting, the better. Wait, what? It’s true. Fancy formatting in e-books actually often leads to poor reader experience. Every e-reader is a different size, and many readers like to customize to their reading needs by enlarging the print for the visually impaired and changing the font color or format for those with sensitivities. With e-books, it is best to keep to simple and common fonts (Most e-readers will not have Stonehenge, no matter how cool the font looks to you. It will end up being changed by the e-reader, which could mess with the overall layout, so it’s best to avoid it.)

Stick with common fonts such as Arial, Times New Roman, or Garamond (the font for choice with book publishers.)  

Be sure to include a linked title page to each new chapter, even if you aren’t using clever chapter names. Many e-readers will save the reader’s place, but if it kicks it out, this saves the reader from having to scroll and scroll and scroll.

In your title page, include your front matter and back matter. The great Zon tends to skip those bits, and boots up on the “first-page” but if you include the acknowledgments on your title page, then that is the page the e-reader will start at.

E-readers scroll wonderfully, so remove all page splits and only place that at the end of each chapter. It saves the reader from blank gaps in your book in weird and unexpected places. At the end of your last chapter, add a reminder asking them to read and review. Many readers don’t go to the back matter. This small reminder before the “end” of the book will encourage them to leave a review and we all know how important reviews are!

If you REALLY want to add a bit of fanciness to your e-book, then check out Smashwords great free Style guide.They cover everything from adding images to bullet points, how to get poetry to play nice, and more. I use it for all of my books and have never had a complaint about formatting. If you want a bit more flash but Smashwords Style guide is breaking your brain, then check out Draft2Digital. 

2 Getting the Right Set-Up

I loved that CreateSpace gave us options. Really, I did. But they didn’t give any guidelines with those options. Ingram Spark isn’t much better. None of the distribution channels I’ve checked out address important formatting guidelines. They seem to expect authors to already know this. Or perhaps because the big publishing houses establish these different rules in-house, the distributors never considered it an issue and don’t know that there are these sort of unspoken guidelines out there. Any which way you slice it, they are out there and they do get discussed in formatting forums, in textbooks on formatting, and between formatters and clients. 

Here you go, and you’re welcome.

First, you get to choose the size of your book. They say that 6X9 is the most common choice, but what they really mean is that it’s the easiest. Why? Because they are taking a full sheet and folding it in half. No cutting required. Unfortunately, if your book is less than 75K words, this could leave you with a “thin looking book” even if it’s the right word count for your genre. Let’s be honest, before you became an author did you know the word count for your genre? Probably not. But we all know that we feel more ok with dropping $20 on a 500-page book than on a 150-page book.

If you print your 60K thriller on a 6X9, it will only come out to around 150 pages. Go look at thrillers in B & N. They are almost always on 5X8 and around 350 pages. Makes the reader not feel bad about paying $12.99 for them. Ah, sneaky, sneaky. But it works. So how do you decide what size to go with? Well, the lazy way would be to go with the rule of a smaller word count equals a smaller book size, but the safer bet is to go to B & N and discreetly measure the size of the covers in your genre. This works.

I love that they give you the choice of cream or white paper, but at the same time, I HATE when an author sends me a fiction book on white paper. White is for non-fiction, cream is for fiction. Standard rules. Why? Honestly, I’m not really sure. I think it has to do with white is easy for highlighting and cream is easier on the eyes. Fiction readers want to read straight through, no stopping to “think,” just absorbing. It is so hard to do that on white paper (as one who suffers regular migraines can attest.)

You need to decide on your book cover- matte or glossy. I know, glossy sounds so PRETTY! But it isn’t for fiction. It is a hot fingerprinty mess and I HATE it for any genre, even non-fiction. But you do have the choice. So let me give you some reasons why I think you should opt for the matte. Firstly, no fingerprints smudging it before you even have it leave the sales table. “But I’m only doing POD,” you might argue. “It doesn’t matter to me.” But readers will care. They will comment on it in reviews, especially if the cover is badly fingerprinted. 

