Set Up a Workflow That Starts with Styles

by | May 4, 2012

by Susan Daffron

Last year was the first time I participated in the Self-Publisher’s Online Conference, and it was a great experience. Run by Susan Daffron and James Byrd, owners of Logical Expressions and longtime self-publishers themselves, this online event brings the world of publishing conferences right to your desktop.

Today I’m pleased to have a guest article from Susan on one of the most important parts of book production that most authors haven’t found out about yet: using styles instead of formatting. Here’s her article, along with a link to a further discussion of this subject, and look toward the end for a money-saving coupon code you can use if you decide to register for the conference.

I'm speaking at the Self-Publishers Online Conference in May

If you’ve been around book publishing for a while, you may have read about initiatives like “Start with XML.” It promises to fix book production workflow issues that relate to the fact that now, we publishers have to create books in multiple formats. You want your print, Kindle, and EPUB versions all to contain the same text, and yet also look good.

Of course, for small- and self-publishers, buzzwords like Start with XML tend to be more like, “blah, blah, whatever.” XML tools don’t exist for small publishers and the tools we do use are generally optimized for one format: print or digital.

But underneath the nerdy gobbledegook in Start with XML, an important concept exists: the separation of text from formatting.

For my company’s production workflow, we use an admittedly odd collection of tools, but it all ties together and works because we use styles from beginning to end. If you don’t use styles (or worse don’t even know what styles are), your book production workflow is going to be slow, error-prone, and painful.

Why Use Styles?

Using word processing or graphic design software without taking advantage of styles is like riding a bike with training wheels: you can get where you want to go, but you can’t get there quickly.

If you only create the occasional single-page document, you may prefer to format it directly using the menus and toolbar buttons in your software. You may decide that you never need to learn about styles. Life is uncomplicated and serene.

But if you’re a book designer, you don’t have that luxury. Books are hundreds of pages long. Suppose you do book layout for a living (as I do). Your client has taken three weeks to review your carefully crafted book. Then he comes back and says the font you used for the body copy looks “wrong” and maybe “we” should change the headings from 12- to 14-point type, so the book looks more “impressive.”

If you set up the book using styles, rather than scanning through all 250 pages and laboriously changing each heading one by one (and missing your deadline), you only need to make one change in one dialog box that instantly ripples through the document. Your client applauds your efficiency.

What is a Style?

A style lets you apply a name to all the formatting attributes of a particular selection of text such as a heading. When you need to change the formatting, rather than changing it in every paragraph that you have formatted as a heading, you change the style called Heading. Any paragraphs have the Heading style change automatically when you change the style.

Whether or not you’ve ever consciously applied a style, styles lurk in the background of every document. That lone paragraph mark you see when you open a Blank Document in Microsoft Word has a style called Normal applied to it. Virtually all word processing and graphic design software use styles, even if they call them something else, such as stylesheets or tags.

Why Do Styles Matter?

Styles are the key to separating your formatting from your text. If you have formatted your book with styles, you can then move that same text and use it in other formats if you have consistently used styles throughout the process. So for example, the high-level overview of our book production workflow goes like this:

  1. Write the book and format it with styles in Microsoft Word. You can use keyboard shortcuts to apply styles, which makes formatting a long document go quickly.
  2. Import the Word text into InDesign. Map the Word styles to InDesign styles that you have already defined with the same name. When the text flows in, a lot of it is already preformatted thanks to the work you did applying styles in Word in step 1.
  3. When the print book is laid out in InDesign and ready to move into eformats, export the final InDesign text to RTF (which includes the InDesign styles).
  4. Map the Word styles to HTML styles and generate HTML. Be sure the HTML is clean. (Don’t use any Microsoft “automatic” export tools; they are terrible and create bloated code.)
  5. Assemble an EPUB file. We do this by hand, although tools exist that can help with this process.
  6. Run Epubcheck to validate the file.
  7. Run Kindlegen. To create a mobipocket version for Amazon, we run our EPUB file through Kindlegen and upload it to KDP.

For more detail, you can read our article Create a Workable Book/Ebook Publishing Workflow. We’ll also discuss it during our presentation at the upcoming Self-Publishers Online Conference. The event is May 8-10 and you’ll learn more about the business of book publishing and marketing along with a lot of inspiration and advice. Want to pay less? Use this code:


…and get a 10% discount!

self-publishingSusan Daffron, aka The Book Consultant owns a book and software publishing company. She spends most of her time writing, laying out books in InDesign, or taking her five dogs out for romps in the forest. She also teaches people how to write and publish profitable client-attracting books and puts on the Self-Publishers Online conference every May.

