Creating Custom Templates in MS Word

I have come to the bittersweet conclusion that y’all don’t need my formatting wizardry much anymore. At least not you fiction writers. The good news is the reason why: The major sites for self-publishing have caught up with the tools most commonly in use (mostly, Word), and the conversions are better than ever. You can upload a formatted Word doc to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Direct2Digital and, if you’ve followed the basic best practices for ebook formatting, the results will be professional. You can even use Word to lay out a print edition for Amazon. (And if your version of Word has the capability, you can export a pdf that will work for IngramSpark.)

The biggest problem Do-It-Yourselfers run into isn’t ability, but lack of experience. I do multiple ebook formats and print layouts every week. My routines are down pat. But when you’re only doing one format a year it can be like re-inventing the wheel each time.

The solution? Make custom templates. You can make multiple templates: one for composition; another for editing; one for ebook formatting; another for print layouts. (Don’t be put off by the word “template.” If you are using MS Word, then with every new document you create you are using a template–Word’s template.)

For an ebook it’s super easy to make a boilerplate template that includes your standard front and back matter. When you’re ready to format, all you have to do is fill in the blanks, update whatever needs updating, import your text, style the headings and such. Boom. Twenty minutes. Ready to go.

Below is a custom template I made for a friend:


  1. Open a new blank doc in Word.
  2. Save As into a .dotx file and give it a name such as Ebook Template.dotx
    Word will place the file into a folder called Custom Office Templates. (You can, if you wish, create your own  template folder, and then copy/paste your template into that.)
  3. Open the Styles pane and click “Manage Styles”
    In the toolbox:
    Check the box for “New documents based on this template”
    Hide or delete any styles you do not want showing in your template
    Click Okay.
  4. In the Styles pane click “Options…”
    Check the boxes that best fit how you work.
  5. Modify and/or create new styles for use in this template.
    NOTE: It’s unnecessary to do more than the basics that you will require in a bare bones format. If you need additional styles for a project it’s super easy to add them to your working document. Or, you can update the template itself.

The sample above is a template I created for markup documents to provide to my clients when they are proofreading their ebooks. It has only four paragraph styles and two character styles. The navigation guide is created automatically when I use Heading styles. Super simple.


To use the template to create a new document:

  1. Open the template
  2. Save As into a .docx file with a new name (MyOpusMagnus.docx)
  3. Start typing (Normal will be the default style. Apply other styles as necessary.)

To use the template for existing text (requires some prep work):

  1. Open the doc containing the text you want to use
  2. Save As with a new file name to preserve the original
  3. Tag the italics; make sure all scene breaks are clearly marked; make sure all deliberate blank lines are clearly marked (such as stanza breaks in poems)
  4. Delete all tabs; convert any soft returns into hard returns*
  5. Copy the text and paste it into a text editor (such as Notepad on a PC)
  6. Clean up the text to remove extraneous formatting, extra spaces and unneeded blank lines
  7. In Word, open the template
  8. Save As into a .docx file with your document name
  9. Copy the cleaned up text in the text editor and paste it into your new doc (everything will be styled as Normal)
  10. Restore the italics
  11. Go through the doc and apply styles where necessary
  • *Quick way to delete tabs with Find/Replace. In the Find field type ^t and leave the Replace field blank. Click Replace All.
  • Convert soft returns with Find/Replace: In the Find field type ^l and in the Replace field type ^p. Click Replace All.

Crafting a template for a print layout is a little trickier. It’ll probably take another blog post. The same principles apply. It’s all about styles. If you all want a post about print layouts, say the word and I’ll get on it.

By the way, if your do-it-yourselfing needs a bit of a jumpstart, I’m more than happy to create a custom ebook template for you. It’ll cost you ten to twenty-five bucks, depending on the complexity, but you’ll be able to use it over and over again for stellar results every time. Contact me at jayewmanus at gmail dot com.


Soft Hyphens for Kindle Books

I don’t care for automatic hyphenation in ebooks. The devices are pretty dumb and because they use an algorithm instead of an English major’s sensibilities, we get words like “mi- nute” instead of “min-ute” or “alt-hough” instead of “al-though.” While it is possible to turn on hyphenation for Kindle books, I’d rather not.

But. If a word has too many characters to fit on one line, this is what you get:

shy1Just like an oversized image, characters disappear off the screen. Because there are so many Kindle devices and apps, you have no idea what settings or screen size your reader might be using. Judicious use of soft hyphenation is an easy fix to an annoying problem.

Here is the same text, hyphenated, at various settings on the Kindle Previewer:

shy3shy4shy5What I did was use the named entity for a soft hyphen — ­

shy6The above example is a bit of overkill, but it was easy, so I did it. This way, no matter what preferences or screen size the user has, the text will not disappear off the screen.

If you’re building a non-fiction ebook, especially one with many long terms (technical or medical) inserting soft hyphens can prevent those unsightly gaps when a long word/term is jumped to the next page.

Have fun!


More Fun With Formatting: Why Not Illustrated Fiction?

