Introductory Advice For Creating An Ebook
With commonplace IT equipment, anyone can self-publish an ebook on the internet.
(Image via Shutterstock)

Having self-published three books, and worked with a number of independent authors on their own self-publishing journey, I was delighted when Nick Lewis asked me to share my experiences on his blog in a three-part series on the subject.

Certainly there’s no one true way to self-publish, but my intention with the series is to share the lessons I’ve learned about navigating the process with minimal stress and professional results, using tools that most of us already have on our desk tops.

My way isn’t everyone’s way. The internet is awash with advice on self-publishing, much of it excellent, some of it rather prescriptive. Ideas differ about the best distribution channels, formatting options, what we can do ourselves and when we need professional help. I’m not a tech specialist or a graphic designer. I am a professional proofreader who is a fairly proficient user of Microsoft Word and I’ve worked in publishing (in-house or freelance) for over twenty years.  My self-publishing goals were twofold: professionalism and simplicity. This series of posts reflects the choices I made in order to achieve those objectives.

Today’s post focuses on the mechanics of e-publishing for Kindle and Smashwords. Part II will look at the mechanics of self-publishing in print, and why, in the digital age, having a print version of your book is still a great idea if you want to maximize sales. Part III will address the benefits and challenges of self-publishing as compared with the traditional publishing/agency model.

A word on being conventional …

The two ‘mechanics’ posts include recommendations and guidance on following basic publishing conventions regarding layout and design. Why? Because every deviation from convention disengages your reader from what your words say and engages them with how those words look. Yes, there’s no law when it comes to layout. However, readers are used to seeing book text laid out in a certain way, and deviations act as red flags that scream ‘DIY job’ from the rafters.

When I published my books I wanted people to think, ‘Great! – Louise Harnby’s written a book that will be interesting to me,’ not ‘Louise Harnby has self-published.’ It’s the content that counts and that’s where I want my customers’ focus to be. Reader disengagement is therefore a fail, though one that can be avoided with just a little extra effort.

Digital distribution options

There are a number of different distribution options for publishing your ebook, but two of the best-known are arguably Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP; an Amazon company) and Smashwords.

I chose to take advantage of both because they:

  • allowed me to upload Word files (my simplicity objective)
  • offered me visibility (my books would be available via multiple online book retailers such as Amazon, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and WH Smith)
  • enabled my books to be read on multiple devices (e.g. Kindle, iPad, Sony Reader and Palm Doc)
  • satisfied me with the percentage of sales income I’d receive
  • provided an end result that was as professional as I could have hoped for given the limitations of e-delivery.

Other distribution options include BookBaby, Blurb, Lulu and Google Play. Naturally, you’re advised to read any distributor’s terms and conditions to ensure you’re satisfied with the income and distribution rights on offer.

Formatting your ebook in Word

Using Word as the foundation isn’t the only option, of course, and professional formatters and designers will argue that it’s not the ideal solution for e-publications. They may well be right but, in my experience, it does the job perfectly well.

Using Word allows the likes of KDP and Smashwords to convert your file to the formats they work with, including EPUB, LRF (Sony Reader), mobi (Kindle), PDB (Palm Doc), HTML, and PDF. Allowing these distributors to do the conversion means you don’t have to – which is a good thing for you because it simplifies matters.

I have three golden rules when it comes to formatting Word files for e-publication:

  • Keep it simple
    Ebooks aren’t like print books (see the section on e-formatting snags below). If you try to be too clever with design, at best your ebook will look a mess; at worst it won’t even meet the submission criteria for conversion by your distributor. Ebooks that look a mess focus the reader’s eye away from the content and on the layout – reader disengagement. Ebooks that don’t meet the submission criteria won’t be accepted for publication, in which case the only place you’ve published is on your computer.
  • Use styles
    To prevent reader disengagement, use Word’s style palette to ensure that each element of your text (chapter headings, subheadings, body text, quoted material, etc.) is consistently presented throughout the file.
  • Have the Smashwords Style Guide to hand
    Mark Coker’s excellent, easy-to-use and free guide for preparing Word files is a must-have. Every time I format a Word file for e-publication, I open Coker’s PDF guide and check that I’ve followed his digestible advice, step by step. Not only does he show authors how to use the style palette in Word to generate professionally presented text, he also explains how to manage internal bookmarks, create external hyperlinks, and work with images.