Blog header photo by ralph bjiker

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Aksha Sadana NJ

    Designing and formatting are the tools for displaying the book but it is not the book in it self.
    Most important thing in book writing is the Content of the book and flow. If you have good content and not the flow reader will be lost in steps and he will not be able to continue reading, his flow will be disturbed or broken. So in book writing the most important aspect is that you have to keep the flow so that reader goes on reading the book in a flow. In a normal way he should continue to flow with the content as he is sailing in sea of you thoughts with the flow you are providing.
    In other words all the incidents come one after the other and he is not to recall that in what reference the current chapter is.
    I can explain it like this, after child hood comes the youth, not the old age, and that way the writing needs flow to be maintained with story.
    Designing and formatting is a part you can do with the help of others but not the writing. Designing will increase the sale but the contents keeps the book live.
    These all are my few suggestions for the new publishers and writers.

  2. bowerbird

    so much to discuss here, but i’m just too busy, because
    i’m — finally! — putting out my e-book generator tool…

    the workflow for it goes like this:
    1. write your book in your text-editor or word-processor,
    2. using my e-book tool along the way to make sure that
    3. the created formatted display looks like you intended it,
    4. and then, when you’re all done writing, click a button to
    5. auto-generate your .epub, .mobi, .html, and .pdf output.

    or, to put it more succinctly:
    1. write text.
    2. verify formatting.
    3. generate e-books.

    you can be some of the people to get an advance preview, at:

    i would be particularly interested in any feedback which
    you knowledgeable people have on the underlying .html,
    should you be interested in viewing the guts of the .epub.

    the tool is not open-source, but it is cost-free. enjoy.


  3. Maggie

    Has anyone here ever used a Multiset III typesetting system, designed by Mergenthaler? That’s what I learned on. It was all code-driven and the screen looked liked scrambled eggs. Incomprehensible to anyone except a typesetter. But, it was amazingly precise and produced gorgeous type.

    Of course, the hot-lead gurus would argue that their technology was far better.

    After heading up the company’s type department, I was put in charge of sales, and I called on publishers in New York, selling our typesetting (and printing) services. A production manager at Farrar, Straus & Giroux wouldn’t touch phototypesetting with a barge pole. She insisted that hot lead was far better. This was in the early 1980s. I wonder how she feel about PDFs.

  4. Maggie

    I love this! Get a bunch of typesetters in the same room and we can yak about incomprehensible stuff all night.

    But, and we have to realize this … most writers don’t know a style from a can of stewed tomatoes. I hang out with some pretty impressive authors, and when I mention ‘styles’, their eyes glaze over.

    I’ve used styles for years, but that’s because I’m a typesetter as well as being an author. I’ve provided my publishers with perfectly formatted and styled manuscripts, for which (I hope) they’re grateful. They never said.

    But when I decided to release a couple of my kids’ books on Kindle, I had a whole new learning experience. I was clueless about HTML and CSS. I felt hopelessly inadequate, but I learned. That said, it was easier for me to learn the new language because I already understood the old one.

    I feel sorry for writers who are confronted with baffling acronyms and instructions that seem to make no sense. The online forums and boards are littered with advice, all of it confusing and conflicting. Amazon says, it’s OK to upload your Word files. We’ll convert them. Others recommend Kindlegen to create a Mobi file (what the hell is that?) and/or obscure text editors that nobody’s ever heard of. What the devil is a text editor? I hear some authors ask. Isn’t that what I’ve been doing all this time? Editing?

    Some new authors stumble about, submitting sub-par work, made even worse with abysmal (or nonexistent) formatting that clogs up the works and gives independent publishers a bad name.

    What we need is AN IDIOT’S GUIDE TO STYLES AND FORMATTING FOR CLUELESS AUTHORS: How to conquer HTML and not lose your mind.

    • Susan Daffron

      HA, that book would be such a moving target! There are too many tools and too much that is changing too fast. HTML and CSS have changed a lot, even in the last couple years. A whole lot of Web designers never have learned HTML (that’s why tools like WordPress exist), so why on earth would an author learn it?

      Realistically, what we’re seeing in ebooks is what has been going on with Web design for years. And before that in software development in general. Publishers are only now starting to realize that everything that has plagued the software industry is now going to become our problem too.

      Sure piracy and DRM was one thing, but now we now have to think about making our ebooks backwardly compatible with old readers. Or not. It’s a new decision. You have to think about all this stuff now, which you never had to do with print. (A print book doesn’t have to be backwardly compatible to be read!)

