Thursday, June 05, 2014

Make Your eBook Look Great and Sell it Everywhere

By Dario Ciriello

Part of the Indie Authors Series

A few basic yet vital tricks and rules every ebook publisher should know

There are two ways of getting your book onto the digital market: either pay a company to format and convert it for you, or else do it yourself. If you decide to do it yourself—which really isn’t that hard—there are a few things you really need to know. By observing a few simple rules and guidelines you’ll not only end up with a professional-looking result but also save yourself time, and preserve your sanity.

Note: before you do anything, make sure to save your doc under a new filename, like “ebook base file” so that your original is always preserved unchanged.

1. Ground Rules

It’s crucial to bear two things in mind.

The first is that people today read digital books across a wide variety of devices, from phones to kindles to tablets and laptops, all of which have different screen sizes and formats—moreover, your reader will choose their own level of magnification, giving you very limited control over the appearance of how the book appears. Although this doesn’t matter much for the body text, changes in page size will definitely affect how your title and rights pages look, as well as any images in the text, maps or genealogies in appendices, etc. Even chapter starts can be adversely affected, usually by using too many line spaces or too large a font.

The second point is that ereaders are limited in their font display options, so use a safe, common font for all your text—Times New Roman (TNR), Arial, Garamond, Georgia, Courier and Verdana all work across all readers. Most devices will also allow readers to change the font as well as its size. My personal strategy is to use TNR for the body text and Arial or Arial bold for titles and chapter headings, which provides a nice contrast.

For composition, limit your font size to 12pt, with perhaps 14 point for your chapter headings and no larger than 16 on your title; if you have a long title (as per the book in my example), break it up—if you don’t, the reader’s device may do it for you, and it’ll look bad.

Think about how you want the title page and dedication page to look. Whether you’re working in Word or Scrivener, if you format these near-blank pages without some space at the top, the words will sit tight against the top of the screen and leave a ton of empty space below, which looks awful. So you’ll want at least three paragraph returns (^p) at the top of each. Below are examples of how I do it, with the doc file showing the hidden characters and a Kindle for PC page shot showing how it’ll look to the reader. (Both Kindle for PC/Mac and Adobe Digital Editions are free downloads, and very useful for quick previewing of your converted files). You can use a page break right after the last line—the top spacing is the most important.

This is how the tile page looks in Word, with “show hidden characters” turned on; note I’ve placed three 14pt returns at the top so the title doesn’t bump up against the top of the screen:

And this is how the title page looks on the Kindle for PC, at an average page size:

 This looks pretty good: in an ideal world, the title page text would always be vertically centered; but since some readers will go for larger magnification, leaving more spaces at the top risks everything being too low or, worst of all, the title page being divided in two. (Notice, incidentally, that the Kindle for PC app has turned the Arial font on the book title and author name to TNR—an actual Kindle, however will respect your font choices as long as you’re within its native family of “safe” fonts).

Because your rights page will have more info on it than the title page, allow just one line space between items, like this:

Note that I left less space at the top because there’s a lot of info—always leave at least one line space, though. Also note the use of italics to give related things some unity as well as keeping things distinct.

2. Other Basic Considerations

  • Get rid of any small caps or drop caps, as these won’t work on an ereader.
  • Turn on the show/hide hidden characters button (pilcrow symbol on Word’s “Home” menu) so you can see and control what paragraph returns, tabs, and other formatting is in your doc
  • Never use more than four consecutive paragraph returns (^p)—too much white space looks bad in ereaders. Again, big variations in font size look bad. My basic format looks like this (each ^p is a paragraph return):
blah blah text text text chapter ends.
New chapter body text blah blah
  • Full justify all your body text
  • Too deep a first line indent (FLI) doesn’t look good on ereaders; while up to 0.5” may be acceptable for print, I like to use 0.2” on our ebooks. If you prefer to use a blank line between paragraphs—I don’t recommend this for fiction—it’s crucial that you not use the spacing before/after paragraph control as this can cause serious problems at the conversion stage. Keep those settings at zero and instead do a global find/replace on the entire body text section of your book (not the rights pages, etc.) You can do this in Word by selecting the body text, then putting ^p in the find field and ^p^p in the replace field. This will give you a blank line between each paragraph
  • Don’t indent the first paragraph of a new chapter or the first paragraph after a scene break
  • Use a glyph with a blank line (para return) above and below it to indicate scene breaks, or the reader might miss the break if it occurs at a page end
  • Center title and rights pages. If you’re using FLIs, be sure to remove FLIs from centered pages and lines, or they won’t be centered, but shifted slightly to the right! Just select the center justified text, then go to your paragraph menu and set FLI to “none”
  • Never, never, never use the space bar to format or indent. OMG, please don’t do this!
  • Remove ALL tabs from your doc (you shouldn’t be using these anyway). You can do this by going to the paragraph menu > tabs > clear all tabs. Then to make sure, select your whole book, and use the find/replace function to find ^t and replace with nothing
  • If using Word, delete all bookmarks. Then turn on the “show hidden bookmarks” option in the Bookmarks menu and delete any that show up.
  • If you’re starting from a file used for a print book, remember to delete the “Printed in USA” line (if any), as well as the print edition ISBN 


3. Images in the text

These can be challenging when formatting an ebook, because ereader screen sizes vary. Essentially—and unlike print applications—what matters is not resolution (dpi) but pixel dimensions. Too large an image will cause problems on some devices. Accordingly, the current ideal and maximum image size for most ereaders is around 500 by 600 pixels. (Here's more on this).

