Fun With Ebook Formatting: First Lines

One of the easiest ways to make your ebook stand out is to use first line treatments. By making the first lines of chapters or scenes after a break look different from the rest of the text you add visual interest to the “page” and (more importantly) you lessen the risk of confusing readers.

Text in an ebook “flows” to fit the screen. Plus, users can adjust the size of the display. If you use an empty line, for instance, to indicate a scene break–with no other visual clues–the page could break at the break and your readers could end up deeply confused about a point-of-view, time or setting jump.

Besides, first line treatments are fun. Here are a few screenshots off Lucy the Paperwhite Kindle.

first2Ever since I acquired a Fire tablet, I’ve been playing with colored images (I’ll try to get screenshots off a tablet–you’ll know I succeeded if color images show up here.)

Screenshot_2013-04-01-15-00-51 (2)


(Did I actually write “expecially” in the sample? Crap...)


Another trick is one I don’t care for myself, but a lot of people do like it. With ereader devices improving their displays, the drop cap looks better, too. (much thanks to William for this screenshot) Notice he used an embedded font for the heading and the drop cap. Embedding fonts is tricky not because the coding is difficult, but because fonts are creative property and there are/can be restrictions on their use. Always make sure you read the license agreements and follow the terms of use.


Most of these first line treatments were created with paragraph styles that can be emulated in Word or Scrivener. (Not that I advocate using either program to format ebooks, but let’s get real, many of you do.) If you want to play with first line treatments, be sure you create a style sheet rather than using tabs, spaces or centering.

Realize, too, that different readers handle html coding in different ways. Not every device will display small caps, for instance. My oldest Kindle is flaky about displaying bolded fonts. You need to experiment and make adjustments.

A few tips:

  • Be very careful with first line treatments if you are using Scrivener or Word. Changing font sizes to make small caps can trigger bugs in eink Kindles and play havoc with the user’s ability to change display sizes.
  • Also, be careful when using Word to submit to Smashwords. If you are using a no-indent style, make sure to use a style-sheet instead of backspacing to delete the indent.
  • Experiment with your image sizes. Percentages work better than pixels.
  • Don’t be afraid of color. More and more readers are using devices with color displays and that can make your ebook look fabulous! Check how your graphics look in black-and-white to be sure there is enough contrast in grayscale so the image looks good on an eink device.
  • You can learn how to do these tricks in html by going to and searching for information on small caps, drop caps, embedding fonts and other goodies.

So what about you, readers? Any fun tricky-tricks you’d like to share?

Boast Post: Protectors

Thomas Pluck contacted me, asking for a price quote on a formatting job. I told the old man, “If it’s for one of his charity projects, I’ll do it for free.” Sure enough, it’s an anthology to benefit PROTECT, an organization devoted to wiping out child abuse. (a few of you know about my adopted daughters, so it’s no surprise I didn’t hesitate to say I’d do the project)

What good is a boast post without some boasting and patting myself on the back? If you don’t want to indulge my smugness, jump to the bottom and check out the line-up of writers who have contributed to the Protectors anthology. If you’re still here, let me tell you what I’m most proud to have accomplished in this project:


Here’s the thing. I used to think I was disorganized, that I lacked the organizing-gene. As I get older I realize that I am capable of tremendous organization. Unfortunately, it’s rarely the type of organization anyone else can understand. “Creative” organization looks a lot like chaos to some folks. (Namely Darling Daughter #1 who dreads my demise because she will inherit my many, many file cabinets.) But this is what I’ve learned about organizing: Pick a few rules and stick to them.

One of my biggest gripes with story anthologies in ebooks is a lack of consistency. Layouts shift from story to story. A sense of unity is lacking. Sometimes the stories don’t look as if they belong together. It’s a cobbled together, higglety-pigglety effect that can be downright jarring to readers. If there is too much disorganization and disregard for unity and flow, the overall effect looks amateurish and it’s not very comfortable  to read.

I understand how that happens. There are 41 stories and a foreword in the Protectors anthology. That meant 42 source files, plus the author bios. Each of those source files was… unique. Not just the stories themselves, that goes without saying.  I’m talking about the way the manuscripts were formatted. How they appeared on the “page.” You see, writers know that how their words look, how they flow on the page, affects how the words are read. Text placement affects pacing and emphasis. The use of punctuation and italics and bolding and line breaks can guide readers in directions the writer wants them to go and affect emotional impact. Sometimes, too, while they are creating, writers need for their words to look a certain way on the screen (or in the notebook or on the walls or however they compose) because that is how their minds work and the visual quirks aid creativity.

As a formatter there are two temptations: One, cobble the stories together just the way the writers formatted them; Two, disregard everything the writers have done and make every story look exactly the same. The first way is disrespectful to readers, and the second is disrespectful to the writers.

