Formatting Manuscripts for Ebooks

by Tommie Lyn

Most writers are aware of the paradigm shift that’s taking place in the field of publishing today. We have to stay aware of what’s going on, because it affects so many things about our chosen field of endeavor.

When I began writing fiction in 2006, I searched for information on every aspect of writing, from how to develop characters, to the proper way to structure a manuscript for submission. “Use Courier 12 point, double-spaced, one-inch margins, the title and your author name in the header,” I was told.

I was told to write a query letter. No  . . . write tons of query letters and drop them in the mail. Wait for the rejection slips to pour in. Rinse. Repeat. And some “experts” said I had to continue this process indefinitely. Bleh.

The prospect of that uphill slog discouraged me when I was at the bottom of the hill looking up. But then I discovered that everything has changed, that the digital revolution has made that information outdated.

If an author decides to pursue a traditional outlet for his work, the rules may have changed, depending upon the publisher. However, for those who decide on an independent approach, the rules are definitely different, and there are new avenues open for authors to  get their work “out there.” And I’ve learned that structuring a manuscript for digital publication through outlets like Smashwords is quite a bit different than setting it up for submission through traditional avenues.

Now, I’m no expert when it comes to computers, text manipulation, or any one of a myriad of other abilities. But I’ve been able to format my novels for both Amazon’s KDP platform and for Smashwords, the two main outlets for ebooks.

It took a few tries to learn the best way to do the formatting, but these days, my files are accepted “as is” when I upload them, no changes required. I discovered that if a file is formatted to Smashwords’ specifications, it can be used for KDP with only a few minor changes.

Here’s a brief rundown of how I set up a manuscript for uploading.

First, before I do anything else, I make a copy of the document to work from, then put the original in a safe place, and I don’t touch it. I work from the copy.

And let me mention this: before I even get so far as formatting my manuscript, I do one thing while typing my manuscript that simplifies my life: I never ever use the tab key to indent text. Nor do I use the space bar. I use the Paragraph > Format feature of Word to set indents. But if you’ve used the tab key, remove the tabs from your document using Search and Replace. Same thing goes for space bar indents.

Now, to get started with the formatting, I strip the undisplayed control characters from within the text of a document (just because you can’t see them, don’t think they aren’t there. They are there, biding their time, waiting to make hash of your manuscript when it is converted into an ebook. So I remove them as a first step).

I copy the entire text of the document (Select All, Copy), then paste the text into Notepad (Notepad is a nifty little program you can find in your Accessories folder). That strips the embedded word processor control characters from it (except for tabs. They have to be removed manually or with Search and Replace, as I already mentioned).

Close the Word document. Open a new Word document, copy the text from Notepad and paste it into the new Word document.

At this point, you may be thinking your document looks pitiful…no indents and your italicized words are plain jane now. Not to worry. Notepad stripped out the control characters that told Word about the indents and other formatting niceties. We’re going to put them back manually. Here’s how:

1. Highlight all the text using Select All.

2. Go to the Paragraph > Format menu. Click the ‘Special’ drop menu on the right and select ‘First Line.’ A box will appear with the number .5 in it. You can leave the indent set at that amount or you can change it (I usually set my indents to .3).

3. Start at the top of the document and manually re-center chapter headings and any other text that has to be centered. Note: be sure to go into Paragraph > Format and change First Line to None for any text you want to center.

4. Start at the beginning and manually add any italics or bold attributes that Notepad stripped from your text.

5. At this point, if you are uploading to both Smashwords and KDP, you will want to have two versions of your file. Here’s how I create those two files.

5a. File adjustment for Smashwords: go to the beginning of the document, make a title page, following the Smashwords Style Guide’s instructions (Style Guide is a free book you can download from the Smashwords site). Include the title, name of author, copyright notice, the Smashwords license notes and any disclaimers (I also include the license notes at the end of the book). I always include attribution and copyright notices for the images used on my covers. I also put other information at the end of the book, like, my website address, contact information and a list of my other books. Now, I save the formatted manuscript as a .doc file and it’s ready to upload.

5b. File adjustment KDP: I insert page breaks at the end of each chapter (Smashwords ignores pagebreaks, but they’re implemented in KDP’s .mobi files). I save the file as a Filtered Web Page.

And that’s it. I’m ready to upload.

Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?


Tommie Lyn is the featured author this week for our Ereader Extravaganza.  Her latest book is Windows of the Soul. You can find out more about her novels and research at Tommie Lyn Writes.

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