eBook format 101: create an eBook that doesn’t suck

In order to turn your book into a functional eBook, your manuscript document (.doc, .docx, .txt, .rtf, .html, etc.) must be converted to another file format  (ePUB for most eReading devices, and .mobi for Kindle).

Whether you’re handling the technical aspects of this process yourself or having a service like BookBaby take care of it for you, there’s a few things you need to do in advance to make sure your manuscript is optimally formatted for eBook file-conversion.

I assume you spent many hours writing your book, so obviously you want the digital version to look beautiful and offer the reader a great experience. This article will provide you with some of the basic eBook formatting “rules,” so you can be sure that what comes out on the other end of the eBook conversion process doesn’t look like a garbled mess of weird symbols and code.

First, read an eBook!

Perhaps surprisingly, most of the questions we get asked about eBook formatting and conversion seem to stem from the fact that lots of writers have still never read an eBook. They’re unaware of the benefits and limitations of digital books. They have not seen how text behaves on various eReading devices.

For those of you who aren’t sure about how line-spacing, font size, pagination, and word-count actually work in eBooks, I recommend going to Barnes & Noble or Best Buy or a Mac Store and trying out an eReader. You don’t have to buy one, of course. But just a little experience with a Kindle, Nook, iPad, or Kobo will probably answer 75% of your basic eBook format questions.

As for the other 25% of your questions, here goes…

What’s the difference between a fixed layout eBook and a regular eBook?

A standard eBook, usually in ePUB or .mobi format, uses real-time flowable text so you can read it on any eReader and adjust the font size and style to fit your reading preferences. There is no set pagination with a standard eBook because the number of words displayed per page can change based on user settings and the screen size of the particular device.

Most eBooks are standard ePUB format. This format is ideal for text-based books and books with small images embedded amongst the text (which essentially creates paragraph breaks).

A fixed layout eBook is ideal for books that rely heavily on design elements or large illustrations/photos (cookbooks, children’s books, comics, etc.). If you want to publish one of these kinds of books, fixed layout may be the better solution, since it preserves the qualities of the printed page. To put it plainly, the pages of a fixed layout eBook are… fixed! Content (images, text, etc.) will not “flow” across the page if you change your settings, though most devices will allow the reader to zoom in and out.

Fixed layout is like the digital version of typesetting; you can embed fonts and choose the exact placement of visual elements. The benefit of fixed layout is that YOU are in complete control of the experience. The drawback is that readers are NOT! With fixed layout, readers lose the ability to resize text, change margins, change spacing, and change fonts.

Keep in mind that a fixed layout eBook is different from a PDF file. While the content is not re-flowable, a fixed layout eBook can make use of enhanced interactive features. Apple, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon all support derivations of fixed layout ePUB files (though BookBaby currently only delivers fixed layout titles to iBooks).

Use the standard ePUB format if:

  • your book is mostly text (besides the cover art).
  • your book features small images that are embedded between paragraphs.
  • you want to ensure maximum usability for your book (since standard eBooks are readable on most eReaders, tablets, smart-phones, and computers).

Consider fixed layout if:

  • you want to preserve text over images.
  • you would like to set a background color.
  • you want text to wrap around images.
  • you want your book to have horizontal orientation.
  • you want multi-column text pages.
  • your pages have aspect ratios that you don’t want to change.

If you’re having a service like BookBaby handle your eBook conversion, keep in mind that since fixed layout eBooks require some extra attention during the conversion process, fixed layout ePUB conversion often costs more than a basic ePUB conversion.

If you’re going the route of a standard eBook, read on for tips on how to correctly format your manuscript document for eBook conversion.

How to properly indent paragraphs

The most common mistake that authors make when they’re getting their manuscript file ready for ePUB conversion is using the tab key or spacebar to indent paragraphs in a Word document.

Just in case that wasn’t clear: You should NOT use the tab key or spacebar to indent paragraphs in your eBook manuscript doc. 

Instead, use the paragraphs settings in the formatting palette in Word to set indents to the first line of each paragraph. The ePUB conversion process will go smoothly and your readers will be happier, too.

How to automatically switch tab indents to proper eBook manuscript indents

What if you’ve already indented every single paragraph in your 400 page masterpiece by using the tab key? There is a quick solution for SOME folks (it depends on your version of Word). In some versions of Microsoft Word (I’ve heard that 2007 can be buggy in this regard), you can use the Findand Replace functions in the EDIT menu. Simply put “^t” in the Find field and nothing in the Replacefield. Click Replace All.

Presto! You’ve erased all the tab indents– unless, as I mentioned above, you’ve got one of the “buggy” versions of Word. (Which is why it’s best to go back through your document and check your work manually).

Then, if you’d like to add proper indentations, go to the Format pulldown menu and click Paragraph.From there you can set the indentation for the first line of each paragraph. Apply that setting to the whole document, and get ready for another Presto! Reminder: you should always go back through your entire manuscript to check formatting before conversion, just to make sure it all looks good.