Images can also be a useful workaround in certain situations: although I believe some ereaders now have foreign fonts, if you have a poem, say, in Cyrillic (Russian script) or Elvish, your best bet is to convert and save it as a jpeg and then include it as an image file following the 500-pixel max rule. In both cases, be sure to center justify images.

4. The Dreaded Contents Page: NCXs and ToCs

(aka Navigation Control file for XML applications, and Table of Contents)

You’re probably going to be distributing your ebook via both Amazon and Smashwords.


In general, Amazon is easy to work with. You sign up for a KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) account, upload your cover, book description, and other details, then upload and convert your text file. They’ll quickly vet it and advise you of any errors, and also provide you with a preview: use this! Once you’re happy and hit “publish”, your book will usually appear within a few hours. It’s fabulous.

If you’re uploading your book to Kindle KDP and Smashwords (see ‘distribution”, below), each has different requirements for properly formatting a ToC or NCX file. Kindle unfortunately won’t allow hierarchical heading structures; this means your chapter titles can’t be subordinate in the ToC in any book divisions (Part One, etc.), and the same goes for subheads within chapters; all ToC items on Kindle formatted books appear sequentially.

Note: save your ebook base file now under two separate filenames, one for Amazon and one for Smashwords. Tweak each file as below to meet each company’s different requirements for ToC.

If using MS Word (I don’t use Scrivener so can’t advise on that), your best bet for the Kindle upload is to create a ToC file using the Word’s ToC builder (Here's more on this). It also seems possible—though I’ve not done it—to support your ToC entry with extra wording for a “lead-in emphasis”, as detailed on the above- linked doc.


The two single biggest reasons for Smashwords rejecting books from their premium catalog (more on this below) are (i) badly set up or missing ToC/NCX tables, and (ii) failure to distinguish the file as a Smashwords edition.

With ePub books, a nested (hierachical) ToC in the form of an NRX file is possible. Smashwords, however, won’t accept MS Word ToCs. So get rid of that and instead create bookmarks at your Chapter heads (Insert > bookmark), and then link them as anchors within the doc by creating a ToC at the front and hyperlinking to your bookmarks. (Here's more on this)

I also recommend downloading the excellent Smashwords Style Guide (it’s free!), which will answer all the questions not covered in the present article.

5. Distribution

Publishing to Amazon makes your Kindle book available in Amazon stores worldwide.

I strongly advise you to use Smashwords to distribute to everyone else (Kobo, B&N, Apple, Indiebound, and many more). Individually, Kobo are the easiest to work with, B&N are trying, and Apple (in my experience) are seriously challenging—for a start, they’ll only accept digital files directly from you if you’re using a Mac.

For just 15% of net (equal to around 10% of retail), Smashwords will do it all for you. As well as offering your book on the Smashwords site, they’ll handle distribution to all the outlets of your choice, including B&N, Kobo, Diesel, Baker and Taylor, Oyster, Scribd, and the public library system; I only opt out of Amazon. I never use Digital Rights Management (DRM) as it only serves to alienate readers; and as someone (I think it was Joe Konrath) said, the biggest danger for the indie author isn’t piracy, but obscurity.

To recap, then: use a Word-generated ToC for the Amazon version of your ebook. For Smashwords, use bookmarked chapter headings hyperlinked to a manually typed ToC at the beginning of the book.

Smashwords will also introduce a page break at each new chapter, which is why you stripped out any manual page breaks (allowable in the Kindle version file). Although you can feed in filtered HTML or an ePub, Smashwords does its best conversions from a doc or docx file.

A final few very critical things for your Smashwords upload:

Delete your Kindle or any other ISBN on the title page. If you want the book to go into the Smashwords premium catalog—the catalog of books for distribution to other retailers—you’ll need an ISBN. You can either accept their free one or, if you have a batch of them, just give them the number of any unassigned ISBN and they’ll fill in the metadata at Bowker. DO NOT populate the fields in Bowker—just note the ISBN number and leave it entirely unassigned. Copy that ISBN number into your copyright page of the Smashwords edition.

