10 Things You Should Know About e-Book Formatting

by | Jul 6, 2011

by Guido Henkel (@GuidoHenkel)

I’m please to have an article today from self-published author and experienced e-book formatter Guido Henkel. Guido and I met on Twitter and that’s why you get to read his thoughts on this important aspect of e-publishing. Here’s his post.

e-book formatting is a skill that becomes increasingly important as our society moves towards an all-digital book world. The revolution is taking place at an incredible speed, but many authors who want to self-publish their work feel overwhelmed, intimidated or plain out of their depth with the process of actually creating these dreaded e-books.

No matter where in these categories you fit in, here are a few things you should know about e-book formatting.

Your book’s presentation is your calling card!

Just like the book cover is the point of contact with your prospective reader, the interior of a book is an important ingredient to keep the reader satisfied. Reading flow, a balanced layout and proper font usage are critical and should never be underestimated in creating a lasting impression.

Take pride in your e-book formatting

e-book formatting should never be an afterthought or a necessary evil; something to be done with.

You have labored over your book for months, maybe even years, you have read and re-read it countless times, cleaned out typos and grammatical errors, massaged the style and worked on the structure, grinding away in the wee hours of the night alongside holding a daytime job and maybe having a family. You did not get here just to break the first cardinal rule of book publishing: Don’t get sloppy on the home stretch! It will reflect poorly on your work.

Typography is an art and a science

I have seen countless recommendations on the web that tell authors not to use things such as curly quotation marks, em-dashes or ellipses because they supposedly cause problems. This is ill advice at its worst, really. When created properly all e-books can safely feature typographically correct text. You simply have to take the time to understand its underpinnings and do it right.

Word processors make for poor e-books

Word processors have been designed to enable writers. (Emphasis on WRITERS.) They are the replacement of the typewriter – in case you still remember those. Their goal is to make it possible for people to write text as cleanly and efficiently as possible, allowing them to simply dump their thoughts onto a computerized sheet of paper. In order to make this as easy as possible, word processing software puts a number of additional tools at the writer’s disposal which come in very handy and will help to keep writers focused on the task.

e-books are, by definition, an entirely different beast and need to be treated in a more specialized fashion that focuses on the text output, not the input (writing) side of things.

Even though your word processor may have an “Export as e-book” function, don’t assume it’s actually good at it. In all likelihood, it is just a afterthought feature du jour that helps sell the software.

You can learn it, too!

Creating solid e-books is a somewhat technical skill, but nonetheless one that can be learned. As a writer you have mastered the spelling of millions of words. You have internalized grammar rules and overcome countless stylistic challenges over the course of putting your book together, not to mention that, most likely, you had to plot it all out properly to create a dramatic arc, or to create a stream of conscious that readers can follow.

By comparison, creating professionally formatted e-books is as easy as burning a marshmallow over an open fire.

See the resource section for a link to a great in-depth tutorial on the subject.

Good enough is never good enough

You should never settle for less than the best. For the same reason that word processors make for bad e-book creation, online services like Smashwords are notoriously poor at creating e-books. They take a brute force approach that allows room for neither individualism nor creative control. It strips out many of the e-books’ actual capabilities and dishes out something that is the literary equivalent of jello: a featureless, artificial product of very little aesthetic value.

You are competing with professionals

If your e-book’s formatting is broken or defective it reflects poorly on your book and on you. With the physical limitations of book stores a thing of the past, in the digital world you are suddenly on a level playing field, competing with the big guys.

Stephen King is sitting cozily next to your book on the virtual shelf, while James Patterson is nudging you on the other side. In technical terms, all e-books can be the same.

Now, you can be assured that King has some of the best e-book formatters at work on his books and so does Patterson. The big publishing houses are acquiring the necessary skill sets and it is up to you to make sure your book looks every bit as polished as theirs.

Don’t let flawed approaches and half-baked technologies ruin your e-book. Make sure you get it right! Your readers deserve it, and they will thank you for it!

Ask for help when you need it

Not every author has the technical skills to create professional-quality e-books. Not every author has the time. And others yet would rather focus on writing than going through the spiel of learning how to create e-books. That’s where professionals like me who offer e-book formatting as a service come in.

Right now I’m working with a number of clients, including #1 New York Times and USA Today best-selling authors, to turn their books into highest quality e-books. These books are hand-tweaked to make sure they look great on every platform and oftentimes include images, illustrations, ornaments and all sorts of things to create a striking and engaging experience.

