Formatting Errors in Ebooks

All week I’ve been screwing around with formatting ebooks (experimenting, too). I uploaded two short stories, helped another writer load a novel into Amazon and am in email communication with another writer who is struggling with a corrupted file. I’m in an OCD frame of mind. (my new motto: I obsess about this shit so you don’t have to)

I’m not a professional formatter. I don’t know the fancy stuff (yet), but I read a lot on my Kindle and I know what a properly formatted ebook should look like. I have seen some stunningly beautiful ebooks. I have seen total messes. None of the messes made the text unreadable, but they did diminish my enjoyment of the stories.

Many writers don’t want to mess with formatting their ebooks. I don’t blame them. There are good, reliable pros who can do a bang up job for a reasonable price (before hiring a formatter, ask for a list of titles they’ve done, then go download samples onto your ereader to check the quality). But, what if you want to publish shorts? Epublishing is a good way to get your short fiction and essays to market. Shorts, however, are not a great paying market. It could take months or years to recoup the cost of professional formatting. Learn to do it yourself and you can find new readers for a low cost. You don’t have to know how to do the fancy fonts or graphics in order to produce a good-looking, format-error-free, straight text ebook.

What you do have to do is pay attention to details and understand where errors come from. I’m guessing that 99% come straight from our word processors. So, if you get the source file in your word processor right, then chances are excellent you’ll end up with a good looking ebook. Manually rearranging text in your word processor creates problems down the road. The following graphic shows why. If you use Word, you have a Show/Hide feature in the menu bar. It looks like a Paragraph mark. I circled it in red. Click it and you can see the formatting marks in your manuscript.

In the top sample I manually arranged text. (A) shows where I used the space bar to center text. (B) shows double spaces between sentences. (C) shows extra spaces at the end of the paragraphs. (D) indicates a Tab. In the bottom sample I used a style sheet. Notice no extra spaces anywhere, no extra code. (E) shows a second style sheet that centers text.

Amazon usually justifies text for the Kindle (I don’t know what Nooks, iPhones and other gadgets do). When you have extra spaces, it gets factored into the process. (Remember computers talk to each other. One says, “Here’s what I want,” and the other might say, “Yeah, but this is what I’m gonna do.”) Even extra spaces between sentences or at the end of a paragraph can cause the program to “jump” a line, leaving blanks in the text. And using the space bar to center text? You could end up with blank pages. And the Tabs? Conversion programs apparently have a special hatred for Tabs. The ereader could go along fine, ignoring the Tabs for several pages, then all the sudden decide what you really mean is to block indent the text.

The solution to this is using Style sheets. They give you consistency and fewer opportunities to insert unwanted codes for conversion programs to misinterpret. Even if you aren’t going to format your own ebooks or even self-publish, get in the habit of using Style sheets anyway. More and more agents and editors prefer electronic submissions. Using Style sheets will lessen the chances of your electronic submissions turning into gobbledegook on the agent’s or editor’s computer or gadget.

I wrote a post about how to set up Style sheets in Word. You can look at it by clicking here. It’s very easy to do. Once you create the Style sheets, you set ’em and forget ’em. More difficult is getting out of the habit of using Tabs or the space bar to manipulate text. If you want to format nice looking ebooks, that’s exactly what you need to do.

In my next post, I’ll talk about something really fun: Nuking your manuscript to get rid of unwanted coding, and using search-and-replace to make everything pretty again.


24 thoughts on “Formatting Errors in Ebooks

  1. Yes, formatting is definitely an issue. I want to say that it doesn’t affect the story for me….but it kind of does, especially when I have to figure out where the “pieces” are supposed to be.

    Oh, and on an iPhone, ebooks have justified margins, as well. 🙂

    • Hi, Kelly. Someday, in the distant future (maybe) all computer programs will be a hundred percent compatible and every ebook will end up on an ereader looking exactly the way the creator meant it to look. Until that day comes, we just have to keep fiddling.

  2. I created a style sheet in Word (I called it Jaye’s Style) and it did help. I can’t believe I always ignored that feature.

    I plan on making a Smashwords style, a Kindle style, etc to match whatever formatting needs each of them demands. Is that a good idea? Can I include everything they demand in a style sheet?

    • Yes, you can, Nila. I use different style sheets. One for composing (I call it Manuscript), another for the ebook body text (Epub), and a third for the title page, chapter headings and scene breaks (Headers). That way I get consistency and fewer introduced errors.

      • If you ever have any extra time (Ha). Would you mind sharing your parameters for your style sheet: Headers? I’m flummoxed with how to set up this style sheet. . Thanks. I understand if you haven’t the time.

  3. The step by step you gave me is at my side. I’m using it to format the sci fi series I’m updating. Yes, it makes sense once you do it a couple times. If an idiot like me can follow your instructions, anybody can. You know how I was screaming and cursing the other night…

    • One should leave screaming and cursing up to the experts. 😉

      I just posted an article about nuking the codes out of the files and fine-tuning the formatting. Follow that step by step and you should end up with nice, clean files. If screaming and cursing becomes necessary, chat me.

    • Notice how I keep inserting links to people who actually do this stuff for a living? The “Looks Simple” rule seems to apply. The simpler it looks, the easier it is to screw up. But hey, if I can figure it out, anybody can.

  4. Jaye, I’m so glad you’re doing this series. It’s going to make good formatting easy to attain.

    I use a slightly roundabout path to formatting:

    1) compose and spellcheck in Word
    2) strip out Word text into text editor (this retains smart quotes)
    3) search and replace quotes, ellipses, em-dashes, etc with HTML markup
    4) save the file as HTML with some simple CSS to fine-tune the formatting
    5) open the HTML file in a browser and check for ugly spots (your ebook is basically a web page). Correct errors in HTML file
    6) run the corrected HTML through Calibre (free ebook conversion program)
    7) open the resulting .MOBI or .EPUB in its respective reader
    8) fix any errors and repeat 6-8
    9) publish .MOBI or .EPUB to appropriate distributor

    I really am going to write a whole blog article about the fine points of this very soon. I’ve done six short story ebooks this way, and it doesn’t suck.

    • Yes, Bridget, please do. I am just dipping my toe into HTML and CSS so when the day comes I want to do something more than just bare-bones basic ebook formatting, I can do so (and maybe have some hair left on my head when I finish).

  5. Thanks for the detailed advice on epublishing, there are still very few easy to follow guides so far! I’ve tried epublishing myself but only for personal use.

    I used Mobipocket creator which is free to download and neither complicated or straightforward to use! I saved my manuscript as a html document and formatted chapter titles as Headings. The programme took care of the rest and seems to work fine on a kindle. I’ve tested it on other kindles but not other ereaders so I don’t know how universal the success would be.

    Might be worth a try for people who are formatting illiterate like me beyond the point of Bold Italics and Center justify!

    • Mobipocket Creator is one of the most horrid pieces of software I’ve ever encountered. I almost gave up on formatting my own ebooks when I though it was the gold standard. Do try Calibre–it’s much friendlier, and over the last six books I’ve learnt a lot about how best to use it. I’ll be sharing that soon.

      • My step-by-step method for Mobipocket. Cross fingers, cross toes, squinch eyeballs shut and click the mouse.

        I don’t know enough about HTML coding to repair errors in the mobi file. If something is screwed up, I start over with the Word file and try again.

        I did notice that this time around, it was easier and faster to use. Maybe they fixed some bugs.

  6. Pingback: Produce A Clean Ebook File in Word: Nuke It! | J W Manus

  7. Pingback: good reads… | The Many Worlds of Char….

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