BACKPACKED WEEK: A New and Improved, Even Easier Way to Format Your E-book


Welcome to Backpacked Week! This is where, for one week, I post about the newfangled self-publishing stuff I’ve picked up from self-publishing my third book, Backpacked, which is out now, and thereby slip numerous reminders about my new book, Backpacked, being out now, into my blog posts without you feeling like I’m just incessantly bombarding you with the news that my new book, Backpacked, is out now. (And only $2.99 on the Kindle store. Bargain!) You can see the week’s schedule in this morning’s post but for this afternoon, our topic is my new, even easier way to format your e-book

Last week the dreaded day came to turn Backpacked into an e-book.

I did everything I usually do (as I outlined in my How To Format Your E-book the Non-Migraine Inducing Way post) and while it converted fine for Amazon KDP, Smashwords was just not happy with it – the .epub format, i.e. most important format outside of .mobi for Kindle, was alternating fonts every other paragraph. Thinking that maybe I’d done something wrong, I started again.

And again.

And again.

And then because I knew that sometimes using MS Word for Mac can screw up things a little bit, I even tried using the archaic monster from the pre-Stone Age that is our family PC, the machine that makes the Commodore 64 look like a Cray-SV1 (I’ve been reading about super computers this weekend – long story…). But it still didn’t work.

I couldn’t understand where things had gone wrong – I’d followed all the instructions, done everything I was told to do and had pulled out everything that didn’t need to be there, even page breaks. Finally I tried pulling out enough of my hair to leave unsightly bald patches and saying bad, sweary things about Smashwords, but – surprisingly – that didn’t work either.

Which left just one, unattractive option: going nuclear.

The Smashwords Style Guide says that if things aren’t working out, there is one very extreme option – the nuclear option – that strips everything out of your text except the letters, the words they make up and the spaces and lines between them. I didn’t want to do this because I use a lot of italics, and that would mean that I’d have to go back and insert 77,000 words’ worth of them. That wasn’t going to help with the this-book-is-driving-me-crazy thing. But I really wanted to conquer this thing, so I did it.

And it worked brilliantly.

The thing is, Smashwords is not the problem. Smashwords was never the problem (and in fact, their free Style Guide is a godsend). Microsoft Word, which was invented by the devil himself and then evidently coded by horned demons, is the problem. That’s why I work with Pages, but you can’t upload anything but .doc files for e-books. Even though my paragraph style was set to Normal and was in size 10 Times New Roman on screen, it wasn’t really set to Normal and in size 10 Times New Roman. Word was just jesting. It was letting me think it was, while hiding in the corner trying to stifle its own sniggering and chucking everything but the kitchen sink into the code.

Just because every post this week has to contain at least one image of my NEW BOOK THAT’S OUT NOW.

I had to go through my book again but, while I did, I was able to pick out a few more errors, clean up a few sentences and generally improve it a bit. So instead of thinking of it as formatting, I just thought of it as another go-through, another revision. Once I was done I copied and pasted that text into my CreateSpace template, which then took only half an hour to format back into a POD interior, so both editions were the same. Then I was so happy with the result I went and re-did Mousetrapped the same way and when I’ve time, I’m going to do Self-Printed as well. I also used it for a formatting client’s e-book that had images and it worked out a dream.

Better yet, once I had scrubbed the formatting from my e-book file, it was so much easier to go back and put in what was needed than the way I’ve formatted in the past. It actually simplified the process. And you can even use your POD interior file if you like – because you’re taking out all of the formatting anyway, it doesn’t matter how much has been done to your document to begin with. I’m never going to format an e-book any other way again.

So here is my new and improved, Even Easier Way to Format Your E-book the Non-Migraine Inducing Way!

Do you need reminding about how in e-books there’s no such thing as a page? Read about that on this post. Or just remember, THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A PAGE in e-books. Got it? Good.

Let’s begin.

Start by making one of these. Or five.

Step 1: Prepare Your Manuscript

Open your manuscript file, whether it be the plain old Word document you and your editor have been working from or the interior of your POD paperback, all laid out nice and stuff, and eliminate anything that just doesn’t work in an e-book. You can either let them go, or leave the pure text in there to do a little work around with it later on, e.g. take the text out of a text box, delete the text box and put the text in a paragraph in all italics instead.