One of my pleasures when reading is learning something new or unusual (I collect odd factoids the way trash hoarders collect empty soda cups). I truly appreciate writers who extensively research. Some of my finest obsessions (Vikings, forensic science, birds, etc.) spring directly from fiction. Even when my obsessions aren’t triggered, temporary fascination with people, places and things often send me haring off on Google expeditions to learn more about what the writer is talking about.

I’ve often wondered why more writers/publishers don’t indulge such reader impulses with their ebooks?

I had a project recently that did just that. Eye Sleuth, by Hazel Dawkins, and Eye Witness by Hazel Dawkins and Dennis Berry, are mystery novels that feature a sleuth with an unusual occupation–behavioral optometrist–set in visually interesting locations–New York city, coastal England.

The writers wanted a gallery with images of those visually interesting places along with images relating to the sleuth’s occupation. There are also illustrations for the chapter heads. A challenging project, but a lot of fun, too.


Manage your image sizes. I have found that using percentages to declare image sizes is a good way to make sure images aren’t cropped on small screens and don’t sprawl on large screens.


One of the sad facts of ereaders is that because of the way they are set up, it’s damned difficult (and impossible for the likes of me) to wrap text and to make sure text stays with an image. Depending on the device, images can be “orphaned” on a screen, which isn’t a good look. Two ways to make sure such occurrences don’t interfere with the text are to (one) give each image its own page; (two) create a gallery with links from the text.

internal linkInternal links in ebooks are easy. I have found that using a div id for the bookmarks reduces the chances of blown formatting. One thing I highly recommend when doing a gallery of images is to insert a link from the image back to the text. Even though ereaders allow a reader to Go Back, sometimes a reader will decide to browse a bit, then suddenly they’ve lost their place. (okay, maybe not all readers, but this reader does) Eliminate that annoyance with a link.

color image1Also, because of how I read–Now where was that cool picture of the whatsit?–I included all the images in the table of contents. It takes some extra time and effort on my part, but it makes navigation and referencing easier for the readers, so that makes it all worth it.

tocIt’s also important to check the quality of images. Black and white photos, crisp and sharp, look fabulous on all ereaders. Color images need to be checked lest what looks okay in color turns to a gray blur on an eink screen.

bw imagesAnother big consideration is overall file size. Amazon charges .15 cents per MB as a delivery fee. You don’t want to eat up your royalty with those fees. Lowering the resolution on images to around 77 to 96 pixels per inch reduces file size a lot without affecting the display too much. Keep track of image sizes and be prepared to trim if necessary.

Illustrating fiction isn’t difficult, but it does require some planning and organization. Put yourself in the reader’s place and consider how the book will be read and how to best use the device features to enhance the experience.

Damn It. ePubbing Is No Place For Purists

I’m a bit of a snob. I admit it. It’s one of my less endearing character flaws. I like to think it’s offset by a mostly open mind. (all the holes in my head have to be good for something, right?)

I’ve been unhappy with Smashword’s Word-only policy and I wasn’t going to use them until they started accepting the EPUB format. Then I read The Business Rush post: No Reader Left Behind. This snagged on one of the holes in my head and haunted me:

I’m not telling  you my sorry saga of writus interruptus so that you’ll pity me. I’m telling you this to explain a perspective of mine that shows up repeatedly in this blog:

Make your books as widely available as possible. Don’t rank one reader above another. Don’t leave any readers behind.

For decades, traditional publishing has ignored readers, looking instead at – hell, I don’t know, because I can’t say the bottom line. If traditional publishing really cared about the bottom line, those publishers would stick with writers whose series are building. But those publishers don’t. They’re off chasing the next bestseller, the next bright new genre, the next—oh! Squirrel!

It took me a while to realize how guilty this made me feel. And stupid. You see, I’ve received letters in the past from readers who couldn’t find my books. Not many, but a few. There wasn’t anything I could do about it except recommend the readers haunt the used book stores because those books had a one-month shelf life and if you didn’t grab them when they were fresh, the possibility existed you might never find them.

And here I am, snobby ebook purist, doing the same damned thing as my former publisher–restricting access to my books.

Damn it.

So this morning I loaded my latest books into Smashwords. With crumbs of crow pie dribbling down my shirt, I publicly state: Kris is right. Why launch into self-publishing as a true indie if I’m just going to make the same stupid decisions as traditional publishing?

Which still doesn’t quash my dissatisfaction with Word. It’s not possible to do the fine-tuning and fancy bits I can do with html. In fact, attempting many of the techniques and touches that are possible with html can clash with Word’s coding and cause bad things to happen during the trip through the Meatgrinder. Even something as simple as using graphics for scenebreaks can cause hiccups and format errors.

Given all that and using the knowledge I’ve gained into how ereading devices work and about html, I knew I couldn’t/shouldn’t format a fancy ebook. I could make one that should render properly for any reader.

