Ask a Formatting Expert: Answers!

Becca and I are happy to host the amazing Heather Adkins, Formatting Guru from Cyber Witch Press on the blog today, answering your Q’s about formatting. Heather was crazy kind enough to take on our enormous Emotion Thesaurus project, and she made it sparkle and shine and become something amazing.

I’ll warn you…Heather gets technical in her answers.

*whispers*  She uses terms that I don’t understand. In fact, it sounds like an alien language. Maybe she’s really an alien herself, bent on world domination, one ebook at a time!

OR…she’s just really freaking good at what she does. 🙂

Well, seeing as she doesn’t look alien-esque in the slightest, and when I say to her, Heather, can you make the ebook do THIS? and then POOF! the ebook magically DOES IT, I’m going with the fact that she’s savvy and knows her format-fu.

All kidding aside, Getting the formatting right is CRITICAL, and to do that, you need someone who knows the ins and outs of code. So, I’m going to turn this over to Heather to answer all the great questions you asked a few weeks ago!

LM Preston asked: Is there any software out there that will format your books for you – when the books have pictures?

HEATHER: I know some people use Sigil, and I’ve tinkered with it a bit and found it to be easy to use and quite self-explanatory. You basically copy in your document chapter by chapter, or insert picture by picture, and then use their handy-dandy conversion feature to output an epub. A friend’s daughter has recently done some children’s picture books by using Sigil. Sigil only does epub books, not Kindle, but you could technically use Calibre to convert the epub to Kindle, though I don’t guarantee the quality of the output. This is a MUCH better program to use than Microsoft Word, so if you’re out to format your books yourself, I highly recommend Sigil over Word.

I also recently heard that Apple has come out with a product specifically for formatting Apple books, and that this product does it all – including images. However, I’m not familiar with it, as I don’t own or use an Apple computer. It’s only available for formatting FOR Apple upload. You can’t use the resulting book anywhere else. When it comes to programs that do it for you, you have to remember that you are your own quality assurance. Just like supposed grammar programs, a machine is never 100% correct.

Laura Pauling asked: Is it impossibly hard to insert small graphics along with each chapter title? And what is the process in transferring a hand drawn picture to be an illustration? Would I just scan and turn into a jpg?

HEATHER: Excellent question, as I am obsessed with what I call “pretties” 🙂 I can only answer for my methods, unfortunately. I use CSS html which is basic web design. I don’t have to “insert” an image, such as you do in a word processor. All I need to do is make sure the image in the exact shape and size it needs to be exists in the same folder as my html file. Then, anywhere I want the image to appear within the ebook (such as beneath every chapter heading), I insert the html “tag” that tells the ebook converter where to put the image. This html file then becomes the Kindle and epub books. In this way, I’ve done chapter headings AS images (like a fancy font) or images under the chap headings, and I’ve also done a journalist’s book with pictures within his articles.

You can see pictures of some of the books I’ve formatted with images at my Facebook page in my cover pic. I also do Smashwords files with chapter glyphs. It’s just a matter of going through chapter by chapter and inserting the image into the doc in the proper place using Insert–>Picture–>From File. You want to make sure the picture you insert is at a web dpi of 72 (larger images cause larger files, and Smashwords has a 5MB upload limit). While I don’t format for other platforms using Word, I do know people who have managed to get images at the chapter headings using Word for Kindle. The quality isn’t as nice as tagging images in via html, but it works. How you do it for Kindle, however, I don’t know 🙂 See below for second question about image scanning.

Angela Orlowski-Peart asked: I wonder what would be the process of uploading my watercolor painting as the book cover?

HEATHER: I am by no means a graphic artist, and I couldn’t design a cover to save my life…so I’m not great with image questions. I did format for a client who had a children’s chapter book that included her own hand-drawn images that she simply scanned into the computer using a typical home printer/scanner and emailed to me. I would imagine that for any image you want to get on the computer, it’d be best to scan it. You probably do want to make sure it’s a quality scanner, and if necessary, make a run to Kinko’s! Like any book cover, you would need to tweak the painting to look like a book cover or the average reader will wrinkle their nose (readers are a tough, tough crowd!) For that, I highly recommend consulting a trained cover artist. Who is definitely not me 😉

Angela asked: If a person paid a formatter, what should they do if their readers tell them about a glitch/typo/reading problem in one of the ebook formats down the road–try to fix it themselves, or go back to the formatter?

HEATHER: This depends on how the formatter formatted the book! If you had a formatter who used Microsoft Word, and sent you a formatted Word doc for upload at Kindle, then you can definitely attempt changes yourself.

You would ALWAYS want to find a way to download the book and double check that nothing went wrong after you make changes and reupload, however. I’m not sure how sensitive the Kindle upload program is to all the background nonsense that embeds itself in Word. Smashwords – NADA. Don’t touch it. If your formatter knows what the heck she/he’s doing, then they’re using Styles they created in their own Word program. Styles are like a “mask” that tell the doc how to display the text via font face, heading style, font size, font color, indent, spacing, etc. etc. Word comes with a few styles already built in, but I don’t use them and I wouldn’t expect others to either if they’ve read the Smashwords Style Guide. What this means is your Smashwords doc that they formatted uses styles that do not exist on your computer – because your formatter created them on HER computer, and they don’t translate. If you open that document and make changes, then resave, you lose those styles – namely the italics (proven several times over with my clients) and often the headings, which SW uses to make your TOC/NCX, which you HAVE to have for premium distribution…in short, I recommend paying ten bucks for your formatter to make that list of changes rather than you dealing with a big ole headache if something goes wrong!