 Second point, gloss is really hard to get a good picture of. I am a book reviewer who loves Instagram, trust me. Glossy sucks. Don’t make it hard for people to do free marketing for you. Give them that pretty matte cover that is video and camera-friendly!


3. Paperback Interior Formatting

General Guidelines

Paperbacks are and hardcovers are no-brainers when Good E-reader reports that both formats have had massive surges in sales in 2020. Especially because both have always been the top formats for books.  At least for this reader, a huge part of that is due to the design. Many self-published authors completely miss this part, or they do it badly. They don’t know about widows and orphans, they don’t know about using block formatting, they don’t think about the importance of each chapter starting on the right-hand page. They don’t think to order a physical proof and check the margins. When their book comes out it is a hot mess.

Don’t feel bad if you never considered these issues. Most readers don’t consciously consider them either. But when a book isn’t formatted the way they are expecting, they notice it. They may not be able to say why, but they notice.  If you aren’t sure about formatting for the size of the book, etc, it is best to use a Word Doc template set to the appropriate trim size.

To access the standard book template in Word, follow these steps:

  1. After opening Microsoft Word, click “File” then “New.”
  2. Seach Books in the search bar.
  3. Browse through the available templates and select one that best fits your needs and book type.
  4. Customize your book template settings as needed.
  5. Start removing the placeholder text and typing your own book information directly in the document.
  6. Click “Save” any time you make changes and before closing the Word application.

But if you take one of those and simply copy and paste, some of the important pieces (like what page each chapter should start on) gets lost in the process. Be sure to go through and set each chapter on the right-hand page, and create a “headline” format in the style box on your home page in Word. That way you can automatically add it as you work through your book, instead of guessing or hoping you remembered.

A good rule of thumb for chapter headings is at least 2 sizes larger than your paragraph text and bold. When setting up your chapter headings, it is tempting (especially if you write sci-fi or fantasy) to do a fancy text. If you do this, make it an image because Ingram Spark distributors don’t have a wide selection of fonts and if they don’t have Skriller, they will do an approximate match. But if you do it in a jpeg then you can customize to your heart’s content and not worry about them changing your font because they will treat your font as an image.

Now, let’s talk about the nitty-gritty that Word doesn’t address in their formatted templates.

The Devil of Formatting is in the Details

Most of us don’t think about it as we are typing away in our happy little work in progress, but Word automatically formats to the left. Most of the book samples will also leave the right side ragged.

Poor Fomatting- jagged edge text
Proper formatting- block text sample

See how jagged that is? It looks awful! Pick up any paperback you got from a traditional publisher and you will notice that the format is in a block text (Meaning a clean line on both the left and right sides of the text) with a first paragraph indent for fiction or a space between paragraphs for non fiction.

See how much prettier that text on the right looks? It’s subtle, I know. But it is such an easy fix. Look at your formatting ribbon (where you change your text size and font style.) There is a group of lines. One shows them all to the left. One shows the centered text, and one shows formatted to the left. And then there’s the block text. Highlight your whole document and change that setting to block text.

Alas, we aren’t done. Now, the tricky bit to block text is dealing with widows, orphans, and spacing.

4. Widows, Orphans, and Spacing

No, that is not the title of a book. Those are typography terms. A widow is a weird break in the text at the top or bottom of a page. Either the first line or last line of a paragraph that just doesn’t sit nicely. An orphan is a single word at the end of a paragraph that falls alone in the line. See the example below.

The simple fix is to add spaces to bump the text to where it should be. At the end of a page, if there is a paragraph that bleeds over, then it should have two lines of text at least to fix a widow. Orphans should have at least two words on that line.

But thanks to Word’s auto-formatting, when you do that sometimes it will leave the words oddly spaced on the line, or leave a wide gap at the bottom of the page. These are relatively easy to fix. For word spacing, change one of the words in that line to make it longer. For the gap at the bottom, add 1 more space at the top of the page. It is subtle enough that it should not cause a problem for the average reader.