  1. CLEAN. Folks, I can’t stress this enough. Your file must be squeaky clean and as free of as much garbage coding as possible. I highly recommend getting a text editor and learning how to use it. Many powerhouse programs are available as free downloads (I use Notepad++) and there is plenty of documentation so even the newest novice can learn how to use them. Copy the file you composed in the word processor of your choice and paste it into a text editor. Root out all your extra spaces and paragraph returns and odd bits and strange characters. At the same time you’ll eliminate extra coding you may have inadvertently introduced during composition. When you import the file back into Word, it’ll be clean and ready to format.
  2. DOUBLE CHECK PUNCTUATION AND SPECIAL CHARACTERS. Nothing separates the pros from the amateurs faster than punctuation. Proper em dashes and ellipses. Standard usage with quote marks. One exclamation point at a time (unless you have an exceptionally good reason for using multiple marks). Make sure any special characters you use will translate (not all do, and if it doesn’t the reader will see a nonsense character or a question mark). If you’re uncertain about proper usage, get a style manual and study it.
  3. WORK WITH DEFAULTS, NOT AGAINST THEM. Every ereading device has default settings and many allow users to “customize” the text with font preferences, margins and line spacing. The less you try to force your preferences for fonts, margins and line-spacing, the better the end result will be. Keep it simple.
  4. USE STYLE SHEETS. Smashwords’ Meatgrinder is set up to work best based on Word’s Normal (for the body text), Heading 1 (for the title page) and Heading 2 (for chapter heads) styles. You can customize those to an extent, but don’t get too carried away. I suggest creating custom style sheets for things like centering text and block paragraphs. Base them on Normal and don’t overuse them.
  5. PREVIEW AND CHECK YOUR WORK. Don’t skip this step. While I don’t 100% trust online previewers such as Calibre, Adobe Previewer and the Kindle Previewer (they do NOT have the same default settings as the actual devices), they are still excellent tools to catch gross errors.

So there you go, my breakfast of crow and a few helpful hints. If and when Smashwords allows EPUB submissions, I’ll go back in and update my books with fancy-pants editions.

**In the meantime, I have some good news/bad news to report. I am now the proud owner of THREE Kindles. That’s the good news. The bad news is, sorry Larry the Kindle (keyboard) you’ve been upstaged and displaced by Lucy Light the Paperwhite. For one thing, it’s smaller and lighter. And that light! Wow. All the easy-on-the-eyes advantages of eink and no external reading light that eats batteries the way I eat M&Ms. Plus, the touch screen has a bit of “drag” so it’s not nearly as sensitive as the Fire. That’s a big plus especially since my cat likes to let me know he’s there (as if twenty pounds of cat on my lap isn’t enough of an indication) by reaching around the Fire and giving it a tap with his paw. Now all I need is another cover to protect it when I haul it around in my purse (or leave it on the desk where the cats like to perch on it). I’m looking for something with zebra stripes.

Boast Post: A New Way To Make Ebooks

A new way for me anyway. Not long ago I got my hands on Paul Salvette’s book, The eBook Design and Development Guide (link in the sidebar). I talked it up because it explained in plain English (mostly) the hows and whys of building a better ebook. Even though it intimidated me, I knew I had to try his method.


(Pardon my not using screenshots. I haven’t figured out how to capture screenshots off the Kindle Fire yet. The instructions I’ve seen require a little more… Anyhow.)

As per my usual knuckleheadtude, I picked for my maiden voyage a three-book omnibus. Go bold or go home, right? By the time I figured out I should have chosen an easier project, it was too late and I had no choice except to keep going forward.

This method is NOT for beginners. You need at least some experience with html and text editors. If, however, you are like me, knowing just enough to be dangerous and curious about how ebooks and ereading devices work, going through the steps to build an ebook this way will teach you plenty. I now have a much better understanding about what happens to files when they go through conversion and why some things work better than others and why some things fail.

The biggest difference between what I was doing before and what I did with this book is that before I was formatting the ebook and producing files that could be read on ereaders, but they were not complete ebooks. To make them complete they had to be run through a conversion program. What was missing on my end was a navigation guide and a toc.ncx. Ebooks, I’ve learned, have two tables of contents. The one the formatter creates while formatting and the toc.ncx which is the internal table of contents which is generated during conversion. Conversion also produces a navigation guide which is what makes, for instance, jumping from chapter to chapter possible. Why are there two tables of contents? I do not know. All I know is, I didn’t know how to make them before and I left it up to the conversion programs to do it for me. With this new (to me) method, I built my own navigation guide and toc.ncx. Now, if someone asks me to format a book that they intend to sell on their own site rather than through a distributor, I know how to do it.

What I appreciate most about Paul’s guide (other than being written in language I could understand or figure out–which often takes staring at the screen until, like magic-dot pictures, the answer slowly appears) is that he takes the time to explain what is happening and how things can go right or wrong depending upon which device the book will be read on. That’s valuable information, especially for a non-programmer. I spend a lot of time over on the site seeking answers to my problems, but what’s over there is geared for programmers and people who have skills and experiences that are foreign territory for me. Which means I do a lot of, “hmn, let’s try this and see what happens,” and sometimes I get the desired results and sometimes I don’t. When I can’t get the results I want, it’s a bear figuring out why. I also learned I’ve been making some parts of my formatting tasks overly complicated and much too hard.