That’s it…

Okay, so these were only 8 things in my list, but I don’t want to begin repeating myself like a broken record. I think at this point you get the point. It is important to pay attention to your e-book formatting every bit as much as you pay attention to your writing and your cover. It is an essential part of an overall well-rounded product.

Guido HenkelGuido Henkel is an author who also provides professional e-book formatting services at affordable rates.


More information on Guido’s e-book formatting services.
Check out Guido’s books including ten Jason Dark supernatural mysteries.
Guido Henkel’s 9-part tutorial on e-book formatting
You can follow Guido’s blog.
Find Guido on Twitter at @GuidoHenkel.

Photo by goXunuReviews

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Web Designer Pad

    Hmm! this piece of information would definitely help writers and authors. Do you recommend any website to publish ebooks with less publishing fees.

  2. Akshay Joshi

    That’s an awesome article but it would be great if you’ve suggested some great ebook formatting softwares.

  3. bowerbird

    this is starting to get silly…


    you don’t need “a budget” for formatting your book…

    you can — and should! — do p-books and e-books from
    the same “master” file. (or you’ll do redundant work.)
    and no, it shouldn’t take more than a few button-clicks.

    smashwords doesn’t turn out the nicest e-books, no, but
    they are quite serviceable; however, i invite mark to give
    any feedback he has — public or private, doesn’t matter —
    on the results which my software quickly gives to authors.

    i extend the same invitation to guido.


  4. MJS

    Excellent addition to your growing database of exceptional resource material, Joel. You, my friend, are a powerhouse.

    I’ve been familiar with Guido’s Formatting series for some time now and I must say it is by far the most useful and no nonsense guide I’ve come across anywhere. It may appear a bit overwhelming at first glance (as any formatting is for a novice) but given a very short learning curve it is beyond thorough, all-inclusive, and, most importantly, user-friendly.

    And regarding Smashwords, I have two thoughts. Their usefulness, availability, and innovation have provided an avenue, without doubt, for countless writers to get their work onto the market a great deal faster than ever before. They are a phenomenal asset in today’s market. For this dedication and hard work, I applaud Mark and his staff unfailingly.

    However, I must generally agree, with Guido and numerous *experienced* voices personally familiar with their Style Guide and general formatting process. Honestly, it needs streamlining, more cohesion, and restructuring. It’s kinda all over the place and redundant at times; as writers we hear a useful phrase often and I think it kindly applies here: cut the fat, it’s unnecessarily bloated.

    This, in no way, is meant to disparage or take away the immense service and integrity of Smashwords, it simply is what it is. Any process can periodically use an efficiency audit, so to speak. Look around the Web, the same repeated complaints/experience/observations are too similar and numerous to ignore–most tellingly from seasoned veterans. Again, this is not an outright bad thing, as long as it is heard and recognized for the benefit of all.

    In closing, thank you Joel, Guido, and Mark; you guys are innovators of the highest order and writers/publishers the world over draw endless benefit from your inexhaustible efforts.

    • Chris O'Byrne

      I agree that the Smashwords Style Guide could use some serious streamlining and restructuring. And the Kindle file they produce via the Meatgrinder simply can’t compare to a hand-coded file done by professionals such as Guido, especially with more complex books.

  5. Keri Knutson

    A writing partner and I just release the first two installments of our mystery series on both Smashwords and Amazon. My husband and I did the formatting ourselves, but we made sure we researched and studied and practiced and paid attention to every detail. We looked at numerous e-books on various formats so that we knew what looked professional and what looked obviously less professional. We relied to a great extent on the Smashwords Style Guide. In fact, it was really helpful in learning the basics of formatting, especially for someone who had no idea where to start. That said, it’s just one step in the overall process of formatting across different publishing platforms. (We also took note of Guido’s invaluable advice in his formatting guide.)

    I guess what I’m saying is if formatting your ebook yourself is the road you want to take, it really helps to take advantage of all the tools and resources out there, and then just keep practicing until you’ve mastered it.

  6. Guido Henkel

    Mark, you know my opinion on the subject and I could not disagree more with you. Whether you call it disingenuous and untrue or not, you guys have some serious issues to work out.

  7. Mark Coker

    “For the same reason that word processors make for bad e-book creation, online services like Smashwords are notoriously poor at creating e-books.”

    Guido, your statement above is disingenuous and untrue. We serve 20,000 authors, hundreds of thousands of satisfied readers, and multiple ebook retailers who might disagree with you.