For someone like me who uses html in ebook formatting, unless you have a basic understanding of html, you probably won’t know how to make changes yourself in the root file or how to convert the file to epub/mobi. My clients tend to save up typos over a period of time, and then send it to me at once for a flat $10 fix on all files. My opinion is it’s probably worth the small charge your formatter charges so you don’t have to deal with any cataclysmic fall-out if something goes wrong 🙂

Angel asked: My next book has footnotes. The kind you need to read, as you are reading it, not stacked in the back of the ebook. Is there a way to place these at the bottom of the page like a print book?

HEATHER: Unfortunately, no. Ebooks aren’t stationary like print pages. One person may read your book on their tiny Android Kindle app while Great-Grandma Morris reads it on her huge Kindle DX. Ebooks are meant to be fluid—they go with the flow of whatever device the book is being read on. Phones display a single paragraph at a time, the larger ereaders can display two pages. You do have an alternative that is special to the technological and digital world we’re living in—hyperlinks. No matter the kind of formatting—html or word processor—you have the ability to format with hyperlinks. You’ve got a footnote for the phrase “raining cats and dogs”? Turn that baby into a hyperlink that leads to an index in the back of the book that holds that specific footnote. Then put in an easy “return to phrase” link, and voila, they come full circle right back to where they were reading.

Riv Re asked: I’ve seen a lot of different formats for the header and footer. What’s the standard and/or what do you recommend when it comes to placing the page number, and what to put on the top of the page (ie: the title, the author, the chapter name)?

HEATHER: I’m assuming we’re talking about print formatting here, as you should never never never have a header/footer/page number on an ebook for the same reason you can’t have footnotes (see above). When I format a Createspace book, I always insert a header that is different odd/even, and then I place the book’s title on the right hand page and the author’s name on the left hand page, centered. I usually place page numbers in the footer, outside alignment. Is this standard? Nah. Is there a standard? Not really. A recent client had his page numbers and book title in the footer with no header. Another client chose outside aligned headers but centered page numbers. Open any five trad pub books and you’ll see they’re ALL different. These things are stylistic preferences, so really, it’s up to you.

I find myself studying the formatting of print books as if they hold the meaning of life. My most recent release has print formatting based on the most recent release in Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series, “Cat’s Claw.” I read the book, ADORED the formatting, and made the same thing happen in my book. You can do pretty much anything if you set your mind to it 🙂

The Golden Eagle asked: Can XHTML and CSS be used to format novels, and/or the developing HTML5 (or XHTML 2.0, if indeed XHTML is acceptable)?

HEATHER: My methods of formatting are by using XHTML and CSS. XHTML is actually considered the proper use of html these days. It is supported by all major browsers (re: ereaders) and is cleaner than HTML (which can often be misinterpreted on ereaders due to improperly closed tags and other issues.) I have heard hear-say that many ereaders are moving into support for HTML5, however it’s still early days and I’ve yet to find out much about it. Basically, ebooks should become more and more interactive, like with embedded videos or sound files, thanks to improvements in html. My guru—the man from whom I learned ebook formatting—is Guido Henkel. I’ve been stalking his blog, waiting for his thoughts on the new stuff.

Linda Austin asked: I stripped my Word manu and formatted using the Smashwords guide since the Kindle guide is pathetic. Then adapted to any Kindle specs. I know Word pretty well so it didn’t seem hard, and only 128 print pages anyway. Waiting for the cover designer before I upload. Some say you can’t just fix a Word doc and must use Calibre or something else. Advise?

HEATHER: You should never use Word to format an ebook. I couldn’t put it any better than that man there. I don’t recommend Word for anything but Smashwords and Createspace formatting, both of which are necessary evils. I am an advocate for html formatting, as ebook readers are intended to be nothing more than little web browsers, and should be treated as such! 😉 I’ve had many friends in the self-publishing world who compared their Word-formatted books to my html-formatted books and made hands-down decisions to switch to html. There is an obvious better quality to html formatted ebooks.

Becca asked: Some distributors accept many different kinds of files. Amazon, for instance, accepts Word, epub, mobi, plain text, html, pdf, or rich text files. For us, you chose to go with the mobi file at Amazon. I’m just curious: for the major distributors (say, Amazon and B&N), which file type do you recommend using?

HEATHER: I recommend a .mobi file for upload at Amazon, and .epub file for upload at Barnes and Noble and Apple, and the Smashwords formatted doc for Smashwords. The file you upload should be the same file the ereader outputs – so while Sony, Kobo, and Diesel don’t (yet) offer self-publishing platforms like KDP and PubIt!, if there were to open up, they would be epub platforms, as well. Think of it this way – if you upload a Word doc to Amazon, how much more has to be jiggled, converted, and changed as opposed to uploading an already-formatted Kindle mobi? A lot. Quality in means quality out.

