October 15, 2015

Formatting for eBooks: Tips and Pitfalls — Guest: Angela Quarles

Graffiti scribbles on a wall with text: How Can We Avoid a Formatting Mess?

Long before I decided to indie publish, I began keeping the option in the back of my mind. I read articles about self-publishing, I learned the steps of the process, and I started bookmarking cover artists and editors as I came across recommendations. I even audited an ebook formatting class and attended a workshop on ebook formatting at a conference.

With those latter classes, I didn’t really feel like learning all the technical stuff involved, so I was mostly hoping to get an idea for how to tell if a formatter was any good or not. I’d heard stories about ebooks from reputable indie authors or traditional publishers suffering from formatting problems, and I didn’t want to run into the same issues.

Yet if we don’t know the technical stuff ourselves, we can be at a loss for how to tell a good formatter from a bad one. I wouldn’t know what bad code looked like unless it highlighted itself in a bright “delete me!” shade. *smile*

Luckily, by the time I was ready to pull the trigger on indie publishing, I had a solution. My good friend and beta buddy, Angela Quarles, was thinking of offering ebook formatting as a side business after enjoying working on her own books so much.

I knew Angela had plenty of experience with HTML and CSS code for website design, and ebooks are essentially like webpages in that regard. Ebooks use the same type of code structure for formatting, so she’d know when code was bad or not needed because she’s lived and breathed this stuff.

…So I volunteered myself as guinea pig to convince her to start this business. *grin*

However, I know that we don’t all have a genius like Angela on call, so I figured that others might still have the same questions I had:

  • How can we tell a good formatter from a less-skilled one? (especially if we can’t see or understand the code of samples?)
  • What issues should we watch out for?
  • What questions should we ask?

Even if we’re traditionally publishing, we might want to judge whether our publisher knows what they’re doing for ebook publishing. Or if we’re planning on formatting our own books, we might want to know what the common pitfalls are, so we can avoid them as well.

To that end, I asked Angela to come by and fill us in on what we need to know about formatting for ebook publishing. Please welcome Angela Quarles! *smile*


The Pitfalls of eBook Formatting (especially across Platforms):
What to Look for in a Formatter

Ah, the smell of varied standards amongst ebook vendors! Reminds me of the old, wild days coding websites during the “Browser Wars”—remember Netscape? Didn’t think so.

Anyway, I used to code websites back during the late 90s/early aughts, when you’d have to write exceptions into your code to account for which browser a website would be served on. I won’t get too technical, but it was a you-know-what.

Coding ebooks now reminds me of those halcyon days. If you’re only on Amazon, you might not worry too much, but even there, some things will be rendered differently depending on if it’s using the kf8 format or the mobi format.

So, you’re hiring this out so you don’t have to deal? Great! Just make sure your formatter has the experience in working across platforms, not just Amazon. Here are some things to look out for.

Do They Know All the Quirks of All the Platforms?

Sadly, even though there are standards in place, not all of the reading devices pay attention to them. Let me share some examples of how the different ebook platforms can vary…

Widows and Orphans

These are controls that will tell the e-reader device whether or not to break a paragraph across two pages, and if so, what the tolerance level is in number of lines. Some vendors, like Nook, will have the default for this set at two, while Amazon doesn’t even bother with it.

Personally, I don’t like Nook’s default setting, though this is a personal taste. If you want to not have your pages end two lines early on some pages, then make sure you tell your formatter that you don’t want to set widows and orphans at the default setting (Note: I set mine to 1, so this is what you can tell your formatter you want yours to be if your taste matches mine).

Centering Headings

Nook strikes again if you’re wanting your headings centered. I’m going to get a little technical here, but with Amazon’s format, all you had to do was make your header tag centered in your stylesheet, but that won’t work on Nook and some other e-readers. You have to make a specific “class” for it and call that class in your header tag.

One way to test if your formatter codes for this quirk is to look at some of their books. Are the chapter headings centered in Amazon’s Look Inside, but not on Nook?

Spaces between Paragraphs

While you’re there in Nook, see if there are extra spaces between paragraphs. Some older Nooks have to have the CSS code treated in a certain way in order for it not to insert these extra spaces.

Embedded Fonts

Also, if you’re wanting embedded fonts, make sure they know how to code for that in Apple and Nook.

This by no means exhausts how each e-reader can ignore specifications, but they are the most visible and common pitfalls, so these can be a good test to evaluate your formatter.

Do They Know How to Keep Your File Size Small?

You might not think file size matters for ebooks, but it does. If your book is priced higher than 99 cents, Amazon charges you a download fee based on the file size of your book (minus the cover). It’s in the pennies per book, but if you sell a lot, this can add up over the course of a year.

