Formatting a Self-Published Book

A book opened to the middle. The left side page is an ordinary printed page but the right side is an ebook reader!

Formatting a self-published book is a broad subject with a lot of intricacies. In this post, I’ll be talking generally about what your formatting options are and what formats work best for what kinds of books. I’ll talk about where to find resources and expertise, the best programs for formatting a self-published book, and some general concerns and things to think about. However, I won’t be digging into the nitty-gritty of how to format a book for self-publishing. However, I do plan to do future posts on font size, margins, color schemes, and things like that. So if you have detailed formatting questions, please leave a comment! It really helps me figure out what people want to read about. And of course, feel free to share your own expertise in the comment section!

Paperbacks, ebooks, and PDFS! Oh My!

A book opened to the middle. The left side page is an ordinary printed page but the right side is an ebook reader!
The book of the future? Paperback, ebook hybrids?

The first question people usually ask about formatting is: what are the formatting options for a book? In general, the three most popular formats are:

  1. print books
  2. reflowable ebook
  3. PDF file

Print books

Print books, or “books” as we used to call them, are the most versatile formatting option. You’ve probably worked with print books in the classroom most of your life and have seen the variety. In particular, print books is the only format that the user can access without technology and of course the only format they can write in, so it’s particularly helpful for student books. Print books are also the format that preserves author intent, including color and layout and fonts the best (with PDF a close second). And yes, I said color. Printing color books does raise your costs, but not necessarily unsustainably, particularly when compared to books produced by major publishers.

You have two options for a print book: Print-on-Demand (POD) or advance print runs. POD services mean that the book is printed only when a customer orders it. That means there’s no need for you to pay print costs upfront. You also don’t need to worry about keeping books in stock or warehousing them in your garage. Two popular POD services are KDP, which is owned by Amazon, and IngramSpark, which is owned by Ingram Content Group. Both offer broad distribution so that bookstores are able to order your book (note that that doesn’t mean they will stock you book, but they will list it on their website and people can order it from them! Your book will also be listed on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and even places like Target and Walmart! In addition, many universities and schools order via Ingram, so it’s a good place to be for a variety of reasons. And you can always order copies of the book yourself at cost if you want books for a convention or to send books to customers.

A screenshot of the RJ Julia webpage with my book, Classroom Community Builders for sale.
It brings me no end of pleasure to see my book on my local bookstore website!

The advantage of advance print runs is that the quality of print is higher. Covers printed in POD, for example, may shift by up to 1/8″ which can make borders and other elements look odd. There are more options for cover and paper types. And finally the cost per book is cheaper. If you are looking at limited distribution, advance print runs might work better for you. You can also hire services that will warehouse and distribute your books, for a fee of course. You will want to shop around for printers and warehouse and distribution services though.

Reflowable Ebooks

Reflowable ebooks are what most people think of when they hear the word “ebook”. They’re often formatted as EPUBs, MOBI, or Kindle files and you may read them on Kindle, Nook, or Kobo devices or apps. They’re called reflowable because you can change the font family and size with the click of a button. The number of words on the page and the number of pages changes but maintains a flow of text rather than zooming in.

Reflowable ebooks are therefore the most accessible and reader-friendly. Reflowable ebooks are also widely available on a  number of ereaders and apps. You can even read EPUBs in your web browser. And ebooks can contain links, meaning your reader can access other webpages, online videos, even printable resources at the touch of a button. You can even create links to other sections of your book, making it easy to direct readers to different parts of your book. This is particularly helpful for reference books or how-to manuals where the user may skip around! Finally ebooks have no printing costs and you don’t have to worry about storing them, though vendors will charge a fee.

A hand holding a pencil that reads "Writing is Lit" up to a computer screen where a Word doc is showing a short play in progress.
I’ve tried editing computer documents with a pencil and it doesn’t work very well!

The biggest downside of ebooks is that in order for the author to have so much control over the layout, the publisher or author has to give up control. And each ebook reader has its own quirks. So if you publish a book where students have to look at a picture and answer questions, you can’t be sure the picture and questions will appear on the same page, or even on facing pages. Nor can students write on the book. Most ebook readers allow for comments or highlighting, but students can necessarily share those notes with the teacher easily. Finally, many ebook readers are black-and-white so if you rely on color images or text that is different colors, reflowable ebooks are not for you.

Of course, there are workarounds to all these issues. You can link to a color image. You can tell your reader to open a Google Doc or write in a notebook. Make a link from an input to the matching questions so students can move back and forth quickly from one to the other.

