Little Things Mean A Lot–In Ebooks

Maybe you could come up with 1) a list of features which make ebooks look better, and 2) a seal of approval for books submitted to you which display a majority of those features.–ABE

That comment is from one of my lovely readers in an earlier post. She also suggested I run a feature similar to Joel Friedlander’s ebook cover design awards. (Have you seen the latest? Go check it out.) It’s tempting to emulate him (he’s one of my heroes), but he’s been designing books and covers for decades and he has the technical skills and hard experience to back up his comments. Me? I’m running on instinct. I know when I like something, I know when I dislike it, but not everybody shares my preferences. Plus, when I see a problem in an ebook, I don’t always know what caused the problem, so I have to go rooting around like a pig in a pecan grove, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. And sometimes when I figure something out, I don’t have the language to explain what I’ve done.

Even so, I love it when people send me links to their work or send me screen shots to show off what they’ve done or tell me how they solved or worked around a specific problem. This is relatively new technology and the more we share with each other, the better all of us will get.

Back to the comment. What features make an ebook stand out for me? And by what standards do I judge the quality of formatting? I think I can answer that.


I’ve been reading manuscripts for over twenty years. I don’t mind reading manuscripts, but I don’t read them for pleasure. Manuscripts trigger my Inner Editor. Hence, I do not want ebooks that look like manuscripts.

  • Use printer’s punctuation, NOT “keyboard” punctuation and format it in book style. Use proper ellipses and em dashes (NOT floating hyphens or en dashes–they look like mistakes!). Curly quotes instead of straight quotes. Foreign words with properly placed (as in use the actual characters) acute and grave accents.
  • Do NOT underline text to indicate italics–italicize it.
  • Double-spacing, extra spaces between paragraphs (in fiction), extra wide paragraph indents. All those make an ebook look like a manuscript.


  • If yours is a chapter book, clearly indicate the chapters. (I have read ebooks where I couldn’t tell where one chapter ended and another began–disconcerting, to say the least.)
  • Use scene break indicators. In PRINT an extra line between scenes offers a useful visual clue. In an ebook, that blank space looks like a mistake. If the scene break occurs between “pages” it can be jarring to suddenly have a shift in time, place or characters without any visual clues to indicate the jump.


This is a sticky one since many ereading devices don’t allow for headers (Like Larry the Kindle, alas, but I love it anyway.). Readers forget–this reader forgets–titles and author names. (I include the title of book at the beginnings of chapters, and sometimes the author’s name) It’s irksome when my only option is to click through the menu and go to the cover to remind me what I’m reading. Even more irksome is a lack of front matter and back matter. I read all the extraneous material. Extra points for ebooks with:

  • An interesting title page.
  • An interesting About the Author or reader letter page.
  • Live links to buy more books.


Another sticky area since not every platform or conversion program is on the same page regarding generating tables of contents and using internal links. Still, extra points for producers who make the effort with:

  • A useful Table of Contents


The best feature of my Kindle, a dedicated ereader, is the distraction-free reading. The biggest downside is that it is distraction-free. Meaning, I sometimes grow fatigued by text and more text marching across the screen and nowhere to rest my eyes. It’s not that I’m bored with the story. I’m bored with the visuals. This is a tricky, sticky problem for ebook producers. You don’t want to jar readers out of a story with bells and whistles. Too much cleverness will detract rather than enhance. (And I swear, if fireworks, flickering images or screen glitter start showing up in my ebooks, I’m going back to print…) Small touches, small changes in routine can help maintain visual interest and reduce reading fatigue.

  • Interesting chapter headers.
  • Drop caps.
  • Bolded text at the beginnings of chapters and/or scenes.
  • Block paragraphs at the beginnings of chapters and/or scenes.
  • Graphic touches–glyphs for scene break indicators or at the end of chapters or sections.

I think the quality that stands out in a terrifically produced ebook the most is the quality that is most difficult to define. It’s that sense that the writer/producer really cares about the book. That it matters to them and they want it to matter to me, the reader, as well. The care shows in the little touches and careful proofreading and attention paid to details.

I used to tease my older sister about her vanity. She wouldn’t walk out to fetch the newspaper unless her hair and makeup were perfect. One day she shut me down with: “It’s not vanity to let people know you care.”

