E-book formatting for authors: Reader contribution by Smashwords’ Mark Coker
December 7, 2008 | 12:01 pm
One of my many joys of running Smashwords is working directly with authors every day who share my passion about the promise of e-books. Their feedback, dreams and frustrations are what guide our development.
The biggest challenge these authors face getting their book into e-book form is that they’re held hostage by their previous conceptions regarding how a book should be formatted. Traditional print formatting is very forgiving. If you use space marks or tabs instead of indents, for example, as long as the words are arranged where you want them on screen or in your PDF, the book prints reasonably well and all your bad formatting habits are forgiven.
E-books aren’t so forgiving, because for the most part, formatting is the enemy of good e-book formatting. If my statement sounds circular and nonsensical, allow me to elaborate.
In the e-book realm, authors must abandon the notion of the “page.” Pages have no meaning in e-book form, because pages become amorphous shape shifting creatures depending on the e-book reader; the reader’s choice of font size, font style or line spacing; or in the case of the iPhone, whether they’re holding it vertically or sideways.
When the notion of page disappears, it creates other problems for traditionally formatted books. The page numbers in your table of contents or index become meaningless. Your artificial page breaks, made via the common bad habit of multiple paragraph returns, create blank pages. Your forced page breaks disappear.
The secret to good e-book formatting is to keep it simple: A paragraph return at the end of a paragraph, a proper indent at the beginning of the paragraph, a couple paragraph returns between each chapter, things like that.
For long form narrative books, which is what most people read, readers buy books for the words, not the formatting. Don’t let your formatting get in the way of the words.
For helpful formatting tips, read the Smashwords Style Guide.