While there are several excellent ebook writing and conversion apps available—from free to hundreds of dollars for every platform—most people still prefer writing in a traditional text editor. I can’t imagine writing in anything else than Google Docs (and not only because of the voice typing), but many writers use Microsoft Word, Scrivener or another word processor.
Most self-published authors today decide to convert their ebooks; only to realize many hours into the project that it might not be as easy as they have imagined. This article explains how to format a manuscript for ebook conversion, regardless of whether you eventually decide to convert your book yourself or hire somebody. The advice we give can be followed from the start of writing (this is what we recommend) or applied to a manuscript that has already been completed.
You can use this guide to prepare your manuscript (.docx) before you upload it to PublishDrive for free conversion.
(Article updated on July 10, 2018 with major changes.)
A quick note: Did you know that PublishDrive offers free ebook conversion for DOCX files?
You can either use our FREE public ebook converter here, or you can convert your ebook for free during the book upload process in the PublishDrive platform.
Format your manuscript: why is it important?
Text editors and ebook converters might look similar on the outside, but they have very different purposes. Word processors help users to work with the text: write it, edit it, share it with your editors, betas, and grandmother. Word processors have built-in spell check, most of them follow user changes and support different note-taking and highlight options.
Ebook editors, on the other hand, come into the picture once your book is ready: they are designed to create an epub that is difficult to change by the user and displays according to the publisher’s intents on many different devices, may it be a computer, a Kindle or a smartphone. Since the idea behind ebooks and Word documents is so different, it is not surprising that they only look similar on the surface.
|Text editors||Ebook editors|
|What you see is what you get||Often use HTML language|
|Easy to make changes||More difficult to make changes|
|Easy to use local formatting||Formatting with stylesheet|
|Great for writing your book and preparing your manuscript||Great for formatting / converting your ebook|
A manuscript that was not properly prepared for conversion, will not only look bad but will likely be rejected by the stores for technical reasons. It would be a shame for your amazing book to display improperly, look unprofessional or be rejected by stores. So, grab a cup of coffee and let’s get started.
KISS: Keep it simple, silly!
Most ebook reader apps and devices let users change font size, font type, line space and even the background color – or disable these qualities altogether and offer a standard, one-size-fits-all design. While this is amazing from the reader’s perspective, it also means that whatever formatting you use, will likely be overwritten by the user. This means that there is no need to spend hours selecting the perfect color of your headings; only a percentage of your final readers will ever see it.
This does not mean that you should not use any formatting or that there is no use in creating a beautiful epub; quite the contrary. But bear in mind that you have to adjust to different standards when you are preparing your manuscript for publication.
Consistency is the key to success
There is one thing you certainly need to create a beautiful epub, and that’s consistency. Make sure that whatever formatting you use is consistent throughout the book. I’m embarrassed for even saying this, but this is something everyone is best reminded every now and again: if one of your paragraphs has a double line spacing and 12pt font size, the next should not be 11pt only to be able to fit it on the same page.
You can have the best of intentions and not even notice that you are doing something wrong: it is enough to simply copy and paste something from a website. Especially when creating long documents, it is easy to forget how your previous chapter title looked like or whether your block quotes are done with an intent of 1” or 1.5”.
I have good news: you don’t have to remember! In the next chapter, we’ll tell you what to do.
The inside of the ebook
Without really going into the details: the inside of an ebook is a lot like a website. Although this is an oversimplification, an epub basically includes:
- HTML files: this is your book;
- a CSS file: a stylesheet: this contains all the formatting;
- a content.opf file: this has all the metadata helping the ebook readers display the cover, title, author, use the correct character settings and determine the language;
- and a toc.ncx: this is a built-in mandatory Table of contents that comes up when the user presses the TOC button.
There is no need to worry about any of these, however. Your ebook conversion software will create all these parts automatically. You just need to make sure that your manuscript is ready so your software knows what to do. If your book manuscript is appropriately prepared, the “What you see is what you get” (visual) approach in Word will successfully “translate” into the HTML-like structure of the epub.
How to format a manuscript for ebook conversion
Please follow these steps to learn how to format a manuscript for ebook conversion.
1. Remove all formatting
For the stylesheet to work properly and your book’s formatting to be consistent, you will have to format using general styles instead of using local formatting. Styles format texts on the level of a paragraph.