As a bonus, on his website, BB eBooks, Paul has an area for developers with templates and guides. It’s a terrific resource.

If you’re like me, you know how to format an ebook, know some html, are comfortable working in a text editor and now you’re ready to kick it up a notch, the guide will take you through the process step-by-step. I recommend you read the entire book first so you get the overall picture of what it is you’re about to attempt. I took a lot of notes and used my whiteboard to help me keep track of such things as bookmarking navigation points and naming files. Since this method involves splitting up the main file into many smaller files, you will need to find a solid, simple way to name the files and keep track of them.

One area where I had serious trouble was in making the zip file. I could not get the recommended program to synch with my computer. That’s not the guide’s fault (I need to get my son over here to figure out why my computer disallows changing directories). So I cheated and copied my files into a .zip folder then changed the .zip designation to .epub. I don’t know if you’re supposed to do that, but it worked. I’m not comfortable with it because my computer sends me nasty grams when I do, but it did work.

Because I was building a book for the Kindle, I had to disregard some of the advice about line spacing. In the most recent update that Amazon did for Kindle devices, they changed the default font and apparently the line spacing and paragraph spacing defaults, too. I’ve noticed in some of the recent stories I’ve downloaded the text appears double-spaced and changing the line spacing on my Kindle takes it down, at the most, to a space and a half between lines. Plus, where before some extra leading between paragraphs made them look better, now the extra leading puts a noticeable gap between paragraphs. I don’t think that is happening on Nooks or other EPUB readers. It didn’t appear to be a problem on Calibre. So pay attention to line spacing when you’re building a book for the Kindle. Things have changed.

I also refrained from reducing the font size anywhere in the book because I don’t know if Amazon fixed the bug that squishes the font in older Kindles. Until I’m sure of that, no font reductions for Kindle.

Some of the touches I did for this book included moving the copyright page and table of contents to the back of the book so potential buyers can get a larger sample. Plus, because it’s a three-book omnibus, I placed a header at the beginning of each chapter with the title of individual book. Just to keep readers reminded of which book they are reading.

I love the way the book turned out. Despite being intimidated by the process, I learned some skills, gained a whole lot of understanding and ended up with a very nice looking ebook that is easy for readers to navigate. (I also learned some new cuss words, but I won’t go into that…)

Thank you, Paul.

If you want to check out my latest masterpiece, and some pretty good stories, too, it’s available now on Amazon.


Are Ebooks Getting Too Complicated For DIY?

I’m a tad out of sorts this morning. Irked, annoyed, disgruntled… Pick one.

Partly it is because of anxiety. I used Paul Salvette’s guide to create my very first complete ebook (one that doesn’t have to go through a third-party conversion process). Now the author is waiting for it to be published on Amazon. I hate the waiting…

Partly it’s because my son gave me a Kindle Fire for my birthday. Oh, wow, is that thing cool. It’s not something I’d have bought for myself. I’m not a gadget person and it takes me forever to warm up to anything new. But wow, the Fire is very cool. The first thing I did was load the book I just finished onto the Fire to see how it looked. It looks gorgeous. It also looks a lot different than on Larry the Kindle.

I looked at other ebooks in my library. I have books put out by big publishers and indie books, and books that were professionally formatted and books that were DIY. Quality is all over the board. Some of the books that look just fine on Larry look amateurish and not-quite-right on the Fire. It’s because many of the books were produced before the Fire existed. The older formatting platform doesn’t translate so well. The standards are different.

The ebooks are readable. I’m not going to pitch a bitch just because a book I purchased last year won’t let me adjust fonts on the Fire. Nor am I going to ping DIY publishers who’ve formatted a Word file according to Amazon’s guidelines and ended up with an amateurish looking ebook.

I’m irked and annoyed at the devices and the platforms and distributors. Quite frankly, this shit has gotten way too complicated.

It doesn’t help that I read Baldur Bjarnason’s latest post at Futurebook. This part worsened my mood:

However, as I’ve written about before, a large proportion of ebooks published are rubbish. Not in terms of the content (although that’s probably also the case) but in terms of the quality of the file. Ereader platform vendors cannot support the full range of CSS that EPUB2 and EPUB3 require because a substantial number of their catalogue would become unreadable.

Platform vendors are in a position where they couldn’t support standards completely even if they wanted to.

No kidding. For instance, while I was building my most recent project, this is what I had to do. Build the file. Launch the file in my web browser. See how it looks. Figure out why something doesn’t look the way I wanted it to look (All the while knowing that what appears in my browser is only an approximation of what will appear on the ereader). Fix and fiddle, then validate the file to make sure it meets EPUB standards. Check how it looks in Calibre (I don’t have a device that reads EPUB). Again, I know that what I see on my computer screen is not necessarily what a reader will see on a Nook or iPad or whatever. Then, I convert the file into MOBI format and load it onto my Kindle. Do more tweaking. Tweaking and fiddling means having to go through validation again. It means more converting and loading and inspecting. And I haven’t even gone through the Kindle Previewer yet. I want to know how my ebook looks on as many devices as possible. I change font sizes and line spacing and the size of the reading window. It’s time-consuming, it’s frustrating, but the worst part is that even though I’m checking and double-checking with everything I have on hand, it’s still not enough. There is no guarantee that an ebook that renders perfectly on Larry the Kindle (and now the Fire) is going to render properly on other Kindle styles or versions, the Nook, the iPad, the iPhone, an Android, a Sony, a whatever.

