Fun With Formatting: Making Ebooks Pretty

SS2I’ve loved romance novels ever since I was a kid and devouring my grandmother’s subscription Harlequin’s. Now that I’m producing ebooks, I love them even more. Doesn’t lush, lyrical prose just cry out for lush, pretty treatments?

Here’s the thing. Ever since I got my Kindle Fire tablet, I’ve been enthralled by the possibilities. It displays color beautifully. It’s fast! Sometimes large graphics can lag in eink readers, but I’ve yet to run into that problem with the Fire. So when Katherine O’Neal, historical romance writer, asked me to help her bring out books as ebooks, I found a kindred spirit. She loves beautiful books, too.

SS3Some of the ebooks use black and white graphics, but they’re still pretty. With others we went full bore and over the top. Why not? As a reader, a visually interesting book is a pleasure to read. As a formatter, well, it’s fun.

SS8I use a free program called for the graphics. It’s powerful and there’s a lot to learn, but with the help of Plunder Bunny (and a lot of time fooling around, er, practicing, I’m learning enough to produce some very slick graphics. Through trial and error I’ve learned some useful tricks and have some tips for you.

SS1Test your color graphics. allows me to turn an image to black and white, which gives me a good idea of how it will look on an eink reader. For the book with the Taj Mahal image we found a gorgeous red graphic, but unfortunately in b/w it turned into a dark gray blob. So we found the orange and yellow graphic that works beautifully.

Watch the sizes. Because graphical elements can quickly increase a file size into the unmanageable range, I keep careful track of image sizes. I can safely degrade most images to around 77-96 pixels per inch and it hasn’t been a problem with them looking sharp. I tend to make sure they are never bigger than the standard eink reader screen–600×800 pixels.

Unfortunately, as of this writing, ereaders don’t use vector images. I kind of hack my way around that by using percentages to set either the width or the height of the image so that it stays proportional to the text. For instance, with a rectangular header, I will size the graphic so it is 800 pixels wide, then set the width at 80%. That way, it enlarges easily and also shrinks, and maintains its crispness no matter the size of the screen or if the reader is reading in portrait or landscape mode.

Where to find images? I like and, both of which offer a huge variety of stock photos, illustrations and clip art. Some are free, others can be had for a small price. There are also free clipart sites. Sometimes I make my own images.

SS4I made the “playing cards” with and I think they turned out great.

Fonts are another good resource. For the book with the Celtic theme, I used a free wingding font from to make the purple “frame.” Another terrific font resource is If you’re interested in embedding fonts in your ebooks, fontsquirrel has a lot of embeddable fonts, free to use.

SS6So, experiment, have fun. Make your ebook stand out from the crowd. It doesn’t have to cost you a fortune (especially since there are no printing costs!). With a little practice and a bit of imagination, your ebooks can be things of beauty (and extra fun for me to read!).

19 thoughts on “Fun With Formatting: Making Ebooks Pretty

  1. I am finding out just how much this stuff matters.

    I was shopping for ebooks recently and was on the fence about which one to buy. I tried the sample of KAIN by Brie McGill. It was so pretty! The formatting was perfect and she had graphic headers at the top of each chapter and graphic footers at the end of each chapter. That attention to detail made me think the book must be equally carefully written and edited. Maybe this is an illusion–but if so, it’s an illusion that works! I barely read the sample. I was just like, “Oh, shiny! ”

    A well-formatted and attractive book has an edge–and it’s an edge that indies currently have over the big five publishers, who mostly just put out very basic ebooks.

    • Hi Margaret, it’s getting to the point where if I open an ebook on my tablet and it’s just text I feel a little bit ripped off. Not because it looks bad, but because the producer didn’t take advantage of the features and opportunities. I won’t NOT buy a book because it’s straight text, but like you, I am more tempted by the ebooks that look special.

  2. Sort of echoing Margaret’s comments, the one thing I have noticed with “big five” e-books is the use of embedded fonts, both for chapter headings and for body text. This gets done with… varying levels of success. Some do it pretty well, while others muck it up horribly, to the point where it’s practically mandatory to turn off the publisher defaults and try your best with your own settings.

    Being a font-natic, I really like seeing something distinctive for the chapter headings, and seeing an easy-to-read serif font for the body that isn’t Times New Roman is a welcome surprise. It’s nice to see this feature of e-books making its way into Indie releases, but its use really requires a light touch. It can be horribly overused and abused, leaving one’s book to suffer “The Heartbreak of Ugly Memo Syndrome.”

    • Having played some with embedded fonts, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s an art form all by itself. Plus it’s an area full of landmines–licensing, rights, size rendering, special character and special formatting issues–the list is long and the producer better know what they are doing. I can’t speak for other models of ereaders, but the Kindles now have perfectly nice looking font choices–even the older models. Embed a font–especially a body font–for very specific effects only and test, test, test to see how it renders on the devices.

      That said, embedding a font for headers can sure make my life easier.

      For Word users out there, if you declare a font in Word, you run a VERY high risk of breaking your ebook. At least with Kindles. Converters recognize Times New Roman–they don’t always recognize other fonts.

