Traditional Self-Publishing, part 3: Formatting the Book

You’d think that writing your book, getting it edited and obtaining a fabulous cover would be enough frustration for a lifetime. Think again. You still have to format the book.

What does that mean? It means you have to turn your manuscript pages into pages that look like the inside of a book. There are really two facets to this:

1) Providing front and back matter, such at title pages, copyright page, table of contents, dedication, acknowledgments, notes and/or a bibliography for nonfiction, appendices and an index.

2) Laying out the body of the book: fitting the margins to the size of your finished book, choosing type font and size for chapter titles and body text, justifying the type right and left, adding illustrations, and putting in headers and footers–those running titles at the tops of the pages and page numbers at the top or bottom.

I’m not going to take you through these in details. There are plenty of books and websites that will do that for you. Try this one: “How to Format Your Self-Published Book” by Moira Allen. Or buy a copy of Book Formatting for Self-Publishers by Jeanette Green.

If you use a print on demand service such as CreateSpace or iUniverse, or if you’re working with a printer, you can pay to have someone else do the formatting, but for most of us that isn’t necessary.

The best help for me is finding a traditionally published book I really like, preferably in a similar genre, and copying its formatting. Check a lot of books to see what you like for details such as whether to center your headers, where to put the page numbers, how to handle beginnings of sections or chapters, etc.

The process is going to be slow and frustrating, especially the first time. Take it one page at a time, and don’t rush. Each detail matters. Save the page numbers on the table of contents for last because they’re going to keep changing as you massage the layout. Doing headers and footers in Microsoft Word will drive you to drink. Its system makes sense–if you’re a computer. Just keep at it. Visit the help forums; other people have struggled with the same problems you’ll face. Don’t give up. Cursing is okay.

As with everything these days, you can hire people to format your book for you. Check Google for a never-ending list. You can also buy sophisticated formatting software. Adobe’s InDesign and Quark Xpress are the most popular. But these can be frustratingly complicated for the average writer. You can find a good comparison of book layout options at

Most printers will ask for you to send them a PDF file of the print-ready book, along with a JPEG file of the cover. Once you have every page the way you want it, save the file as a PDF, and email it to the printer. They should provide you with a proof, which you can then read for typos and layout errors. You will find some, but they should be easy to fix. Save your book as a PDF once more, re-send it and celebrate. Your book is on its way.

Next: finding a printer

Formatting Your Book Manuscript

I stayed up late last night reading the Smashwords Style Guide for formatting e-books. It’s not your grandma’s book formatting.

In the olden days (last week), book manuscripts were formatted like any other manuscript: double-spaced, indented first paragraphs, italics and other special fonts either marked for the typesetter or put in on the computer. Editing could be done online or on paper, no problem.

But now we have e-books, and they come in various formats, so we have various ways to format our manuscripts. In my role as publisher at Blue Hydrangea Productions, I recently formatted my Shoes Full of Sand manuscript for Kindle and for production as a paperback (out July 8!) The differences were maddening.

The paperback was pretty straightforward, except that it was single-spaced. I added a giant capital letter at the beginning of each section, and inserted headers and footers. I justified the whole thing with even margins on both the left and right sides. I produced it in Microsoft Word (2003 preferred by my production team) in the usual formatting.

Kindle,’s e-book reader, was a different story. All of the first-paragraph indentations had to be eliminated, along with the big capital letters, plus the footers and headers. This changed the spacing and page numbers. I went crazy redoing the table of contents, only to discover that on an e-book, page numbers are meaningless. They change according to what type of reader you’re using. It took several tries before I got it right.

Now I’m getting ready to reformat for Smashwords, a company that produces e-books in various  formats, such as Barnes & Noble’s Nook, the Sony reader, and various smartphone apps. They want the most stripped-down manuscript possible. Tabs are taboo. Instead of indenting or typing spaces in for paragraphs, they want you to go into your MS word styles and set paragraph indentations and spacing between paragraphs so that they happen automatically when you type. Double-justified margins are out. Flush left is best, the guide advises.

What this means is that I will spend some hours redoing the manuscript in yet another format so that everyone can read it. Is it worth it? Do I want everyone to read my book?

In reading the Smashwords Guide, a free e-book I read on my Kindle, I learned a lot about book formatting and also about Microsoft Word. I’ve been using that program for years, but found out several things I didn’t know before. You don’t need a Kindle to read Kindle books. You can download the free program onto your computer.

It seems that we writers can’t just write anymore. We have to be computer experts as well–or we can find someone else to do it for us. If all this formatting talk stresses you out, just write. Worry about the rest later.