They Should Know How to Adjust Image Size

Make sure your formatter knows how to shrink any images (other than your cover) to be the smallest it can be and still look good.

They Should Know How to Work with HTML and CSS Code

Also, make sure they’re working with your actual code. By that I mean that they aren’t just taking your Word file and putting it through a software program and handing it back to you without delving into the code itself.

You want someone with HTML and CSS coding background, because you might not realize this, but when you run it through one of these programs, it adds a bunch crufty code. It gets worse when you put it through several, and it starts to weigh your file down like a bunch of junk DNA.

They Should Know the Tools for Generating Clean Code

I’m going to be a snob about this, but really the only two ePub tools that I know of that can produce the cleanest code are Atlantis Word Processor and Sigil, so if you hear those in their arsenal, great. Some also use website-building software like Dreamweaver. Some hardy souls even edit the files in Notepad. Whatever allows them to actually see the code and clean it up.

For those using Scrivener, their ePub is pretty close to being clean, and if you don’t require much else as far as customization, in most cases a Scrivener-produced file can validate. But many of the other ePub tools you hear about tack on a lot of crufty code; they don’t output clean files.

If your book is going to be 99 cents or permafree, then this won’t matter at all, since there will be no surcharge for file size. But if you have a large book, this would be something to consider.

What Tools Do I Use?

If I’m formatting one of my own books, I export the ePub from Scrivener, and open it up in Sigil to do some quick adjustments. Then I change the file extension from .epub to .zip and unzip it.

This is an awesome trick, which many might not know—epub files are really just zipped up HTML (and other) files. So if you change the extension, you can then unzip it and see all of your files that make up your book.

I like to use Adobe Dreamweaver to then do some heavy lifting in the search and replace department and general cleanup. Then I rezip it, change the extension back to .epub, and open it back up in Sigil to do the rest of the cleanup and styling.

If I’m formatting for a client and they hand me a Word doc, I like to get that converted into an epub by using Atlantis Word Processor and exporting it as an ebook. Then I do the same as above to get it cleaned up and stylized like I want.


Angela QuarlesAngela Quarles is a geek girl romance writer. What makes her romances geeky?

Whether it’s fan girling over Ada Lovelace by having her as a secondary character in Must Love Breeches, or outright geek references with geek types in her romantic comedy with paranormal elements, Beer and Groping in Las Vegas, or going all Southern steampunk in Steam Me Up,Rawley, she likes to have fun with her romances and hopes her readers do too. Her latest release, Must Love Chainmail, takes readers back to 13th century Wales.

Angela has had a varied career, including website programming and directing a small local history museum, and has discovered that writing allows her to explore all her interests. She lives in Mobile, AL and works by day at an independent bookstore. You can find her at her websiteTwitterFacebook, or Goodreads. You can also join her mailing list to get the latest news.


Geek Girl Author ServicesGeek Girl Author Services takes care of the nitty gritty so you can spend time on your writing.

Angela handles print and ebook formatting, as well as editing and marketing services. Find her online at her website or on Facebook.


Thank you, Angela! As everyone can see, I successfully convinced her to start her Geek Girl Author Services company. *rubs hands together* And she did a fantastic job!

Here’s a sneak peek at the first page of the ebook format for my upcoming motorcycle-riding faerie princess story, Ironclad Devotion:

Sample page from Ironclad Devotion

There’s so much we have to learn about publishing when we start down the writing path, even if we stay on the traditional route, and ebook formatting is one more thing on that list. No matter who formats our books, it’s best if we understand the basics and know the red flags to watch out for.

This advice can help us all know what questions to ask of our potential formatter. Or they can help us know what common issues to watch out for when doing our own formatting.

I also like Angela’s tips for how to look at a formatter’s sample work and see if their formatted stories contain any of these problems. Even if we’re pursuing traditional publishing, we might judge potential publishers on formatting issues just as we do for crappy covers.

All together, this advice can give us a sense of confidence that the formatter we work with is skilled enough to do a good job. And when publishing, we have enough other issues to worry about that it’s worth it to kick items off that “worry” list.

Some might think formatting isn’t that important, but at the end of the day, we want to keep readers immersed in our story, and we don’t want all our hard work on story craft to be undermined when a formatting glitch pulls readers out of the story. So yes, formatting is important too. *smile*

Have you seen odd formatting in ebooks? Were they traditionally or self-published? Did the glitch pull you out of the story? Do you have any other tips on how to evaluate formatters? Do you have any questions for Angela?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Firefox actually grew out of Netscape, so some of us remember it. :p And you still do have to code some exceptions for certain browsers, for some features.