Smashwords insists on a very precise wording under the Publisher line on the copyrights etc. page: if you just upload with the wording “Published by ABC Publishing”, they’ll reject it for the premium catalog. The precise wording to use is:

Published by (publ. name) Publishing at Smashwords
or, in the case of an individual self-publishing,
Published by (individual name) at Smashwords

Also be sure to remove any references or links you may have in the backmatter or elsewhere to Amazon, Kindle, or specific retailers: the only external links in your book should be to your blog or site. Likewise, they don’t want you to publish a book at Smashwords and ask people to review it at Amazon—be generic instead.

Before uploading, you’ll have to fill in all the book’s metadata. Part of this is a “short description” of the book, for which you’re only allowed 400 characters: some booksellers will use this rather than the “long description” you also get to input. 400 characters is a tough one, so prepare this beforehand.

When you’ve uploaded your book, Smashwords will let you know if there are problems. If you’ve done things right, your book will go on sale immediately on the Smashwords site and be queued up for review for the premium catalog.

There are sometimes hiccups in the upload, and it’s pretty normal to have to go back and fix things until you’re familiar with the process. But if you gave Smashwords credit in the publisher line and have no NCX/ToC errors, you’ll get into the premium catalog and be distributed to the retailers of your choice. The Smashwords review process takes—in my experience—anywhere between 2 and 7 days, and propagation across distribution channels anything up to 3 more weeks. B&N and Kobo usually have the book up pretty soon, Apple are rather slower.

A certain amount of trial-and-error is inevitable. Feel free to turn the air blue as you tinker with the base file for the nth time. I always do.

Have you tried formatting files for ebook conversion? Do you have questions you’d like to see addressed?

Dario Ciriello is the founder and editor of Panverse Publishing, a small press with a mission to break the rigid barriers of category and genre and put story first. His Panverse Anthology authors have been nominated for both Hugo and Nebula awards, and the winner of the 2011 Sideways Award for Alternate History. On the novel front, his authors include T.L. Morganfield, Bonnie Randall, Doug Sharp, and Don D'Ammassa. His own work includes Sutherland's Rules, and the travel memoir Aegean Dream. Panverse is currently open for submissions.

Website | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound 


  1. Good evening, Dario.
    Thanks for this post. I appreciate your tips for properly formatting and uploading files into Amazon and Smashwords. I know these tips will come in handy when I’m done with the editing and proofreading process--and when I’m finally ready to begin formatting for uploads. I’ll go back and follow your instructions to the T (I have favorited this post!). I’m sure you spared me hours of hair pulling, LOL.

    1. Thanks so much, Kelly--trichotillomania is most distressing, and neither Amazon nor Smashwords are worth it ;-) Good luck with the book, and I'm glad to think this post might be helpful to you!


    2. Ha, good one! You're right...trichotillomania is a scary state, indeed! Thanks again for your most welcome assistance ;-)

  2. Never seen this process outlined this efficiently. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Tzalaran, thanks you so much :) The learning curve can be painful--it certainly was for me!--and we all benefit when the output from indie/self-publishers looks better.


  3. You offer some great advice, some of which I try to apply toward documents I've published via Smashwords.

    1. Hi Angela :)

      Thanks so much for that, and best of luck with your own efforts! I hope this helps you with your own work.


  4. Good advice there, although my own research and practical trial and error has found that ebooks are essentially html files, and as such a font size, TMN 12pt for example, isn't usually interpreted efficiently or correctly compared to using the EM scale to indicate a font size. So 12point font in MS Word would equate to 1.0em in a web browser or e-reader.

    Also, it's worth bearing in mind that what you create in Word isn't necessarily what you'll see after Amazon or Smashwords has processed it. So learning basic html is time well spent to get the best results.

    1. Dave,

      Thanks for weighing in, and for your clarification about font sizes.

      Unfortunately, not everyone has either the time or the inclination to learn even basic HTML, and those people must make the best they can of the available tools they prefer to work with.

      In my own experience, basic formatting--itals, bold, and font justify, which are all that most people will need in their ebooks--are preserved just fine through both the KDP and SW conversion process. As for font sizes, TNR at 12pt in word gives a perfectly acceptable result after converting, and the ability of ereaders to change the font sizes makes the issue somewhat moot IMO.

      That said, it's vital to preview the output at least via the online viewers provided, and preferably on an external ereader before publishing to avoid exactly the kind of surprises you warn against :)


  5. This information is soooo vital! Thanks for the play by play. The "look" of an ebook matters big time.

    1. Julie, so kind of you to comment, and thanks :) It really does matter, and we all benefit from Indie books which are better formatted and more user-friendly :)


  6. What a great post! I formatted my book with this advice in my documents on my Google Drive, and it's taken editing and rewriting to another level. Thanks!

    1. Megam thanks for your kind words, and kudos to you for getting right in there and applying this stuff. I'm truly delighted to hear that you found this post helpful :)

      Good luck with your book!


    2. *Megan, that should have been! :)