If the process of writing and publishing a book is a marathon, you might think of formatting as mile 25: you’re definitely over the hump, but that doesn’t mean you can phone it in from here. After all, you’ve spent so much time and effort writing, editing, and perfecting the overall content of your book—you owe it to yourself to ensure that its format reflects that shining quality.
Luckily, just like that last mile-point-two of a marathon, the final stretch of formatting and setting your book up for distribution isn’t nearly as daunting as it seems! This post will show you how to format your manuscript correctly, offering general manuscript formatting guidance and clarity on which file types are best for e-books versus print books. Ready to get started?
Regardless of whether you’ll be publishing an e-book or print book (or both), your first step in formatting will be to achieve a clean, professional interior design. There are a few ways to go about this, but your main options are:
1. Hire a professional to format your book for you.
2. Purchase book formatting templates or software.
3. Use a free book formatting tool.
If you happen to be a professional layout designer, I give you permission to DIY. Otherwise, I strongly recommend one of these three routes! Sloppy interior design is a huge red flag for readers, as it implies poor quality all the way through. You certainly don’t want to lose potential customers over something as silly as weird-looking margins.
So which of those formatting options is best for you? Well, if you have a sizable budget and not much of an artistic eye, you should spring for a layout designer—most will charge somewhere in the vicinity of $500 to $1,000. This might seem high, but remember that you’re paying for years of typesetting experience here. Not to mention that pro designers don’t cut corners! They will check every single page for headings, page numbers, rags, widows, orphans, and more to give you your money’s worth.
You can also pay for multiuse book formatting templates like Joel Friedlander’s, or for specialty book formatting software like Vellum. These will be cheaper than hiring a designer, more in the $100 to $300 range. You might consider purchasing a single-use license for even less (around $25 to $50), if you’re 100 percent sure that this will be your only book. But think hard about it first, since you don’t want to be kicking yourself for wasting money later.
Of course, if you want to completely eliminate that risk, then don’t spend any money at all! There are some stellar free book formatting tools out there that can help you with your chapter headings, margins, spacing, and page numbers. Some of these tools even double as word processors, so you can easily write and format your pages as you go.
The best part about a free formatting tool? You have nothing to lose by trying it out, so you might as well give it a shot before you commit to paying for your book formatting.
E-book vs. Print
Budget aside, you should also think about which formatting option is best for your type of book, e-book or print. If you’re publishing a standard e-book, you can get away with a free formatting tool, or pay for book design templates if you really don’t trust yourself. But if you’re publishing a print book, you should probably hire a pro. That goes double if your book is design-heavy, like a cookbook or instruction manual.
Yes, it’s possible to self-format a print book, print it on demand, and have it turn out completely fine. But unfortunately, many authors simply don’t have enough experience to know what works. They’ll lose patience (and money, ironically enough) with the multiple print tests it takes to get the formatting exactly right. That said, if you have printed books on demand before, then feel free to ignore me. But first-timers, I beg of you, heed this advice.
In summary: you should use a free tool or templates for e-books and a pro layout designer for print books, unless you’ve successfully self-formatted and printed in the past.
Now that we’ve covered your various interior design possibilities, let’s move onto the boundless fun of file formats!
File Formatting for E-books
You’re likely already familiar with EPUB, MOBI, and PDF files, the staples of e-book formatting as we know it. As you might imagine, PDFs are the most versatile; usually when you download a document from the web, it’ll be a PDF. However, while it’s fine to send your book manuscript to agents and other industry professionals in PDF form, it’s typically not the format that you’ll want for your final e-book—the version that actual readers will see. The only exception is if you have a graphically intense manuscript that includes lots of images and nonstandard design. In that case, a PDF is better.
EPUB and MOBI files are more tailored toward text-based e-books, which is to say most of them. EPUB is the format used by nearly all e-book distribution channels: Apple Books, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Sony, and Google Play. The people who created the EPUB designed it to be universal and reflowable, i.e., easy to convert and resize text among e-readers. Still, despite EPUB being an industry standard, not every platform uses it.
You may have noticed I left Amazon off the list of EPUB users. This is because Amazon KDP is MOBI-exclusive—Amazon owns the file format, which means that all files going through their Kindle Direct Publishing platform must be MOBI or else will be converted to MOBI for you. This isn’t a big deal for those who have already have their books in EPUB format, as it’s easy to convert a file from EPUB to MOBI and double-check it before uploading to Amazon.
So again, in summary: use the EPUB file format for every platform except Amazon KDP, for which you should use MOBI. However, if the contents of your e-book involve a great deal of design work, go with a PDF instead. Fortunately, just about every kind of formatting software gives you the choice when you download your final manuscript—and again, if it doesn’t, it’s quick to convert your file using an external tool.
What about the cover, you may ask? Well, your cover file should be separate from your manuscript file, and most platforms allow you to upload it as a PDF. However, Amazon (always the outlier) asks for a JPG or TIFF. Getting your cover file right is even easier than your e-book file, as you can convert to whichever format you need straight from your desktop. But you should always double-check to ensure the quality hasn’t been degraded before you upload.
File Formatting for Print Books
Now let’s talk about print book file formatting, which is a bit more complex in terms of the actual design. In addition to your manuscript file and cover file, you’ll also need files for your spine and back cover designs, and these need to be in the correct dimensions for your print book. As with interior formatting for print books, I’d recommend getting a professional to sort out the actual designs and proportions.
But if we’re talking purely about file types, it’s actually simpler than for e-books. When uploading print book files, you’ll use PDFs for just about everything. The occasional platform will request a JPG or TIFF file for your cover design, but otherwise, PDFs are the name of the print-on-demand game.
With print books, you should always order a test copy (or two, or ten) before placing a mass order. This is true even if you’ve printed books before, and definitely if you’ve switched services since your last printing—you just never know how it’s going to look IRL. The most common issues with print-on-demand books tend to be:
1. Incorrectly set text (spacing is off, margins too small or big, headers and footers in the wrong place, etc.)
2. Too-thin pages (the text on either side bleeds through, making it difficult to read)
3. Displaced cover/spine/back cover design (the design spills over from its intended place—front cover onto spine, spine onto back cover, etc.)
So watch out for these problems in particular. If even one of your test copies looks a little “off,” you might want to reconsider which POD service you use.
Of course, one of the tricky things about publishing is that you can’t control everything, even when you’re doing it yourself. You might have trouble with your interior design, or you might upload the incorrect file type by accident. Even when you think you have everything perfect, your print copy can still show up looking totally wrong.
But the more knowledge you have, the more prepared you’ll be to deal with these problems when they arise. And now that you’ve read this article, you should be ready to maneuver every formatting issue in the book (pardon the pun)—whether it’s digital, print, or both.
Savannah Cordova is a guest blogger from Reedsy.com.