Formatting for fun…

I have been struggling with formatting, something that is essential if I’m to self-publish, and I promised to share my self-publishing researches with you, so here we go.

So many people tell you to make sure your book is carefully formatted but leave the mechanics unexplained. So many people, even possibly the same ones, complain about the poor formatting in self-published e-books. I knew I needed to get it all right and I knew I was starting virtually from scratch.  I also knew I needed to do it myself. I don’t want to pay anyone else and even more than that I don’t want to rely on anyone else. I need that element of control which I suspect lies at the heart of the way I have embraced the idea of self-publishing.

I have been reading and re-reading all the advice that is out here in cyberspace and believe me it is not easy or intuitive. Most of the advice bypasses the most basic information and assumes a familiarity with various aspects of word processing that I simply don’t/didn’t have. Once upon a time I did a course on desktop publishing but it resulted in pretty documents that would be no use whatsoever for uploading to an e-publisher like Smashwords or Amazon; it was directed, I think, at the production of privately printed leaflets, pamphlets and things like local magazines. I usually write in RoughDraft and use very few of the bells and whistles that even that comparatively simple software offers. So getting to grips with some of Word’s bells and whistles was the first learning curve. And Smashwords demands a Word doc with no extra hidden formatting. This is essential and they then put it into what they call a Meatgrinder to convert it to various formats – mobi, epub, etc.

I am fairly competent at using more than one word processor, more than one blogging platform, more than one email provider and basic photo manipulation. So I’m not totally technically illiterate but this was quite a lot to take in all at once.

First there was the conflicting advice: leave out the spaces between paragraphs; indent the first line of each paragraph; don’t use the space bar to create indents; etc. I couldn’t get my head round how to produce text that was acceptable and Word’s autoformatting made very little sense to me because I wasn’t writing in Word in the first place. I followed various instructions from various friends and then realised that my text – all my text – was probably riddled with the wrong formatting and I needed to start again. I was particularly worried by the fact that I normally type in block paragraphs. This is in part a hangover from non-fiction work-related documents and in part the convention used by most fanfiction, which is virtually the only fiction I have had ‘published’. My heart sank at the thought of all the work I was, I thought, going to have to do.

I then read and re-read the Smashwords Style Guide. (You can download it free at Smashwords.) At first most of it seemed like a foreign language and I started to panic. Then I experimented with a section of text that had all the features I needed to test: paragraphs, dialogue, and the problem of having been ‘touched’ by more than one word processor system, something that happens when you send things to and fro to betas, first readers, etc. ( I never use italics or any similar problematic formatting other than in titles or author’s notes so that wasn’t a worry.)

Things seemed to be working but I still didn’t quite trust myself or the results. So I consulted my daughter, who is extremely good at stuff like this. She doesn’t use Word; like me, if she wants more than .rtf she uses OpenOffice. But I had my laptop open with the Word document containing the experimental passages and she had the Smashwords Style Guide open on her PC. Together we went through it all, very slowly, and tried each piece of advice. And it worked! (Despite a great deal of interruption by my grandson who wanted to help…)

Even if you normally use Word it is worth following every recommended step because Word is especially adept at adding hidden formatting that it thinks you might like to your text – instead of leaping up with frantic paperclips, as it did in the past, it does it quietly behind the scenes. Then if you have sent your work to a friend to beta and they have viewed it in e.g. OpenOffice, the problems will have multiplied. So here’s what to do.

Basically, treat the Style Guide as a bible. Regard it with religious fervour and follow every step as a matter of faith, even when you don’t understand what it is telling you to do.  ‘Nuke’ your document by putting it into Word, then into Notepad (to remove  the formatting) then back into a fresh Word document. Smashwords call it the nuclear method and recommend it. They also recommend closing Word down and re-opening it to make absolutely sure you have a clean page.  Blitz all the autoformatting and autocorrection options by unchecking them – all Word’s bells and whistles must be removed.  Allow Word to set your document in ‘normal’ style – a style free of bells and whistles.  Turn on ‘show formatting’ so that you can check. Modify the normal style to include indents and single spacing, following the Style Guide instructions to the letter, and check that it has the font and size you want (which is not necessarily how your text appears on the screen). Then highlight your text and click on autoformat. Hey presto! Block paragraphs turn into beautifully presented text with indents and no extra line spaces. Magic!!