      Now you also have revision control issues that you never had with print. When the warehouse was empty, you reprinted. Now every time someone makes a little tweak, you can upload a new copy. An author changes some stuff and you have edition, which is different from edition

      Formatting is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Being a wee bit nerdy and having an understanding of technology is certainly going to help anyone in publishing in the future.

      I feel like I have a tremendous advantage having seen how a lot of this stuff works for so long. Because let’s face it, conceptually, an HTML [b] tag isn’t really different than the formatting codes I put in Word Perfect 4.x way back in the late 80s/early 90s. You put in a begin bold and and end bold tag, which makes the stuff in between the two tags bold.

      And Joel would probably say all THAT isn’t even conceptually different than the codes on old CompuGraphic(?) typesetting machines either. Hey, at least *someone* is older than I am anyway ;-)

  5. Maggie

    Templates are great, in theory. One of my book typesetting clients, John Wiley, provided custom templates for their authors and editors. You should’ve seen the mess that resulted. I had to strip everything out and begin again.

    • Susan Daffron

      She who is in charge of the workflow and the design makes far better templates ;-)

      I wrote a book for Sams that had the most archaic loathsome author template I’ve ever seen. It was awful for me as a writer, but I kept thinking it HAD to be worse for the poor designer that was going to have to deal with the mess later.

  6. Maggie

    I’m thinking that the more typesetters who get involved in e-book formatting, the better.

    Readability is key.

    We know that. It’s drummed into our font-addled heads from the beginning. And while we don’t have typeface and leading choices with most e-book readers, we can certainly advise fiction authors not to use the block text style or settle for Amazon’s default setting which adds an extra 2 or 3 points of space between paragraphs.

    We can also instruct DIY authors to use page breaks before chapters rather than a bunch of hard returns. This point has been hammered home on many e-book formating sites, but many authors seem to ignore it. Then again, these sites also toss around the terms “styles” and “HTML” without realizing that most writers don’t have a clue what they mean.

    What’s needed here is an uber-STYLES FOR DUMMIES book. And I mean this in the nicest way. I’ve been working with talented authors for many years. They know their subject. They are fabulous writers, but they know zero about Word (or any other text processor) and they certainly don’t know HTML. They just want to write, and they do it well. They don’t need to be fussed with styles and fonts and leading. But … if they do have to be fussed with it, they need plain and simple guidelines. They don’t need a wonk telling them to use Styles or learn HTML.

    HTML … what the hell does that mean?

    It’s like expecting someone who switches on a light bulb every day to explain the mysteries of Edison’s invention or debate the difference between AD and DC.

    This is what it’s like for authors who’re writing books and trying to learn the new technology.


    They need better instructions—starting with styles and how to understand and use them, and why. Like I said … lots of screen shots, along with a copious amount of hand-holding.

    Sorry … I’m on a rant here. Joel will understand.

    • LJ Cohen

      That’s why I put together the manual I referenced in an earlier comment. Lots of screen shots and hand holding. More than half of the text is focused on styles, why and how to use them.

      I now have a template with the styles that work best for me when I need to take an open office document and turn it into an eBook.

      Yes, it’s all about readability.

      • Susan Daffron

        That’s why I created a template for my authors. They aren’t going to read anything about how to work with styles, no matter how basic.

        It’s not even really a template. It’s a document where they fill in the blanks (which happen to be formatted with styles). So they don’t actually need to know or care the styles are there.

  7. Maggie

    James Byrd says: “The truth is that most authors have no knowledge of industry-standard book layout or design practices.”

    Oh, how true!

    Until recently, authors didn’t need to know about all this formatting stuff, because book typesetters took care of it. We’ve patiently cleaned up manuscripts rife with inappropriate styles because the author began typing in “Heading 1” and stayed there until “Balloon text” cropped up, or they wandered into “footnote text” by mistake … to say nothing of their soft returns, double spaces after periods, hard returns in the middle of paragraphs, and tabs for indents.

    Styles are powerful.

    People who want to use them need to study, and study hard. They need manuals and tutorials with lots of screen shots, and these manuals need to be written by typesetters, not by programmers.

    People who are trying to wrap their arms around Styles, need to read about typography, and that’s not a skill you can learn overnight.

    What use is a Style if they don’t know the difference between Gil Sans and Goudy. How can they understand leading if all they know is single or double-spaced text? Then there are margins and H&J, and a whole host of other typesetting conventions.

    I pity today’s authors, trying to grapple with all this while writing a book that appeals to their chosen market. It’s tough, really tough, to do both things at once, and do them well.

    And when it comes to HTML … it was written by programmers, not typesetters. Let’s toss this one out for discussion. I could whinge all night about it!

