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Book formatting mistakes to avoid abound in traditional as well as independent publishing. While some readers say they can overlook a certain number of typos when a story is engaging enough, it’s probably safe to say bad formatting is even harder to overlook than a few typos. Exceptions can always be made for a text that takes a purposeful and well-executed experimental approach, but readers are conditioned as readers to expect certain layouts. Good formatting fades into the background so we can get on with reading. Besides, who wouldn’t rather read a book that’s strong on all fronts? Over the years, I’ve taken a shine to the process and now format basic print and ebooks for a select number of clients as well as my own titles. What follows below are some common issues that will make a book scream amateur.   

This year I will be covering dealing with rejection, publishing goals, doing a print run, knowing comp titles, and blogging a book. Feel free to explore Word Bank’s archive of publishing posts. In particular, you might find 5 Reasons to Submit Work to Publications that Practice Editorial Discretion of interest.

Book Formatting Mistakes to Avoid

Of all stages of the publishing process, book formatting is one an author can most likely pull off themselves if they are proficient with technology and patient enough to see such a meticulous process through. However, templates for print books such as the ones available for download from CreateSpace are only as useful as the ability of the user to properly customize them. Also, Word can get the job done but programs like Adobe’s InDesign are much more powerful (and complex, not to mention expensive). Programs like Scrivener and Vellum (for Macs only) offer solid formatting possibilities as well, but a learning curve is to be expected. I’ve not found Amazon’s print to ebook services and vice versa to offer satisfactory results. Each format must be tended to separately for optimal results.

The following list of book formatting mistakes to avoid is by no means all-inclusive, but it does offer a good overview of mistakes that tend to arise. This is not a how-to post, but rather a cautionary one. As with many things in life, simply hiring a professional for book formatting can save valuable time so you can get on with other things. As always, make sure to properly assess the skills of anyone you may potentially hire.

#1: Indented Paragraphs for New Sections

As with much of this list, what’s outlined are not so much a rule set in stone, but standards that have developed over time.Most traditionally published books do not incorporate a paragraph indent for the start of chapters or for new sections within a chapter. Rather, such lines should begin flush-left. Perhaps this is a small potatoes issue, why give your readership the chance of taking note of such subtleties? If a drop cap is being used, ensure that it looks good in both the ebook and print versions. Simple formatting is generally better when it comes to ebooks.

#2: Ragged Composition

When using word processing software, most of us type with lines that are left-justified. This default justification means all lines start at the left side of the page and no automatic spacing is inserted between words to make the text extend all the way to the right margin. However, when it comes to published books, a ragged right margin can look downright pitiful. Pages that incorporate fully justified text have a more polished look, and a good book formatter will tend to any overly large space gaps that pop up between words.

#3: Indented vs. Block Paragraphing

Works of fiction or narrative nonfiction typically make use of indented paragraphs. Informational texts such as how-to guides and business manuals tend to use block-style paragraphing. With the first rush of so many authors to self-publish years ago, this was more of an issue, but it still crops up in plenty of books. While it may be common for many writers to type a book using single spacing and an extra space between paragraphs, this isn’t the format that should be presented to the public.

#4: Extra Spacing Between Paragraphs

Word’s styling defaults to leaving extra spaces between paragraphs. This drove me absolutely batty when it first became the norm, and anytime I receive a manuscript for editing one of the first things I do is take these spaces out as removing them can make quite a difference in a manuscript’s page count. This spacing between paragraphs can be tweaked in all manner of degrees, but in general I’ll be a boring-format curmudgeon and say don’t do it. Plain formatting is good formatting when it comes to reading. Are you sensing a refrain here?

#5: Huge or Small Hard Indents

The default half-inch tab setting in Word can look humongous in a book formatted for publication. I tend to stick with quarter-inch indentations in the books I format, but it’s certainly possible to make paragraph indents even smaller. A word of caution is due here as it’s possible that anything less than a quarter of an inch for an indent will not be sufficient enough to make the paragraph indent set itself off enough from the margin.

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#6: Punctuation Issues

If you haven’t broken the habit of putting two spaces after end punctuation, never fear. Thankfully, the search and replace feature easily fixes this issue when it comes to formatting books. Improperly formatted books often contain a mix of smart (aka curly) quotes and straight quotes. The latter are considered proper typography as they match the surrounding text, while smart quotes are best reserved for use on the web. Hyphen use can also become an issue with hyphenated phrases, especially in ebooks. Consider italicizing them instead.

#7: Mixing Up Odd and Even Pages

Believe it or not, this happens. When it does, a print book can start to feel totally out of whack. The first chapter of a book should always begin on page one. Odd-numbered pages are always on the right hand side of the book, and even-numbered pages are on the left. If inserting blank pages between chapters or parts of a book this increases the likelihood of such a mishap occuring. This is why it’s so important to make the most out of the skills of a book formatter and proofreader (and in that order too as many self-pubbers have proofing done first).

#8: Widow and Orphan Lines

Widows and orphans are single lines, words, or parts of words that appear in isolation. Widows are used to refer to such lines that the end of a paragraph or page, and orphans are used to for such lines that occur at the top of a page. It’s not good practice to have too much white space at the top of the page or between paragraphs. The ability to address such issues depends on the power of the publishing program being used to do the formatting.

#9: Local Formatting

If you highlight various sections to change the spacing or format each chapter title separately, this creates a deviation in the book from its surrounding pages that may come back to haunt you. It’s best to stick with using styles in long documents to ensure formatting consistency throughout. Otherwise, you might decide to make changes to various elements later on, only to find out the sections that were tweaked separately end up getting left out.

#10: Running Heads and Page Numbers on Blank Pages

Figuring out how to turn off running head and page numbers in Word can be tricky for the uninitiated, but any respectable book formatter isn’t going to make this type of mistake. If you’re formatting your book yourself and can’t figure out how to leave a page number off a blank page, then you should consider hiring a pro. If you’re telling yourself one or two formatting oversights don’t really matter, also ask yourself how seriously you want to be taken as an author.

Book formatting is an art form unto itself and something too many of us take for granted until we come across a book that doesn’t quite get things right. Always keep in mind that trim size and spacing choices impact how many pages a printed book will require. The thicker a book, the more expensive it is to print, and the less profit an independently published author will see. As for traditional publishers, there’s a reason why it’s hard to take a gamble on a first-time author with a 150,000-word book.

What else might you add when it comes to book formatting mistakes to avoid? What formatting issues have you noticed in various books?

Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2018. Image Credit: Book Pages.

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