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.
#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.
That’s a lot to keep track of. I’ll leave it to the experts.
Alex, and this post is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg!
On my drafts, I make my indentation 40% to make sure I and beta readers can see the new paragraph. Maybe I should use inches instead of the percentage.
Glynis, inches or percentage works as a descriptor, but it also depends on the program you are using.
My head is spinning Jeri 🙂 so much goes into book formatting! That’s why we need experts for each field. Amazon has started a new way though I have not checked the details as it is like wading into deep waters without mastering the art of all the strokes.
Thanks for sharing a well-crafted post.
Balroop, I tried a CreateSpace to KDP conversion a year ago and was not at all satisfied. I suppose out of curiosity I’m going to have to try the KDP to CreateSpace conversion one of these days so I can see what they get wrong on that spectrum as well 😉
Sigh. So much. Another minor one pointed out to me by an editor: use em dashes, and use them properly!
Julie, em dash use can be tricky, especially in ebooks. I wish I could tell the fiction writing world that there is no space on either side of the em dash when going by the CMS guide.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book with even number pages on the right side but I’m pretty sure I’d have a hard time reading one that did.
Ken, we take for granted how even-numbered pages fall on the left side, but we definitely notice almost immediately when book for formatted with such an error.
Great tips, Jeri. #8 especially is something I hadn’t considered. I always hire my formater for taking the word doc into ebook format. ALWAYS. There are too many little details that I would over look or have no clue how to fix.
A good formatter should know all of the spacing rules and how to apply them so your book looks perfect on kindle or any reading device.
One weird thing though, is Amazon’s “Look inside” feature does not show a book as it is on reading devices but rather shows it without the spacing and formatted features. That is annoying because the sneak peek doesn’t represent the book very well. Thanks for the information here, Jeri.
Lisa, there are indeed times when Amazon’s “Look Inside” doesn’t adequately represent the interior of an ebook, and that is so unfortunate. That happened with a short story I formatted for a client, but when I set all of the option within Scrivener to compiling “as is” the ebook preview looked much better.
This is when I count my blessings for having a good publisher who gets the rules. There are so many little details and I’ve got enough of them to keep track of.
Crystal, the devil is always in the details and it’s great when someone else can be counted on to tend to them for sure 🙂
I like this line, Jeri, “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.”
With all the free books authors offer me to read via my Amazon reviews, I will stop as soon as I see several typos. I’ve also had to stop when the formatting was so messed up that it was difficult to read.
Rosemary, I’ve definitely came across my fair share of poorly formatted books as well. It makes reading the worst! With so many books in existence, an author needs to do everything they can to make their books top-notch when self-publishing.
Excellent tips Jeri. I know all that is involved, that is why I’m very happy to pay for formatting. I’ll be sharing this. 🙂
DG, formatting can made one’s head spin for sure. Thanks for sharing!
Formatting is so complex. As a reader, formatting is something I take for granted until something just doesn’t look right. If I wrote a book, I’m pretty positive I wouldn’t rely on myself to make sure this is all done correctly. There are so many things to be mindful of.
Erica, you would likely find however that you would get better each time you format a book on noting if everything is done correctly or not. I never intended to become proficient at basic book formatting, but once I formatted my own successfully after lots of mistakes, I took it upon myself to do more research and get even better at doing it.
When I formatted my books, I reviewed many of the big traditional books formatting. Of course, each one does things differently but I chose certain styles that I often saw. So I always started my books on the right side (odd number) page, and depending on front matter, I have started with page 3. I also don’t number my chapter pages, which follows many traditional books’ formatting. I also like seeing the author’s name at the top of the even pages, and the book title at the top of the odd numbers. I followed this practice with my second book. As for the justify alignment, I use that even on my blog because the right jagged lines drive me crazy, but that’s just me.
I would add that all e-readers show formatting differently. This mostly applies to pictures. You can check to see what it will look like on different ones, but there isn’t a specific way to format pictures that will look exactly the same on all. Your newer e-readers allow you to click on a picture to make it bigger. The older ones don’t.
Denise, thanks for the tip about e-readers and pictures. I use Scrivener to create ebooks and discovered if a lot of images are intended to be part of the book file, it’s essential to shrink their dimensions before placement in the file. The program can’t handle files of such large sizes.