A Self-Publisher's Guide to Formatting
Updated: Jul 28
I knew going into self-publishing that formatting might be a pain. I’m lucky because I have some experience with formatting software from my job as a content editor, but this was a little different. I did hire an outside editor at Rising Action Publishing.
Disclaimer: everything I say below is based on my personal experience and not intended as hard instructions. I have received no monetary compensation from any of the links/programs I mentioned. If you notice an error, or know a way to do something easier, please let me know.
Why is Formatting Important?
I mean, who cares, as long as the story is good right? Wrong. Have you ever watched a “cam” movie download? Where someone filmed a movie in the theatre and then put it online? Terrible, right? Well, a poorly formatted book is the same thing. Some people can ignore it. Most people, like me, get annoyed by it. But, mostly, it screams unprofessional. Self-published books are still seen as the “lesser” to traditionally published books and having crap formatting just reinforces this idea.
If you haven’t started writing a book (or are just starting), go on KDP and find the specs and write in that template. It'll save you a headache. And learn to write without using "tab".
If you’re at the self-editing stage (pre-professional edit), take the next round of editing to apply the template. This way you'll have more chances to catch formatting errors.
Is your book finished and ready to go? Before you even go into the instructions there are three things to consider:
1. Don’t self-format if you aren’t computer-savvy.
2. Don’t self-format if redoing a file 10+ times to figure out one small pagination problem will make you pull out your hair.
3. Don’t self-format if you don’t have a few hours to spend.
Let’s say the three things above made you break into a cold sweat. There are other options. You can use Draft2Digital (or others like it), which format your book for you but take a royalty (often 10%). Your best bet is a services company like Rising Action (they also do formatting).
Want to give it shot yourself instead? Ok!
Some Terms for Going Forward:
Front Matter – This means your title page, copyright page, dedication, epigraph – anything but the story itself.
Back Matter – This is your Acknowledgements, About the Author, etc.
Trim Size – the physical dimensions of the book
Bleed - A part of your document that has images or elements that touch the edge of the page, extending beyond the trim edge and leaving no white margin. This is for books with pictures. My guide below is for TEXT-ONLY books. If you’re doing a book with images, I can’t help with this. I will not mention Bleed again.
kpf - Kindle Publishing File - the format Kindle Create will generate your file into.
Anything in " " is a command in Word you can find on the ribbon. I’m assuming a basic-level understanding of Word for these instructions. Anything that isn’t clear you can Google.
Before you start:
1. Get some coffee/tea/beer/whatever
2. Create a subdirectory in your book's files for Formatting.
3. Create a Master File where you’ve COPIED your final version of your book into the Formatting folder. This is in case you mess up royally or the Word demons eat your words.
4. Make copies of the Master file. E.g. WBG_Kindle.doc, WBG_KDP.doc, WBG_mobi.doc.
5. If you find any typos, go back and correct the Master File right away.
How to Self-Format
THIS IS MEANT AS A LOOSE GUIDE, NOT GUARANTEED PERFECTION!
Table of Contents (create anchors)
Getting a .mobi file
Print is the easiest. Because you’re simply converting to PDF, you don’t really need a template and can use the tab key.
Still, here are KDP's suggestions.
There are only four things you need to really worry about with PDF/Print:
1) Blank pages.
Don’t forget that “real” books don’t have text on every page. If you have a dedication it should be on the right-side page (if you’re looking at an open book) with nothing on the back. Have a book beside you when doing this to help visualize. You can also use the “Read Mode” option in Word to check it.
2) Header/Footer/Page Numbers
Your PDF for print NEEDS these things or it'll scream amateur. Look at any book – it has page numbers, the name of the author, and the name of the book on alternating pages.
This is where “Insert Section” really comes in handy. There should not be any page numbers/header/footer on the Front and Back Matter. To do this, split your document into three sections. Then you can add Headers and Footers to the Book but not the F/B Matter.
And if the Header is still carrying over to the Front or Back? There’s a button called “Link to Previous”. You want to make sure Section 2 is not linked to 1 and section 3 is not linked to 2.
To set different odd and even headers (Author on left, Title on right), but page numbers on all book pages, you add page numbers TWICE to the footers.
Luckily, you can mess with the margins after you do everything else, though margins WILL change your page count. The first thing you need to know is your trim size. Look at your bookshelf. What’s the usual size for your genre? If your book is a little longer than most, pick a size bigger. My book, which is 422 pages, is a 5.5 x 8.5.
Once you pick one, Ctrl+A the document and apply the margins. DON’T FORGET to select Mirror Margins!
Margins can be tricky. My Word has the margins set as cm, not inches, so I had to go on Google and convert them all to make sure they were accurate. And then when I imported to Amazon they were slightly too small so I had to go back and drop them a bit. This is the kind of annoying thing you'll have to contend with.
There’s a difference between EXPORTING to PDF and SAVING to PDF. You want to Export. Amazon lays it all out for you quite well, but don’t forget to: Embed fonts, flatten transparencies, turn off downsampling, and select PDF/A Compliant!
Your kpf and epub files will be almost the same – after I had WBG_Kindle.doc finished, I made a copy and renamed it WBG-Epub.doc.
Use the same KDP Template from Amazon's website but this time you should follow it to the letter. I'm not going to walk you through it, as their instructions are pretty good.
