6 disastrous ebook formatting mistakes you probably don’t know you’re making

A couple years ago I learned how to format my own ebooks; since then I’ve done hundreds. Now I’m fairly decent at taking a Word or InDesign file, converting it to epub and editing it with Sigil, a free editing program.

Recently I decided to break apart one of my first non-fiction books, a 150,000 word beast of historical non-fiction, into 12 little ebooks, to reach a broader market and start building up my email list to launch a second ridiculously long research book on comparative religious mythology (focusing on revolutionary heroism).

But when I opened up my epub file, I realized it was full of errors!

I’d had the formatting done before I learned how to make ebooks myself, and I didn’t know how to check it or what to look for. I don’t know how so much could have gotten past me (actually I probably didn’t have a Kindle or an iPad at that point either, so I probably didn’t check it very well at all).

I had paid a professional to do it and just trusted that everything was good to go. If you’re self-publishing and hiring someone else to make ebooks for you, it’s safe to assume they are going to make these mistakes and you probably won’t know any better.

So I thought I’d put up this post – these are the things I’m noticing with my own ebook, that I’m going through and fixing now. Talking about ebook formatting will probably sound Greek to you, and it’s a really bad way to learn; I’m going to make a series of formatting videos soon that will be much easier to understand and learn from. I’ll post those on www.diybookformats.com.

1. First paragraph with rest of style

You can just make all the paragraphs the same; if so, they will be indented with no spaces between paragraphs. The amount of indentation will change based on the reader – so use Kindle previewer to check that there’s a noticeable indentation on various devices (on some Kindles, the indentation is barely there, so you may need to over-emphasize… usually about 25px indentation works).

But most ebooks will have a different style for the first paragraph of every section or chapter, which is non-indented. If you set up your paragraph styles in Word, these styles should make it through to your ebook (maybe not if you use Calibre, but they work if you use my free ebook conversion tool).

2. Breaks between section, header spacing

Make sure there are even spaces under each section break, and a little space under the headers. You can’t really do this with a hard return; you need to use styles. Find the .css file, which controls the styles, and look for the tags that match the headers (maybe something like ‘subtitle one, header, etc’. You may need to look at the code to find the style class, then go to the css to edit it by adding spacing.

3. Front and back matter

You don’t need to have all the front and back matter that you’d have in a normal print book – decide what’s most important to you. Personally, I could care less if readers read my copyright notice. I use that space to ask pre-emptively for a review, or offering something special, or introducing myself quickly.

With the back matter, you want to link to your other books, your website, offer a call to action or a bonus to get them to sign up for your list. You can embed most html code into an ebook. For a handy trick, login to your WordPress, where you probably know how to link text and images: you can customize your back copy offer in WordPress, click the code view, then copy and paste the html into your ebook with Sigil.

4. Embedded fonts, paragraph styles

If you’re using InDesign to export to epub, it will embed fonts… but you don’t want to embed fonts for the main body content; that text needs to be flowable it will adapt to readers set preferences (otherwise they will complain that your book doesn’t look like all the other books on their kindle). It’s OK to embed special fonts for the chapter headers, but keep your body text and first paragraph text style simple; maybe just set it as “serif”, but don’t set the colors or sizes (except for 1em… and you can increase line spacing a little).

5. Image resolution and spacing

This is a big one: most ebook formatters will shrink your images to a manageable size; Kindle charges for delivery so if you have a book with lots of images, it can be expensive. The problem is, HDD Kindle fires with high definition screens will make your images even smaller, so they may look microscopic. There’s no easy fix, but your images should be kept about 1200px wide. With Photoshop, you can save as lower quality (medium) but keep the pixel width. If the pictures look huge – you can add white space to fill that 1200px width and center the image so it displays at an acceptable size.

Use Kindle previewer to check out your images (even your logo or author photo…)

6. Table of Contents

To make a table of contents work, your chapter headings need to use an H1/H2 style. You can and should make this happen in Word. But if you’re editing the ebook with Sigil, you may need to go through and set them (you may also need to duplicate your heading styles, and create a new H1 style and paste your heading style there so that you don’t lose your style). Sigil can generate a TOC; most ebook conversion tools will take the H-styles and make a TOC.

Like I mentioned, it’s not easy to talk about ebook formatting without sounding crazy… I’ll make some videos showing you how to use free software to format your ebooks soon that should help.

About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book designer with a Ph.D. in Literature. He's been featured on CNN and spoken at dozens of writing conferences around the world. These days he mostly writes young adult fantasy and science fiction, while helping authors build profitable publishing platforms. Find me
  • Hynek Palatin

    The trick for image size is to use relative width. Instead of padding an image with white space you can use width=”75%”, for example. Or, to make all images take up the full screen width no matter what resolution thay have, modify the img tag in the stylesheet:
    img {width: 100%;}

    • @hynekp:disqus: sorry, but using relative widths doesn’t work for any KF7 Kindle device–the Kindle, K2, early K3’s, some K4’s, even; the DX and (wait for it!) the Kindle 4 iPad, either. And the Voyage, despite being KF8, has an image display bug, if you have an image that’s larger than 50% of the width. So, you need to develop fallback styling that works (generally, using hidden styling) for the *millions* of KF7 readers that are still out there.

      • Hynek Palatin

        Thank you, Kimberly. So what do you do – use a media query to display a padded image for KF7 and an image with no white space and relative width for KF8?

        • BooknookBiz

          No, Hynek. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Sometimes, we place an image with white-space,and hide it from KF8. Oftentimes, it’s best to double the work; set the absolute sizes for the KF7, and relative sizes for KF8. KF7 isn’t–despite everyone’s hopes–going away any time soon, so we all have to live with it, unfortunately.

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