As the cat sez:

This is, in a nutshell, a disservice to readers. READERS. Do you hear me Amazon? Barnes & Noble? Kobo? Smashwords? Apple? While you guys indulge in device wars and competing formats while creating compatibility issues, are you thinking about readers at all? You know, the people paying the bills? It’s all well and good to roll out the welcome mat to publishers big and small, traditional and indie, and invite all comers to list their ebooks with you. You get your percentage of sales. When your guidelines and standards are such that it is very, very easy for anybody to make a crappy looking ebook, naturally people are going to follow your guidelines to the letter and end up with crappy looking ebooks.

That’s not right. It’s not fair to readers.

It’s difficult making an ebook that renders properly across all devices. For the self-publisher who has neither the time nor the inclination to learn all ins and outs of formatting to meet different standards, it’s damned near impossible.

That’s unfair to the do-it-yourselfer. It’s unfair to their readers.

What’s the solution? I do not know. I’m not a programmer or a tech-type. I have no idea what goes into creating these devices or how they work. I just want ebooks that respect the material and are a pleasure to read. That is not too much to ask. All this screwing around with fancier devices and increasingly complicated and narrow platforms is making it too damned hard.

Clarifying Source Files: How To Use Them

I’ve done a lot of talking about source files, and inadvertently confused some folks. I don’t mean to muddy issues–it just happens. So I made a chart! (Aren’t you glad you stopped by?)

The SOURCE FILE is just that. The source from which everything else springs. You don’t format it (beyond what is necessary for YOU to comfortably compose) because you DO NOT NEED TO. Essentially, while composing original works the more you act as if your word processor is a typewriter (except for tabs–no tabs!), the cleaner it will be and the easier it will be for you or someone else to format it for a specific use.

Once you have a Source File, you MAKE COPIES of it in order to format it for a specific purpose.

Let’s say you’re sending a manuscript to XYZ Publishing House. You need a printed document. You open the source file and do a Save As to make a copy. In that copy you will insert a cover page, header, page numbering, and adjust the margins and font according to the publisher’s guidelines. The source file remains intact, unchanged.

You want to self-publish your novel. You open the source file and do a Save As to make a copy. You can send that copy to a hired formatter and let them take it from there. You can format a .doc file in Word according to the distributor guidelines. You can hand code the copy in html. The source file remains intact.

I didn’t include every single way to format a file, but you get the picture, right? Let’s say you published your ebook. A reviewer would like a pdf file. You do a Save As, make a copy and format a pdf. You want to make an electronic submission? Do a Save As, add your address block, maybe change the font and line spacing, and you will submit a nice clean file that agents and editors can easily read on almost any computer or device.

If you look at my chart and think this is terribly complicated and I’m trying to make extra work for people, you are wrong. When it comes to digital files, there is no One-Size-Fits-All format. If you get in the habit of creating your original files in a no-frills, minimally formatted style it will save you work, save you time, and save you headaches.

I hope this clarifies things.


What Do Your Chapter Heads Say?

So I’ve been formatting quite a few non-fiction ebooks here lately, and it occurs to me that non-fiction books are doing a lot better with chapter heads than the majority of fiction books do. By that I mean, non-fiction chapter heads tend to give a clue as to what the chapter is about (CHAPTER THREE: The History of Pumpernickel). I just spent a few minutes going through 20 or so non-fiction books within reach of my desk and every single one of them did that. Many dispensed with “CHAPTER” all together and just gave a small description line. Not so with the fiction. I just went through 17 novels (gawd, but I need to clean off my desk!) and found only one that gave descriptors, while the rest did “CHAPTER #” or more often, just a number.

WARNING: I am obsessanting again and this isn’t a life-changing subject, so if you’d rather read about something else, go here and ponder the whimsical nature of the Universe.

The funny thing is, in print I always found the lines and quotes and descriptors in the chapter heads of novels a bit of an affectation. Maybe because they struck me as clutter or maybe it was because they weren’t done particularly well. I dunno. Now that I have Larry the Kindle never far from my side, I find myself growing rather annoyed by CHAPTER # or worse, just a number. Which sends me down a bunny trail of wondering what’s the point of even having chapters or why we ever started breaking up novels into chapters in the first place.