The main downside I’ve found to Scrivener-created EPUBs is that they copy images 1x per use, so things like a fleuron gets duplicated rather than referred to as the same image every time. (Or at least this was the case last time I checked—I haven’t yet checked the new update.) Scrivener export works well enough for now, especially since I publish to vendors that need a variety of formats (like PDF).

One of my side projects is creating the templates for some specialized EPUB & MOBIs, like a starscape background for a sci-fi penname. Goal is to eventually move my workflow into HTML, which I’ll macro-ize to help me automate. Moving to HTML will also make it easier to update back matter and such in my work.

(My code editor of choice is TextWrangler, which can even open folders and find/replace in multiple files at once. That’s even how I build and run my website. Yes, I’m one of those geeks. :p)

But to address the actual discussion questions, yes, I have seen odd formatting in e-books, more in traditionally published books than in self-published ones—which is ridiculous, considering how much more the big publishers charge for their e-books. Sometimes the glitches are characters that don’t display properly, being replaced with some symbol, so yes, it does pull me out of things.

Angela Quarles

LOL, I _knew_ I should’ve qualified about coding exceptions for current browsers, as I figured some would probably still be needed, but I haven’t had to worry about it since the last decade…

Good to know about Scrivener. I never tried to embed images there (only in Sigil) so I wasn’t aware of that. I’ll make sure to let those know who ask me about using Scrivener to be aware of that, thanks!

And I agree, it seems like waay more often that not it’s traditional publisher files that I see having wonky issues. I’ve also seen too often where it’s obvious they did an OCR scan of a backlisted title and didn’t pay for a thorough proofread and we get “hone” instead of “home” etc.

Thanks for commenting and good luck with your project! Sounds awesome!

Auden Johnson

Awesome post. I was trying to publish on the Nook and ran into some problems in my epub file that I didn’t know how to fix. Your post gave me some ideas of what to do.

Angela Quarles

Hi Auden, glad it might have helped point you in the right direction, but feel free to reply with your issue and I’ll see if I can give you a solution!

Evolet Yvaine

I haven’t used it, but I hear Scrivener is good for formatting. I use that software, but I haven’t used that feature. Also, I checked out her website and thought her beta reading services looked suspiciously like developmental editing. LOL Which I thought was an interesting take on that.

Angela Quarles

Hi Evolet!

Yeah, I didn’t feel comfortable calling it a dev edit, but I feel completely confident in doing a Beta read for a busy author who doesn’t have time to do a traditional swap. Especially because my Beta reads also cover stuff that usually also falls under line editing or copy editing. I felt like it fit better with what I do….

Marcy Kennedy

Great post. I code my own books (using Notepad++ to fiddle with the HTML and CSS). For me, learning to do my own ebooks was both a budget and a control thing. I’m sure there are formatters out there who are more skilled than I am (yourself included, Angela), but I saw so many poorly formatted ebooks that, when I started out, I was scared to put my book into someone else’s hands.

Someday I anticipate having to have someone else format my ebooks due to time constraints, but for now, I actually find it soothing 🙂


[…] I was on Jami Gold’s blog, talking about ways to evaluate a formatter, and it reminded me I’d neglected this […]


I have a webmaster certificate from a long time ago and was the webmaster for my local chapter of Sisters in Crime for several years. building a new website every couple of years for them. Being a little hazy on CSS, I used Guido Henkel’s Zen of eBook Formatting to help me code my upcoming historical novel The War Bride. I cleaned up what I could in Word, tried to use notepad++ and Sigil but ended up wokring mostly on Dreamweaver because that’s what I was most comfortable with. And I made the ebook attractive just like yours is, Jami, with the oversized initial (since drop caps are iffy on some devices, like my Kobo Glo) and a small chapter graphic. If you plan to handcode even a plain ebook, I do rec Guido Henkel’s ebook. He’s a trifle long-winded in spots but the info is solid. I’ve also designed the interior of the print version of The War Bride using Word Styles. Both ebook and print book design all took a fair bit of time and patience but on the bright side, I’ve got both the code and the print templates for the next book! And yeah, I do like the control, LOL.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Holy CRAPADOODLE! Yep, formatting scares the bejesus out of me. I recently hired a formatter for both print and e. I want to learn to do both versions myself, though. This post sets me straight and gives me the confidence to try and learn.
THANK YOU for this!!!
Such great info!
Have a wonderful week 🙂


I didn’t understand coding very much. Can you help me to understand what coding should I used to make books in to ebook format?


[…] those interested in self-publishing, Angela Quarles discusses the pitfalls in formatting for ebooks and what to look for in a formatter, Marcy Kennedy explains how to find and select a cover designer, and David Kudler shares a lot of […]

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