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Book Formatting Woes: I figured out the hard stuff so you don’t have to! (Part 1)

Update: This post was written back in 2012, and thankfully things have gotten A LOT easier since then!! (You NO LONGER need a software degree to do this! And CreateSpace doesn't even exist anymore!) But I'm leaving these posts up just in case there's anything that's still helpful in here.

I’m just coming up for air after an intensive multi-day foray into the surprisingly (and frustratingly!!) difficult world of formatting a book for consumption through CreateSpace print-on-demand, Kindle KDP, and Smashwords.  My impressions:

1. I honestly don’t know how anyone without a software engineering background publishes a Kindle book.  As a former Microsoft employee and someone with a general interest in programming, I have plenty of experience writing code and markup, and I have a pretty decent knowledge of HTML (which is what format the book needs to be in for Kindle).  Despite my credentials, I had a REALLY hard time getting the damn thing to behave how I wanted it to behave.  How do normal people ever figure this out??

2. Again, as an ex-Microsoft person, you would think I would know basic Microsoft Office programs like Word inside and out.  And compared to most people, I think I do.  But even so, I STILL spent hours learning new Word features and figuring out how to get them to do what I wanted.  Again, how do writers who don’t have a background in these areas ever get this right??

3. There is a serious lack of comprehensive help information on the KDP or CreateSpace sites.  I put off all this formatting stuff until the end b/c I (mistakenly) thought that Amazon would have easy-to-use tools that were designed to help self-published authors get their books to market quickly and easily.  Instead, I spent hours upon hours wading through blogs and online forums to find tips from other authors who had struggled through it and eventually figured it out.  Amazon, get your shit together and write up a step-by-step guide for newbies!!!  (After a lot of digging, I did find this, but it was no-frills and definitely targeted towards people with a basic understanding of Kindle publishing and HTML, which I don’t think most first-time self-published authors really have.)

4. Smashwords does a much better job of making the formatting steps clear, BUT I was disappointed that after I had gone through hell with my Kindle format and finally got a good working ebook, I couldn’t just upload it to Smashwords.  Instead I had to start from scratch, again.  And then when I uploaded my file expecting to get a preview back, it published it!

So I guess this is why there are so many companies that now charge $400+ to format your book for you.  At first I thought, how hard could it be?  Why would anyone throw away $400 on formatting?  Well, now I know.  If Stitch makes ANY money, I can promise you that in the future I will be dishing out to have someone do this for me as well, since I spent WAY more than $400 worth of my time to figure this stuff out.

Okay, so now that I’ve finished my rant, I’ve got a list of useful tips for anyone who might be trying to sort through these same problems.  Below are tips for Print formatting for CreateSpace, and Part 2 of this post will has Kindle & Smashwords tips.  Hope this helps!

(NOTE TO READERS: My tips are based on my experience in summer 2012 doing this in Word 2010.  Things change quickly in the world of software, so just be advised that my tips may be out of date by the time you get to them…)


#1 Advice: Start with a Template!

CreateSpace has kindly posted formatted and basic templates for all available print sizes here.  I used the 5.5 x 8.5 Formatted Template and it got me 80% of the way there – I just saved their template on my computer and wrote my manuscript right in there.  I liked it b/c it gave me a good idea as I was writing how long my book/chapters would be and what the final product would look like.

#2 Advice: Think Kindle from the beginning!

It’s easy to focus on getting the print version perfect and put off the Kindle formatting until later, but based on my experience, it would have been A LOT easier to make sure I was using Kindle-friendly formatting in my Word doc BEFORE I converted it to HTML for the Kindle version.  So if you landed here just looking for CreateSpace tips, if there’s any possibility you will also release your book on Kindle, make sure you read the Kindle tips in Part 2 of this post as well.

Customizing Fonts, Spacing, Indents, etc. with Word Styles

This is huge.  You CANNOT, I repeat, CANNOT just highlight text in Word and change the font like you usually do.  There are a few reasons for this:

1. If you change your mind about your how you want your font/spacing/indents/etc. to look (and you will!) it will be a NIGHTMARE to fix it, b/c you’ll have to go through every spot and fix it manually, instead of just changing the style in one place.

2. It will be even MORE of a nightmare once you convert your book to HTML for the Kindle version and there’s so much formatting markup that you can’t even read the damn thing.

So my recommendation: use Word’s Styles feature.  There’s plenty of information out there about how the feature works (here’s a nice long tutorial from Microsoft).  I had a handful of different styles – one for regular body text, one for the first paragraph of a chapter (with no indent), one with a special “newspaper” font, one with a “newspaper” headline, and one for front/back matter.  The main things that I got snagged on:

  • If you’re trying to modify a style, sometimes you will run into difficulties because the style is inheriting properties from another style, in which case you may need to modify the “based on” style instead.  For example, when I tried to change certain properties of my body text style, I found that they wouldn’t take until I noticed that the “Style based on:” was listed as “Normal” which, in order to access and edit, I needed to open up the Styles window and go from there (see the tutorial above for info about finding the Styles window).

  • Don’t forget that a Style is also where you should edit things like line spacing, space before/after paragraphs, indents, etc.  You can find all of these things hidden under a little drop-down called “Format” in the bottom left corner of the Style Modify window (which you open by right-clicking on a Style and choosing Modify).

Use Word Section Breaks to Ensure Proper Header/Footer Formatting

The CreateSpace templates have some nice features already built in, like not showing the header on the first page of a chapter or not showing the page number on front matter like the copyright page and dedication page.  It all works great as long as you stick with the pages that are already there, but if you decide to switch things up at all, you might run into some trouble.

The key here is to understand how Word’s section break feature works and make sure you’re using them properly.  Here are instructions about how to add a Next Page section break.  I found that in my case, as long as I did this when adding new front/back matter sections or chapters, the formatting that was set in the CreateSpace formatted template worked just fine.

Word Automatic Table of Contents

This is another important one.  You’ll save yourself a ton of time and effort by using Word’s automatic Table of Contents generator, not only in the print version but also once you convert it to Kindle.  Here are some clear instructions from Microsoft about how to use this feature (skip down to the “Create a table of contents automatically” section.)

Adding Extra Space Before/After a Paragraph in Word

If you need extra space before or after certain paragraphs, DON’T just press the Enter key to add it.  Instead, use the Paragraph Spacing feature to adjust the amount of space before/after your paragraph as needed (instructions here – skip down to “Change the Spacing Before and After Selected Paragraphs”).  Remember, if you need to do this for ALL paragraphs in your book, use the Styles.  This is just to adjust individual paragraphs (for example, if you are showing a break in the middle of a chapter when changing point of view or skipping time).

Word Vertical Page Alignment (Centering Text Vertically on a Page)

This is actually very simple, but the feature is hidden away in a spot where you might not think to look for it.  This is particularly useful for front/back matter.  See instructions here (under “Center the Text Between the Top and Bottom Margins”).

Okay, that’s it for my print version tips!  Check Part 2 of this post and the Kindle formatting tips.


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