eBook Publishing Questions: Why and How Do You Format an Ebook?

Welcome to my new series of blog posts on ebook publishing. I’ve been teaching ebook publishing online for around a decade now, and have noticed a lot of common questions that I get in the first lesson or two of the course. 

Here’s a common one: I already have my book formatted the way I want and everyone says it looks very good. Why do I have to format it differently to make it into an ebook? 


Answer: Why do you have to format an ebook differently for publication? 

iPad with an ebook displayed.
iPad with an ebook displayed. Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay

In a reflowable ebook, the contents of the book flow to fit the display screen. Nothing is fixed in place, as the person reading the book may be using a smartphone or a tablet or a large monitor, or, they may make the font into a different type or size. The reader has many options now that the contents of your book aren’t fixed and displayed on paper. 

Your manuscript may very well be what people would describe as well formatted. However, when you’re formatting an ebook you’re making changes in order to pass a technical standard. 

Reflowable ebooks, which are the majority of what e-reading devices display, and ebook buyers purchase, are limited in what they can include.

Most ebooks, except those sold on Amazon, must pass the technical standard called the EPUBCHECK. 

e-book publishing questions - answers from Linda, instructor for Publish and Sell Your Ebooks online course.

To pass the EPUBCHECK, you need to remove all formatting that sets up a page layout. That includes common things such as: 

  • Headers and footers
  • Page numbers
  • Columns
  • Tables
  • Bullets
  • Images aligned next to text, instead of above or below it

In a reflowable ebook, everything flows to fit the display screen. So, when formatting an ebook, anything that  dictates how it will be displayed is typically removed in order to pass the EPUBCHECK standard. 

Why? So publishers–like you and me–can be sure our books look good to all buyers. 

Question: How Do I Find Out How to Format My Ebook? 

In my course, Publish and Sell Your Ebooks, I’ve included four different publishing paths that you can follow. The publishing path dictates how you need to format your ebook. 

Format to Self Publish Only on Amazon

Amazon Kindle Best Sellers List.
Amazon Kindle Best Sellers List. Screen capture.

If you’re planning to just stick to Amazon, their ebooks use a proprietary format they’ve designed. So, manuscripts only intended to upload to Amazon can include different features than those that must pass the EPUBCHECK used elsewhere in publishing. Note that if your book passes the EPUBCHECK (and/or is in the EPUB format), it can be uploaded to Amazon as well as other ebook retailers, and will pass their technical standard. 

To format your ebook exclusively for Amazon, I recommend working your way through Amazon’s publishing flowchart and using their tools. See: 

KDP Tools and Resources

Format to Self Publish with Draft2Digital

If you’d really rather not do any formatting at all in your document, the easiest option is to use the aggregator (also known as a distributor) Draft2Digital. They prepare your ebook using their templates and distribute it to the Draft2Digital list of online retailers.

Since your book will be formatted in a template, it will be prepared in a specific way. To learn more about what you need to do and how your finished ebook will look, review the following pages at Draft2Digital. 

Beautiful Formatting

The Pocket Guide to Ebook Layout

Draft2Digital Introduces Professional-Quality eBook Templates

Format to Self Publish with Smashwords

Smashwords is one of the earliest aggregators/distributors of ebooks, and can get your ebooks into the most places worldwide

The Smashwords Style Guide provides you with detailed explanations of what you can–and can’t–do when formatting a reflowable ebook to pass the EPUBCHECK standard. If you’ve tried Draft2Digital and found that your manuscript wasn’t accepted, that’s likely because it had errors you’ll be able to identify by going through the Smashwords Style Guide. 

While many complain that the conversion tool Smashwords uses, their Meatgrinder, is hard to please, following their style guide will ensure that your ebook will look great in any device, including the Amazon Kindle devices. 

The only thing you’ll have to do differently from the Smashwords set up, to have your manuscript work properly on the Kindle, is the Table of Contents. Instead of following the Smashwords ToC instructions, follow the KDP instructions for creating a ToC in Word as your final step: 

Create a Table of Contents in Word

There are two different ways to access the Smashwords Style Guide.

Smashwords Style Guide Online Viewer

Smashwords Style Guide PDF 

Still have questions? If you do, just sign up to learn more through your local library or community college. 




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