Pitfalls of Book Formatting: A Case Study

So you’ve finished your book and decided you are going to self-publish it and you’re setting everything up on KDP or elsewhere, and suddenly you realize that after all the hard work of writing and getting the right cover, and coming up with an engaging blurb and a social media marketing strategy, there’s an area you’ve neglected, maybe because you thought it was easy and you could just wing it, or perhaps the mere thought bores you, or perhaps you were just overwhelmed with everything else and didn’t deem it important enough; that is, until you upload your manuscript and suddenly the file the previewer generates looks nothing like you expected. Worst case, it’s producing complete garble, merging lines that should not be merged, messing with images, deleting page breaks, chapter breaks, wreaking havoc on your table of contents. Welcome to the pitfalls of formatting ebooks, a case study.

The ingredients: 25 poems, 3 full-page images between parts, one additional image containing a poem. All inside an Affinity Publisher file, created for my print versions.

The problem: Publisher only exports to pdf, which results in unreadable word garble and weirdly sized images.

The solution took me countless hours over several weeks, so I’m hoping this will save some of you some time and nerves.

Alright, let’s get started:

Tip 1: Always order a proof copy.

Before you even think of your ebook, make sure your paperback and hardcover versions are set up correctly. People pay a lot of money for those and you don’t want any bleed issues from your images, or cut off text, or wonky margins to mar their experience. For my novelette this was less of an issue, but for my poetry book I used Affinity Publisher (about 50$) to set up the print versions. This would turn out to be a bit of a mistake later, but worked beautifully for the hard and softcovers.

Tip 2: Your cover will look darker in print.

This is basic graphic design knowledge, but it didn't hit me until my first proof copy arrived with a cover looking like a funeral home brochure.

First and final printed proofs of my poetry book. Brightened the colors on the final version, chose glossy instead of matte, made the title font bigger, and eventually chose a 8.5 by 5.5 format over the smaller 8 by 5.

Tip 3: Ensure the print size is right for your book.

This is a pitfall I stumbled into with my novelette. I naively trusted KDP which told me 6 by 9 inches was the default book size. And well, it’s not horrible, but for my novelette, with something like 50 pages, it looks a little awkward on the shelf. I’m hoping to eventually fix this, but it looks like I’ll have to publish it as a second edition with an all new ISBN, which can get costly, so...

Tip 4: Measure this stuff out if you aren’t sure.

Especially if you’re not American and therefore not very familiar with inch sizes. Also I didn’t even attempt to put writing on the spine because Amazon claimed it wouldn’t work. Well, turns out it does actually work if you size it right and get lucky with the printing.

Looks much better on shelves, too.

Tip 5: Poetry for Ebooks is hard.

With my novelette, I started with a Scrivener file, which I converted through Amazon Create. It was a bit of a headache as well, but because it was a standard, flow layout it worked out well in the end. With Words Like Promises, I thought I was at a much better starting point. I had already spent so much time on the formatting, I had a beautiful, print-ready .pdf to go, complete with hyperlinks and everything. But...

Tip 6: PDFs aren't your friends.

Unlike InDesign, Publisher wouldn't let me save in ePub. Instead I converted my .pdf through Create and uploaded on KDP, but it turns out the previewer refuses to give a preview for e-readers if you upload a .pdf. So I’ll admit I’m a bit paranoid, but also, I spent multiple months working on this book and my readers would spend money on it, so I needed to be certain it would look professional.

Tip 7: Flow layouts don't work with poetry.

Mixing the two leads to unreadable text gore, because text that rearranges itself depending on screen sizes, etc., doesn't give you control over where poetry lines end.

Tip 8: Don't forget the meta-data.

I used Calibre to convert my pdf into an ePub. Apart from merging random lines, it also didn't log my title correctly and marked the author as unknown. Glad I caught that early.

Tip 9: Start from scratch when nothing works.

With the ePub from my pdf turning out unusable, I redid everything in a .docx which allows for better structuring, namely page breaks between poems, and left some of my formatting intact.

Tip 10: Want text on an image? Merge both into a .jpg.

The ePub generated from .docx gave me a blank picture with the text scrawled below the image. To solve it, I created a new .jpg with the text added on top of the image. However, because one image contained a poem, and I couldn’t get my images to be displayed as full-page width, I had to resize the font of the poem to ensure it would still be at a readable size.

Tip 11: If automated processes screw with you, find a way to do it yourself.

Unsatisfied with the format, particularly the Table of contents I scoured the web and found Sigil, a software which finally allowed me to tweak the .html and .css underlying my ePub.

Tip 12: You can study code, even if you’re not a programmer.

So this will be daunting to most writers who aren’t familiar with .html and .css and even to those with rudimentary skills in that area. It was for me, and it took some staring at the code in different documents to understand where to change what and make sure the changes only affected the parts of the book I wanted it to affect. However, using Sigil turned out to be the solution to nearly all my problems. Because I could manage page breaks, line breaks, font-style, alignment and even create a working table of contents.

Tip 13: Perfection is impossible.

Know when you’re wasting your time. You want the best possible product for your readers and that is fine, but you can get to the point where you waste countless hours on some small issue that irks you, but will most likely not bother your readers in the slightest. For me that moment came with the images which divide the three parts of my poetry book. They started off in bad shape, off-kilter, weirdly sized, attached to poems of the previous part, etc. I fixed all that, but I couldn’t get them to be displayed as filling the entire screen. I tweaked and fiddled with my Sigil file for over six hours. Then I gave up. There will be small white margins around those images in the ebook version and I’ll just have to accept it. Because readers most likely won’t care, and I have people waiting for me to finish my next novel. And also, life is too short to worry about small white margins.

Tip 14: It's not you.

So if you’re struggling with book formatting, you’re not alone. Perhaps I could have saved myself some time by using Vellum, which seems to be the go-to software for many people. But I’m not using a Mac and the 300$ price tag would have been a bit too high for me anyway. Realistically, I’m publishing Words Like Promises as a side-project to my usual fantasy novels, because I love writing poetry, not because I think it will make me rich. As a freelancer I’ve learned to be careful about up-front expenses. Yes, some investments are necessary, but others, though perhaps useful, will make it impossible to break even. Unfortunately, open source software can be hard to find, and often lacks coherent instructions. Even my resident software developer grew frustrated trying to help me wrestle with Sigil. I persisted anyway, digging through the damn document until I found the solutions myself, because in the end no one cares about our books as much as we writers.

If this has helped you with your project, I’d love to hear from you and if you want to take a look at the finished product, Words Like Promises is available from Amazon from August 31st.

© Susanne Schmidt 2024