On Formatting E-books

September 16, 2011 § 10 Comments

I had to learn quite a lot of new things in the process of publishing my first e-book. One of the steepest learning curves was formatting. Not that it was that hard in the end: I say it was a steep curve because I’d never so much as thought about html before and suddenly I had to create an acceptable html version of my book from scratch.

Fortunately, I enjoy a challenge.

I didn’t strictly have to format my kindle edition from scratch, this is true. Amazon’s own publishing guidelines recommend that you simply save your word document as html, feed it into their handy dandy mobi creator programme and consider it done. But when I’d done that I discovered actual pages of hidden code crammed into the beginning, doing… I’ve no idea what. Apparently nothing. I’ve heard that quirks like this can cause problems on some devices, and I really don’t like things to be messy, so that had to be tidied up.

Then of course there’s the problem of Smashwords. They won’t accept an html file (not sure why); you have to submit a word document and they can be tricky about how it’s put together (or it won’t go through the “meatgrinder” properly). So that’s two lots of formatting to do. Sounds like a lot.

It’s quite possible to pay someone to take care of it – after all, as more and more authors recognise the benefits of indie publishing and decide to go it alone, more and more author services are cropping up, including options for e-formatting. But if you’re publishing on a budget, it’s quite possible to do it yourself. (No… it really is).

I have a few internet resources that I found extremely useful when putting together my Kindle edition (which does have to start the transformation process as an html file).

Guido Henkel has a detailed tutorial on his blog. It covers how to clean up your original document, then guides you through the steps to build a clean html version. Here is the link to the first page.

Paul Salvette has posted another tutorial on his blog. I found this one rather later, but it helped me to clear up a couple of residual problems that I had. Here’s the link.

Finally, I was sent this very useful page full of html codes. Don’t look at it too closely until you’ve gone through one of the tutorials, or it might look like a complete nightmare. Later, though, it’ll look more like a small miracle.

Going back to Smashwords, some argue against bothering with it. It appears to be true that Smashwords has a smaller audience of buyers – considerably smaller – than Amazon and probably Barnes and Noble. Where it comes into its own, however, is in the following areas:

– It allows you to give a piece of writing away for free, if you want to do that.
– You can create checkout codes to give specific people a free download of your book, which is useful for promotional stuff (or for making your friends happy!).
– It’s important for those of us not living in either the US or one of Amazon’s designated Kindle countries. B&N is closed completely to non-US users, and as for Amazon, I for one have difficulty purchasing from Amazon at all (payment methods issue). If that weren’t a problem I’d still have to swallow the big price increase they impose for users like me. I rely on Smashwords to get indie books for prices I can afford. This is an audience that isn’t very large at present, true, but it’ll grow – and besides, while it won’t make much difference to your bottom line, it’s a courtesy to your future fans and readers to make sure everyone who’s interested can get hold of your work if they want.

So, in my opinion it’s worth the effort of formatting separately for Smashwords. And in order to do that, simply follow the style guide. It’s long and detailed, and it’ll take a few hours of your life, but by just following the steps to the letter my upload to Smashwords (and its premium catalogue) went off without a hitch. Here’s the guide.

I hope these links are helpful to anybody preparing to jump into the indie-pub waters.


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