    • James Byrd

      You bring up some good points, Maggie, and I wasn’t even talking about *print* layout and design.

      Since most ebook devices don’t support much in the way of formatting or font control, it’s hard to get too agitated about understanding the host of typesetting conventions needed for good print layout. Still, many of the basics do apply to digital books.

      When it comes to print, I always recommend that authors seek professional help. I cringe every time I hear about someone uploading a Word document to Lulu or CreateSpace and calling it good. The books look about as good as the effort that was put into them. Word, which is a perfectly fine word processing program, is a typographic wasteland.

      Sadly, what this really means is that many authors forego releasing their book in print because of the money investment needed to produce high-quality, printer-ready files. For first-time fiction authors, who can expect to sell 95% of their books in digital form anyway, it may not be possible to financially justify a print version.

      All of this will do nothing but hasten the transition to digital, which is not necessarily a bad thing if Ebook device manufacturers and ebook formatting software rises to the challenge.

      • Susan Daffron

        >>They need manuals and tutorials with lots of screen shots, and these manuals<<

        But will they read them? Probably not. Let's just say that this isn't the the first thing I've written about styles. I've been trying to explain WHY styles matter and why typography/design/readability is important for at least 15 years. Some of the text for this very article is derived from stuff I wrote about Word in 1998 or so (in a HUGE book from Que about Microsoft Office with many, many screen shots).

        Yet every day, I see evidence that only about .01% of the people using word processing or design software knows or uses styles. Sigh.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Maggie, we’ve both “been there” with author manuscripts that seem to have been worked on for years, gradually accumulating tons of junk codes over time. My favorites are the forced line breaks which can be hard to spot and inevitably end up on the end of a line in InDesign, making me wonder what the heck is wrong with the justification/hyphenation until I realize what I’m dealing with.

      And regarding styles, it has always seemed easier to develop better and more efficient processes for dealing with the files than to teach an author what a style is and why they should use them.

      • Susan Daffron

        Re line breaks: Find and replace is your friend. If you’re working in Word, so is Ctrl+spacebar, which removes all local formatting.

        As an aside, we’re going to be publishing books written by other people later this year. We’re giving our authors an input template to use and lots of direction on what to do and what NOT to do as they are writing ;-)

        • Joel Friedlander

          “Remove all local formatting” ha ha ha. That’s the typesetter’s nightmare. The problem isn’t removing it all, the problem is keeping the bits you want and getting rid of the rest. Luckily InDesign has gotten better and better at allowing you to filter documents during import, so that helps a bit. And yes, on some books I normally spend more time doing Find/Change in Word than the time it takes to format the book.

          • Susan Daffron

            Yeah, I wasn’t suggesting that you remove formatting on the entire doc, just where the “junk code” has gotten so FUBAR that you can’t even tell what the heck the author did on that poor unsuspecting paragraph. I’m sure you’ve seen how well InDesign copes with anything like that ;-)

            And yes, I know way more about Word’s find and replace than I really want to know.

      • James Byrd

        I guess it’s just the programmer in me, but I really don’t understand why writers resist styles. Styles make your life better. Maintaining any kind of long document without styles is a nightmare.

        Most authors don’t (and shouldn’t) think too much about formatting while they are writing. But then, when they are ready to publish, they want to “polish” their manuscript. Polishing a manuscript that was created without styles is an exercise in tedium, as any layout person can attest.

        Besides, what’s to learn? A style is nothing more than a named collection of format settings. If you can apply local formatting, you can even more easily apply a style. It’s not complicated!

        Yep, I just don’t get it.

  8. Turndog Millionaire

    Very informative, some of it still blew over my head, but a lot of sense in there :)

    I use Scrivener to do my books, so is this something I need to worry about? I believe it takes away these issues, right?

    Or is that just hopeful thinking

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

    • James Byrd

      I hope to find out the answer to your question soon for myself.

      I use a writing tool we developed ourselves, but I’ve been hearing great things about Scrivener (which didn’t exist–at least on the PC–when I wrote IdeaWeaver). I intend to give it a try and see how it does with one of our books.

      Fiction authors I know have been very happy with the EPUB and MobiPocket output of Scrivener. But fiction ebooks are generally much easier to produce than non-fiction ebooks. I don’t know how it would handle some of the more complex formatting requirements of a non-fiction title.

      In my experience, no fully-automated converter does a good job of producing ebooks. Calibre and the Smashwords Meatgrinder are ample proof. Yes, you can generate an ebook, but no, you can’t generate a *good* ebook. Every generator I’ve used requires a substantial amount of generator-specific tweaking to even get things close to the way I want them. It seems you always have to settle for “close enough.”