That says it all to me.




18 thoughts on “Little Things Mean A Lot–In Ebooks

  1. I agree with you 100%. It’s the little things, those things a reader may not even notice consciously, but they flesh out the reading experience – the little things make ebooks taste and smell like virtual books.

    • I think you nailed it, Marie. Ebook formatting satisfies my creative urges. I like the challenges and I like seeing what I can do with the tools on hand. Each one for me is akin to an art project.

  2. Polished vs. looking like a manuscript: No Courier font!

    And, for heaven’s sake, don’t defeat the font’s built-in line spacing – designed with the font – ending up with text that touches or overlaps between lines.

    Paragraph indents: either indent each paragraph (except, possibly, the first) OR put in a blank line between paragraphs. Otherwise the reader has to figure out where the paragraphs are by remembering where the previous paragraph ended, and can’t tell at all if the previous line accidentally was the right length to end at the right margin. Since paragraphing in dialogue is the standard for switching speakers, it gets quite confusing unless you use a dialogue tag with each speaker in each paragraph, which is just plain bad writing.

    And make sure all the text is in the same font size if it’s supposed to be the same kind of text. I actually found sections of text in a size two points smaller (11 vs. 13) in the middle of large sections of text in an ebook by a popular author. In many different chapters. My guess is that it had somehow been autoconverted from a print book, by an OCR program with a glitch, but the effect, once noticed, was jarring.

    If you’re going to bold and/or drop cap the first three words in each paragraph at the head of a chapter or section, take a look at what the automatic programming has created before you let it out the door! Instead of making it look better, it can make it look far worse, if in one case the words are short: ‘It was ten’ (minutes…), and in another long: ‘Combining programming languages’ (for…). The length of the text, and how the automatic justification places spaces within a line, make a difference in how it LOOKS.

    Point on chapter titles: Use them. And make them meaningful, if you possibly can. A list of titles from Chapter 1 to Chapter 46 requires the READER to remember where she was if she gets out of sync or goes to check something in another section. I get quite tired of reading the beginning text of a bunch of chapters just to find where I was. I’m starting to bookmark and highlight a lot so I can do my own navigation – unless I forget.

    I’m not saying any of these things is done perfectly in print books. But the professionals doing the typesetting for print books often did care, and had high standards. Many things won’t show up until the ebook is published. What the imperfections have in common is that no one checked the aesthetics one last time before publishing. We are fortunate that taking something down to fix a glaring error in an ebook is much simpler than recalling a print run.

    It’s a lovely moving target, isn’t it?

    Will add all of your points to the list. Thanks.

    • I should have you write the post, Abe. Heh.

      Your point about the paragraph spacing is a sound one. Paragraph styles in ebooks are fairly limited–the main choices being indented paragraphs or block paragraphs. To my way of seeing things, fiction should have indented paragraphs and block paragraphs are reserved for non-fiction. In either case, producers need to be aware of reader comfort, especially in not letting block paragraphs run together.

      As for the font jumping sizes, I see that occur mostly in titles issued by traditional publishers. Since many of them are using scanned materials or word processor files provided by the writers, it makes me think the problem lies in inadvertent codes–probably an accidental string of characters that seem innocuous enough on the producer’s screen, but wreak havoc during conversion. (Whenever I run an OCR on a scanned book the result is filled with what I call “bug shit” characters, many of which I KNOW will not be recognized by conversion programs. Fun times stripping all of them out.) So I wonder if producers are accidentally introducing coding into the file. The biggest problem is that every converter reads code in a slightly different way. So a file might convert perfectly into mobi format, but in epub a wayward code turns blocks of text into 16pt font translated into Swedish or some such nonsense. Definitely something to be aware of.

      • Thanks for the sentiment, but I couldn’t write the post for the very good reason that I haven’t a clue how to fix any of these things – you do (or find out).

        Mine is a list of ‘uglies’ I have noticed since you taught us to SEE. Drat. Now I can’t ignore the little critters.

        A checklist of these things, which is updated regularly as new stuff comes to light, would be nice.

        I’m hoping that when I start doing my own, from clean Scrivener copy, that the uglies won’t get in in the first place. Methinks it would also make it easier to go to a POD version if the ebook starting file is very nice and clean.