HOLY ZOMBIE BANANAS. After rereading this, I am so glad I did not try to attempt formatting myself. My brain is not up to the task, lol. Good thing I know someone with mad skillz in this department: Heather! (H, thank you so much for taking the time to help everyone with their questions and offer your experience!)

Seriously, Becca and I cannot thank Heather enough for all her work on both the ebook & print versions of the Emotion Thesaurus. If you are looking for a formatter, she’s your gal!


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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20 Responses to Ask a Formatting Expert: Answers!

  1. I’m also planning a series of posts for my blot based on many of these questions (including the one on Word code vs real code). So feel free to stop by in the future if you’d like to learn more 🙂

    Also, anyone interested in learning basic ebook formatting code should check out the formatting posts at Guido Henkel’s blot

  2. I have been on vacation, so only just now stopping by! Thanks so much for all the questions and comments 🙂

    I have many, many clients who preach that they would rather pay me to do what I do best so they can focus on writing. So much of ebook formatting is not easily understood, which is why you see so many books out there riddled with errors like full pages without indents or inconsistent chapter headings, or heaven forbid, page numbers within the text of the ebook!! Publishing companies pay to get their ebooks formatted, so it only makes sense that hiring out to a professional formatted is as sensible as hiring a professional cover artist and a professional editor. All 3 are a must if you plan on success as an indie.

    @Golden Eagle – word on the street is that ebooks are going to get more and more interactive, just a matter of time!

    @Jeff Hargett – No. While many people DO convert their Word to code, what you have to understand is that Word code is not code the way it is supposed to be. It is another language entirely. With true xhtml, you have commands that cover the entire doc as a whole, thus creating consistent and flawless formatting thouhout. In Word, the ‘code’ is on a paragraph by paragraph basis, and thus uber room for errors and inconsistency (esp if one isn’t thoroughly knowledgeable at using Word STYLES), AND it isn’t completely compatible with browsers (aka ereaders).

  3. Heather was truly an asset throughout this process. She was incredibly knowledgeable, helpful, and generous. If anyone is in need of a formatter, I can’t recommend her highly enough. Thanks, Heather :).

  4. Ciara says:

    Great information. I’ve been working on formatting some books. Each of my publishers ask it to be formatted differently. Now, I’m working on a self-published project and learning that. This is helpful. Thanks!

  5. Thanks for answering my question!

    I do hope there’s more interaction in e-books in the future. I think it could potentially add a lot to a story experience; though I don’t think anything can replace text alone. Otherwise it wouldn’t quite be a book. 😛

  6. Stacy Green says:

    So much to learn from this post. Definitely bookmarking. Formatting is a huge fear for me if I decide to self-publish later on. Thanks so much!

  7. Leslie Rose says:

    I’m in awe of those who can wrap their minds around this. If I can’t grab and drag, I’m lost.

  8. There is a lot of info here . . . I don’t know that I’m up to formatting my own book, but I’ll mark this page for future reference.

  9. I’ll leave it to the experts as well. Lol. I’ve totally clueless when it comes to all of this.

  10. I use Jutoh to format my ebooks. It is VERY easy, and it outputs both epub and mobi (and others). And it’s a very inexpensive program too (and the results are lovely.)

  11. Great interview. Though it was technical, I enjoyed the questions and Heather’s answers. Thanks for sharing your advice Heather.

  12. Jemi Fraser says:

    My brain is spinning! 🙂 I’m not sure I’d ever be up to doing this myself. Thankfully there are brilliant people (like Heather) I can hire!! 🙂

  13. Karen Lange says:

    Thanks Angela, Becca, and Heather for sharing this! 🙂

  14. Jeff Hargett says:

    Is it then not recommended to save a Word doc as HTML and use that within Calibre? I’ve done that for personal projects to be loaded onto my Android tablet to read via the kindle reader with fair results, but wonder about things such as tables of contents, glossaries, etc.

  15. Okay, the cool thing is that after formatting a manuscript I understood all of this. But a few months ago? I would’ve been lost. Great answers! I’d love with certain future stories to have the image of a different font or a real picture to go a long with the title but for now…I see it as an extra not worth spending time on.

    The best advice I read about formatting is to keep it as simple as possible esp. for someone who isn’t a professional designer. And I loved Sigil. It really helped with tweaking the html.

    Thanks, Heather!

  16. Wow, so much information. I’m thoroughly intimidated. Sounds like I need to take an elementary html class.

  17. This sounds really hard and I wouldn’t want to do this. I’m with Mr. MacNish.

  18. R. E. Hunter says:

    Thanks for the tip on Sigil, Heather. It looks like it might be just what I need.

  19. Jaleh D says:

    So much of that skims over my head, but it’s great to glimpse into behind the scenes of ebooks.

  20. Well, I’m thoroughly lost. Thankfully, there are people who do this for a living, if it ever comes to that.

    Thanks for the breakdowns, Heather!

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