The following are e-books no-nos:

  • Automatic footnotes
  • Text boxes
  • Headers and footers
  • Columns
  • Tables
  • Any other fancy word-processing stuff.

Then click Edit -> Select All -> Copy.

Use a simple text editor program, like TextEdit. 

Step 2: Go Nuclear

Now open a simple text editing program. If you have a PC, this will probably be NotePad; on Mac, it’s TextEdit. Paste your work into here. (On Mac, select “Paste and Match Style” so it matches the style of TextEdit, not the style of the text you’re pasting in as that defeats the purpose.) This will strip your work of all formatting and images. Once you’ve done that, click Edit -> Select All -> Copy. Then open a brand new MS Word document, save it as .doc (not .docx) and turn off Auto-Formatting and Auto-Correct by un-checking the boxes in Preferences. Paste the stripped text in and save.

Turn off Auto-Correct and Auto-Format by un-checking the relevant boxes in Preferences.

Step 3: Style It Up

Working now in this new, start-from-scratch MS Word document, again with all text selected, go to Format -> Style. Your style will be set to Normal, but chances are that normal won’t be what you want. (It’s that damn horned demon again.) So click Modify and make Normal Times New Roman, point 10, left-aligned and single spaced. Click Okay to modify that style and then Apply.

Modifying your Normal style in MS Word.

Keeping all the text selected, then go to Format -> Paragraph and make the settings single line spacing with no extra space before or after, left-aligned with first line indent to 0.3″. So that it looks like this:

Save your document. Switch to Draft View (View -> Draft View) and make your paragraph returns visible (click the little paragraph return symbol in the toolbar that looks like a backwards P). Your book should now be looking like this to you:

Step 4: Put What You Need Back In

Now go through your document and put back in what you need in terms of formatting. Here’s what I do as I go through the book:

  • Insert e-book appropriate front matter including license notes, centered (tip: create a new, modified style where text is not first line indented but is centered – this will keep our formatting pristine all the way through). If you don’t know what that should be, I included an example in my original how to format an e-book post.

If you need some centered text, for example for titles, don’t just click “Center.” Instead, go back to Format -> Style and create a New Style for this purpose.

  • Insert page breaks between chapters (non-fiction/not a lot of chapters) or between parts (fiction/20+ chapters). Because some formats ignore page breaks, always have a paragraph return above and below the break so that if this does happen, the text doesn’t get all squashed up. To insert a page break, select Insert –> Break -> Page Break.
  • Insert bookmarks at chapter headings (non-fiction/not a lot of chapters) or at the beginnings of sections or parts (fiction/20+ chapters) so you can create a working table of contents later, i.e. readers can click on the table of contents and be taken straight to a certain point in the book. Insert a bookmark by clicking Insert -> Bookmark and call it what it is, e.g. Chapter One, Part II, etc.

Inserting bookmarks. You can also see in this image that to start a new chapter, I simply skip a line and make my heading bold. Keep it simple!

  • Format headings. For chapter headings I just use bold + italics and for section headings I switch the text to all caps and make them bold.
  • Put back in italics and/or bold where you need them in the body text.
  • Remove the first line indent where necessary, e.g. the first lines of chapters, chapter headings, etc. (The quickest way to do this is by moving the slide rule at the top of the page, I think. Just be careful to only move the first line and not the whole paragraph.)
  • Make all URLS live, i.e. Insert -> Hyperlink.
  • Insert e-book appropriate end matter, such as links to your blog, the titles of your other books, etc. Your last line in the e-book document should be “###END###’ centered, so that the reader knows they have come to the end of the e-book.


