How Do You Format Your Books?

by Meredith Bond

Formatting Tools

To me, formatting is the most fun part of self-publishing. If I were an artist or had more of an artist’s eye, I might feel that creating the cover would be more fun, but sadly, I’m too left-brained for that. But formatting, that lets me be creative, detail oriented and fool with design.

There are a number of different tools we can use to format a book and everyone has their own favorite depending on their comfort level with computers or knowledge of different programs and even computer languages. The wonderful thing is, you don’t have to be all that computer savvy to create a beautiful book.

In this post, I’m just going to talk about how to create a mobi for Amazon’s Kindle or epub for almost every other retailer (Kobo, Apple iBooks, Nook, Google Play, to name the major ones). The other formats one might need to publish would be a Smashwords version, a version for Draft2Digital, and then there are the different layouts for Print-on-Demand—all of which would make for an exceedingly long blog post. So let’s narrow our focus a bit.

To format your manuscript into a mobi or epub, you need some software and you have to follow some rules. I won’t go into all the details here, it would also take way too long, but here are a few options for you to consider:

     Microsoft Word: Word is a word processing program, that is its strength. You can use Word to format books but I would caution against it. You need to start with a very clean document (if you use the one you typed into while you were writing your book it’ll be full of miscellaneous hidden codes which could cause your book to look wrong on an e-reader). To format your book with Word, you also need a very clear understanding of how to use Styles, Headers & Footers, even page breaks (you’d be surprised the number of people who just keep hitting Return until they get to the next page). I wouldn’t recommend uploading a Word document to KDP or any other on-line retailer except for Draft2Digital which is designed to accept them.

  Calibre: Calibre is a program created for people to keep their digital libraries organized. It was not meant to be used to convert Microsoft Word documents into ebooks, although a lot of writers use it that way. Like Word, it puts in a lot of hidden codes that will make your book look strange and sometimes unreadable. The last I heard, Apple iTunes wouldn’t accept epubs made with Calibre.



  Scrivener: Scrivener is a great piece of software for writers to use to write their books. You can do great things with their virtual bulletin board creating virtual index cards which make organizing your book a breeze. There’s a built in word processor so you can write your book within the program and even counts your words and tells you how far you have to go to reach your goal. It also allows you to compile your book into an ebook. It’s not easy (I’ve heard some people complain that the process was confusing) and it’s not pretty, but it’s possible.

  Vellum: This is the newest, most popular way for Mac users to create ebooks. It’s easy to use, gives you a few options for making your book look pretty, and makes uploading to Apple iTunes a breeze. But what about if you work on a PC? Well, then you’re out of luck. This is a Mac only program. Authors are charged by the book or a one-time fee of $200 to create ebooks, $250 to have it create Print-on-Demand books as well.


Jutoh: This is, personally, my favorite and the program I use. It’s a simple program designed specifically to create ebooks. You just import your Word document (Open Office document or one of many other types of documents) and can then add drop caps, images, footnotes, boxes, tables, whatever you like. It can also do conditional formatting so that you can put in links to books at different stores to create vendor-specific versions of your book. I teach a class on how to use this program – contact me for more information in the Authors Community Forum. The program costs $39 for a license which can be used on either a Mac or a PC or both (if you happen to have one of each).

Sigil and HTML coding: If you know HTML, the computer language used for coding web pages, you can easily format your book into HTML and then using the free program Sigil, convert it into an ebook. This is for real sticklers about formatting who want complete, nitty-gritty control over their ebooks. I used to format books this way, but decided to make things easier for myself and use Jutoh. But there are still a number of people who do this and I applaud them.

Smashwords/Draft2Digital/Pronoun: Nope, these are not programs to format your book into an ebook. They’re ways to distribute your book to other online retailers. However, they do accept Word documents and have computers which will convert your book for you. You can then download the product of this conversion and upload it yourself wherever you want to sell your book. Yes, this is cheating, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. The thing with cheating, though, is that you will end up with an absolutely plainly formatted book (although Draft2Digital has recently begun offering some variations if you don’t mind stock formatting). It won’t be pretty, but you know that it will look right. One other note: formatting for Smashwords itself can be a little tricky as they have very strict rules which you must follow in order for your book to be accepted by their computer for conversion.

There are other ways to format books, but these few are the ones used most by indie-authors. If you’d like more information on formatting or self-publishing, please hop over to my vendor page, or connect with me in Authors Community Forum. You can purchase my book Self-Publishing: Easy as ABC.

Thanks and happy formatting!