        Unlike cover design, which is very subjective (beyond things like don’t put red letters on a black background, consider what happens when the picture becomes tiny and grayscale, and such), the things you mention are more objective. Yes, they are part of the book looking nice, and thus art, but they span whatever font is being used, and are often obvious once pointed out. And, except for people using a very large font on a very small screen (an uncomfortable way for a vision-challenged person to read), most people would agree with your solutions and your quibbles.

        Keep pointing them out – the education is priceless.

    • I like that touch in print, but I’m leery about it in an ebook–especially with a Kindle. The only way it would look really good would be with small caps, but with that bug in the older Kindles, I’d worry it would squish some readers’ fonts. I bet it would look good in a crime novel. Okay, now I really want to try it and see how it looks.

  3. Jaye, yeah I’ve seen it in Crime/Noir. But for a Romance, Fantasy, or Sci-Fi…I’m not so sure. You can do make everything uppercase fast in Notepad++ by selecting the words and pressing CTRL+SHIFT+U

  4. Polished.

    I love that. Simple. Elegant. And it perfectly sums up what should be the goal for every writer and formatter.

    I learned, long ago, to read with a critical eye. It came in very handy while working as the typesetter for my college newspaper. (Fortunately, it was an electronic typesetter; unfortunately, the manual was a bad mimeograph copy of a very poor German-to-English translation that was more of a literal work than an interpreted one!) And, when I see something wrong, in either a printed book or an electronic one, it is jarring. It shows to me a profound lack of interest in one’s product, as well as a lack of professionalsm.

    Self-publishing an e-book can be done by anyone, and, if one pays attention to details, said e-book can look as professional as — if not MORE professional than — any book released by a “big” publishing house. Moreover, it can be done with zero cash outlay beyond what one already has invested in to write electronically in the first place.

    Thanks, Jaye, for being an incredible standard-bearer for polish!

  5. Jaye, do you know if the Kindle bug is invoked by specifying a point size for the font (i.e., 10pt, then 8pt, then 10pt again), by specifying a relative size (i.e., 1em, then 0.8em, then 1em again), by percentages (i.e., 100%, then 80%, then 100% again), or all of the above?

    Just wondering….

    • Thanks for the kind words, Jon. I’ve always been a bibliophile, loving everything about books from what they contained to how they looked. I’m with you 100% re the trad pub ebooks. The worst looking ebooks on my Kindle came from the traditional publishers.

      As for the Amazon bug, I’d need to William Ockham to explain it. He wrote about it in the comments somewhere. I’ll have to find it. My take away was, don’t use any fonts smaller than the default. The really bad thing about the bug is that it does NOT show up on the Amazon previewer. It’s in the actual devices themselves. That is a bad thing.

  6. Great post, Jaye. I really like the attention some ebooks put in the chapter transitions. Makes it feel like I’m ‘turning the page’ on that chapter. I don’t want that feeling every time I swipe through, but getting that feeling at major sections or chapters is nice. In Zafon’s latest book, he had the book broken into three sections, each with several chapters. At the beginning of each section, the publisher had three gorgeous, rectangular black/white photos that set the mood for the section, very much like what you did for Ms. Bridges Zombies short story collection. The only thing is, they somehow got the picture to fill the entire frame on my Nook. Not sure how they did that. Scalzi’s novella God Engines also did the same thing. It turned out really well.

    • Indeed, Nila. I just picked up a monthly ezine with short fiction. The producer was on the right track by organizing the genres into distinct sections. It would have been super nice if they’d included illustrations. I don’t know about the Nook, but black and white illustrations look fabulous on the Kindle. I’m still trying to figure out the ins and outs of sizing images. There’s a difference between how tablets and iPads handle images and how dedicated readers handle them. I’m going to find somebody who actually knows how different devices deal with images to write a blog post about it.

      Any takers? Email me.

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  8. Thank you for sharing this information. I’m just finishing up writing a nonfiction book and have been self-published, but not since ebooks have become so popular. I care very much about the reader experience but have just begun to research what all I need to pay attention to. I just read my first ebook on Kindle for the Mac and noticed some of the nice touches you mentioned, and they did help my reading experience.

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