  • Change your font size. All my e-books are now 10 point right the way through. I make text look different using only bold, italics and all capital letters.
  • Have more than four paragraph returns anywhere in your book. E-book reading devices allow readers to change their font sizes considerably and if you put too many paragraph returns, your readers will end up with blank pages at some font size settings. You really should never have more than one except for the pairs on either side of a page break, which technically aren’t together anyway.
  • Justify your paragraphs. Left-align is the only thing that really works properly across all formats.
  • Refer to retailers. Do you think Barnes and Noble is going to want a link to Amazon in your book? Hardly. I normally do two files, one for KDP (Amazon) and one for Smashwords. I keep the Smashwords file clean because it goes to so many different people, but in the KDP file I say things like, “Look out for [TITLE] in the Kindle store.”

Step 5: The Bells and Whistles

You can stop right here and skip to step 6, Upload and Check Your E-books, if you’re happy with your book as it is, or you can add in some bells and whistles, like:

The live table of contents in the e-book version of Backpacked. The links under the copyright notice/license notes link to the web, i.. my blog, Twitter account etc., but the links in the table of contents link to bookmarks, i.e. locations within the document.

A live table of contents. These are very helpful for non-fiction and reference books. The idea is that you insert a bookmark at the start of each chapter or section, go back to the start and type a table of contents and then make each entry in the table a live, working hyperlink that if clicked, will take the reader to the bookmarked location. To insert a link to a bookmark, click Insert -> Hyperlink and then in the window that appears, click “Document” for in-document links and select the appropriate bookmark.

Inserting images in e-books. 

Images. Yes, I’m talking about adding images to your e-books. Have I ingested some crazy pills? Didn’t I always say you shouldn’t put images in e-books? Didn’t I claim that trying to do it was just bringing on a world of pain? Well, when you use the nuclear option, images are easier to work with just because the body text is already behaving well. To insert an image, you must Insert -> Picture -> From File. (You cannot copy and paste.) You must ensure that the image’s layout is set to “in line with text.” To check, right-click the image and select Format Picture -> Layout. Keep the image small; I make sure mine don’t stretch further than 3 inches across the screen. Centre them for cohesiveness, and for safety, leave a page break before and after. In the image above, I created yet another style for the image caption. Don’t forget that for now, at least, most people read their e-books in black and white.

Work arounds. Everything that’s in your paperback can go in your e-book – you just have to use your imagination. Text boxes are easy: just take the text out and either give it its own paragraph with a return above and below, or just insert it like any other paragraph but in bold and/or italic. A formatting client of mine had a worksheet in her physical book – you can’t put that in an e-book (and there’s no point in doing it, anyway), so I advised her to make a PDF of it, and tell her e-book readers to go to her website to pick it up. They still get the worksheet and she gets a website visit. For footnotes, I went to the text where the footnote appeared in the physical book, went to the next paragraph return and then inserted it using square brackets (see highlighted section in the image below).

Adding footnotes manually (see highlighted section).

The only limit, really, is your imagination. For instance in my novel that’s out next month, Results Not Typical, there are several sections that are supposed to be branded literature from the company at the heart of the plot. They’re in a different font to the main text. In the paperback, those sections look like this:

But how to accomplish that in the e-book? Well, this was a true work around. I took a screen shot of the header as it appears in the MS Word document that forms the interior of my paperback book. Then I inserted that as an image into the e-book. The rest of the text, i.e. the rest of the text in each of those literature sections, will remain the same, but at least those image headers will alert readers to the fact that they’re different. So in the e-book, it looks like this:

Step 6: Upload and Check Your E-books

Checking your e-book is really easy and can be done with your Smashwords converted files. (When you upload to KDP you get to see an on-screen Kindle preview which is great but not ideal and anyway if it’s working at Smashwords, it’s definitely working over at KDP.)

Pre-nuclear: Ugh. It’s all, bad and stuff. Yuck!

Upload your file to Smashwords and while it’s converting, download Adobe Digital Editions and Amazon’s Kindle reading application (both free) to your computer. Then when your book goes live, download the .epub and .mobi (Kindle) versions from your book’s page and check them using the programs you just downloaded. If you followed the instructions above, they’ll look great. If they look anything other than great, immediately unpublish your books (click “Unpublish” on your Smashwords dashboard) and try again.

