Book Formatting Woes (How to format a book without going insane)

I’ve formatted hundreds of books. I pretty much know what I’m doing. I can make epubs and mobi files that verify everywhere. I can embed fonts, images and decorative dividers. I can use MS Word to format POD books or Adobe InDesign when it needs to be extra polished and perfect looking.

However, even with all that, I hate formatting.

And I’m hating it more every day, which is why my New Year’s Resolution is to never format another book again (after I catch up with all the current orders that came in 2014).

Why am I quitting?

If I’m working on my own books, it’s relatively painless for me to open up the file in the fight program, make the changes I need, and save the new file. But clients can’t do that.

They need to send me a long list of changes, and then I need to go through and make them all. It’s usually the case that I have 10 or 15 different versions of the book, always adding a ‘final-final-most-updated’ version. That gets confusing. I stop remembering what we changed, where.

And then there are typos. Or ISBN numbers to add. Or they want to dedicate it to someone else. Or change their author name. Compared to book cover design, formatting takes me about 4x as long, for 1/2 the price.

Ebooks are the worst

With a print ready PDF, for the paperback, things are going to look exactly the same everywhere, so I can be sure that the author and I are seeing the same thing. That makes changes pretty painless.

But ebooks are meant to be reflowable – that means the sentences will break in different places depending on the screen width. If someone is reading on an iPhone (as a huge number of readers do these days!) there will be a break every few words. That means stuff like centered blockquotes are going to have hanging ‘orphans’ (one word left by itself, in the center under the quote).

That’s annoying. It looks bad. Authors want me to “fix it” or “find a solution.”

But there isn’t a solution. That’s not how ebooks work. You can’t control how many words are going to be in every line. You can’t hard break by using return to break a sentence and get rid of those orphans, because on a different device, that’s going to cause even more strange breaks and orphans.

The first time I tell a client – as I’ve done with all my clients – that ebooks need to flow and we can’t control how it appears on different devices, they are flabbergasted.

It sounds impossible. Ludicrous. You can’t fix how the ebook design looks? Then what am I paying you for? We can do a lot of stuff, if we want to (dropcaps, embedded fonts, decorations) but the more we add, the more trouble we may be in.

Ebooks don’t look the same on every device. There is no universal way of reading the code to display nicely (unless you used fixed width PDFs – but you don’t want to do that!).

Traditional publishers keep things extremely simple. AND they don’t ask authors, “How’s this?” and then listen to their feedback.

I’m ranting, but these are issues you need to understand before you pay for formatting. It’s also why we aren’t going to offer any formatting services through Marketing for Writers (and why I’ve stopped offering them altogether from Creativindie Covers).

If you hire a formatter…

Do yourself a favor and download Sigil, so you can open the epub and make simple changes yourself (then use Kindle previewer to convert back to mobi format). Download a free sample of Adobe Indesign so you can open up the print book layout and make changes (although, Indesign can be tough to learn).

Otherwise, just be patient and keep asking for what you want, and hopefully the designer can do everything you need – but keep in mind, simple is better, and not everything is possible.

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