Writing: Three ways to format an e-book

If you’re planning to self-publish your story, you’ll face many decisions. One of them is: how will you have your e-book formatted? I’ll present the three main options along with their advantages and disadvantages.

Outsourcing

By outsourcing, I mean hiring someone to do this for you. Finding such a service on the internet should be quite easy, whether it’s by a publishing company or a freelancer.

Advantages:

  • Saves you time
  • High chance it’ll look well
  • Lower risk of screwing up, especially for print editions

Disadvantages:

  • Costs money
  • Further revisions are additional costs
  • Black box

By outsourcing the work, you’re getting rid of a potential timesink and, if you do your research to choose someone skilled, you should get a result that looks well.

This is even stronger argument when it comes to print: while e-books are reflowable, print is fixed and you need to get all the dimensions and margins and whatnot right. This is worse for people like me, living outisde of USA – because of different measurement system and different paper sizes (and thus print presets).

Hiring someone to do the work for you will cost you. How much – that’s hard to guess. Companies might ask for $100+, while freelancers can be as low as low tens of $ – but pay attention to what’s included in the price (especially possible adjustments).

Furthermore, hiring someone turns this into a ‘black box’ – you will have no idea how the process looks like and a simple change (just fixing a typo or adding a link to the sequel post-release) could mean having to pay AGAIN as the file has to be rebuilt from zero.

Using a template

There are three possible ways for the ‘template’ way. Before I get to them (and their specifics), the things they have in common:

Advantages:

  • Saves you time
  • Possibly lower price (or even free)
  • Can re-export anytime with no additional cost

Disadvantages:

  • Limited options
  • Black box (see above)

Now, the three paths:

  • Specialized software
  • Online tool
  • Export template for a word processor

Online tools are the riskiest for a simple reason: you’re uploading your manuscript somewhere and it could possibly get stolen. But if you know about a reputable one…

Export templates can be a simple plug-in for MS Word (or other word processors) that have pre-set margins and other book-specific settings to create an e-book file or print-ready PDF without the need to use another software.

Specialized software means downloading another tool for the conversion or using a writing tool with built-in export feature. Those may be paid (either subscription-based or one-time purchase) or free, but the lower the price, the fewer options for customization it may have. Amazon’s Kindle Create (a free tool), for example, has four basic templates with minimal customizations – though it has some tools for easy back and front matter.

In all cases, you’re not reliant on anyone else (and their schedule) and updating your manuscript won’t incur any additional cost (if the software is free or one-time purchase). By doing this process yourself, you should also see a real-time preview instead of waiting for the result.

DYI HTML e-book hand-coding

Don’t run away, it’s not as scary as it may look. I am a HTML noob and could do this myself. Anyway… let’s get the +/- before I mention the specifics.

Advantages:

  • Well possible with free tools
  • See the results and experiment in real time (creative freedom)

Disadvantages:

  • Learning curve that takes time (especially if you haven’t had any IT basics in school)
  • Separate formatting for e-book (HTML) and print (word processor)

Starting from the bottom, having to do separate formatting process for each format may be the biggest disadvantage – when outsourcing, you can have both as a part of single order. Conversion tools might offer both formats. HTML doesn’t (or at least I don’t know about it). This, however, allows you to tailor the formatting for e-book and paperback respectively.

As for the learning curve… if you have basic understanding how HTML works, and you can follow instructions, it’s not that scary. Guido Henkel wrote a guide (a series of blog posts) back in 2010 that is still valid today (and I’m testing it extensively with decent results). Even better, he’s still answering questions on that topic even today – and quite fast.

And if you think this approach is for amateurs… even some big names among self-published writers went this route. With good results. I’ll share my experience as well, when the process is complete.

There are some specifics to this approach, though. While every further ‘run’ of the process will take less time, and some changes are easy to do (such as adding a link to the sequel), some relatively small changes can be a pain to do.


Whichever way you decide to go, it’ll always be about compromises. Time, money, and customization. Choose two, sacrifice the third.

I’ll welcome your thoughts. If you’ve published your book already, which way did you go? If you haven’t published a book yet, which way seems the most likely for you – and why?

6 thoughts on “Writing: Three ways to format an e-book

  1. Pingback: Kindle Create review and guide | Tomas - the wandering dreamer

  2. Pingback: DYI HTML e-book formatting | Tomas - the wandering dreamer

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