If you’re having problems, download the Smashwords Style Guide. Honestly, you don’t need anything else – if you follow its instructions, your book will look great on Smashwords and Amazon KDP. It’s where I found out everything I know about formatting, along with trial and error. And caffeine-induced epiphanies after a very long day of e-book formatting.

Post-nuclear: Oooh, look how pretty and correctly formatted and stuff! 

So that’s it, folks. If you want to have this post to hand while you format your e-book, click here to download a printable PDF. I know, I know – I’m just too, too kind. If you want to express your gratefulness, buy a copy of one of these or, alternatively, tell everyone you know about them. Every single last one. I’ll know if you leave a few people out, you know. I have ways.

Click here to find out more about Backpacked. Come back tomorrow to find out how I made this book trailer

69 thoughts on “BACKPACKED WEEK: A New and Improved, Even Easier Way to Format Your E-book

  1. Sean Walsh says:

    Oh, God! You do my head in! And even as you do, you make me smile, betimes, laugh aloud… Anyway, I’ve bookmarked your new and improved way etc. To come back to it later – promise. Well, myself for one…
    When I first began to experiment with Smashwords I found contacts in the Guide of people who are expert at formatting and/ designing covers. So I tried one in each catergory. And began to feel lucky. The fee was small, the results great. I was happy to pay for mission accomplished through PayPal. Saved me a century of headaches. And once formatted for Smashwords, the same worked for Kindle.
    Now I have 6 wee books and 3 scripts/plays on Smashwords and on Kindle… Jeremy who did my covers then said – “Now the real work begins…” How right he was!
    Catherine, you say at the very end of your piece – “I can do it for you…” Do you really mean that? I imagine you are so taken up with your own work, you would have little or no
    time for a wayfarer like yours truly..?

  2. Christopher Wills says:

    Perfect timing as I near the end of editing my latest book, Lulu Love, Teenage Ghost.
    I used the Smashwords guide myself last time and it is good (I went nuclear straight away on the advice of a friend who had recently self pubbed). And I too ended up with my own cobbled together version of formatting style guide so I am very pleased to see yours; it will be a great help.
    I enjoyed reading Mousetrapped a lot because it reminded me of the time I spent in Florida in the 1970s when I was young and carefree.

  3. Nicole Trilivas says:

    AMAZING. I have spent countless days reading other guides and this was the only one to actually break it down in such a way that I was able to format my book in just a day. Thank you so much! Another helpful thing was I set my view in MS Word to “Online,” which really hammered home the idea that there are no pages. Thanks again for your help!

  4. Betty Harmon says:

    Like what you’ve done and I intend to go and search out our latest book! Question: My husband has written a book consisting of 400 pages and is breaking it down into a series. If everything he has done is in MS word 2007 would he need to switch over to notepad and do what you suggested??? Simply take out the page numbers??? Thanks! Betty

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      He should take the MS Word file, skip the notebook pad and then follow all the other instructions. (Setting the style to normal, etc.) If it uploads and converts with no problems, he’s home free. But if it doesn’t work, he’ll have to go the Notepad/nuclear way!

  5. Jenn Swanson says:

    Hi Catherine,
    I clicked on the link to find out about having you format something, and it takes me to a blank page. Can you redirect me to where I would find out what it would cost to have you format my 25 page wee book? I have a headache just thinking about this, but I found your site this evening by chance, and think I might muddle my way through trying to figure this out. I want to produce several short guides on different topics.
    Also, is it ok (as in allowed/recommended/wise) to put a book out on Kindle and in several other places at the same time? Are there rules about that anywhere? I’m just waiting for my ISNB numbers to come, and with the exception of the formatting piece, am ready to roll. Thanks for you help…I am a total newbie to the e-book business and have been trying to find some understandable help for a week now!

  6. Nell Rose says:

    Hi, you are a genius, pure and simple! I am trying so hard to figure out the formatting and then I come across this and the light just went on! Thank You!

  7. Charl says:

    Re:Nuclear Option
    Every Word Processor I’ve seen has the option to [Save As] .txt
    No need for Notepad, TextEdit or other.

