Bootstrap Publishing: Ebook Formatting

Formatting an ebook can be intimidating. It did when I first started indie publishing. I’ve found it’s pretty easy as long as I view the ebook as a portable website. (Grossly oversimplified model, but it’ll work for this purpose.)

See, the problem is that it’s real easy to think, because of the name, that you’re reading the electronic equivalent of a print book. And that isn’t the case. You’re reading a website. This website has within it a “spine” that tells the device you’re using which file to use within the container: where to start, where to go next, etc.

With that model in mind, it’s best to focus on the KISS principle. Keep It Simple…Sweetie. Yeah.

This is not going to be a how-to on formatting. Like the other posts, this is going to be a list of tips that work for me, a very brief overview of how I use those tools as part of my typesetting system, with links to helpful resources toward the end.

So, here are the tools I use for my ebooks.


LibreOffice – I use this for basic formatting such as justified paragraphs and other styles that are done in such large quantity it’s easier to use the point-and-click of the WYSIWIG than code. Because I focus on fiction, I don’t usually add an internal table of contents, but if I do, I use this program for that as well. It’s surprisingly powerful and has come a long way from where it was when I first started using it. Also, I use it to create the PDF version of my books.

Calibre – This program has changed a lot since I first started in this indie publishing gig. I used to use it only to get a clean epub from OpenOffice (and later LibreOffice) through its conversion feature. Nowadays, I use the editing feature very heavily as well. I alter the heading size and add the Start code so that readers are taken directly to the first page, among other changes.

Sigil – Once, this was where I did all the editing. I still use it for heavy HTML editing and for creating the TOC, but that’s about it.

Kindle Previewer – It took me forever to rely on this tool, and I can’t believe what an idiot I was for waiting. This tool will create beautiful mobis for you. And the beauty of using it is that you don’t need to create a separate epub for Kindle so that you can avoid double covers. Just take your epub, pull it into Kindle Previewer, and voila! Beautiful mobi.

My System, In Brief (please note this system is currently in flux)

  • If it isn’t already, put the story into the ebook template I’ve created in LibreOffice.
  • Apply the appropriate styles.
  • If I’m creating a PDF version, I change the page size to 6″x9″ and add the cover as the first page. I then export as PDF.
  • Save As –>HTML
  • I import the HTML into Calibre which turns it into a ZIP format. I add the cover, metadata, and any other useful tweaks, then convert to epub.
  • I edit the epub’s code in Calibre, adding headers, altering header sizes, making sure the book starts on the first chapter and not the cover, etc.
  • I save it/export it to a designated folder on my computer.
  • I open it within Sigil and add the TOC and make any further necessary tweaks to the code. I run it through an epubchecker to make sure the code works.
  • I take the finished epub and open it in Kindle Previewer, thus creating the mobi version for Amazon’s Kindle Store.

Tips I’ve found helpful

  • This is not a print book. Don’t try to create a print book in ebook form. Create a lovely ebook.
  • Styles are your friend. They’re very easy to work with and make formatting a breeze inside LibreOffice. If you’re not tech-savvy, use them, love them.
  • Use a pre-made ebook template, with all your custom styles waiting for you inside it. Copy and paste from another document.
  • Pick a web-friendly serif font instead of something meant for print. For example, Times New Roman instead of Garamond.
  • When formatting old work, be especially careful. The biggest danger in formatting is having hidden garbage code. Don’t try to fix it. Just turn all the italics into underlined words/phrases. Copy and paste without formatting into a new document. Go through and find the underlined words/phrases. Change back into italics. It’s hard work, but worth it.
  • Learn HTML and CSS. By doing this I learned how to replace images and modify text without wiping out my custom work by converting through Calibre again. I’m not the best formatter, but I’m getting better all the time.


Formatting eBooks with Open Office Writer by Dr. Kerry R. Bunn – Although I found the Smashwords Style Guide helpful, it was written to help those who used Word. I, by this time, did not. I used OpenOffice. Even though I’ve switched to LibreOffice, a lot of what he says in here about setting up ebooks still works.

Take Pride in Your Ebook Formatting (web series) by Guido Henckel. He also has a book called The Zen of eBook Formatting.

One final note

There are two other ways to get a good epub that I have not used but have heard good things about.

First, Draft2Digital can take a .doc file and turn it into an epub for you. This epub can be downloaded and used outside of D2D.

Second, Amazon now has a tool called Kindle Create. I haven’t installed it yet, but it looks good. For those focused on Amazon, it might work insanely well.



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