Monday, July 13, 2015

How to be an Indie Author 4: Formatting

This is the fourth post in a series about self-publishing from ideation through sales. To check out other posts in this series, click here.

Last time I wrote about editing, which most writers think of as the bear in the process. I'm here to tell you, that formatting is just as tedious, if not more so. This is where the real work for the indie author begins.

The Indie Difference

Indie tools: coffee, notepad, pen, & laptop
Formatting is a serious difference between traditionally published and independent authors. The reason is simple - this is the beginning of the publishing process.

Before we were working on the content. Editing, is really polishing content. Formatting, however, is making sure content is accessible in whatever form a manuscript takes.

For the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to talk about both digital and print-on-demand publishing. While there are many options in the wide world of digital and POD publishing, I will dive into the reasons why I made the choices I did for the distributors I did etc.


First, it should be noted, choosing a distributor will change your formatting process because different distributors do different things. For the most accessibility, I recommend the following things:
  1. Set up a style throughout your manuscript (for example first line indent for text body, chapter title/heading style for section titles).
  2. Get rid of any extra spaces unless they are necessary for content readability (extra lines, extra spaces, extra indents).
  3. Embed fonts if you're attached to them.
  4. Include a message at the beginning of your document reminding people if they got your book for free, to buy a copy because it was a lot of work to produce the book.
  5. Include an "About the Author" section at the end with a little bio about you.
  6. Include a "Connect Online" section that has all the major places readers can find you online.
  7. If you're really tech savvy, create hyperlinked table of contents that allows readers to jump easily to chapter headings (I'm not tech savvy, so I don't have this in my docs because every time I try things explode.).
Keep in mind, different file types will look differently in digital readers. If you have a reading app on your phone, ereader, or app on your computer, USE THEM. This is especially important when you're starting out because you won't have a system in place. That said, once you've done this a few times, it will become second nature, and you may decide to skip the ereader review altogether (like I do, for better or worse).

Also important to note is different distributors have different capacities. Some will only provide a single file type, like MOBI or EPUB (the most common). If you have to choose one kind of file, choose an EPUB file. However, I would strongly recommend that you not limit yourself to one type of file or one place to be read.

That said, if you have any confusion around formatting, or the distributor rejects your document for some reason, most have a guide or FAQ that you can reference for assistance. Smashwords, my ebook distributor, has a ton of resources for authors (and readers!) which are very accessible and easy to understand.

If you read all this and it stressed you out, however, you can pay someone else to format your work for you or buy a template to use. The cost varies significantly, and I cannot make recommendations this way because, well, I've never been a la cart. I've always been a bootstrapper (If you have recommendations for formatting services or templates, please comment below!).


The second kind of formatting fun is, well, worse. Formatting for print is, as a friend once said, an art form. To format from scratch takes finesse and deep knowledge of printing.

Before you go through the nuts and bolts, make sure you include - just as you did for your digital copies - "About the Author" and "Connect Online" sections at the end of the manuscript.

Now that everything is where you need it, be sure you have selected your printer/distributor. Formatting requirements vary widely from company to company, and one set of formatting choices may not translate to another company.

In my next post on publishing, I'll talk about the reasons why you might choose one printer/distributor over another, but for the purposes of formatting, let's just recognize the two choices available (similar to digital):
  1. Use the template provided by the printer.
  2. Pay someone to go through the process for you.
If you use the template provided, make sure it matches the size of book you want (6'x9' for example). Make sure the pagination places everything on the correct page. So, the title page should have the binding margin on the left. The table of contents should start on a page with the binding margin on the left, etc.

If you pay someone else to do this for you, make sure they are comfortable with the printer/distributor you plan to use and you clearly communicate what size book you intend to have (5'x8' or 6'x9' or ?).

Even if you pay someone else to do this for you, check every chapter. Make sure there are no pages with a single word on them. Make sure the chapter headings are consistent. Make sure the fonts are what you want. Make sure the pages are tracking. Double check that binding margins are where they need to be. THIS IS IMPORTANT! If anything is wrong with the formatting, it will slow everything down. You will have to change the document, go over it again, and possibly again.

I cannot stress the importance of formatting. Once you have this process down, it makes everything easier and faster. But it does take some time to get comfortable and confident in this (I'm just now comfortable with POD and it's been almost 4 years since I started doing it!).

Do you have any tips or tricks to make sure your formatting is correct? Have any horror stories to share? Leave a comment below!

Check out my next post in this series on publishing where I will talk about why I chose the distributors/printers I did. And to support your local, lovely indie bootstrapper, visit my website to donate or buy my books! All the links on my site give me maximum royalty percentages, as opposed to supporting big companies. Buy a book there and see how my formatting went (or didn't!).

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