5. Prettifying By Genre

Ok, I can’t go into a ton of detail here, because there are something like over 100 genres and subgenres to consider and this is already a pretty long article. But you can look at your genre and see the types of prettifying (Yes, that’s a word, because I am an author, and am allowed to make up words. ) that you can do/ is expected for your genre. This is where typographofiles (It’s a word, see the above) really shine. But there are a few key points to consider before you go hog wild.

1. What is the typical print size for your genre? Most fiction, especially books under 75,000 words are printed in 4.25” x 6.87 to 5.5″ x 8.5″. With the more wordier books getting larger dimensions. You will want to check with your distributor for the right sizing options available to you and then test your dimensions in your document to check printing costs. I try to keep my size consistent for the series.

For example, The Clear Angel Chronicles are smaller books usually ranging between 65,000 and 70,000 words. I go with a 5 x 7” (178 x 127mm). The Hunter’s Saga books tend to be larger, between 75,000 and 90,000 words so I go with 5.5 x 8.5” (216 x 140mm). If you write fantasy or Sci-fi, you may even want to consider 6 x 9” (229 x 152mm) or larger even though these are typically reserved for hardback books.

2. Is it appropriate for my genre? As much as you love the filigree fonts often used in fantasy chapter headings, crime thrillers generally don’t leave room for pretty fun fonts like that. Adult fiction books generally do not include chapter pictures. Police procedurals don’t typically use decorative elements to indicate a scene break, despite The Book Designers neat recommendations, it saddens me that they did not address genre appropriateness. 

3. When is too much TOO MUCH? Yes, there is such a thing as too much, and again, this will vary to some degree from genre to genre. But a good rule of thumb is no more than three elements per page. That means your chapter title, your “regular” font for the book, and your extra frills. Keep in mind, that includes using italics as well as filigrees.

You don’t want to wear your readers out.

True story, I started a book that I found at B2B CyCon a few years ago. It had a great premise, it sounded like a fun fantasy read. In the first page, the author chose an interesting way to tell their story. Each character’s viewpoint was in a different color and font from the other. 5 fonts on the first page. 5 different colors! I didn’t make it to page three, and I LOVE typography!

So do a bit of research before you go crazy. After you do the research, keep something from the e-book example in mind. Not all printers will have all your fun fonts. I learned that the hard way when I did a fun drop case font at the start of each of my chapters in the first run of Elements of a Broken Mind. The proof came back perfect. I LOVED it.

prettifying by genre- chapter headings

Then I ordered 50 books and they came to me looking like this:

Layout print issues- example, dropped fancy text

WHERE did the S in Seargent go? That printer who was contracted to do the run apparently didn’t have that font style. And it’s a pretty common font style too. If you decide to do special fonts for the chapter titles or a cool drop down like I did, save yourself the heartache, and just make them into an image. That way, no matter who your printer is, you won’t get missing fonts. Unlike e-readers, they won’t “adjust” for you.

There you go, five formatting tips to bring your published book to the next level. Are there any other formatting tips you would suggest? Share in the comments. 

Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t want to do your own formatting? That’s ok, I provide this service. Send me an email with the following information and I will be happy to send you a quote.

  1. Manuscript
  2. Genre
  3. Distributor(s) (Bookbaby, Ingram Spark, or one from this list.)
  4. Publishing goals (Publishing exclusively on K.U., or publishing wide in ebook, paperback, audiobook, and hardback.)
  5. Your turnaround time. (I require at least 48 hours, but if you want an e-book/ paperback/ hardback done with prettification in a week then there will be an additional charge. Deadlines of 6 weeks will have no rush service charge added.)
  6. Budget- I can do a barebones ebook for $50. I can do an ebook and paperback barebones for $150. I can do customized special designs e-book, paperback, hardcover for as much as $1,000 depending on the number of pages and the genre. Giving me a sense of your budget will help me recommend the best option to fit your budget.

Until next time,

Keep Writing!