Formatting IS NOT HARD: A Rant

Can I rant for a minute?

Well, it’s my blog, so of course I can.

I am sick and tired of this seemingly prevalent attitude among so many self-publishing authors that FORMATTING FOR EBOOKS IS HARD.  This is perpetuated by big names like Joe Konrath who hire somebody to do it and recommend that other people do so as well.  He’s making $200,000 this year, so if he wants to pay for it, fine, but for the rest of us?  I heard today about an indie author who PAID SOMEBODY to format their book for SMASHWORDS.


If you want to pay somebody to format your stuff because you’re too busy to do it or too lazy to do it, okay fine.  That’s your prerogative.  But too many indies are out there on a shoe string budget to get their books out, and they’re wasting money paying somebody for ebook formatting.  If you can freaking READ, you can learn how to format an ebook.  This is not at all a difficult process.  Smashwords has a nifty little style guide that lays things out in perfectly clear detail.  Yes, this stuff is tedious and maybe it’s a pain in the ass, but it IS NOT HARD, and if you’re a poor indie trying to stretch a buck, it is LUDICROUS to waste part of your book budget on paying somebody to do it for you.  Likewise with formatting for Amazon.  That’s not hard either.  There’s a whole series of documents in DTP explaining how to do it.  Make your life even easier.  Download Mobipocket Creator.  You can make a perfect PRC file with a linked table of contents if you want.

Now I get somebody paying somebody to do the layout for a POD version of your book.  That’s a much more complicated process and is harder to get right (though Aaron Shephard’s Perfect Pages explains how to do that too).  But for the love of Pete, don’t waste your money paying for something you’re perfectly capable of doing yourself.  EDUCATE YOURSELF.  And then take that money you saved and hire a good cover artist.

21 thoughts on “Formatting IS NOT HARD: A Rant

  1. This isn’t very PC of me, but I’ve thought for a long time, most writers are just one step above retarded. I’ve never seen so many blank stares in one place.

  2. I don’t think formatting is that hard, either. But you have to understand that everyone’s brains don’t function the same way. I have a writer friend who has a great story, but he can’t punctuate worth a flip. That’s why I had to do it for him. And he’s not that computer savvy, so he can’t format. YET. Some writers can only write. Period. Yeah, I don’t understand it either, but there it is. You know, like some people suck at math and are great in English and vice versa? Making people feel stupid is only going to discourage them. 🙁

    Oh, and btw, most of the Style Guide for Smashwords is easy to understand in my opinion. But there’s one tiny little thing in it that I still don’t get. I keep thinking the light is going to come on over my head someday. LOL

  3. I have to say that I think Perfect Pages does not turn out a 100% professional document. I’ve read it. I’ve tried using it. MSWord or OpenOffice simply DO NOT compare to a PDF print-ready file prepared using InDesign. 🙂 I pay a typesetter to do my POD layouts, and she’s worth every penny (and she’s really not THAT expensive).

    However, paying someone to do an e-book? Ridiculous. Other formatters made it seem SO VERY HARD, but when the husband-thing sat down to do it, he was able to create ePub and a MOBI formats without much trouble. He couldn’t understand, actually, why everyone thought it was so hard. Now, part of that may be because he’s a web programmer professionally and e-books are just gussied up HTML, but still. E-book formatting is absolutely one of the easiest things to do, and I think it silly indies scream that it’s too hard and shell out $100s for someone else to do it.

    I have better places for that money to go. 😉

    1. Normal readers can’t tell the difference in a book formatted using Word or OpenOffice (if it’s done well) and one using InDesign. I challenge anyone who isn’t an actual typesetter to look at my page layout and tell me it doesn’t look professional.

      Professional is clean, easy-to-read copy in a non-annoying layout. That’s it. Much more than that and it starts to feel like mental masturbation.

      Since I’m not writing or formatting for professional typesetters I don’t care if they don’t find my book “professionally laid out.”

      Cover art? Hell yes, I will pay for that. That’s something the average reader can tell something about. They may not know exactly what is wrong with the Kept, Claimed, and Mated covers, but… chances are good they will know it’s not totally “professional.”

      With interior layout though? The knowledge there is a little too specialized.

      Just my 2 cents.

  4. I can’t speak to the layout for POD, as I haven’t done it yet. I’m familiar with both InDesign and Word and it’s entirely a matter of which program you are more comfortable with and what type of document you’re creating. I certainly won’t fault anybody for paying a professional typesetter to do that (I probably COULD do it myself but whether I really want to take the time when I get to the point of being ready for print…that remains to be seen). But formatting for E is so incredibly easy, and I hate to see indies putting money on something that’s easily learned with a little effort rather than on something that would have more bearing on their sales–like a good editor or cover art.

    1. When we sat down and discussed where money was to go, I wanted a clean and near to NY published print book as I could manage. That meant paying someone with the software, education, experience, and know-how. 🙂 It’s paid off in spades. I’m excited for Cast the Cards and Rachmaninoff as print books, and I think it was worth the expense. She was also able to do it in a fraction of the time (we would have taken forever and would have had to invest in buying InDesign, which is just… way beyond cost prohibitive).

