Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Moira Allen
Return to DIY Publishing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
The most common file format for an e-book is Adobe Acrobat PDF. You'll be doing the actual "design" of your book in your word-processing program, however. (If you have a complex design that includes lots of illustrations, you may wish to use a desktop publishing program such as Pagemaker or Quark; however, that's beyond the scope of this article.) Since Word is the most commonly used wordprocessing program (and the program in which most e-publishers will expect your document), this column will focus on formatting in Word.
You do not need to actually own Adobe Acrobat to convert your e-book into a PDF file. However, if you want to add more features to your PDF document (such as hotlinked URLs, a hotlinked table of contents and/or index, forms, or pages imported from other programs), you will need to buy the program. It costs around $300 and is well worth the price, particularly if you expect to create more than one e-book. [NOTE: Since this article was written, newer versions of Acrobat have become available that greatly expand the options of creating e-books. These are often bundled free with other programs or hardware, such as scanners. Adobe now prefers to "lease" this program on a monthly basis; you can purchase the program outright on Amazon.com, where I found prices ranging from $137 to $400 on, apparently, the identical product!]
Designing Your E-book
A badly formatted e-book will alienate readers more quickly than a badly designed print book. At best, it will look amateurish; at worst, it will be difficult to read or "navigate." Fortunately, you can create a professional "look" with just a few simple Word commands. You'll need to consider the following elements:
Page size. Most books aren't formatted to an 8.5x11-inch page. E-books are typically between 5x7 and 6x9 (with 5.5x8.5 being a typical format). Your first step, therefore, is to set a custom page size in Word's "Page Setup" menu.
Margins. Use Word's "Format: Document" command to set margins to a minimum of three quarters of an inch on all sides. (You may wish to set top and/or bottom margins slightly larger if you plan to use a header and/or footer.) Since e-books don't have "left" and "right" pages, turn off the "mirror margins" option.
Headers and Footers. Place a "running header" at the top of each page. The easiest approach is to simply include the title of your book and the page number. You can place this information flush left, flush right, or centered—or place the title flush left and the page number flush right. I recommend using a slightly smaller font size for the header, and (if you like) using italic or bold. I also like to use the "border" command to draw a line between the header and the text. Another option is to put the title in your header and the page number in your footer.
To make sure that your header doesn't appear on the first page of each chapter, you'll need to use the "Insert: Break: Section: Next Page" command (rather than a page break) to separate chapters. Then, make sure that you've checked "different first page" in the "Format: Document: Layout" menu. You can also create a new header for each chapter (e.g., using the chapter title rather than the book title); to do this, turn off the "same as previous" option in the header command.
Font. It's best to use standard fonts such as Times, Times New Roman, Century/New Century Schoolbook, or Palatino. Non-serif fonts such as Arial or Helvetica are good for chapter headings and subheads. Use a minimum of 11 points for your text, and 12 to 14 points for subheads. (Keep in mind that the reader can increase the display size of your book when reading it onscreen.) Since some fonts look better onscreen than in print, and vice versa, test your fonts both ways!
Illustrations. One nice feature of an e-book is that it doesn't cost extra to include photos, drawings, charts, etc. Illustrations do add to the total file size of your e-book, however -- and this is an important consideration for the reader. (Keep in mind that many e-publishers and POD publishers won't accept illustrations.)
If you have a scanner, you can scan your own illustrations and convert them to .gif or .jpg files. A program like Photoshop will enable you to crop, enlarge, or reduce those images, or make other modifications. It will also enable you to save them at a lower resolution, thus reducing file size.
While Word does allow you to incorporate illustrations in your text, it's not always easy to position them precisely where you want them. If you plan to use a lot of illustrations, you might want to consider using a desktop publishing program. When laying out photos or illustrations, be sure to leave an ample margin between the image and the surrounding text, and, where appropriate, include captions.
Front Matter. Your book doesn't really start with "Chapter One, page one." It starts with "front matter," including:
While many print books number front matter separately from the rest of the book, this can be awkward in an e-book. The easiest approach is to treat the first page of your book (even if it's the title page) as "Page 1."
Back matter. The back of your book is a good place for an index, your bio, and contact information. It's also a good place to include advertisements for any other books that you are selling. (Keep in mind that even though your book may be formatted in one page size, you can easily include 8.5x11 flyers in the same book!)
Formatting in Acrobat
Adobe Acrobat takes your Word document and displays it "as is" in a PDF file. To generate a PDF file, use the "print" command in Word and select the "Save as File" option under the "General" pull-down menu. Select "Acrobat PDF" as the file type and set "Destination" to "File." Hit the "print" button and your document will be converted to a PDF file.
If you actually own Acrobat, you can add other useful features to your e-book. For example, you can automatically hotlink every URL in the text (be sure to include the http:// prefix on all URLS). I recommend underlining links or formatting them in a color, such as blue, so that the reader will easily recognize them as hotlinks. (Don't bother hotlinking URLs in your original Word document, as these links won't be retained in your PDF file.) You can link your table of contents directly to the text. You can also import pages or files from other programs, including charts and illustrations. (If you plan to import files, leave a blank page in your original document, to be replaced by the imported page; otherwise, your pagination will be incorrect.) You can also set various protection levels for your book (including a restriction on printing, though I don't recommend this!).
Should You Zip It?
If you have a "long" e-book -- i.e., a large computer file -- you may wish to compress it. Otherwise, your e-book may take too long to download (which can cause a reader's computer to "freeze" or even crash). More recent versions of Windows include the ability to create a compressed or "zipped" folder -- just check under the file options (click on "new" and then scroll down to "zipped" folder). If this doesn't work as well as you'd like, you can also obtain a program such as Stuffit, which will save a compressed file in a variety of modes. If you do compress your file, be sure to provide instructions to the user on how to expand it once it has been downloaded.
Self-publishing no longer means paying a small fortune for design and printing. With a little planning and the right software, you can create your own e-book with a few clicks of a mouse!
Originally published in The Writer
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.