When and why you should insert page breaks in your eBook

So, it’s already been said a few times in this article: there is no fixed pagination with an eBook.

As dynamic text “flows” across multiple devices, page numbers become virtual – so you should leave ‘em out of your eBook manuscript.

However, you CAN designate where you want page breaks in your eBook.

You should insert a page break at the end of every chapter, before anything that must start on a new “page,” and also any cases where you want to ensure that a photo appears with its caption.

How to insert a page break in Microsoft Word

Inserting page breaks is easy in Word. Simply put the cursor where the break should be, choose “Break” from the “Insert” pulldown menu, scroll over to “Page Break,” and voila! You’ve inserted a page break. Most text/word processing programs will have a similar set of commands for this feature.

What kind of margins should my eBook have?

The short answer: small and uniform!

Unlike with print books, where the margin is bigger on the left or right-hand side of the page depending on which is nearest the spine, eBook margins should be the same on both sides of every page.

We generally recommend that you use .5″ all around. This will ensure that the reader can customize their reading experience without worrying about text loss. When your margins are larger, you risk your book looking like a receipt when it’s displayed on smaller screens.

In some cases margins will be selectable on the device, so the margins you’ve set will be overridden if the reader chooses to do so.

Also, be absolutely sure that all your margins are positive numbers. Negative margins will result in words getting cut off from your book.

How should I justify the text in my eBook?

No, that’s not a philosophical question. I assume you have perfectly good justifications for every decision you’ve made in your writing!

What I’m talking about is the justification of the content (text, pictures, etc.) of your eBook. According to Wikipedia:

In typesetting, justification (can also be referred to as ‘full justification’) is the typographic alignment setting of text or images within a column or “measure” to align along both the left and right margin. Text set this way is said to be “justified.”

We recommend you use left-justification or centered text. This helps ensure that the end user (the reader) can still easily customize their reading experience on their preferred eReading device. Right-justification is allowed as well, but if you choose right justification you may need to make sure all the bullets and lists are left aligned (which can be a bit of a pain if you have many lists). Also, some eReaders will override your right-justification settings anyway. Avoid mixing justifications whenever possible.

Do not use full-justification, which adds extra spacing between words. Those extra spaces can cause some alarming breaks in a line as the book dynamically repaginates.

What font and font size should I use for my eBook?

Regardless of the font you choose for your eBook manuscript, once the file is converted to ePUB format, the CUSTOMER will decide which font they want to read your book in. This fact is sometimes frustrating for book designers/typesetters, but it’s great for the end-user – and you (because your readers will be happy)!

To ensure maximum readability (across multiple devices, screen sizes, etc.), you will want to eliminate anything in your manuscript that might unnecessarily complicate the eBook conversion process. When it comes to fonts, we recommend that you use only ONE font in your book, and that it be a standard one: Ariel, Times New Roman, or Courier.

Fancy fonts (especially fancy serif fonts) might look great, but oftentimes they are converted into strange characters and symbols. Your eBook could look like a garbled mess. If you’re a font snob, look at it this way: by sticking to a safe, boring font– you’ll ensure that nothing gets lost in translation (or conversion). You don’t want to risk the language itself for the sake of typography.

If you want to include other elements like bolditalic, or underlining, please use the format font menu or the buttons on the tool bar. If you need to use characters that aren’t on the keyboard, be sure to choose them from the menu with the same name as your font– not wingdings, symbols, or special characters.

Like the font itself, the font size will be customizable by the reader. The conversion process will go smoothly if you avoid very large or very small font sizes. We recommend 12pt font size for body text and 14-18pt for chapter titles.

In a world where a text can be discovered, accessed, and customized to reader preference on multiple devices (computers, phones, eReaders, tablets, etc.), maximum readability benefits the author as much as the consumer. Hopefully these font tips will help you avoid any conversion gremlins along the way.

What page size should I use when formatting my eBook manuscript?

[SPOILER ALERT: 8.5 x 11″ in portrait!!!].

I’m not a particularly technical person. When I’m involved in a discussion about the ins-and-outs of eBook formatting and conversion my eyes tend to gloss over and the other person’ voice starts to sound muffled and monotone, like the teacher from Peanuts.

So when I first asked an eBook conversion expert what page size I should make my manuscript document before conversion, I was happy to hear a very non-technical answer: “Uhhh, well,… it kinda doesn’t matter!”

If you’re publishing a standard eBook, text will “flow,” so there can be no fixed layout; if there’s no fixed layout then your manuscript file’s page size really doesn’t matter. After the ePUB conversion process, the text that was gently scooped up from your manuscript file will be displayed (in the correct order, of course!) according to user settings. A book that is 400 pages in print could be 500, 600, even 1000 pages on an eBook — all according to the reader’s preference.

