The stunning, talented, thorough-to-the-point-of-ridiculousness, Kella Campbell is the owner of Ebooks Done Right, which is the ebook formatting service that I use for all my ebooks. I literally cannot tell you all the ways that she has saved me. From pristine formatting, quick deadline turnaround, and an eagle eye for spotting errors, she is the best of the best with ebook formatting.

And she’s here today to tell you a bit more about your options as well as some e-book options before you dive face first into formatting on your own.

Because it can be kind of intense.

Take it away, sister.

E-books are a lot like cupcakes at a bake sale.

You want yours to be admired and coveted, not laughed at and left unpurchased. And as an indie author, you’ve basically got two choices: learn how to do them yourself, or pay someone to do them for you.

Home-Baked Goods

The tools are out there for you to learn how to do your own e-books — and do them right — but it takes time. Time to learn the skills, and then time to do the work.

Here’s a quick guide to peruse to see if you’re ready—or interested—in e-book formatting:

  • If you already know some computer coding (HTML and CSS) and are comfortable learning new programs, you can pick up the basics of e-book formatting fairly quickly.
  • Do you like problem-solving, troubleshooting, and online research? These things are a huge part of taking your e-book to the next level (or just figuring out why you’re getting validation warnings or something’s looking weird).
  • Until you know your working speed and have a couple of completed e-books under your belt, it’s smart to have a flexible deadline or a lot of lead time.
  • Patience and nitpicking are required.
  • Being a perfectionist is also helpful.

It took me over three years (and a dozen books formatted) before I considered that I’d reached a professional level of e-book production. As an indie author, especially if you’re not particularly handy with computer coding, that may not be the best use of hours you could spend writing.

Not every home baker needs professional cake-decorating skills, but some want to learn because it’s an art and skill set that appeals to them.

It’s the same with authors and e-books.

The Pinterest (and E-Book Formatting) Fail

See the gorgeous cupcakes on Pinterest? Follow the easy instructions! Bakery-perfect cupcakes at home, first try, no experience necessary.

You hope, anyway.

Plenty of cheap or free services promise no-hassle e-book conversions; just upload your manuscript and get an e-book edition. Many writing and desktop publishing programs even come with a save-as-ePub option built right in. But the chance of getting a quality e-book using an automated meatgrinder tool is slim, and even if it looks acceptable on one preview program, there’s no guarantee it will look polished across multiple platforms.

The chance of getting a high-quality ebook using an automated meatgrinder tool is slim.Click To Tweet

Here are a just a few of the fun things I’ve seen while troubleshooting meatgrinder e-books:

  • HTML error warnings — some part of the code is wrong… can you find and fix it?
  • Multiple stylesheets — one popular writing program’s ePub-maker generates a new stylesheet for every chapter, so there’s no guarantee of consistency throughout the book.
  • Missing or poorly-generated stylesheets — dozens of similar styles with incomprehensible labels, or styles in the page headers instead of on the stylesheet where they should be.
  • Random white space — tabs and non-breaking spaces are invisible to you, but they’re not invisible to the meatgrinder or e-reading software.

It’s possible to start with an automatic conversion tool and then tweak the details from there, but you’d need to know how, which goes back to investing time and energy into learning e-book formatting skills.

Unless you think buying a set of Russian piping tips is going to give you Pinterest-perfect cupcake decorating skills, you can probably see that using a cheap or free converter or uploading your manuscript directly to the sales platform of your choice isn’t likely to end in the professional e-book you wanted.

The Frosting Cottage Option

In Katie’s The Health and Happiness Society series, there’s a bakery called the Frosting Cottage (read more here). I don’t bake much, but I saw myself in the bakery owner right away — a woman with a professional skill and an independent small business.

Working with an e-book professional is like ordering your cupcakes from a bakery:

  • You’ll spend minimal time on it, and that’s mostly making decisions about what you want and checking the finished files.
  • You can ask your consultant to make your e-book exactly the way you’d like it — as with cupcakes, e-books can be fancy or plain, traditional or quirky, and you can choose embellishments as romantic as buttercream roses or as modern as edible glitter to fit your genre and style.
  • If you don’t have any ideas or don’t know what’s possible, just ask! A good e-book designer will be able to make suggestions and offer options for you.
  • In general, you get what you pay for; discount superstore prices aren’t likely to lead to the best bakery-quality cupcakes.

If anything, an e-book formatter should be more invested in creating a beautiful end product than you are, since it’s a business that depends on word-of-mouth and happy clients.

Adding Sweet Touches

Here are some ways to make your e-book pop, whether you’re doing the work yourself or talking to your e-book consultant:

  • Your chapter titles don’t have to be plain black; use color and decorative elements to avoid the “manuscript” look.
  • Starting each chapter with a larger capital letter (called an initial) is always a nice touch, and you can add a bit of color there too.
  • Give your characters’ communication an evocative touch (e.g., I like to tint italicized “handwritten correspondence” with ballpoint blue or old-fashioned sepia, and make “text messages” small caps in electronic green or computer charcoal).
  • Avoid using asterisks or an octothorpe (hashtag symbol) for scene breaks, as those are commonly associated with unformatted manuscripts; choose typographic details that look more polished, or use a scene break graphic (if you don’t already have one, your e-book formatter or cover designer may be able to help).
  • Make sure any graphics are the right file type for your purpose — JPGs are not transparent and will show a white rectangle background in sepia or night modes, so save your decorative elements as GIFs.
  • Don’t like the default URL color? Override it. Just set your preferred link color in the stylesheet. To judge/test the link color, look at the table of contents and (if you have one) the page listing the author’s other books.
  • A tip from the prose department: too many million-dollar words in a row can create awkward white space or excessive hyphenation that no amount of design skill will resolve.

There’s more, but it would take years to write everything down, and I’d be giving away all my working secrets. So I’ll just say this: may all your e-books turn out as beautiful as bakery cupcakes.

And if you get stuck and need help, just ask.

Contact Kella:



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