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?


-SB-, -PB-, and Italics

So I’m chatting with a friend and she asks, “What you doing?” I sez, “Nuking tabs. Bwahaha! All gone.”

I was, of course, prepping a manuscript for ebook formatting. That means going through the manuscript and getting rid of everything that will screw up the ebook.

My learning processes are always convoluted, in the beginning overly complicated and then as I figure out what’s important and what is not, I streamline and pare down to the essentials. If you are a regular follower of this blog, you’ve seen my process regarding source files for writers. I’ve gone from suggesting writers set up and use style sheets (they should) to what I’m going to suggest today.

When creating a source file with the end goal of turning it into an ebook, all the writer needs to do, formatting-wise, are three things:

  • Indicate page breaks
  • Indicate scene or section breaks
  • Italics, bolding and underlining

When it comes to page breaks, “indicate” means exactly that. Don’t actually break pages either with inserted page breaks or multiple paragraph returns. Why? Because when you’re ready to format, you or the person you hire has to take them out.

The more formatting you put into your source file, the more formatting that has to be removed. The more that has to be removed, the greater the chances of something that might be missed (screwing up the ebook) and the more it costs in time and money.

When I get a manuscript to format, it’s generally been created with a word processor. Whether I’m going to format it for Smashwords (a Word file) or for everything else (html files), the very first thing I have to do is–

  • Remove extra spaces
  • Remove extra paragraph returns
  • Remove page and section breaks
  • Remove headers, footers and page numbers
  • Tag page breaks
  • Tag scene or section breaks
  • Tag special formatting

I don’t actually have to remove tabs because those are going to disappear when I transfer the text to a text editor, but it’s easy (one Find/Replace operation) and it gives me a clearer picture of the dangerous stuff.

Now, seriously, I’m a writer. I fully understand the NEED to make the manuscript look RIGHT. But writers, you have to understand that every effort you make to that end is going to have to be undone. Because of the nature of word processors, some of the fancy touches you include can actually corrupt the ebook.

The less you do–Honestly! Truly! I’m not lying about this!–the better the ebook will be.

So what’s a poor writer to do? Not much, actually. Use whatever font and font size you like. That’s not what will end up in the ebook, but use whatever is comfortable for you while composing. Line space however you like. It makes no difference in the end. Get out of the habit of using tabs. If you can’t stand not having indented paragraphs, set up a simple style sheet that indents the paragraphs with every hard paragraph return. Get out of the habit of two spaces between sentences. Get out of the habit of adding extra hard paragraph returns to space the text. Get out of the habit of making pages. There are no pages in ebooks.

How does one indicate a page break?

I use a code. -PB- It’s unique, the dashes keep it from melding with text, and thus it is easy to find. What my clean file looks like before I take it to the text editor is this:

Final line in chapter one.
Chapter Two
First line in chapter two and so it goes.

Use whatever makes sense to you. If you want to make extra sure you or your formatter don’t miss it, spell it out. -PAGE BREAK- That’s it. That’s all you have to do. When you do the actual formatting, that’s when you center, bold, add graphics, extra spacing, etc.

Scene breaks are another place you should get in the habit of tagging–especially if your habit is to use extra paragraph returns to make a blank line. Those can be easy to miss. My little code is -SB-. The text looks like

Last line of scene or section.
First line of new scene or section.

It doesn’t matter much what you use as long as you use something. Asterisks, a pound sign, plus signs, or spell it out -SCENE BREAK-. Use something so the scene break doesn’t get lost.

As for special formatting–italics, bolding and underlining–at some point, whether you do the job yourself or hire it out, you are going to have to tag the special formatting. I’ve gotten into the habit with my own writing to tag as I write rather than highlighting the text and italicizing (or whatever). It’s easier in the long run and I’m used to how it looks. Most writers are not going to want to do that. No biggie. If you are going to tag your special formatting, a few things I have learned–

  • If you’re going to format in html, you know to tag the special formatting with open/close codes.< i > and < /i >
  • If you are going to format your ebook in Word and are tagging for the purpose of stripping extra coding out of the document, do NOT use html tags. Using < i > TEXT or Wild Card < /i > in the Find box of a word processor can have… interesting results. Not the fun kind of interesting either.
  • For Word files I use -I- and -ENDI- to open and close italics. Easy to find and doesn’t give Find/Replace fits.
  • Make sure your special formatting is paragraph specific. In other words, don’t just highlight big blocks of text and toggle on italics. Highlight the necessary text within each paragraph, italicize it, then do the same in the next paragraph. Fewer chances for conversion programs to argue about what you really mean.

That’s pretty much it. To get the best results in your ebook, no matter who does the formatting, copy the following, print it out, and tape it to your computer monitor as a reminder:

This is a FILE not a document. Less is more. Less is good. The less you do now, the less you have to do later.