PDFs

PDFs are in some ways a happy medium between print and ebooks. Like print books, you have control over fonts, layout, and pagination. PDFs can even be printed so students can write on them. However, teachers may or may not print in color.  Like ebooks, PDFs can be distributed through the Internet for a very low cost worldwide. You can even get PDFs on most ereaders although it does take some doing on the part of the user. That may turn off the technophobes. On the other hand, some third party marketplaces like Teachers Pay Teachers make it easy to sell PDFs and customers tend to expect that format.

PDFs can also have links or even embedded media and interactive forms in them.  That also means students can type answers into the PDF and send a copy to the teacher. It also means you can add video, audio, animation, even polls, forms, and interactive activities to your PDF. You can also add links instead of embedded media.

A cartoon pirate wearing a pirate coat, with a big bushy beard and a peg leg is holding a cutlass in one hand and a flag with a skull and bones on it. He is standing on the letters WWW.
Prepare to have your files uploaded and shared!

Now ebooks and PDFs are both easy to copy and distribute for free, or upload on a pirated book site. It’s my experience that most pirate sites do not pay for books under any circumstances so as long as you are charging money, you won’t get onto FreeEnglishBooks4U.com any time soon. However, it’s hard to stop teachers from sharing your book with their buddies or putting the file in a teacher resource folder. And PDFs have the unique ability to be printed and photocopied or copied electronically. You can balance this out by pricing PDFs a bit higher or only releasing materials you expect to be shared in this way.

There are other formats out there but these three account for the vast majority of products on the market. Other formats tend to be proprietary to a particular app or ereader.

Design Considerations

As I said in the introduction, this will not be a comprehensive guide to how to format a self-published book. There’s too much to cover here, particularly if your book is a textbook, illustrated reader, or an activity book and/or you want to create a print book. So you’ll likely either need to find some expertise or devote some time to learning how to design books. If you’re looking to do an ebook that is mainly text, such as a memoir or a reader without too many illustrations, there are websites and programs that can make that pretty easy!

That being said, here are some things to consider as you think about the format and design of your book. Remember that I’m talking about interior design here; cover design is a whole other subject!

Function and Format

First of all, make sure the format of your book fits the kind of book you’re developing. In fact, you should be thinking about this from the beginning, when you are developing the idea for your book.  Are you creating a collection of teacher activity books? And do the activities generally not require photocopiable materials? Print and reflowable ebooks will probably work well for you.

Does your idea involve lots of worksheets for the reader to fill out? PDF and print may suit you better. As you develop your concept, think about how many images you’ll need, how strict the layout needs to be, whether the user should access other resources such as websites or videos, do you want a lot of interactivity, and your distribution plans. Print books are the most versatile format in many ways. They work for teacher resource books, student workbooks, readers, books of theory, memoirs, and any thing else you can think of. Reflowable ebooks work well for books that are mainly text such as teacher resource books, books of theory or readers. Ebooks can also be great formats for books of research or textbooks because you can link out to so many resources, too. PDFs are uniquely suited to worksheets and student activities that teachers can print for each student and reuse year after year. PDFs are also easy to embed in a lot of distance learning formats, like Google Slides.

Note: When I sell PDFs, I often double or triple the price for that reason and because if it is a student-facing book or worksheet, I don’t expect the teacher to buy separate PDFs for each student. 

Of course, there’s no reason you can’t publish in more than one format, too. I even have books in all three. Sometimes you have to get creative to adapt the material to a different format. A book of writing prompts might look very different in print, in ebook form, and in PDF form. During COVID, I even adapted a book of writing and conversation prompts into a PowerPoint slideshow as a way for teachers to share it in the classroom or online.

Overdoing the formatting

Typically, print books are written in a word processor such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs and then designed in a design program such as Adobe InDesign. In that transfer process, some formatting such as fonts, bold and italic text, and headings does transfer. However, tables, charts, illustrations, columns, and other more complicated formatting may not. If you hire an interior designer, they may have better ways to organize your text. So when you work on your manuscript, try to keep the formatting to a minimum in your word processor. A good designer will know how to make it look nice but also clear.

Generally text-heavy books look good with a light touch. Textbooks and children’s books may require more complexity, like graphs and diagrams or layouts with lots of illustrations. A great designer makes it look easy to create a complex layout that is still easy to read and harmonious (DK Books are the gold standard as far as I’m concerned!), but I speak from experience when I say it’s easy to screw up!

Inconsistent Formatting

When you start thinking of book design, you’ll need to think of the different kinds of text you’ll need. We talked about some of the elements above: headers, tables, graphs, captions, footnotes, and so on. You may also have student activities. Those activities could have directions, questions, readings for students, and so on. It’s important to make sure each element is formatted the same way no matter where it appears in the book. This makes it easier for the editor, designer, and ultimately, the reader, to navigate.