(A paragraph is a text between 2 forced line breaks: your chapter titles are paragraphs as well.)
To start with a clean slate, it is best if you remove all formatting. Yes, this will hurt a lot.
In Google Docs, press CTRL+A to select the whole document, then go to the styles (it should be somewhere at the top) and select Normal. In Word, click the Clear all formatting button to remove all formatting.
In Microsoft Word
In Google Docs
Please note, that this will remove all formatting, including italics and bold. To keep italics and bold, press CTRL+A to select the whole document, then go to the styles, and select Normal. If you have all text selected but your Font and Font size fields are blank, it means that there is still some local formatting left somewhere.
In Microsoft Word
To solve this, just select a simple, common font like Arial or Garamond and 12pt size. This is not the final formatting of your book: we will add the formatting back again later.
2. Remove the following
Before we add the formatting back again, let’s clean the manuscript properly. We have to remove everything unnecessary.
I’m sorry, but you’ll have to switch it off. Numbered lists can work, if your items are immediately one after the other, like this:
On the other hand, current epub standards are unable to handle numbered lists if you are “breaking” the list somewhere then trying to continue it. This happens if you add extra blank lines or extra text between two items.
For example, what looks like this on your screen:
Correct layout in Word / Google Docs
Will most likely look like this on the ebook reader:
Incorrect layout in the epub
To switch off numbering, click the little numbers sign:
In Microsoft Word
You’ll then have to enter your numbers manually. If your book contains many instances of automatic numbering and you would like to convert them all to “real” numbers, here is a trick you can try.
Automatic bullet lists for dialogs
Automatic lists are often present for dialogs, as in many languages dialogs are signaled with a dash, and not with a quotation mark. Unfortunately, the length of the “bullet” and the length of the dash are not the same.
Additionally, styles for bulleted lists are often predefined on ebook readers, and they often receive different formatting, making your book look silly. If you are using bulleted lists for your dialogs, use the trick mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Delete any page numbers from the footers and headings. To do so in Word, double click the top or bottom of the page to open the Headers and Footers menu, and click Remove Page Numbers.
In Microsoft Word
You should also delete any references of page numbers (e.g., don’t say: see it on page 20, say something like see it in Chapter 1). You can easily do so by pressing CTRL+F and search for “page”.
Remove the Table of Contents
While every book should have a Table of Contents, the one you insert at the beginning of your document, won’t work. It either loses its ability to be clickable, or it keeps the page numbers: page numbering does not make any sense when it comes to an ebook. Therefore, we need to remove the Table of Contents.
To remove your Table of Contents, click References, then select Table of Contents on the left, and click Remove at the bottom. Don’t worry: we will make a new Table of contents during conversion.
Forced line breaks
If you have ever solved the problem of orphans and widows with a soft or hard line break, think again. Select the little paragraph icon (❡) on the Home tab in Word to show all non-printing characters. This will display all “invisible” formatting signs. Your text will look somewhat like this:
Displaying hidden characters
You will see a ❡ for every hard break (paragraph break) and a ⮐ (soft return) sign for every soft line break. The little dots stand for space.
Make sure that you only have paragraph breaks ❡ at the end of paragraphs, and nowhere else. You cannot have paragraph breaks in the middle of a sentence.
If you leave in the forced line breaks in the middle of the sentence, you end up with this:
Lines with forced line breaks
If you see any paragraph break or soft return that should not be there, simply delete it.
Go to Find and replace and replace all your accidental double spaces with one space. To do so, press CTRL+H, and press the Space twice ( ) in the Find field. Then go to the Replace field, and press the space only once ( ).
Double paragraph breaks
Do not manually add extra breaks between paragraphs. At the end of the paragraph, it is enough to hit Return only once; if you need some space between the paragraphs, we can add that later using styles. If you are signaling a substantial break within a chapter (a section or scene break, to give the reader some time to breathe), please insert one line with three asterisks, like on the following picture:
Two paragraphs with scene break
Start your chapters on new pages
While it is common to start a chapter on a new page, do not add more paragraph breaks to make something go to the next page. Since your book will be read on devices of many different types and sizes, it will simply mess up your layout.
