The 5 Most Important Formatting Considerations for Your E-book

The last decade has introduced a bold new world beyond hardcover and paperback; thanks to a variety of handheld devices, you can now reach readers anywhere and anytime. This makes distributing your book easier, but there’s a lot to consider when preparing your manuscript for digital release.

Formatting can mean the difference between enjoyment and frustration as a reader navigates your e-book, so lest the “e” stand for “eyesore” or “exasperation,” check out these tips. Your readers—and their reviews—will be better for it.

1. The right book in the wrong format is the wrong book.

Conversion programs like Kindle Create make it very easy to zap a manuscript into a simple, readable e-book that’s ready to be published on Amazon. If you do a good job styling your manuscript (see #4), the formatting process takes only a few minutes. This is a great option for standard fiction works and text-only nonfiction created in a Microsoft Word document. (Note that using Kindle Create does not create a readable MOBI or an ePUB file but rather a proprietary file for Amazon distribution only.)

Another option—particularly useful if your book contains numerous images, illustrations, tables, or charts—is the flexible ePUB format, which can accommodate not only images but also multimedia files. The ePUB format adapts to any device, such as an e-reader, tablet, or smartphone, giving readers control over the font size, font type, and other viewing options.

In some cases, though, your target audience may be better off with a good old-fashioned PDF, which has a “fixed” format that allows an author to decide exactly how the content will look on every device. Fitness gurus and food writers who intend to sell exclusively through personal websites will sometimes use PDFs for exercise programs or collections of recipes because the PDF is a universal format; elements like images, charts, point-form lists, text boxes, and pull quotes are much easier to place within PDFs; and the pages print more cleanly. The drawback? Looking at PDFs means that the text won’t flow, so if your readers are on a handheld device, they will have to enlarge the text in order to read it and then use their fingers to move the page around.

Just remember that you don’t need to commit to one format. Depending on the kind of book you have, how you’re distributing it, and the best way for readers to enjoy it, it’s smart to offer your book in various formats for full flexibility. (Don’t miss out on our article covering the different formats, and the advantages and disadvantages of PDF, ePUB, and MOBI.)

2. The best typographic choice is the one you never made.

Go with a classic, “boring” font that’s easy on the eyes—like Times, Helvetica, Garamond, Verdana, or Arial—and use the same font throughout the manuscript. Skip Courier typewriter fonts or overly round fonts, rectangular “Captain’s log: Stardate” fonts, and “elegant” fonts that are unreadable below 48-point type. (Keep in mind that fancy font choices may not stick anyway if they’re overwritten by e-book conversion programs or, as with Kindle, subject to reader customization options.)

Limit bolding, all caps, and colored fonts to chapter and section headings—and even within headings, avoid using different-colored fonts unless there’s a compelling reason for it. Remember that what’s fun for a page or two may be maddening thirty or forty pages in. Follow the Chicago Manual of Style’s advice for emphasis: use italics only for emphasis within running text, and even then, tread lightly. For device users, underlined text has essentially become synonymous with hyperlinked text, so unless the words are actually hyperlinked, steer clear of underline formatting.

3. Nonfiction books need extra TLC.

Many nonfiction books require the use of additional tools for readers. Things like hyperlinks, tables, and footnotes all need to be carefully considered so as to maintain an easy, seamless read. To accomplish this, imagine the experience of reading your book.

First, how will your readers navigate the book as a whole? Your table of contents should be simple yet dynamic—allowing a person to choose their entry point into the text at the chapter level and heading/subheading level. This is easier to accomplish in e-reader formats, but it’s still necessary even if you’re creating a PDF. For the sake of your audience, please don’t just hyperlink the table of contents and call it a day, leaving readers to scroll or use inefficient search functions. Whatever you can do to bookmark and cross-reference will help with user experience in either format.

Within the text, use hyperlinks only where they truly add benefit for your readers, and make an effort to prepare footnotes that will complement the reading experience. Too many hyperlinks (or confusing ones) will break up the text and create regular distractions as readers flip between programs and pages. Who enjoys constantly being interrupted while they read? Also be mindful that many booksellers keep a very close eye on the use of links (especially if they are intended to inflate commissions), and if they feel your book is part of a sales scam, they’ll remove it from their store.

4. Styling your manuscript is an investment in your sanity.

Most word-processing programs allow you to set paragraph and heading styles and then apply them to the text in your document using a fairly simple “point your cursor and click” method. Although styling a long book is tedious, it’s well worth it. The result is a manuscript that has consistent indents and line spacing and is easily poured into any number of programs, from ePUB to InDesign.

Using the space bar and Tab key and inserting extra hard and soft returns may seem like all you need to get the job done—after all, it looks fine in your manuscript, right?—but those techniques actually cause chaos in your document because they don’t translate the same way in other programs. For example, tab spacing doesn’t convert to Kindle at all, and using hard or soft returns to manually break lines the way you want them to look becomes an exercise in futility once your text flows dynamically on a device screen.

In addition, styling makes it easy to generate and update a working table of contents, which is a requirement for Kindle. Here are quick tutorials in applying styles in Word and Pages.

5. If you have time for only one style, make it the page break.

Although you have no control over how individual pages may number in your e-book, you can dictate where your pages break. Inserting manual page breaks creates clean stops between chapters or sections and can also be used to set off images that you want to appear separate from the text. It’s important to note that most e-book formats do not have fixed pagination, which means you must “instruct” your e-book to end on select pages. This is most important for your first few pages—title page, dedication, copyright, and table of contents—but also for clearly separating chapters and pages that have photos with captions.

Inserting breaks is easy, but there is a “right” way to do it, and it’s not the same as just hitting the Return key until your cursor has moved to the next page. In Microsoft Word, for example, you must choose Insert from the top navigation bar, and then choose Break and then Page Break. Using a formal page break will ensure that no matter what happens, your chapters are clearly marked and formatted, making for an enjoyable reading experience.

The best way to truly appreciate the work that goes into formatting is by reading an e-book on a device (and while you’re there, look at the differences between PDF and ePUB files). The most aggravating errors in formatting usually stem from treating an e-book like a physical book and ignoring the nuances of reading digitally. Exploring a few professionally formatted e-books can show you exactly how the experience should be. And after all the work you’ve invested in creating a compelling, immersive story or a thoughtful, engaging work of nonfiction, its package should never break that spell.