Your book will probably be divided into units, chapters, and/or sections. It’s a small thing but make sure that all your headers for each part of the hierarchy are formatted the same and that unit headers are bigger and more prominent than chapter headers. And chapter headers are more prominent than section headers. Personally, I like to do the headers first, then fill in the sections and chapters. It gives me a nice outline of my book and ensures consistent formatting.

Student activities are the second-biggest area of inconsistency. Directions are bolded in one chapter and italicized in the next. Questions are numbered here and put into bulleted lists there. It’s understandable because you often write a book over months or years and you forget what you did where. This is where a personal style guide can come in handy. Decide how you’re going to format things and then refer to it often. The same advice goes for tables, graphs, appendices, and so on.

Printer expectations

Each printer, whether it be a POD printer like Amazon or IngramSpark, or an offset printer, or even your local coffee shop, has certain requirements in terms of margins, acceptable page sizes, even sometimes layout of pages, and how the file is saved. Be sure you know what those expectations are. And set up the document to follow them before you start working. If you write out your book, then start playing with margins and page layouts, your whole layout will change!

Front Matter and Back Matter

Don’t forget to include things like a title page and a copyright page.  And while you can place additional information anywhere you like, following traditions of what goes in the front matter and what goes in the back makes your book look a little more professional. Putting things in traditional order also helps. Nuances like what pages have page numbers or running heads on them and which don’t also helps.

For reference, traditionally the half-title, title page, copyright, dedications or epigraphs, the table of contents, foreword, preface, acknowledgements, and introduction go in the front. You may not have all of these elements of course. In the back matter, you’ll find things like the glossary, endnotes, bibliography, and indexes. I recommend consulting the CMOS and also flipping through books similar to yours to see what goes where, what goes on a separate page, and how page numbering is handled.

Links and Resources

Give a thought to how you are going to handle links and photocopiable resources. For a print book, targeted links can be difficult. No one wants to type long URLs full of numbers and letters into a browser.

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/12/learning/summer-reading-contest-week-10/rfmjv4/3wyut-490.html

On the other hand, if you refer to the whole website, it can be hard to find the page you have in mind.

Just go to nytimes.com and search for learning resources, then reading contest, then scroll to week 10, then open the PDF at the bottom and click the link on page 5! Easy peasy!

So consider whether you’ll use a link shortening service like bit.ly or create a webpage that has all your links on it and refer to that. You could even host all your self-created resources on that same page on your website. You can also print self-created resources in the book and mark that page photocopyable.

For ebooks, links are easy of course, but an ebook reader may not want printable resources. So do you try to create interactive online resources or avoid anything involving reader input? There are a lot of ways to deal with these issues, depending on what you are trying to do. I can’ t provide easy solutions. I advise you to simply give it some thought before you start.

Expertise

I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything to consider when designing books! There’s also nuances such as choosing fonts and line spacings, placing images, tables, and sidebars. There’s the work of making sure the text ends at the same place on the page and that you don’t have too many hyphens on a page. It’s an art, even when it comes to a simple novel and one that it can take decades to learn well.

So I hope it’s clear that you are going to need some expertise! One of the easiest and fastest ways to get that expertise is to pay someone else! As we’ve discussed before, there are some extremely talented experienced book designers out there that you can hire for yourself.

Reedsy is a great place to find book designers and Linkedin is another. Also most books list the designers on the copyright page, so if there’s a book you like the look of, you can easily find the designer and get in touch. Many design companies can take on not only interior design, but also cover design, commissioned art, and even printing or distribution. So once you’ve found a good designer, you can work with one person to do your cover as well.

Want to go the budget route? You can pick up books like Book Design Made Simple by Fiona Raven and Glenna Collett and read the Chicago Manual of Style to pick up the basic conventions. I would recommend that you look at a lot of books similar to yours as well to get an idea of how the interior looks and what kinds of things are conventional. There are courses on book design at Lynda.com. You’ll probably want to dig around some volumes about the history of the book.

That being said, I know a few independent presses who do very well and design everything themselves in Word. Sometimes simple is best. On the other hand, those indie presses tend to be ones that have been at it for decades and built up quite a reputation!

As always, I’d love to hear more about your book design advice, as well as challenges and triumphs! Leave a comment, tell me what you want to know more (or less) about!


This article is part of a series on self-publishing in ELT. In the previous article, I talked about why self-publishers need editors. In the next article, I’ll talk about cover design.

And if you’re looking for some help self-publishing, check out my portfolio and rates and services.

What do you think?