How to Publish an Indie Book, Part 4 of 6: Format Your Book for Print, Ebook, and Audiobook

Joshua Fields Millburn
Posted on August 6, 2013

The Beauty and the Books

Bookstores are beautiful places. Walk into any well-curated Indie Bookshop and it’s like being welcomed home, hugged by millions of pages of text. This beauty, however, is not accidental. Rather, it’s an intentional, sensuous experience: that in-awe feeling we experience from Books is one part kinesthetic (the feel of touching/turning the pages), one part olfactory (the smell that overtakes you when you first enter a Bookstore), and one part visual.

The latter part has something to do with the Book cover (see Part 3 of this series), at least at first glance, but the overall visual experience can be mostly attributed to how the Books are laid out—that is, how well they are formatted.

Hence, I have some enjoyable homework for you…

Praxis: Spend some time in a Bookstore this week. (Bring a ruler.) Go first to all the Books you usually gravitate toward. Inspect them closely. What about them attracts your attention? Which books do you pick up and thumb through? Which Books do you ignore altogether? Why? Is it the cover? The size? The thickness? The paper? Spend time really look at each Book, even the Books you’d likely never pick-up: Does the typeface look proportionate? Is the kerning just right? How about the margins—what are their measurements? Measure the size of the Book—is it 5″x8″, 6″x9″, something else?

You’ll start to notice that every Book is different, even the beautiful, well-formatted ones—each one different in myriad ways. Like a delicate snowflake or some other cheesy metaphor that barely makes sense.

At first, this fact might frustrate you. It sure as hell frustrated me: Why the hell don’t publishers have standard sizes? You see, I prefer a formula. But there is no formula, and so we have to go with our proverbial guts when formatting our Books.

(Aside: Before we continue to Types of Books and Formatting Software below, I’d like to stress something: the podcast for this part of the series is likely the most important of the series, since formatting is where so many people go wrong or give up. Don’t give up! There are always options. Colin and I lay out our entire process during the podcast, which is backed up with some specifics below.)

Types of Books

Let’s talk about the three Types of Books you’ll (likely) want to format for (noting, of course, that each Type has several sub-Types; e.g., “Ebooks” contains sub-Types Kindle, Nook, and so forth).

1. Print Books. Even though we’ve already talk about What the Hell a Book Is in Part 1 of this series, it’s true that many of us still think of Books in the traditional sense of the word: i.e., a printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers. Thus, when approaching formatting for your book, Print Books are a good place to start. If you’re printing a Book containing mostly text, then the best software to use is Scrivener (more on software below). It’s important to realize that formatting is a tedious process, especially at first, while you’re learning; it’s a process that requires hours of adjusting and tweaking and re-adjusting/tweaking until you have a product you’re happy with. But it’s totally worth it. You want to be happy with/proud of your Book, and spending hours getting it right will ensure a level of quality with which you can be happy.

Specs: irrespective of a Book’s length (it can be 58 pages like my novella, Days After the Crash, or 300 pages like my novel, As a Decade Fades), I use the following specifications when formatting for print:

  • Page/Book Size: 5″x8″. This is the most common size used in trade paperback publishing (6″x9″ is also popular for some Books), and I’ve found it to be the perfect size for all of my Books. Also, it’s the smallest non-custom size offered by CreateSpace and other printers (discussed in Part 4).
  • Font/Typeface: I like Garamond and its derivates for my Print Books. I’ve also used Minion, Caslon, and Georgia in the past, all of which are beautiful serif fonts that work well in print. The font size of my Books varies a bit, but not much, and it usually ends up around size 11 (occasionally I’ll go as low as 10.7 or as high as 11.2, but no farther, unless it’s the copyright page which I usually set in size 9 font).
  • Front Matter: all the stuff that’s at the beginning of a book is important: the title page, bastard title page, copyright page, dedication, epigraph, table of contents, etc., all of which are somewhat optional in that you get to chose how and where to place them. But remember: you want this stuff there; it add a perceived legitimacy to your Book and also gives readers a chance to learn a little more about the book if interested. Colin and I almost always hide something funny or obscene  on the copyright page for our attentive readers. (Hence, you can have fun with even the most tedious aspects of formatting.) When creating the front matter for my Books, I’ll often look through stacks of Books at an Indie Bookstore to find the content I like most and then emulate it using my own ingredients.
  • End Matter: After the Books content—i.e., the meat of your book, its chapters and words, the meaningful stuff—usually comes at least three different bits of end matter: 1) Acknowledgements page, where you thank the folks you want to thank; 2) About the Author Page, which’ll include your B&W photo and bio; and 3) Other Books by This Author, which is nice if you have other Books in print.

2. Ebooks. Once your Print Book is formatted, it’s time to move on to the wide array of Ebooks. This format covers any and all e-, ahem, electronic Books: Kindle, Kobo, Nook, Sony e-reader, and any other e-reader-esque device, including devices that use e-reader apps, such as the free Kindle App that works on PCs, Macs, iPads, tablets, iPhones, Androids, and BlackBerrys.

While I still enjoy the sensuous experience of physical books, most of my reading these days is done on some sort of device (viz. a Kindle or the Kindle app on my phone). What I’ve discovered is that the sensuousness of the experience is still there in Ebooks; it just manifests differently. Thusly, formatting your Book well for Ebook is just as important as formatting for Print.