All that being said, if you’re writing your book in Word, we recommend just leaving the page size set to standard (8.5 x 11 inches) in portrait (as opposed to landscape).

Standard 8.5 x 11″ page size ensures that any included images will be at least large enough for the iPad. If you were trying to convert a document that you’d formatted to mimic a common eReader screen size (like 4 x 6, 5 x 7, or 5.5 x 8.5), most of your images will be too small for larger eReader/tablet devices.

Plus, you’ll be able to use that same 8.5 x 11″ Word file to print manuscripts on standard computer paper, and you’ll be able to convert it to an easily-printable PDF for any readers who prefer that format, too.

Tips for formatting images in your eBook

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a correctly formatted image can be priceless! We often get inquiries about image formatting, so here are a few tips to make sure the images you are using for your eBook are eReader ready:

1. Avoid wrapping text around images. Use in-line images with text above and below for best results.

2. To make your images/pictures searchable, include that same text description of your picture below the image as well.

3. Make sure your graphics are in the following formats: .png or .jpg.

4. All images (except the cover image) should be a maximum of 600px tall and 550px wide.

5. Cover graphics should be a maximum of 800px tall and 550px wide. (only in .jpg format)

6. All images must be RGB only and 72 dpi (CMYK images are not accepted by most eBook retail sites).

Other important tips of note when it comes to images are:

Image conversion:

BookBaby can convert all of the graphic elements included in your eBook.

Images, tables, and diagrams:

Images, tables, and diagrams require optimization to ensure proper display on the supported eReaders. Non-image materials such as excel tables, pie charts, and non-flattened artwork will be converted to jpegs for proper display on eReaders. These items will not scale or resize with the fonts.

Digital cameras pictures:

When you take a photograph with a digital camera or scan an image using a digital scanner, the resulting file uses the RGB color mode so you will not need to convert these files.

Photoshop and color mode:

If you are using Adobe Photoshop and want to check the color mode of your file, you can do so under Image > Mode. We suggest making any necessary color mode conversions from CMYK to RGB before you start color/tonal changes or photo manipulation.

Resize your images

If you want your eBook to display content in an attractive way across all the eReaders, you should resize your images outside of the Word doc before you insert them. Many people drag an image from their desktop into the Word document FIRST and then adjust the size (using the little square scrollers that appear in the corners when you click on the image). But here’s the catch: adjusting the size of the image in Word only changes how it APPEARS. As far as the document is concerned, the image is still the original size. So if you dragged a giant .jpg into Word and then adjusted the size, when the Word doc is converted to ePUB and displayed on an iPhone or Nook, it will display in its original size and cause all kinds of annoying formatting issues for your reading device.

To avoid this formatting issue, adjust the size of the image first! Then move it into the Word doc. Once you’ve moved the resized image into Word, it cannot be enlarged beyond the actual size. You can make it appear smaller, but no bigger. This allows you to get a feel for how the image at its actual size will display in relation to the text.

Here’s a helpful hint from our ePUB conversion guidelines:

Resize large images to 300 pixels high if you would like them to display in-line with text. Do all image resizing outside of the document, then reinsert them before saving. All images should be 72 – 300 DPI (300 DPI preferred).*

  • Cover and full-page images: 590 pixels wide by 750 pixels high.
  • Logos or simple images: 75 – 100 pixels high

Avoid spaces in the file name for your eBook manuscript

If you are making your own ePub files or creating files for BookBaby to convert, get in the habit of leaving spaces out of your file names. So rather than “my really cool illustration.jpg,” use “myreallycoolillustration.jpg” or “my_really_cool_illustration.jpg.”

Spaces aren’t read the same way by all operating systems, and since your eBook is designed to be viewed on all different kinds of screens, it can affect how your book displays.

—–

OK. I know that is a lot to digest, but by getting the formatting correct upfront, you can ensure that your manuscript is converted into a beautiful eBook.

If you need help converting your book into an eBook (and publishing your book for Kindle, iBooks, Kobo, and more), BookBaby would be happy to help. Check us out.

How To Guide for Authors

Chris Robley

About Chris Robley

Chris Robley has written 570 posts in this blog.

is an award-winning poet, songwriter, performer, and music producer who now lives in Portland, Maine after more than a decade in Portland, Oregon. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of "Short Works Poetry."

8 thoughts on “How to format your eBook

  1. Gaurav kumar says:

    I have an interactive epub file format which i want to sell through distribution channel.

    How can i do this with you

  2. Gary Webb says:

    I use Sigil to format my eBooks. With CSS, I can make the images fit the screen by setting the width at 100% (or other percentage if desired). What do you think of that? So far, I haven’t seen any problems with it. Of course, I cannot check the Kindle Voyager with Kindle Previewer. I think that’s a glitch in the app.

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