Saturday, December 6, 2008

Forget what you know about book formatting

One of my many joys of running Smashwords is working directly with authors every day who share my passion about the promise of ebooks. Their feedback, dreams and frustrations are what guide our development.

The biggest challenge these authors face getting their book into ebook form is that they're held hostage by their previous conceptions regarding how a book should be formatted. Traditional print formatting is very forgiving. If you use space marks or tabs instead of indents, for example, as long as the words are arranged where you want them on screen or in your PDF, the book prints reasonably well and all your bad formatting habits are forgiven.

Ebooks aren't so forgiving, because for the most part, formatting is the enemy of good ebook formatting. If my statement sounds circular and nonsensical, allow me to elaborate.

In the ebook realm, authors must abandon the notion of the "page." Pages have no meaning in ebook form, because pages become amorphous shape shifting creatures depending on the ebook reader; the reader's choice of font size, font style or line spacing; or in the case of the iPhone, whether they're holding it vertically or sideways.

When the notion of page disappears, it creates other problems for traditionally formatted books. The page numbers in your table of contents or index become meaningless. Your artificial page breaks, made via the common bad habit of multiple paragraph returns, create blank pages. Your forced page breaks disappear.

The secret to good ebook formatting is to keep it simple: A paragraph return at the end of a paragraph, a proper indent at the beginning of the paragraph, a couple paragraph returns between each chapter, things like that.

For long form narrative books, which is what most people read, readers buy books for the words, not the formatting. Don't let your formatting get in the way of the words.

For helpful formatting tips, read the Smashwords Style Guide.

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