At this point, disbelief sets in. You worry that it only looks as if it has worked and that there are bound to be glitches, gremlins, even demons. So, ask Word to save your freshly formatted document as a filtered web page and load it to your conversion program. I use Calibre, which is a brilliant free program for converting documents for my Kindle. (I have Calibre tied to my e-reader format so the conversion was to Mobi but  you choose the conversion default on set-up.) Then click to open and Calibre (and presumably similar programs) will loaded the document to Kindle for PC  (a free download that lets you read Kindle books on your laptop or PC) or if you have chosen e-pub conversion Calibre opens a reader for that.

My document looked perfect!!! We decided that it was possible there might be occasional glitches – for example if a paragraph ended exactly at the end of a line it might, in the course of reformatting and conversion, flow straight into the  next paragraph but this was hardly  going to be earth shattering and certainly wouldn’t draw the sorts of criticisms we had heard and that my daughter herself had made of many e-books.

Then I realised I had to deal with the chapter headings, title page, etc. Again, the Style Guide takes you through it and you can choose heading styles based on the ‘normal’ style but with bigger fonts etc. and you can choose centred styles too. I have checked these out using the same method and they work so I should be all set. If you call your chapters ‘chapters’ and do what the Style Guide tells you, the Meatgrinder will automatically add chapter links and both epub and mobi will start each chapter on a new page.

My main disappointment at the moment is that I have to use the Smashwords/Amazon licence declaration. I would prefer to use one of the Creative Commons ones but haven’t yet worked out whether a) I can, technically (Creative Commons licences come as html) and b) I can, legally (because Smashwords presumably want to control what they see as piracy). I’ll leave that for another day. I’m still trying to work out how to make sure my title page is separated from the licence but gather it varies from format to format and can’t be controlled by the author.

Next time, I’ll talk about cover art. And then about pricing and payment issues.

Once I’ve sorted all this for one book it should be a fairly quick and painless process for each book/story. And it brings self-publication that much nearer.  If any of you want to know more, just ask!

6 thoughts on “Formatting for fun…

  1. The disadvantage of Smashwords, I think, is the need to follow their strict formatting rules. If you create your own e-books in Epub format – using or for example – you don’t have to worry about formatting. It’s better to work in a simple text editor so that you don’t transfer all of the hidden formatting from Word. As you create your e-book you can choose from a limited number of formats. The Epub file can be uploaded to Amazon to create a Kindle file.

    • Thanks for the URLs for the epub formats. I understood from the Kindle publishing site that they don’t want epub uploaded – you have to upload a filtered webpage of a Word doc. To create Kindle files for reading I could send things to Kindle but I use Calibre. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the formatting for Smashwords sorted, and I can check the mobi output using Calibre and my Kindle, but it will be good to be able to check the epub in advance.

      Smashwords show you how to remove Word’s hidden formatting after which it’s just a question of adding the style they want. I’m making huge leaps and bounds in Word usage! I don’t normally write in Word so it was all a mystery to me! Putting everything into Notepad and then back into Word clears everything provided you then clear all Word’s autoformatting options and then put everything into ‘normal’ style before adding more style elements such as indents or headings.

      However, I can see that Smashwords formatting might be offputting for a lot of people and they will need help with it. I suppose it depends partly on how much time you have to experiment with it.

  2. Unless something has changed in the last couple of weeks, there was no problem uploading an Epub file to Kindle. I will use Calibre to turn the Epub file into a format that is readable by old Kindles to sell on my web site and try to avoid the 70% Amazon take.

    • I haven’t looked at Kindle as hard as Smashwords yet, because Smashwords distribute to all the other places like Barnes and Noble. And I thought I’d use the Smashwords ‘free for a month then priced’ marketing tool to get friends to read and hopefully review. Amazon price match so I won’t go to them till I have a price on Smashwords. The 70% is what you get – Amazon’s take is 30%. (This is if your book is between $2.99 and $9.99.) There is a new epublisher out, in beta form as yet, which is giving higher royalties. But as they’re all much higher than traditional publishers I’m happy to let them take the strain of getting books to distributors etc. and deal with payments.

      Kindles take mobi (used to be called mobipocket) and Calibre make a good job of it – I have converted quite a few .pdfs and epubs for reading on my Kindle and they’re fine.

  3. You have a choice of two royalty options 35% or 70% (only in some territories and if book is $2.99 or more expensive). If you choose the 70% option delivery costs are deducted before the royalty is calculated and costs are a function of file size.

    • They all work out about the same. The new booktango is more generous but might not stay that way once it’s out of beta! You will of course get more by keeping control of distribution yourself but it’s the distribution and supervision of sales/payments that I’m willing to ‘pay’ for. I have too many problems with Portuguese internet to risk doing it myself!

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