Use CTRL+Return to insert a page break before chapters to get your chapters start at an empty page. You can also use the Insert Page Break function.
In Microsoft Word
Do not use tabs for aligning paragraphs. Remove them all for now: we’ll add some indents later. Press the ❡ sign to show all hidden characters. A little arrow stands for tabulators, like on the picture below:
There is no need to set the indents now: we’ll set them later as styles. Just remove the tabs.
Images are best inserted between two paragraphs on a separate line, with the image wrapping off. To set this in Word, click on your image, click Layout Options in the top right corner, and select In Line With Text. You can also find this option in the Format menu, like in the picture below. This will ensure that your images are “anchored” to the correct place, so they will remain between these two paragraphs even after the conversion.
In Microsoft Word
While it is possible to wrap images in epubs, beginners are not advised to experiment with this setting, as it usually results in bad formatting.
As part of your preparation, make sure that none of the images are larger than 4 megapixels (4 million pixels); and, of course, are of a good quality and not pixelated. In case of an ebook (usually viewed from a smartphone or tablet), 4 million pixels are enough to provide good quality without unnecessarily increasing the size of the book. Keeping the ebook size low is common courtesy as most of your readers will encounter the book on a device with limited storage capacities.
Convert your footnotes into endnotes. Many ebook conversion tools would do this automatically, but it’s best for you to do it yourself. You can decide to place them at the end of the book or at the end of each chapter. Here is a detailed guide on how to do this.
Direct store links
Your books can have links directing to your own website, social media or your Goodreads profile. However, ebook stores do not allow any links directing to competitors’ sites. (Links to other stores.) Additionally, please do not insert anything like ‘buy it on Amazon.com’ or ‘review it on Google Books’. Use expressions like ‘Review the book in the store where you bought it.’
Remove the following:
– local formatting
– automatic numbering
– bullet lists
– page numbers
– table of contents
– forced line breaks
– double spaces
– double and extra paragraph breaks
– image wrapping
– direct store links
3. Add formatting back again
Once your text is clean, you can add the formatting back again using styles.
The body of your book is already styled as “Normal”. You can format your normal paragraph as you wish (including typefaces, sizes, etc.), but the most important decision you should make is whether you are using indents or spaces to separate your paragraphs. It is entirely up to you, but please don’t use both.
If you are using indents, don’t simply insert a tab in front of a paragraph (remember, we just removed those?) but use the ruler at the top.
Ruler in Microsoft Word
If you are using spaces, use the Add space before / after paragraph option. (Whichever makes more sense for you.)
In Microsoft Word
The following picture shows the difference between the two styles.
Two popular ways of marking paragraphs
Once you’ve decided how your paragraph is going to look like, right click “Normal”, and select Update Normal to Match Selection. This will format all your normal paragraphs the same way.
Update normal style in Microsoft Word
If you would like the first paragraph in each chapter look differently, apply your changes at the first paragraph, then select Create a style. Name your style something you would remember, for example “Firstparagraph”.
Create a new style in Microsoft Word
It is crucial for your headings (chapter titles and subtitles) to be marked as headings, otherwise the conversion software won’t recognize them and won’t use them to create the table of contents. Just click at your first chapter title and select “Heading 1” under your styles.
Chapter title formatted as heading
Now, you can do all the formatting you wish, just don’t forget to update the style once you are done.
You just simply have to repeat this for all of your chapters and subchapters. It is enough only to select Heading 1: the formatting will automatically apply.
Add front matter and end matter
Well done, your book manuscript is now formatted properly! Your next task is to turn it into a book. I would suggest that you Save as now and start working on a new file.
While your book manuscript can begin with the first chapter, your book can’t. You’ll need a cover, a title page, copyright page, and table of contents. At the end of the book, many people consider adding an Author bio and an Other books from the same author section. Don’t add the table of contents or the cover yet.
All of these elements are referred to as "front matter" and "back matter." To learn more about how to optimize your front matter and back matter, read our guide here.
Save as and convert
Once your ebook manuscript is ready, save your file in a .docx format, then simply upload it to PublishDrive! We’ll do everything else.
After Converting Your Ebook, What's Next?
Once you've converted your ebook, it's time to publish! With PublishDrive, you can reach over 400 online stores around the world, including major retailers like Amazon, and even stores in China.
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