This is often where Big Six Publishers, as well as small publishing houses and Indie Authors, go wrong—a fatal mistake. Spend time formatting your Ebook (tools/Software below), because in the longrun, you’ll likely sell more Ebooks the Print Books. Nothing makes me “put down” an Ebook quicker than bad formatting.

Like Print Books, it’s best to understand what you’re looking for in terms of formatting—what looks good, what doesn’t—which means dutifully looking at many other Ebooks on multiple devices (Kindle, Kindle App, iBooks, etc.) to discover what works and what doesn’t work. Model the stuff that works; throw out the rest.

3. Audiobooks. Don’t sleep on Audiobooks. As technology improves, Audiobooks’ share of the pie continues to increase more than any other Type. In fact, I cover my rent/mortgage from my Audiobook sales these days, a feat I’d’ve thought impossible two years ago. At the moment, the best way to get your Audiobook to the masses is via ACX (more on ACX in Part 5 of this series), but first you have to create your high-quality Audiobook before you can sell it.

 Formatting Software

1. Scrivener. If there is a such thing as a must-have Software for writers, it’s Scrivener, which not only allows you to keep organized your work—chapters, characters, sections, notes, etc.—it also allows you to format for Print Books and all different Types of Ebooks. Like anything new, it takes some getting used to, but it’s worth the learning curve. Oh, and it’s relatively inexpensive (less than $50). Check out Colin’s Beginner’s Guide to Using Scrivener for more details, including a video tutorial, screenshots, instructions, and an Asym Community discussion.

2. InDesign. While Scrivener is the multi-purpose workhorse built with the work of ebooks and text-focused print books in mind, InDesign is the fuller-featured next step up, adding more features than you would believe and nearly unlimited options when it comes to layout and image presentation — two things that Scrivener lacks. That being said, InDesign is so powerful that most people will never use more than a very small fraction of what it offers, which is why it’s best saved for specific types of projects. Newspapers, magazines, coffee table books, books on design or art or other subjects that require lots of visuals; this is InDesign’s domain, and it does the work incredibly well. The learning curve is steep, especially if you’ve never used Adobe products or layout software before (Quark comes to mind, though it was replaced by InDesign as the gold standard in publishing software nearly a decade ago), but it’s very much worth the time and effort if you are looking for the largest possible number of options when publishing and want more control over how your work — text and imagery — is presented.

3. Misc. & Meat Grinders. Some platforms give authors the option of uploading their finished manuscript in any format, including a Word document. Smashwords, for example, will allow you to upload just about anything and then push that file through their ‘Meat Grinder’ software, which converts it into the various formats necessary to publish on the main publishing platforms (.epub and .mobi). This is a nice option to have, and frankly it’s really helped reduce the number of hurdles between a first-time author and publication, but it also has the unfortunate side effect of creating truly horrible looking ebooks. A quick online search will net you many horror stories of a beautiful piece of work rendered all but unreadable after being filtered through the Meat Grinder, and similar software on other sites doesn’t fare much better in the court of public opinion. Nook Press has stepped up their game by allowing you to upload your file and then edit it on their in-site software (which works a lot like Scrivener, though a stripped-down version), which helps alleviate the worst of the damage, but in general it’s best to avoid this kind of process if you’re looking to produce high-quality work from your high-quality words.

4. Adobe Audition (Audiobooks). Like InDesign, Audition is a part of the Adobe family of software, which means that it’s pro-level kit intended for folks who take their work seriously. The learning curve can be steep, and although there are a massive number of free tutorials and documentation available, it’s not something you can open up and start using right out the door — not unless you have experience with other audio software, at least. Again, like InDesign, Audition has more features than someone wanting to record an audiobook will ever use, but it also has some extremely high-quality features that are difficult to find in more consumer-grade software (things like on-the-fly filtering, EQ-adjustment, and adaptive noise-reduction. Audition (or other pro-level software, like Logic Pro), when paired with the right hardware, is what makes the difference between something that sounds pretty good for being done at home, and something that sounds really, really good, period. If you’re looking for an open source alternative, try Audacity, though be warned that it doesn’t have a fraction of a percentage of the capabilities boasted by Audition. It’s a good place to start, though, if you’re unsure of how much you want to commit to recording and producing your own audiobooks.

Hiring Someone to Format

Formatting can seem overwhelming—trust me, I know. But learning the Software and the skills required to format your own Book will help immensely in the longrun. That being said, while I was learning how to format my Books, I myself hired someone to do the formatting for me. Ergo, if it makes you feel better, you can someone you trust to do the same while you’re learning.

Asymmetrical offers different formatting services over at our Studio.

About This Series

Over the course of six essays and six podcasts, Colin Wright and I want to show you, based on our own experience as successful Independent Authors, how to publish an Indie Book (hence the title). This series includes six parts (listed below).

Each essay also contains a short podcast in which we expound on the contents of the essay, using our own personal experience and opinions as a beacon to guide the conversation.

We welcome your feedback and questions in the comments below, which we’ll use to append our teachings herein.

Podcast: How to Format Your Book

Now, before you move on, you ought to listen to a formatting chat between Colin and me:

Move on to other segments in the series:

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(Photo by Megan Jae Riggs)