But it does tie into one of my many little obsessions–navigation in ebooks. Because of the way I am, the way I keep track of things, I’m very dependent on visual clues when I read. I might forget the title of a book, but I will remember it has a red cover or it’s thick or thin. If I want to find an especially poignant or funny quote, I won’t recall the page number, but I’ll remember it was near the back or the front of the book and near the end of the chapter or something like that, so I can pick up a book and thumb through a few pages and find what I was looking for. That’s in print books. My Kindle doesn’t give me those visual prompts. If I happen to forget to bookmark a passage as I am reading, I have a devil of a time finding it again. Without the visual prompts of covers, I sometimes have trouble remembering which book it is–it’s a quirk in my memory, but I am terrible with titles and author names. (another quirk, I can remember fictional character names much better than the names of real people)

(If anything ever forces me to break down and get a tablet or some such nonsense, it will be that one feature of having colorful book covers on a virtual shelf. I love my eink reader, but lists of titles just don’t do it for me. le sigh…)

Given my own experience and how I do things, I’m always looking for ways to make ebooks more memorable on a visual level and make them easier to navigate. I’ve thought of this before, mulled over it, decided at one point it didn’t make much difference, but now I’m coming back around again. I remember a lot of books from my childhood that had descriptors (What are those called anyway? Chapter leads? Chapter titles?)–“In which our intrepid hero teases the bear…”–and they served as little memory prompts when I wanted to go back and reread a passage or read it aloud to someone else. Given how very easy it is to include such material in an ebook–both at the chapter location and in the table of contents–I have to ask, why not do it? Sure, it takes some time and thought to come up with the four to ten words necessary for a clever line, it might be worthwhile and it’s relatively painless and it certainly couldn’t hurt.

Pioneers in Ebook Design: Monica Pierce

Thank you, Jaye, for letting me add my two cents on the matter of ebook formatting. I appreciate your advocacy of self-publishing as well as your ardent promotion of any writers’ ability to create and market their own material.

(No, thank you, Monica. It’s a pleasure to see what you’ve done. Thank you for sharing your process and the gorgeous results.)


As Jaye has so often pointed out, we (writers and publishers) need to put as much design thought into what comes after an ebook’s cover as we do that cover itself. After all, 99% of the reader’s ebook experience involves what lies beneath. Yet too few writers and publishers seem to pay attention to formatting, and even fewer (writers, in this case) bother to learn the basic markup language (HTML and CSS) that goes into making ebooks. This isn’t rocket science, folks. Hell, it’s not even high school biology. Uploading your Word file into a conversion program and hoping for the best is asking for a questionable and, in some cases, impossible reading experience. It may seem a small thing, but all those strange page breaks, screwed up quotation marks, and odd characters add up to annoyed readers who want to throw your virtual book across the virtual room.

In comments, Jaye mentioned that she’d like to see how some self-published authors have addressed various design issues and decisions. I volunteered to be the first.

After reading Guido Henkel’s excellent blog series on ebook formatting, I tackled the process, making some specific design decisions in order to give the readers the best formatted, but least intrusive, reading experience I could possibly create. So here’s how and why I did what I did with the guts of Girl Under Glass.


I write in Word and did the initial manuscript clean up (removing extra spaces and marking up italics) with that program. Then I imported the manuscript into Textmate to strip out all the Word gobbledegook and used HTML to mark up paragraph breaks, single and double quotation marks and apostrophes, special characters, and breaks. Lastly, I set up styles using CSS for the paragraphs and centering, as well as the title, copyright, dedication, glossary, phrases, and about pages. Centering the images (section and chapter titles and scene breaks) is controlled with p and span tags.

I’m doing a back page promo swap with another indie author and will be inserting a Recommended Reads page with her ad at the end of the book, as well as a link in the TOC. (Thanks, Jaye, I stole that idea from you.)

Honestly, I think I can probably clean up my CSS a little, but I got tired of playing whack-a-mole with divs, spans, and p tags.


This entire page is an image. I wanted to use my cover font, Proxima Nova, for my inside title, section titles, chapter titles, and additional end material, but ebooks allow for a very limited font selection. So my husband, Scott, (a former web and graphics designer) was roped into volunteered to design all of these graphics. But I wanted something more than just the title on this page, so he added the design element. Since the premise behind this book revolves around my main character, Rachel’s, unique genome, he used a diagram of an unraveled RNA segment. It’s a strange, but compelling image.


There are three sections in this book. Again, we repeated the use of Proxima Nova and linked the sections to the title with the RNA graphic. It stops the reader and signals the transition while also, I hope, recalling the reader to the title with a subtle nudge.


The large RNA graphic was too much for the chapter, so we decided to use a more compact image. This, too, is RNA, but the view is looking down inside the tightly wound strand. I didn’t define the font or font size in my CSS for the pages. Many readers don’t play with the settings on their ereaders, but I saw no reason to aggravate those who do. The standard font is clean and readable. I set my paragraph bottom margins at 0.7em and the indent at 1em. That’s a totally personal decision; I don’t like a larger indent for this book because that feels more like a traditional design. This book is dystopian and set in the near future, so I made some spacing decisions that were a little non-traditional without being annoying. (I hope.)


Using asterisks for my scene breaks seemed like a cop-out after putting the graphics into the title, sections, and chapters, so Scott gave me a different RNA strand graphic. Ultimately, however, I decided it was too distracting to have a third design element, so I opted to use the circular RNA image to indicate the breaks, as well. (This is how it appears on the Kindle vs. the Kindle Fire for the previous images.)