      But, yes, e-book formatting is not difficult. Not in the slightest, if you bother to educate yourself a little. 🙂 I agree with you 100% on that.

  5. After hearing all over about how “hard” it was to format for Smashwords, it was with some trepidation that I opened the formatting guides yesterday and started reading. Now I have no idea what all the fuss was about. Basically the formatting just needs to be stripped of anything extraneous, and set to a super-simple template, and you’re done. It won’t take me any time at all. I’m not worried about Kindle at all – it’s html, and I’m a web designer, so piece of cake.

    I’m a little more nervous about print formatting, but I found a guide for CreateSpace documents, and I’m fairly certain I can follow it well enough to get a nice looking layout. Really, it’s more like a puzzle than anything else. Not hard if you just sit down and don’t rush it. Though maybe I shouldn’t talk until I’ve got mine done.

    Certainly no reason not to at least try it yourself – especially with ebooks.

    1. Actually, it’s easier for me to format for Amazon Kindle than for Smashwords. That’s because Smashwords is offering it in so many different formats, and what may look great in one format, looks terrible in others. Both are still easy, though. 🙂

  6. My e-book comes out in September so I started putting short stories online for free through Smashwords. But I never do anything for a single reason: I try to have at least 3 underlying reasons on everything I do.

    1) People reading my short story Coffee may like it and decide to get my novella.
    2) Offering things for free makes me seem like a nice guy, and your friend
    3) It has helped me learn how to format an e-book.

    I actually mucked up the formatting on Coffee. I left a blank like between every paragraph. The html version hasn’t worked out, but the plain text and web page are fine. Two days later, Mark Coker emailed me and explained my mistake. I haven’t fixed it yet but I will, and what’s more, I won’t make that mistake again.

    So, yeah, easy enough, and even when you fuck it up completely, the only thing it takes to fix is time (which, right now, I seriously don’t have).

  7. Given how many different formatting changes I have to do from query to query, if I decide to take the leap into indie publishing, I suspect it’ll be more of the same:

    Read the rules. Follow the rules.

    Then again, I won’t pay for an editor, so the thought of paying a formatter makes me cringe. I’m a cheapsake and stubborn. A good combo sometimes.

    1. I’ll pay for a cover artist, and I’ll pay for an editor (While there are lots of great CP’s, people tend to be more motivated to actually catch everything when money is on the table, IMO.) But I agree with you on the formatting thing.

      It is a learnable skill. And you can end up with something that looks professional, both in E and in print.

  8. When I submitted my first e-book, it required some revisions and I used the Smashwords style guide, but after getting it right with my second one, I use that template for my third one. As when I uploaded my second one, it didn’t require a revision, “Fix this, that”, it was good to go first try. Then I reworked my first one and now their both on Premium distribution. So yeah, taking that time on formatting benefits everybody.

  9. I’m with you, Jamie. I was like: ok, time to see what all the fuss is about, hope it’s not way over my head–and it wasn’t. And look, there’s a lot of space over my head when you start talking about tech stuff. But I got through it easily and was like–what’s the big deal? Maybe I’m saying this too soon because I haven’t been able to put it through the meat-grinder yet (hoping for today!), and maybe it will blow up. But I think it will be fine.

    Same thing with print. I think some people just want to make things seem harder than they are. And whatever. Not all NY books are fancy, have drop-caps, clever little chapter graphics, and who knows what all. I don’t have a fancy story and I don’t think I need to dress it up with tricks just to feel like it’s as good as a NY book.

    And like Zoe said, what’s important in a good book is that it’s clean and easy to read, and doesn’t take away from the good story. I can’t imagine that most readers are looking for anything else, so to get hung up on it seems like trying to appeal to a small percentage of typesetter fetishists.

    Which is fine, if you’re into that.

    1. Looking at a lot of NY pubbed books, especially if we’re talking about straight text with no graphics involved… it’s just not that hard to replicate the look for print. And you’re right, a lot of those books don’t use drop caps or any fancy formatting. I’ve got drop caps in Blood Lust, and a few other design elements, but they certainly weren’t something I needed a page layout program for. I did have to hand-kern a few lines, but for the most part, it looks good. And it’s definitely something where 99% of your reading audience isn’t going to notice that it’s not an expensive page layout program or a pro-interior designer. I’ve seen pro NY interior designs. While some of them make me go: WOW!, most of them are entirely unimpressive.

      It’s just not something I feel like indies have to or should bend over backwards and spend a lot of money to do. Other people’s mileage may vary.

      Everybody’s gotta do what’s right for them, but I spend the money and do the outsourcing on what will be noticed.

      And sorry for hijacking your blog, K. 🙁

  10. I will format the POD of the first person who can tell me how to fix my effing chapter headings for my kindle book. 🙂 I’m the least computery person on the planet and I managed to figure out how to format for both e and POD-lot’s of tantrums were thrown-but I got through it. The chapter headings, though, they haunt me.

    1. Put the tag immediately before every chapter title tag, or better still reserve one of the header tags (e.g. the tag) for chapters and put e.g. h1 {page-break-before:always} into the CSS style sheet at the top of your HTML. The latter method means you never have to remember to put in the when you create a new chapter. Instead chapter titles will always be at the top of pages

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