  8. Peni Griffin says:

    THANK YOU!!!
    I am so old I have half a dozen books on which the rights reverted to me, and I got them, before Simon & Schuster stopped doing that. Even if I my electronic copies had ever been in the devil program (created by people who couldn’t type for people who were intimidated by computers), they’d have been in a version of the devil program so old that no current program could read it, least of all programs intended to run the latest version of the devil program. I’m tearing my hair out trying to figure out what format to scan the physical book into and people are cheerily telling me: “Oh, you just take your Word document…”

    So if I understand this correctly, all I have to do is scan the books as .txt files, and then wrestle with the devil according to instructions, and then I’ll be where everybody assumes I already am. I don’t look forward to wrestling with the devil again, but at least now I have the information I need to do it. When your page hits soar it’ll be because I’m in the middle of the process and referring back. Or maybe I should just print it out.

  9. gracebranniganauthor says:

    Great tutorial. I would also mention em and en dashes. I’ve had them turn into fractions and strange symbols in the finished kindle, so I’ve turned them off and just use — instead.

  10. Rissy says:

    I think that this was a very informative post. However, right now I am trying to create an independent graphic novel and I wonder how the formatting will workout. I am still at the beginning stages of creating the book though and I don’t expect to be done with the art work until early 2013. This information is still useful though because I do want to self publish a novel series as well as fun non-fiction books. Thank you! =P

  11. michael mazenko says:

    When I copy and paste pieces into TextEdit, some of the paragraphs remained indented. Any thoughts on why those tabs are not removed by TextEdit? Would you recommend removing all of them manually before pasting back into a Word doc?

  12. Stewart Young says:

    Hi, have you tried using Writer. When you covert to PDF or if you upload the text, the format remains the same … well … when I use it anyway, so …. try it.

  13. Paul Claireaux (@pclaireaux) says:

    Hi Catherine,
    I’ve just started reading your book, ‘self printed’ and i like your style – it makes me smile.
    Im nearing the end of the writing and editing bit of my first book. The book cover is ready (via Jane Smith) as are the internal cartoons of my own design but created by Noel Ford previously of Punch magazine

    This self publishing game is great for having control but it’s a real faff to make it happen – or it feels that way as a first timer.

    I’ve seen a lot of rave reviews about Scrivener and have had a brief look at it. I really like the cork board idea for planning and moving ideas around in your manuscript.

    Am i right to say it sorts out all these e -book formatting issues too?

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Yes, there’s a feature on Scrivener that lets you export a .mobi (Kindle) or .epub file. It’s a great tool for both writing books and making e-books out of them!

  14. Kate Porter says:

    Oh, happy day! Ask and I shall receive. I found you and your site and your talent for formatting just minutes after I told my co-editor that “I have to find someone to format for us.!” T’is magic, indeed. Ok, all of that said, I am delighted to meet you,Catherine. “You” shine through your writing and I am looking very forward to working together. Now, since I have not had time to look into what it will cost to not have to try to learn this, I am a ways off re beginning the process. Hmmm, how DOES one “begin the process”?? Maybe I should leave this here. Tallyho! Kate

  15. Kate Porter says:

    Oh, question..and anyone can respond to this if they know. I wrote my book on AppleWorks 6. I am now wondering if this is going to complicate the formatting for my eBook version? I promise not to shoot the messenger. Thanks for any info. Kate

  16. James Whitesell says:

    After blundering into the ebooks world and finding myself at the gates of MS Word Hell, I also followed the Smashwords Guide and went nuclear. (In more ways than one.) It worked. Now I’m about to reenter MS Word Hell with manuscripts *theoretically* already correctly ebook formatted. A question before I begin. Paragraph returns. I like to use an extra one to set off various dialogues. Will that screw up the formatting? And can I use two or three of them to set off chapters?

  17. anna says:

    Thanks!!! I was having one of those migraines 😉 and reading your guide I figured out where the problem was. Better than Ibuprofen!!