YOUR FRONT MATTER NEEDS TO FIT THE TEMPLATE TOO! I learned the hard way when I thought I’d make my front matter centre-justified with my imprint logo added. It came out looking like sh*t on the Look Inside feature. I emailed Amazon and they said it’s based on HTML they can’t modify. So, I had to go back into my document and change my front matter. PAIN IN THE ASS. So, you can thank me for warning you.
This means all your front matter (Title, copyright, etc) will sit on the left of the page, but it looks cleaner than messy formatting on Amazon itself.
You don’t need page numbers or header/footers on this file, as ebooks don’t have them.
So, follow Amazon’s instructions and then import to Kindle Create. Oh, yes, you need to install Kindle Create on your computer.
The great thing about Kindle Create is that you can make changes within the program itself (though you should go back and fix these things in the Word doc and Word Master File as well).
The things I mainly fiddled with were the size of the headings and the formatting of the table of contents.
Once your Kindle Create file looks good (use their preview buttons), you can open Kindle Previewer (see below in the TESTING section).
This is where it gets interesting. You can try to use a free online program to convert to epub or mobi, but I’ve had only bad experiences with those. They're fine for a personal project, but not something you're trying to sell.
A kpf file is not a Kindle-readable file. You need a mobi.
The best way to create an epub (for Kobo and Apple Books) or a mobi (so you can gift the ebook to Kindle users) is to use Calibre.
Calibre is a free program that looks like it’s from 1996, but it does what it needs to do.
(You have to download it from their website. If you’re having an issue installing it, as I did, there is a workaround using WinRar you can find in their FAQ. If you don’t know what WinRar is, I recommend paying someone like Rising Action to convert for you.)
It’s quite easy once you get the program on your PC. I’ve included screenshots because I’m nice.
Here’s what the top looks like once you're in:
Click “Add Books”, then pick your file.
It’ll show up under Title.
Click on the book and then the “Convert Books” icon above.
Once you do so, you’ll get a page that’ll ask you to add your cover and some metadata. Fill it in but notice the “Output format” at the top.
BEFORE you hit OK, which will start the conversion, go to the left panel and click on Table of Contents.
While in there, click select the “Manually Fine Tune” checkbox. I found that my front matter and my first chapter weren’t included in the automatic TOC.
Hit OK. It takes you back to the main page as it loads.
The TOC generator will pop up when it's done.
Click on where you want the TOC to go and the sidebar will change. Select “Add New Entry above this entry” and then it’ll open to all your page breaks. Select the missing one and then OK. You can drag around the chapters in the list, but it’s really clunky so I prefer the “Add New Entry” function.
Then hit ok and it’ll create an epub for you in your files.
For mobi, you do the same thing as epub, but you have to change the OUTPUT FORMAT (first page). You’ll also notice that the ability to manually change the TOC isn’t available. Other than that, it’s pretty much the same process. Move on to TESTING!
TESTING YOUR FILES
You can print out a few pages to see how they look, but when you upload the documents to Amazon, they do an error check for you. You have to CLICK ON IT to see it, but that’s how I caught that my gutters were slightly too small. It bumped my pages from 422 to 430 when I modified them, but at least they caught it. The Previewer also checks for things like extra blank pages or hidden non-printable text.
To fix it, you go back into Word, make the changes, export to PDF, and try again.
That’s the most you can really do to test print.
Plug your Kobo or Phone (the Kobo app is free, so install it first) into your PC. (This is just for Android phones and Windows computers)
Find the Kobo directory in your phone files. It’s usually on your SD card and not the phone itself.
Paste a copy of your epub file into the directory.
Unplug your phone.
Open Kobo on your phone.
On the upper right there are three dots. Click that and find the Import function.
Let it find your file, then hit “select”.
Go to the Kobo home button – find “My Books”. It’ll be in there.
If you need to make changes, remember to DELETE the wrong file before adding the new one, because Kobo doesn't know which is which and you could check the wrong one.
I don’t have an Apple computer or tablet or phone. As such, you need an Apple Connect account and jump through 900 hoops to get on Apple Books. I haven’t decided yet if I am going to use Ingram Spark’s “Apple Distribution” option or whether, when the COVID-19 self-isolating is done, I will ask my sister if I can use her computer/account and do it myself. When I decide I’ll update this post!
This is where Kindle Previewer and the KDP website come in handy.
Download Kindle Previewer. Access your kpf file and “flip” through it. Does it look ok? It’s more reliable than Kindle Create, so if you see any issues on the Previewer, fix them in Create and “Publish” again. Then recheck in Previewer.
When you’re done uploading to KDP, take time to check the Previewer on their website (to make sure nothing uploaded wonky) AND look at their spellcheck program. I caught a few words both myself and my editor missed (or, more likely, I made the error when applying their changes).
Once your file is up and running on Amazon (congrats gurl or boi, you’re published!) you can make sure the Look Inside feature doesn’t look too bad. If it does, you simply run through all the steps again and reload the kpf file.
If you don’t have a Kindle e-reader device, you can get Kindle for your tablet or your Android or Google phone (not sure about Apple products). The app is free. You will have to mess around a bit in the Content and Devices part of your Amazon account to get it to arrive, but you can find instructions easily on Google for that.
After you have the mobi file from Calibre, email your @kindle email address the mobi file, then open it on the app and make sure it looks good. I have a Fire and the app on my phone – I checked both because I’m right paranoid.
Congratulations! YER DONE
Were these instructions helpful? If so, please consider sharing them on your social media.
Or, if you really want to thank me you can buy my book What Branches Grow. You have the Kindle app now and it's less than $5 USD. If it's not your genre, maybe tell your sci-fi friends about it?
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