      The truth is that most authors have no knowledge of industry-standard book layout or design practices. What looks great to the author may look totally amateur to an experienced designer. What really matters is what the readers think, but keep in mind that readers will be comparing your book (however subconsciously) to professionally-produced books.

      My guess is that Scrivener produces an ebook that reflects the content its users put into it. And as they say about most software; garbage in, garbage out.

      • Joel Friedlander

        Hey James, I’ve got Scrivener on my list to try also. I’ve heard consistently good things about the program and the company and Scrivener fans seem to be passionate about the product.

  9. James Byrd


    I work with Susan, and I’m responsible for the ebook phase of our production cycle, so I’ll take on your question.

    Your proposed flow would be fine for Amazon-only authors. In your workflow, the main potential point of difficulty would be the “export to HTML” step. I’m not using the latest version of Word, but I can definitely say that older versions produced terrible HTML. However, you would face that obstacle if you used our workflow as well.

    As you pointed out, your workflow would not produce an EPUB file. Virtually every other online ebook retailer requires an EPUB file, so you would not be able to publish to Barnes & Noble or the Apple iBookstore, for example. However, I recognize that an increasing number of authors have decided that Amazon is the only game worth playing.

    • Susan Daffron

      P.S. James is also the co-host of the Self-Publishers Online Conference ;-)

  10. Matthew Iden

    Susan –

    For self-pubbers interested primarily in KDP, how do you feel about this process:

    1. Write the book in Word
    2. Export to HTML
    3. Import into Mobipocket Creator
    4. Upload a .prc file to KDP

    You won’t have an .epub or a Smashwords-compatible file, but this simplified process seems faster and with less technical overhead than going through the .epub and KindleGen process. Am I missing anything crucial?

  11. James

    That’s an intriguing idea–start with EPUB, then translate to .mobi for Kindle. I’ve done it the other way around, and each time I curse Amazon for not simply adopting EPUB like most everybody else.

    For an authoring environment, I alternate between nvALT and Scrivener now, but I know I’m off on the geeky end of the room. Scrivener just handles EPUB and mobi so well, and I like nvALT to have total control over the HTML and other techy details (for short works, anyway). Though MS Word can work, I never recommend it–there are just too many other better, cheaper, simpler options out there.

    Thanks for this, I’ve been keenly interested in workflow. Timely.

    How to Create an Ebook with Scrivener
    How to Get Started as a Technical Writer

    • Susan Daffron

      We actually write our books in a tool my husband James Byrd (see comment below) wrote called IdeaWeaver. Talk about geeky…James is the nerd in the room, not me.

      IdeaWeaver lets you export to RTF, and the headings in your outline become Word heading 1, heading 2 etc. So it works for our situation. Also, to be quite honest, I’m still using Word 2000. (Yes, really!) I have 2003 and use that too, but after that I completely jumped off the Microsoft bus in a large way. I think Word 2007+ is total garbage. If I get to the point where I can’t load my ancient Word 2000, I’ll move to Open Office or something else. So that’s the long way of saying, I’m with ya there. As long as I can find something that will let me set up and use my styles, I’ll be fine ;-)

  12. LJ Cohen

    I am a *huge* evangelist for styles. If you want to develop a clean eBook, styles are really the only way to go in your source document. Figuring this out saved me a world of frustration and headaches. I put together a guide to using styles and how to format for eBook conversion mainly so I wouldn’t forget what I had spent so much time learning. Then I realized other writers might find it useful, so I have it available as a free/cc-licensed eBook. If anyone’s interested, you can dl it here: Because friends don’t let friends format bad eBooks. :)

    • Susan Daffron

      You’re “preaching to the choir” in my case, obviously ;-)

      I downloaded your ebook. Thanks for sharing the resource. I’m only on page 4 and you’re already talking about how styles make everything better. Very cool!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Just wanted to thank you LJ for supplying a link to what looks like a very useful document, that’s quite helpful.

  13. anne gallagher

    Thanks Susan, Thanks Joel. I learned about Styles by trial and error, mostly error. You’ve laid it out nicely here, so going into my next book should be a piece of cake.

  14. Jane Rutherford

    The technical details of book publishing always scare me a little because I can see hours and hours of trying to figure out how to make the file presentable. But maybe Styles are exactly what I need. I’ll try it out with the next project I finish and we’ll see what comes of it :) Thanks a lot for this post! (and have fun at the conference)

    • Susan Daffron

      Jane…once you “get” styles, you’ll wonder how you ever worked without them. Yes, setting them up takes time, but you are rewarded with consistent formatting. And in a book, consistency is a very good thing ;-)



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