  18. Dora Love says:

    Hi Catherine, I must say I love your blog. I love your personality all over it. I am not a writer. I am a Mom with a lot to say. I need help and I’m not sure where to get it. I’m not computer raised, I am just doing my best. I’m sure you must be very busy, but if you have a chance please let me know what you think about my organization. I am trying to put together lessons. There are so many different topics I have but I don’t want to put them all together in one book. I just want them seperate in maybe a booklet form or maybe just a lesson. Let me know what you think. I get many emails asking me questions for example: How do I get my kids to respect me? So I am writing lessons to send out and perhaps sell them for a very low price. Ok I’m just babbling on,. This is what I get when I start typing without my morning coffee! 🙂 I hope to hear from you soon. Blessings!

  19. barbaraarivers says:

    Great formatting tips! Currently working on my first e-book, and will incorporate your advice!

  20. Peter Allerton says:

    Wow, REALLY useful – saved me about an hour on the smashwords style guide (though I still appreciate that effort too) – many many thanks, I’m now self-publishing ebooks ahead of schedule partly thanks to you! 🙂

  21. Mark Hagenbach says:

    Great stuff from someone who has crawled through the trenches and done the work. I followed along all of your formatting directions and it worked for a short manuscript. Couldn’t get a large one to go into Text Edit. It will give me a chance to crawl through the mud and dive on the grenade. Self discovery is a wonderful teacher.
    Thanks for your help.

  22. Derek Murphy says:

    Taking a screenshot of the header is one way, but if you have enough of them it will bulk up your kindle file and you’ll pay a higher delivery cost. You can also embed fonts in your epub/mobi so that a certain font will display for H1/ header tags. It will work for the majority of devices. Jutoh can do it easily, or Sigil if you know a little coding.

  23. Zoe says:

    This book has a lot of 2-column tables with text in them that needs to be readable. The left-hand cells match up with the corresponding right-hand cells.

    I thought I could pop them in as graphics, but if graphics shouldn’t be more than 3 inches across the page, I don’t think the text inside the tables will be readable. That text needs to be 10 point the same as the other text (or 9.5 points at least).

    What would you do on that? I’ve considered pulling the text out of the tables and just lining it up, but that would require using Word’s Column function–would that even carry over to the e-book version? Help!

    Thanks. This post was a huge help to me. I was having a similar problem.

  24. Veronica says:

    Hi Catherine! I’ve been using a lot of your methods to help my editing clients format their books, and they work great. I was just wondering if you ever found a more convenient method of putting italics and such back in after going nuclear. My current writer puts in A LOT of italics, and his current book is VERY LONG, and it’s going to be a pain.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I haven’t – but then I haven’t formatted an ebook in a long, loooooong time. (This post is quite old!) I’m sure someone else has by now. If you’re just doing Kindle, you don’t need to go nuclear – you can get away with murder on their auto-conversion. If you do find a better alternative, come back and let us know. And good luck!

  25. N P Ryan says:

    The first post about formatting contained fundamental Word errors. In the update (here) Word gets the blame for the user not understanding how it works (which is why they had so many probs with the upload – examples given as correct in the last post actually show what would be ebook formatting errors). A big deal is made out of what is actually a very straightforward process. The blogger is not qualified to offer advice about Word. If it was a case of this is what I’ve done and how it worked, fine. But it isn’t – there’s the ‘I offer formatting services’ aspect. Really, all one has to do is understand the difference between direct and actual formatting and there are plenty of free guides out there that deal with Word alone – even Microsoft offer free easy to follow How To guides. In fact, the free twenty page ebook offered by Amazon covers just about everything a person needs to now (and it really isn’t a lot). The two posts here are horribly convoluted and stink of, hey, this is really hard and scary, give me money to do it for you.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Thanks SO much for stopping by, Nick. Such a pleasure. This post is from 2011 – did you notice that? Back then, there was no free 20 page e-book and the process certainly was not straightforward – certainly not as straightforward as a Word – e-book auto conversion is today. Bloggers by definition are not professionals – there are no qualifications that could make me “qualified” to blog about this but, since you asked, I actually do have a professional qualification in MS Word although it dates back 10+ years. And if my goal was to make money, why would I outline step-by-step the process I’m so hellbent on charging other people for? Thanks for lurking around my blog at 1:00am on a Saturday night being a jerk five years out of date.

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