There are other tools available to the author who wants help with organizing the content of an ebook – Sigil, Scrivener and Jutoh are three options to consider. I’ve not used them but my colleague Corina Koch MacLeod, one half of the Beyond Paper Editing team, discusses their merits in Scrivener Cheat Sheet: Start Using Scrivener Now, From Word to Jutoh: Ebook Creation Made Easy and How to Create an Ebook With Sigil: It’s Easier Than You Think.

Layout conventions

When preparing a file for e-publication, there are some basic layout conventions that are worth attending to in order to prevent reader disengagement.

  • Paragraph indents
    Don’t indent the first paragraph in a chapter or in a new section (e.g. under a heading). It will jar your reader because it’s unconventional. If you’re unconvinced, go to your bookshelf, pull down any book, and look at how the paragraphs have been styled.
  • Chapters
    Use the style palette in Word to ensure that each chapter heading appears on a new digital page.
  • Block or run-on paragraph styles?
    Consistency is king, though most fiction work tends to be presented in a run-on style, while non-fiction might be styled in either way. Block paragraphs are not indented and have a line space between each one; run-on paragraphs are indented at their first line (with the exception of the first line in a new chapter or section). Think about what your readers are used to seeing when they open a printed book in a particular genre, and which style choice will make it as easy as possible for them to engage with and navigate your content.paragraph styles
  • Double spaces
    Please don’t use two spaces after a full point. It isn’t necessary. Even if you were taught that this is the ‘right’ thing to do, or it’s something you prefer, follow professional convention. Readers who like two spaces won’t notice that you’ve only used one (because it’s not noticeable!) while readers who like one space will be irritated that you’ve used two. Anyway, it looks gappy.  Still not convinced? Professional typesetters don’t do it. Professional book designers don’t do it. Professional publishers don’t do it. The Chicago Manual of Style says it’s ‘unnecessary in published work’ (though they acknowledge that some editors have a preference for it). Standard professional publishing asks for one space, and given that we want to our books to appear professionally published, I’d recommend you use one, too. Farhad Manjoo in Space Invaders presents a lively and entertaining summary of why using two spaces is not advisable, and how this practice emerged in the first place.

E-formatting snags

The following are a few reminders about snags to avoid in order to give your customer the best possible reading experience:

  • Customer preferences
    Different customers will engage with your ebook using different devices – laptop, tablet, smart phone, Kindle, Kobo, and so on. Given that we don’t know our customers’ preferences, it makes good sense to format ebooks in a way that is sensitive to this. Keep things simple and create ebook text that doesn’t depend on colour, font size, or font style to enable your reader to navigate your content. There’s nothing wrong with incorporating these elements as long as we remember than not all of our readers will be able to take advantage of them. Focus instead on using capitalization, italic, bold, numbered headings, centring, and paragraph styling to enable to your reader to identify different elements in your text.
  • Troublesome tools
    You may be used to using particular tools to organize the layout of your text – the bullet function on Word’s menu ribbon, or the tab button on your keyboard. Again, scour Coker’s guidelines for alternative ways of styling your text that avoid these nasties and provide you with a professional finish.
  • PDF palaver
    Don’t rely on PDF. PDFs are super for reading on computers, but they’re awful on many e-readers because the devices can’t automatically flow the text according to your customers’ choice of font size. As soon as you force your reader to stop reading and adjust their screen settings, you’ve moved their focus away from your content and towards how they can actually access it. That’s just additional reader disengagement and should be avoided.

Summing up

The mechanics of e-publishing aren’t difficult. The process is affordable, too – you can use software that you already own. As long as you keep the design and layout simple, style the elements of your text consistently (and according to your distributor’s guidelines), and attend to convention, you can provide your reader with a professional ebook that is available on multiple distribution channels and readable on multiple devices.


Louise Harnby is the author of  Guidelines for New Authors (free ebook),  Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing and Proofreading Business.


I am a highly recommended professional proofreader with 24 years’ publishing experience. I specialize in providing proofreading solutions for clients working in the social sciences, humanities, fiction and commercial non-fiction. My customers include publishers, project management agencies, professional institutions and independent writers. An Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), I trained as a proofreader with the Publishing Training Centre and qualified with distinction. Freelance since 2006, I have proofread over 450 books.

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