Given that middle-grounds rarely make anybody happy, I wasn’t looking for compromises. I wanted a way to draw the stories into a unified whole while at the same time using as much of the writers’ visuals as possible in an ebook.

This project required some serious organization.

Step Number One was to establish some RULES.

Creating an overall look for the ebook was fairly easy. I made up a simple graphic to use as titles.


Each story began with non-indented text, first three words bolded (with one or two exceptions). I wanted to make up a little graphic to use for scene breaks, but given the sheer size of the ebook and how many scene breaks there were I felt so many images would have made the ebook file too big. So I used bullets and white diamonds which stood out without being obnoxious. (The point of little touches like that is NOT to draw attention to itself, but to serve as a visual head’s up for readers and as a repeating pattern that helps to draw everything together—think of it as the rule book in a sporting event. As long as the rules are consistent, everybody can focus on the action.)

So, with those rules established, time for the stories themselves. No matter how unique or creative a writer’s formatting may be, there will be an underlying logic. There will be patterns. It’s the ebook producer’s job to find those patterns and figure out how to either make them work in an ebook format or how to approximate them to create them same effect.

I made some cheat sheets to help me stay focused. I’d reproduce them here, but just looking at them won’t make much sense and it would take several blog posts to explain them. The important point is that by taking notes and comparing one story’s special requirement to another’s I could SEE the common denominators so I could figure out the least number of paragraph styles necessary.

Paragraph styles are the key to ebook formatting, whether you’re using a word processor or html. By keeping the number of styles to a minimum, you insure consistency and an overall unified book. What I came up with were three paragraph styles: One with an indent, one block style, and one block quote style. I made the indented paragraph style the default. So while I was cleaning up the original files, if a paragraph required block style or block quote, I tagged it as such. Tagging the styles during clean-up makes it very easy to use Find and Replace in Notepad++.

Then there were a few places that required some special touches. That’s where the cheat sheets come in really handy. Instead of flipping back and forth to the original files, I made copious notes to tell me where and how certain things were supposed to look. For instance, one story had some interesting bits of staggered text. If you’ve formatted ebooks you know that staggered text is rarely a good idea. It can look fine on one device, then go totally haywire on another. That’s because of the way devices justify and flow text—-words can get pulled out of shape.

There wasn’t much (three instances) and I thought the effect the author (Ken Bruen, “Spectre in the Galway Wind”) was going for was interesting enough to give it a try. What you don’t want to use are regular spaces. Those can get distorted when the ereader tries to justify text. What I used are no-break spaces (html entity  ) which lock the spaces into place (perfect for bulleted lists, by the way).

Anyhow, the project was HUGE, over 140,000 words, but by establishing some rules and taking the time to organize the paragraph styles, I think it came out very nicely. I’m proud of my part in the project and honored to be able to do it for such a worthy cause.

But don’t take my word for it. Check it out yourself. The line-up of authors in incredible and the stories are fabulous.

From Thomas Pluck’s PROTECT website:

41 stories.
One cause: PROTECT
100% of proceeds go to PROTECT and the National Association to Protect Children – the army fighting what Andrew Vachss calls “the only holy war worthy of the name,” the protection of children.

We’ve rallied a platoon of crime, western, thriller, fantasy, noir, horror and transgressive authors to support PROTECT’s important work: lobbying for legislation that protects children from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

Powerful stories from George Pelecanos, Andrew Vachss, Joe R. Lansdale, Charles de Lint, Ken Bruen, Chet Williamson, James Reasoner, Charlie Stella, Michael A. Black, Wayne Dundee, Roxane Gay, Ray Banks, Tony Black, Les Edgerton and 16 more, with 100% of proceeds going to PROTECT.

PROTECTORS includes a foreword by rock critic Dave Marsh, and fiction by Patti Abbott, Ian Ayris, Ray Banks, Nigel Bird, Michael A. Black, Tony Black, R. Thomas Brown, Ken Bruen, Bill Cameron, Jen Conley, Charles de Lint, Wayne D. Dundee, Chad Eagleton, Les Edgerton, Andrew Fader, Matthew C. Funk, Roxane Gay, Edward A. Grainger, Glenn G. Gray, Jane Hammons, Amber Keller, Joe R. Lansdale, Frank Larnerd, Gary Lovisi, Mike Miner, Zak Mucha, Dan O’Shea, George Pelecanos, Thomas Pluck, Richard Prosch, Keith Rawson, James Reasoner, Todd Robinson, Johnny Shaw, Gerald So, Josh Stallings, Charlie Stella, Andrew Vachss, Steve Weddle, Dave White, and Chet Williamson.

Among PROTECT’s victories are the Protect Our Children Act of 2008, which mandated that the Justice Department change course and design a new national nerve center for law enforcement to wage a war on child exploitation, the Hero to Hero program, which employs disabled veterans in the battle against child abuse, and Alicia’s Law.

Join the fight, with 41 stories by top writers. Be a Protector!