The circular RNA image was repeated, again, on the supplemental pages. (This is the Kindle Touch. Note the different font. That’s a preset for the Touch, apparently. I don’t own one, so if you do, I’d love to know if that’s what your screen looks like.)


Finally, the Glossary (Kindle) and Ohnenrai Phrases (Kindle Touch). This book has a smattering of an alien language, and I wanted those readers who were interested to be able to find definitions. At some point, I’ll go back and link the main text to the glossary. In the meantime, this works, but I don’t love it.

Ohnenrai Phrases/Kindle Touch

The entries are separated with HTML breaks, and both the glossary and the phrases have their own divs. But I’m sure they can be better. I’d also like to include a guide to pronunciation for each word, so the glossary will look more like a dictionary. Any suggestions?

Regarding title and author identification at the top of each page. I mulled over various approaches to adding this data but, ultimately, decided it offered too much potential for problems down the road. New ereaders are already picking up that metadata and inserting it, and I couldn’t think of an elegant way to do it without creating repetitive information on the screen for the newer Kindles and the iPad.

Again, thank you, Jaye, for allowing me to talk about my formatting. Girl Under Glass isn’t perfect, but I think it’s a pretty good start for a newbie author with only a little HTML and CSS knowledge going into the project. Now that I have a template and a taste for the process, I’ll be looking for even more ways to design a lovely reading experience. I welcome any feedback on what I can do to make this book (and others) even better.

Monica Enderle Pierce is a self-publishing newbie whose first novel, Girl Under Glass, was a 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award semi-finalist. She writes dystopian romantic suspense and romantic gothic fantasy novels.

Beautiful, Monica! I’ve heard people discount the power of the little details, but as someone who reads a lot of ebooks–sometimes four or five a week–I know from my own experience that when I open a new book and if the first image, the first page has a nice look, a nice feel, my attitude about the book undergoes a slight change. It’s more attractive, it looks more important, it has weight–ergo, I’m cued in that is a better book. It automatically ramps down my inner-critic and puts me in a more receptive mood. Kind of like getting into the passenger seat of a clean, fresh-smelling luxury car. The journey is the journey, getting me from point A to point B, but the ride is nicer and I know from the get-go that I don’t have to worry about ketchup stains on my shoes from fast-food litter on the floor.

As for the glossary and pronunciation guide–love it! I was just discussing with a friend about glossaries and such, and the desirability of putting links in text (I don’t mind that in non-fiction, but I’m sure the underlining would bug the crap out of me in fiction). My initial idea (untried, just a thought) would be to link the glossary terms back to their first appearances in the text. No underlines in the text itself, that way, but those who are interested can see the term in context. It would be up to the writer, then, to make sure the readers know there is a glossary and/or pronunciation guide by creating a custom Table of Contents, and perhaps even a small note or foreword saying something along the lines of “Hey, folks, if you want to know how to pronounce Pzrryewrwtz, there is a pronunciation guide. Click here and then click on the words to take you back to the story.” (actually, something better than that, but you know what I mean) I know this reader appreciates tips and tricks for navigation.

(Just an odd thought about pricing. I read a lot, so I appreciate the lower priced books. Five or six bucks is my preferred price point. I’ve noticed something about myself–when I’m shopping for books, I always check the samples. There is always a moment of “Is this worth the price?” Quite often, how the sample LOOKS is what tips me over the edge and directs my finger to 1-click and Buy. Like I said, just a thought.)

What’s Inside DOES Matter.

Poking my head out of the gopher hole…

You know what really bugs me about some retail establishments and service providers? It’s that attitude of, “We’ve got your money, so screw ya.” Suddenly your problems are no longer their problems and they really couldn’t care less what you think of their product or their service. If you’ve ever dealt with a nightmare disguised as “customer service” then you know exactly what I mean. Had any problems with your cable provider, lately? Hmn? What makes it doubly frustrating is that many of the worst offenders (I’m not naming names, now am I, Directv?) go above and beyond to lure in new customers. Huge advertising campaigns, promises to the moon and back, special promotions, the whole deal. But you know what? It’s gotten to the point where I am super suspicious of those massive campaigns. I’m finally getting a clue that companies that care so much about the people who aren’t buying are the same companies that really don’t care about their current customers. Companies and products with positive word-of-mouth and solid reputations don’t need massive campaigns.

Which brings us to ebooks. Of course. If you’re a regular reader you know I am ambivalent about promotional efforts. I’m also not all that impressed with the time, effort and energy indie writers put into covers. Yeah, yeah, I know books require some promotion (I just have no idea what actually works or why it works when it does–too many factors) and I also know covers are important. To some people. They aren’t to me. Not with ebooks. The reason why is that after I buy an ebook, there is only about a 2% chance I’ll ever see the cover again. Usually the only reason is because I really like the book and want to check the title and author name. While I have purchased a few print books because of their covers–not very many, but a few–that is not the case at all with ebooks. I have zero interest in those thumbnails on Amazon. Except for a very few samples, I couldn’t tell you what the covers look like for any of the hundreds of ebooks currently on my Kindle.

