How I format my books in OpenOffice (including for Smashwords)

So, yesterday I was considering writing a post on how to format an ebook. I hesitated because this blog is turning into the Let’s Watch Amy Talk About Her Books corner of the Net. However, there are some people I know who are considering self-publishing, one of whom actually has and blogged about her formatting experience this morning, I decided, why not?

And then I read this post from Writing on the Ether about the proliferation of writing and self-publishing books (PBS put one out? Really?) and hesitated again for an entirely different reason. You can probably find what I’m about to say on someone else’s blog, in a much more clear and concise format, and with far more experience behind it. So, I recommend, after reading this post, that (if I haven’t turned you off the subject by my chatty style and vague instructions) you search around for other points of view on formatting. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned self-publishing, it’s that everything can change very quickly. Who knows how long my formatting experience will stay viable?

One final thing…I’m not an expert. I’ve formatted three novels and one short story. I know the basics and can get something that I think looks good by the end of the process. The biggest principle I’ve learned is the importance of KISS: Keep It Simple, Sweetie.

On to how I format. Every tool I use, by the way, is free. Because this post is long, I’m putting a More tag here.

Tools used for formatting: Open Office Writer, Calibre (for the conversion to epub), Sigil (for debugging though I may end up doing the conversion with this alone in the near future).

The process:

1. I make sure, when I first start the rough draft, that all quotes are set to Smart Quotes. (It looks nicer and, unlike Word, Open Office doesn’t create formatting errors when you use AutoCorrect.) Doing this will save you the days you’ll spend manually changing each and every quote mark and apostrophe from straight to smart. The em dash gets added after editing. I also do a check to see if I’ve accidentally added two spaces anywhere instead of one. It usually helps to turn on non-printing characters during this process.

Note: my line spacing is double for a rough draft. I change that to single for the ebook.

2. If I’m formatting the Smashwords .doc, I’ve found it’s best to only use two font sizes: 14 pt (for the title and chapter headings) and 12 pt. No, it doesn’t look pretty. Smashwords suggests it, and AutoVetter freaks if you use more than two font sizes. I change it up when I create the Kindle and epub. More on that in a minute.

3. Using styles, I center whatever text I want centered, justify the rest with a .33 first line indent, and add the front matter (copyright info and any legal disclaimers, credits as well if I use stock images in the cover and “Smashwords Edition” under the byline because that’s one of the requirements of going through Smashwords). I also usually add whatever kind of section break I want to use, which lately has been three asterisks, centered. “About the Author” gets three hash marks (###), centered above it, if I don’t use a page break to set it apart.

4. I then do one final read-through to make sure everything is the way I want it. If I add a hyperlinked table of contents, I’ll do that after the final reading.

5. I save my document in Word format (97/XP/2000) with the word Smashwords in the filename somewhere. Lately I’ve been putting the date in the filename as well so if I want to test something, I know which one is the original file.

6. Using the original odt, I then go through the styles and vary the font sizes until I like the way they look, remembering to stay true to KISS. I use different font sizes for the title, byline, chapter headings, etc. but keep the same font for the entire document. (I prefer Times New Roman.)

7. I then save the document as an html and put “Kindle” somewhere in the filename, and make sure that, at the very least, the words “Smashwords Edition” in the front matter are taken out. This is the version I upload to Kindle. I also save a separate html copy with “Smashwords Edition” left in. This will eventually be the epub I upload to Smashwords.

8. Now for the fun part. I open Calibre and add the html version to my library. It’ll show up as a zip file. Using the conversion tool, I leave most of the defaults set (since I’ll be uploading the epub to Smashwords), add a cover and the metadata, and a table of contents (which can be confusing because of the way Calibre phrases things) so it’ll look nice in Adobe Digital Editions.

9. I then run the epub through epubcheck (since that’s what Smashwords uses) and look through it in both Calibre and Digital Editions to make sure it’s showing up correctly. (epubcheck will just tell you that the code looks good, not that the book looks good.)

10. If there’s any bugs, I take note of the html tags, look them up online to see why I might be getting that error, then fix whatever might be wrong in Sigil.

11. Finally, I upload that to Smashwords, and that becomes my epub that gets sent through the Premium Catalog to places like Apple, Sony, etc.

(There’s a whole story behind why I learned how to create an epub. And yes, it has to do with Smashwords and the Meatgrinder and epubs. But I think this post is long enough.)

Believe it or not, my formatting process was about twice as long before I learned that Open Office doesn’t give the same formatting headache that Word does. I used to use the Nuclear Method Smashwords recommends to make sure you have a clean document and had to change everything back manually. It was a nightmare and—for my largest work, Shining Armor—took almost a week. That’s not part-time, either.

Then, I read this blog post on someone who looked at the code in a Smashwords created epub a few months ago, and realized I didn’t have to do nearly as much work as I had been doing. Life’s been wonderful ever since.

If you have any questions about my process, feel free to leave them in the comment box below. Thank you for reading.



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