Front Matter in Ebooks 2: Epigraphs, Dedications and Song Lyrics

First a word about Fair Use. Quotes can enhance your work. Snippets of poetry and song lyrics can add thematically to fiction. But their use can lead writers into areas filled with landmines and legal woes. Trad publishers have experience with the subject and copy editors look for instances that violate Fair Use. Self-publishers need to be aware.

Standford University Libraries have written an excellent guide to Fair Use and permissions. I suggest you familiarize yourself with the subject lest you find yourself on the receiving end of a nasty-gram from an attorney–quite possibly accompanied by a hefty invoice.

So, let’s say you have your legal ducks in a row and would like to insert an epigraph or quote in your ebook, or have a dedication page in the front matter. Here are some tips for making it nice.


Caution, if you use carriage returns and centering in an attempt to “fix” your text on the page, you could end up with unwanted gaps, blank pages or other uglies in the ebook.

Use a style sheet.

Make a style sheet for your project. Set up your paragraph format like this:

Quote blog1If this style will only be used for the front matter, I suggest you set a ‘page break before’ in the style sheet. That will place the epigraph on its own page. You can also set the “Spacing: Before” at 12 to 18 pts to drop the text on the page. Don’t get carried away with that, especially if you intend to send this through the Smashwords Meatgrinder. Otherwise, use up to three carriage returns to move the text down.

Quote blog2CSS Stylesheet

Here is a simple css style class and the html:

Quote blog3You can adjust the margins to suit your project. Under “margin” the first number controls the top and bottom, and the second is for the left and right. I like to left align short quotes because justification will sometimes stretch and distort the text.

You can use the same stylings for dedications. This styling is also handy for offsetting poetry within the body of the work.

A last word about song lyrics. If you do receive permission to use song lyrics, you will need a permissions notice in your ebook. Put that in the back matter and make sure the artist receives full attribution. Example:

Song lyrics from “Love is an Epigraph” copyright 2013, JW Manus; used with permission granted by the artist.

Now go forth and make your ebook look nice.


Fun With Formatting Ebooks: Paragraph Styles

Whether a reader is conscious or not of doing it, they are judging at least some of the quality of your writing by how it looks on the screen. When you send your writing into the world you want it to look polished, professional, and assertive. Even if you don’t use fancy bits and curlicues, you can make your ebook look polished, professional and, yes, assertive–as in, “I am a smart and sophisticated writer who knows what she is talking about, so pay attention!“–just by taking care with your paragraph styles.

The most basic of basic styles are indented and block paragraphs. Convention says, indented paragraphs for fiction and block style for non-fiction. Why the convention? Indented paragraphs are quicker to read (not really, but doesn’t it seem that way?), while block paragraphs tend to be weightier, denser, and can add a measure of gravitas to the text. It’s really a preference and not about right and wrong. Readers do expect text to look a certain way, though, and you take a chance of distracting them from the prose if you mess with their expectations.

For those of you using anything other than html to format your ebooks, (pardon my shouting) NO TABS! Tabs, and using the space bar to indent paragraphs, play havoc with ebooks. NO TABS. Your word processor enables you to use style sheets–use them. NO TABS.

How wide an indent?   para6

The narrow indent is a leftover from the days of pulp fiction when every sheet of paper counted against the bottom line and so the publisher needed to cram as much text onto a page as possible. It looks a bit squishy, especially if the reader prefers narrow line spacing on their device. Wide indents are a writer habit, I think, from being used to working on manuscripts with their half inch indents. Too wide, though, and the ebook can assume the look of a manuscript, and that’s not polished. I prefer a medium width indent of 1.4ems (.3″ in a word processor).

Block paragraphs require spaces between the paragraphs so they don’t run together.

para5Whether you’re using a word processor or html, you need to include that extra leading in your style sheet–not (never) by manually inserting a blank line between paragraphs. Be aware, too, that you do not want to increase the space between indented paragraphs. Doing so means users of the Kindle iOS app will end up with huge spaces between paragraphs. Smashwords will reject files for inserting extra space.

Another style is one I don’t recommend for full paragraphs. Centering.


Don’t forget that centering IS a style. Don’t just highlight the text then click the “center” command in the menu bar. Make sure your text indent is set to zero so the center doesn’t end up off-center.

Sometimes you’ll need to set off text. Quotes, song lyrics, poetry, missives.

para2para1The only difference in coding between the first block quote and the lines of poetry is the use of italics.

What if you want to set off an entire section of text?

para7Keep it simple, aim for sophisticated, and keep your reader’s comfort in mind while you style your paragraphs.

What about the rest of you? Any fun styling tricks you’d like to share?