How to Format Digital Ebooks for Publication

How to Format Digital Ebooks for Publication

During one of my recent streams, a viewer asked about formatting ebooks for upload to Amazon and other retailers. It’s something I’m hoping to go through on stream at some point in the near future. But I haven’t yet been able to use a book that wouldn’t be at risk of flashing major series spoilers.

When I first started self-publishing (way back in 2014), I followed a series of online guides. But most of those links have been lost in hard drive shuffles over the years. So I thought what the heck! I’ll make my own style guide.

I use Microsoft Word to write, edit and format all of my manuscripts. Lots of writers don’t like Word for various reasons. But if you’re using a program like Scrivener, I’m afraid I wouldn’t know where to start with formatting advice. If you use an open source program, however, the process is probably basically the same. The buttons and menus might just be in different locations.

The first and most important thing to remember for digital formatting is that you are not working with the traditional idea of pages. Kindles have a function which allows readers to determine the size and type of font they use on their display. As a result, creating specifically set pages will wreak havoc on your painstaking formatting.

It’s better to think of each chapter as one continuous page. The only places you’re going to want to use manual page breaks is for a new chapter or specifically designated section of the book. This way, your book will look good no matter what font or size it’s displayed in.


The second most important thing to be aware of if you’re writing or formatting your books in Word, is styles. If you open the program, you’ll see them splayed across the top portion of the first ribbon.

As I mentioned before, you don’t really want to put a lot of manual breaks in your digital formatting. This includes tabs at the beginning of paragraphs.

Styles are really helpful because they tell a program how to handle certain input – such as the start of a new paragraph. They become even more useful during formatting because instead of having to go through the book and manually update all your breaks, you just tell the style how to look, and every piece of text using that style will update at once.

I tend to write using different styles than I include in my final formatting. Because tabs don’t need to be as extreme on a Kindle or other e-reader as they do on a PC screen in order to be noticed.

So the first step in formatting your digital book is to update ‘normal’ to match the size of tab and level of line spacing you want it to use on the e-reading device.

I use single line spacing. A tab of 0.3. And you also want to make sure you justify the text so that it forms straight lines on both sides of the paragraphs.

Once you’ve set the style, select a few lines then right click on Normal in the ribbon and click on ‘update normal to match selection.

Preserving Formatting

When you update your styles, you might notice some unanticipated changes to your manuscript. Specifically, it might eat some of your special formatting – such as bold, italics or underlined script.

I used to pull my hair out over searching back through older versions of the document to re-add all the formatting. Until I discovered an easier way. Word is a little fiddly with how it remembers your formatting, and want to make sure you clean some of that up anyway.

So before you apply your changes to your styles, you might want to take a few extra steps to preserve your formatting. I have a nice copy and paste trick I use.

First you want to use the “Find and Replace function” (ctrl +F on the keyboard) to search for italic text. You do this by extending the menu and clicking on the ‘font’ section. Select italics.

Into the replace section type: ###^&###

You can use any symbol here. I use a number sign because I don’t use it elsewhere in my text. The “^&” tells the program to repeat the original text inside the new markers.

If you use bold and italics, use different markers for each or you’re going to have a difficult time putting them back.

Now update your styles and use a second find and replace to update your formatting.

The (###)(*)(###) tells the program to find everything that takes place between your tag. (If you used a different tag, put it in place of the number signs. The \2 tells the program to put everything back. Make sure you’ve chosen the style for the text in the extended menu. And note that for this second command to work, you need to check the box next to ‘use wildcards.’ Otherwise, the program returns an error.

Cleaning up your Characters

That’s the bulk of the work done! But if you really want your document to look clean and professional, there are a few extra steps you should take.

Some people don’t realize that special punctuation, such as the ellipsis (…) and the em-dash have their own special codes that cause them to display correctly. If you’re manually typing 3 periods instead of using the special ellipsis character, there is a chance your punctuation won’t display correctly. The first two periods might be on one line and the last one might be on another – not good.

So I always do another series of find and replace to make sure the characters I don’t tend to use while writing display correctly. The first is to replace … (3 manual periods) with … (or hold alt+ctrl+. on the keyboard).

The second replacement I make is to turn my -‘s into em-dashes. You can actually do this by typing two dashes side by side, but I don’t like how they look in my unfinished work. So I do a find and replace. (Here’s an em-dash you can copy: — )

Most publish books use smart quotes (the curly quotation marks). I also don’t use these when I write because they annoy me. So I update all of my quotation marks during formatting.

First, go into the word options menu and make sure that ‘Autoformat while you type’ is set to turn straight quotes into smart quotes. (Note, you can do your dashes this way too, if you want.) Now just do a find and replace. Replace ” with ” and you’re done! Word handles the rest.

Even if you do use smart quotes while writing, it might be a good idea to do this to make sure the final copy is clean.

Converting your Files

You’ll probably notice I keep talking about ‘clean’ files. This is because Word is notorious for hiding special formatting in your document that is nigh impossible to find or delete. So when you’re done formatting your file, you don’t even want to save it as a word document.

I use a program called Calibre to convert my documents to epubs and mobis. There are other options out there, but this one has always worked for me.

The best way to get a clean file is to save your formatted document as a web page (or .html). In fact, if you’re familiar with HTML, you can use a program like Notepad++ to do all this formatting.

Load the HTML file into Calibre by dragging and dropping. Then tell it how to handle your file. You first want to add your cover, the title and series info and your tags. Then flip to the ‘Look and Feel’ section and check the ‘layout’ tab. Turn off the extra space between paragraphs and set the indent size to ‘no change.’ (Because we already configured it in the file.)

The last step is your table of contents. You’re going to want to create one. On the “Table of Contents” tab, select ‘force use of auto-generated table of contents’ and then tell the expression path what type of style to look for. (See how useful styles can be!)

You’re going to want to make an epub, since that’s the file format Amazon uses for upload now. So flip to the ‘epub’ output section and tell it to ‘insert inline table of contents.’ This will create the clickable table of contents at the beginning of your book which is handy for readers!

That’s it! You’re done!

Final Tips

Do NOT put the table of contents at the end of the book. Several scammers apparently used tables of contents at the end of their books to increase their page reads, so Amazon has cracked down on this.

I always right click on the book and edit the epub so that the table of contents is after the copyright page. Calibre will insert it automatically as the second page of the book, so you can adjust it according to your preference here. (Just don’t move it to the back!)

It used to be okay to fiddle with the table of contents after creation of the file, but Amazon’s backend has become finicky about this. So if something didn’t make it to your table of contents, I recommend going back to the original file and checking your styles. You can search for more than one style type with the table of contents feature and it will create a nested list.

You can use Calibre to convert your epub file into a mobi file if you’d like to test it on your kindle. Which I highly recommend doing! But you no longer need to make a mobi file, since Amazon wants epubs for formatting.

You can upload a word file to Amazon if you really want to, but it might not convert as cleanly as an epub.

Be sure to check your book in the Amazon previewer before you set it to go live!

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