But I will tell you this. There are many ebooks on my Kindle where the writer or publisher had put a hell of a lot of effort into the cover and the promo, and barely any effort at all into my reading experience. I’m not talking about bad stories or even bad editing. I’m talking about the production values. I’m talking about ebooks that offer the reading equivalent of typewritten script on newsprint. Just words with no thought given to the aesthetics of the “page” or the organization or even to reminding me what I’m reading. This lack of concern over my comfort doesn’t make them bad books–it’s make them forgettable. It makes what I’m reading seem cheap and unimportant.

Think about that.

I’ve discussed in previous posts how readers are reading differently on ereaders. They’re reading more closely and they’re more sensitive to errors and goofs. The best I can account for it is that an ereader, such as the Kindle, offers no distractions–not even the faint rustle of a turning page. This can work for or against the writer. Without distractions, readers can read faster, so they buy more books. That’s good. Without something memorable to make your book stand out, it could be forgotten–just another story–when it comes time for the reader to buy something else. That’s bad.

I bring this up (again, and no, not just because I’m the Obsessanator) but because I’m working on an interesting project. I had some problems with Scrivener (by the way, it’s a simple problem to fix, so anybody who is using Scrivener to create ebooks, carry on) and figured I should break down and learn HTML. For those of you comfortable with computers and programming, you’re thinking no big deal. Well, for me, it is a big deal because I do not like machines and the whole idea of them having a “language” kind of creeps me out. In my quest to create beautiful ebooks, however, I buckled down to it. I reformatted some of my short stories, then did a few others, then did an ebook for Julia Barrett, which turned out very nicely. It was actually too easy and I wanted to learn more. (I’m hands on–doesn’t do any good to tell me how to do something. You have to dump a pile of material in my lap and point at a finished product and say, ‘Make it look like that.’) So I sez to my friend, Larry, “I need a challenge. Got anything?”

He sent me a scanned document for a book that contains a screenplay, an interview, and narrative text. Well, I asked for a challenge, and he came through with flying colors. Not only was the scan a big old mess that had to be cleaned up, but I had to figure out how to create the illusion of a screenplay. I wanted to learn some HTML and I learned. A lot. Then to sweeten the pot Larry handed me a bunch more scanned files. These aren’t fiction where the biggest concerns are graphics and pretty touches. These are non-fiction (sort of) filled with case studies and interviews and numbered lists. Challenges. Through it all, the biggest question I’m asking myself is: How to make it look good to the reader and make for a pleasing reading experience? How do I organize the text with visual clues to help the reader keep his/her place and not get lost in the transitions? Print books have certain advantages that ebooks do not. Print can make good use of white space, for example. Large blocks of italics, depending on the font, can look good. With a printed page, the designer controls the right margin and justification (or should). Too much ‘white’ space on a Kindle can look like a mistake. Big blocks of italics are difficult to read. The device controls the right margin and justification, not the designer. What I do have at my disposal are block quotes, hanging first lines, line breaks and a few other tricky tricks. I’ve been spending a lot of time over on to find character codes and figure out how to execute certain commands. Then I try things out, make an ebook, and see how it looks. Sometimes it looks fine, other times it looks like crap, so back to the drawing board. (Notepad++, actually, which is a lot of fun even though I have barely a clue as to what it’s talking about half the time–okay, three-quarters of the time–but fearlessly (or stupidly)I go clicking through anyway.)

It’s a lot of work and I’m still in the relatively slow stage (although, being the queen of Find/Replace does hasten the process quite a bit) but it’s worth it. Yes. It is worth every minute at the computer, every cuss word and crossed eye and “Oh no!” It’s worth it not just because the words matter, but because the readers–our customers–matter. Their comfort, their pleasure, their experience. I want readers to see that I care about them. Not just their dollars, but them. In return, I want them to know that I care very deeply about the books I produce. I want it to show on the screen. I want the ebooks to look important and worthy of respect. Respect=Respect, folks, gotta give it to get it.

I would love to see more ebook producers–indie and traditional–expend at least as much effort in making the actual ebooks look good as they do in producing covers. Honestly, if you’re willing to drop $300 on the perfect cover, but then do a crap layout in Word and publishing the ebook consists of clicking a button and hoping for the best, I have to question where your priorities lie. Don’t be one of those entities that devotes all your time and energy to luring new suckers, er, buyers, then forgets about them as soon as you have their money in your hands.

If you’re interested in seeing what I came up with with the screenplay, interview and narrative, be warned–ADULTS ONLY. The book is about the making of a porn movie. It’s funny and touching and wise, but also pretty dirty. So don’t say I didn’t warn you.

For those who are delving into HTML for their ebooks, a nifty little trick I learned for putting paragraph returns into the Word document before transferring it into Notepad++.

FIND box type ^p
REPLACE box type </p>^p<p>

Voila! The only command you have to put in manually is at the very beginning of the document. (if you already knew this, meaning I am the very last person to figure it out, pfft, it’s still a nifty trick)