  3. Embedded fonts on the headings are definitely a classy touch, but as Jon mentions the big boys go too nuts on declaring fonts. I think this has to do with InDesign always exporting a font-family declaration for every single CSS selector (InDesign having many other problems). It’s always some nasty-looking font like Times New Roman too–reminds me of working in an office. If you’re going to declare a font for body content, at least make it something pleasing like Garamond.

    Jaye, on your images are you declaring a width attribute or using CSS to resize the images? On the newer Kindle Fires the images appear much smaller since the viewport is higher res. You can get around this by screwing with the css, so for HTML

    {p class=”imgwrapper”}{img src=”someimage.jpg” alt=”My Cat” /}{/p}

    and the CSS

    p.imgwrapper img
    width: 80%; /* or something like that */

    Would be curious to hear about your technique for these image headings so our shop can steal… er comment on it.

    • Call it beginner’s luck, Paul, but I have very good results by declaring the percentages in the html. I use div classes and also go with the lowest resolution images I can (and still have them render crisply in the majority of cases).

      The css might look like:
      {margin; 0.5em 0em;
      padding: 0;
      text-indent: 0em;
      text-align: center;}
      Then the html will be

      Chapter One

      I also keep a close eye on the height of my images. Too tall and they can end up overwhelming a screen in landscape mode. Like I said, I experiment a lot. I get the best results (for headers) if the image height is never more than 30% of the screen size. I know this works well on Kindles and the iOS app (at least, according to the Kindle Previewer viewer of the iOS, it does,). I think the results are working fine on Nooks and other EPUB ereaders. I test in Calibre and Adobe, and so far they look pretty good.

      Now, if we could just use vector images…

      What I haven’t been able to do is break the code on the best ways to do with Word for Smashwords. Wobbly things happen during conversion and I’ve yet to figure out how to make it behave with images.

  4. Just because I don’t always comment at your expertise, don’t think I don’t read every single one – and bookmark 9 out of 10.

    You provide a wonderful education – just knowing things exist means I open my eyes and see what you mean – and I can never ignore those things again.

    I’m really looking forward to forming my opinions on every little detail.

    • Hi, ABE, thank you for the kind words. I am glad you find my blog posts useful.

      The best way to learn formatting is to dig in and do it. I’m learning html and css on the fly, which makes me slow, but also gives me one advantage: I don’t know what I CAN’T do. So I’m always stumbling onto odd little hacks that actually work, even when the documentation says it won’t. Or shouldn’t. Hence, i encourage experimentation. 🙂

  5. I like you and your thoughts, have I mentioned this before. I’ll be putting up a review for short Jack Reacher story I bought last year but just now got round to reading it. I think it was deliberate but I commented that it looked crap at the beginning of chapter 1o when they had a large opening passage across the page then a conversational sequence with 3 or 4 word sentences per line and then back to the full across page forma and I thought it looked, well crap. It may just be me, in fact I’ll photo it and add it to the review and you can tell me if I’m being a tit (usually am) Will pub tomorrow, Saturday.


    • Child’s publisher is Random House, right? That do some of the ugliest ebooks out there. I got one of this short stories last year and was not impressed at all with how it was produced. Shame, too, I LOVE Jack Reacher and would like to own the ebooks.

      • I own all the Jack Reacher e-books, and have read them across three Kindles–one e-ink and 2 Fires. I haven’t yet encountered a major formatting error. Reading about Tom’s experience has had me spot-checking the e-books, and although some of the formatting they use works better than others for an e-book, I’m not finding anything like he described. Maybe I haven’t checked the right book, or maybe someone fixed the problem, though in my experience publishers don’t often do that.

        Oh, and lovely formatting tips as always. Keeping and stealing. Thanks, Jaye.

      • Thanks Bridget. I am so leery of the ebooks the big pubs put out. They’re overpriced to begin with and I’ve been burned once too often by broken ebooks and poorly proofed text. If Child’s ebooks were $2.99, I’d risk the minor annoyances. (although, to be fair, it’s not just the ebooks. The last two mmpb books I purchased fell apart before I could finish reading them. One was a Jack Reacher title. I was miffed, to say the least.)

  6. Are you using MS Word to format the text? I used Word to format my first book, but used Indesign for my second one, and the images were larger in my second book, with Indesign, not sure why. I am going to go back and reformat my first book using Indesign to make the images larger.

    • I only use Word for formatting ebooks when I have to, such as for Smashwords. It’s a not quite right tool for ebooks. It works okay with straight text in fiction, but images are always iffy. I have never used InDesign. I’ve seen a lot of broken ebooks as a result of InDesign. I think it is too over-powered for ebooks and users rely too much what they are seeing on their screen rather than being able to visualize how it will appear on a device. I do MOBI and EPUB formats with html (using Paul Salvette’s most useful method–see the sidebar for his book). I also use Sigil, but not to format. I use it because its validator thingie is fast and it will catch about 95% of any mistakes, which I can then fix right then and there without having to go through the rigamarole of compiling files and running them through the IDPF validator.

      The thing is, to create really great ebooks, you have to figure out how ereaders work. Once you do, you can see why some things are more effective than others. And why other things break ebooks. Priority one for me is make the ebook work. Priority two is make it look good.

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