    It’s a POV usually held by people who haven’t taken the time to learn our formatting instructions (the Smashwords Style Guide), or learn how to control styles in their word processor. If folks take the time to implement the Style Guide, they can create high-quality, professional-looking ebooks without compromise. We do especially well with straight narrative and narrative + images.

    The vast majority of authors are well-served to give Smashwords a chance.

    For folks who don’t have the time or patience to follow the Style Guide, they can send an email to [email protected] to get my list of low-cost Smashwords formatters. They’re all independent contractors such as yourself with rates as low as $35 for fiction.

  8. C. Michael McGannon

    Oh well, we’ll have to tackle that when it comes up, then. Anyways, thanks again to you both for your insight!

  9. Guido Henkel

    Print formatting is a different beast entirely. While it may be possible to carry over some of the formatting from an e-book, print editions need to be done entirely separately because it is an entirely different medium with different requirements and capabilities.

    At this time I do not offer formatting for print, I’m afraid.

    • CreateSpacer Jen

      Every book formatter has its area of expertise. I am very comfortable formatting print on demand books and have done a few from novel and other commercial authors but I can consider myself still a babe in ebook formatting. Great article you have there Guido!

  10. Guido Henkel

    I agree with Joel. Everyone needs to find the approach that works for them. Techniques that I use do not work for everyone, and they are streamlined for novels. Text books or other publications may be better formatted using different ways.

    The key is – in my opinion – to be aware of what you are doing, and not just pressing an “Export” button in a software, under the impression the result will intrinsically be perfect. There is a lot to e-book formatting. A lot of things to remember. A lot of limitations, etc. and the more you are aware of these limitations, the better you can chose your tools and work on getting good results.

    • C. Michael McGannon

      The self-publishing route has brought up several challenges, perhaps the biggest challenge being the small budget for realsing my books (both authored and coauthored). I think that’s my biggest fear (and I do say fear) sending my work to off to other professionals–“Can I trust this person to care for this book? Will I get my money’s worth? Etc.” So I’m taking most of the work for myself, perhaps for better or worse. The more I read your blog, Joel, the more I try to let go and really search for good professionals out there.
      Guido, I noticed your rates on your personal site are for ebooks, particularly. I’d like to, in time, have print options available for readers. Does ebook formatting translate easily enough that I’d be able to format for both at the same time, or would that be a separate job. And do you do print formatting at all?

  11. C. Michael McGannon

    I definitely needed that. My coauthor and me are self-publishers. We’re just finishing this draft of our novel and hoping that this is “it”…but to be honest, I’m a little afraid to take the next step. The formatting of the book seems like a daunting task that I’ll have to learn a whole new skill set in order to accomplish.
    Reading this article confirms that, yes, we’ll have to learn those skills, but maybe it’s not as terrifying as it seems. Thanks Guido for sharing your thoughts. And, as always, great content Joel! Always count on as a guide for moving on to the next step in publishing.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Michael, keep in mind that there are lots of solutions and the important thing is to find the one that’s right for you. I’ve fooled around with some of the easier ePub export options appearing in various programs, but when it came time to do the e-book conversion for my book, I sent it to an expert. Other authors are very happy with the conversions they are getting from distributors like BookBaby and Smashwords. As a novelist, you have the greatest latitude of choices, and the easiest type of manuscript to convert yourself if you decide to DIY. Good luck!

    • CreateSpacer Jen

      Hello C. Michael, I would suggest that you would find someone an expert to do the formatting for you rather than learning it. Though there is nothing wrong with knowing the technical side of making a novel, I think it is wise that you would let someone do it and just focus on the marketing of your book. What is a good book if its not selling well :-). Just my 2 cents.

  12. DB

    “Word processors make for poor e-books”

    What method do you suggest? I’ve been using InDesign (CS5.5) and many people say this is not the way to go either. Is it best to learn to code ebooks by hand?

  13. KS "Kaz" Augustin

    Guido is absolutely correct. One of my books is currently in copy-editing and I’ve already told that editor that, when it comes back, I’ll only be halfway through the process of producing a professional ebook. For anyone interested in the topic, Guido’s series on ebook formatting is comprehensive and extremely useful. I thoroughly recommend it.

    Kaz Augustin (@ksaugustin) :)

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Kaz. Guido’s series is the most extensive free resource I know of for e-book formatting. There are some terrific tools at a reasonable price, but this is a great place to start.



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