Formatting your book is the most technical and frustrating stage of the publishing journey and can cause a lot of headaches, even if you choose to outsource the process. Over the last few years, several tools have appeared which have made the entire process far smoother, but there is still a steep learning curve involved.
There are three ways to format a self-published book: a free tool like Kindle Create, paid-for software like Atticus, or a hired freelancer through a site like Fiverr. To start, you’ll need your manuscript, usually as a .docx file, your book cover, and some ideas for the interior style of your book.
I want to break this process down and go through the pros and cons of all the options so you can weigh up the choices and make the best decisions about which path is right for you.
In this guide, I will cover:
- What Is Formatting In Publishing?
- How To Format A Book For Printing
- What Is The Best Book Formatting Software?
- How Much Does It Cost To Format A Book?
- How To Format A Book For Free
What Is Formatting In Publishing?
Book formatting is turning a fully edited manuscript into a print-ready file. This includes preparing everything from the copyright page, and the typesetting, to the ISBN and the book cover.
In order to format a book, you will need a complete and fully edited manuscript, as well as all the extras which each book needs.
This includes (usually in this order):
- The Book Cover (2,560 x 1,600 pixels for an ebook)
- The Title Page
- The Copyright Page
- Table of Contents
- Main Content
- Also By The Author (We often find this in the front matter instead)
- About The Author
- Discussion questions*
- Bibliography/reference list*
*We usually find these items in non-fiction rather than novels.
Once you have completed every item that will be in the final published version of your book, you are ready to format your book.
How To Format A Book For Printing
To format a book for printing, use a word processor such as Google Docs to arrange your chapter headings and paragraphs. Then use a tool such as Atticus to refine the interior and convert the file to a print-ready PDF or ebook.
Google Docs is a free tool with cloud storage and so I recommend you use this tool if you don’t have Microsoft Word or a similar package.
Step 1: Start with a clean document
First, you want to focus on formatting the main content of your book. This document should only contain the main written content, and not have your copyright notice, author bio, etc. or even the title page.
Unless you keep a cleanly formatted manuscript as you write, I recommend you start your formatting by removing any previous formatting from your document. Your document can be riddled with formatting HTML code you cannot see, but the file conversion software will see it. This can be hidden from your view but can cause huge issues when converting files.
Highlight all text by using ctrl+A, then choose the ‘clear formatting’ option, which is a capital T with a diagonal line through it.
WARNING: This will remove ALL formatting, including italics, bold font, and headers. So you might prefer to do this section by section if you have a lot of formatting throughout your book.
(If you prefer, you can use an Add-on for Google Docs called ‘Show‘. This should reveal all the hidden formatting, so you can manually check for formatting errors and correct them.)
Remove all headers and footers, such as your name or the book title, and all page numbers. The only footers that should remain are footers which are inserted correctly in the text, with a corresponding number or symbol.
Step 2: Paragraph Breaks or Indentations?
As a general rule, fiction relies on indentations, while non-fiction utilises paragraph breaks. I recommend you stick to this convention unless you have a particular reason not to.
Highlight all your text using ctrl+A.
For fiction, you will want to choose ‘Format’ in the toolbar, then ‘Align and Indent’ in the drop-down menu, and then ‘Indentation Options’. A pop-up box will appear. You don’t want anything fancy at this stage. Simply choose ‘First Line’ in the ‘Special Indent’ option and click ‘Apply’.
For Non-fiction, you will choose ‘Format’ in the toolbar, then ‘Line & Paragraph Spacing’ in the drop-down menu. Another drop-down menu will appear, choose ‘Add Space After Paragraph’.
Step 3: Chapters & Chapter Breaks
In order for the file conversion software to recognise your chapters, you will need to format them correctly. This means making sure every chapter header is a Heading 1.
You do this by highlighting the chapter title and/or number and then choosing ‘Heading 1’ in the styles dropdown menu.
At the end of each chapter, add at least three line breaks before the next chapter title.
If you are writing a non-fiction book with subheadings, ensure your subheadings descend correctly. I.e. the chapter title should be Heading 1, a subheading would be Heading 2, a further subheading within the first subheading would be Heading 3, while a second subheading would return to Heading 2.
Do not add extra spaces after your sub-sections unless you want added page breaks in your finished book.
Step 4: Fancy Text
Go through your manuscript and make sure:
- You have used bold and italics correctly and only where relevant
- All chapter titles / numbers are Heading 1
- There are no hidden formatting goblins
Step 5: Converting to Print Ready
The next step is to download your prepared manuscript as a .docX and start making some choices about book sizes, font, and interior design.
For this, your best option will be dedicated formatting software, which will allow you to make real-time changes so you can see the result and create the interior your book deserves.
Throughout the rest of the blog, I’ll go through all the different options, including paid and free, so you can get your manuscript ready for publication.
What Is The Best Size For A Book?
As a general rule, US paperbacks and hardbacks are 6″ x 9″ (152.4 x 228.6 mm). A popular alternative size for paperback fiction is 5.5″ x 8.5″ (139.7 x 215.9 mm) which offers lower printing costs, and a nicer fit in the hand for readers.
It is easy to get overwhelmed with all the different decisions you have to make when putting together your book, so if you stick to 5.5″ x 8.5″ for paperbacks, and 6″ x 9″ for hardbacks, you won’t go wrong.
Remember: the size of your paperback cover will depend on the book size, the number of pages inside your ready-to-print book, and the type of paper you choose. Make sure you use your chosen publisher’s cover-size calculator to get the correct measurements for your paperback book cover.
What Is The Best Font For A Book?
In general, a serif font, such as EB Garamond, is the best font for a fiction book. While a STIX Font such as STIX Two Type, or a san serif font such as Montserrat are ideal for non-fiction.
When you’re formatting your book, remember that e-readers allow users to users to choose their own font, so don’t worry about which font you choose for your digital files.
Also, remember that the most important aspect of a book is clarity. A simple, clear font is always the best.
What Is The Best Format To Publish A Book?
There are several file formats available for publishing a book. PDF is the best format to use for a physical book, while ePub is the most common book format for ebooks.
Some ebooks are also published using Mobi, which used to be the standard for KDP, but this is gradually being phased out.
How To Get An ISBN Number
As a general rule, print-on-demand publishers like Lulu.com and KDP will provide ISBNs for free to authors and publishers who use their platforms, so there is no need to purchase one from elsewhere.
Ebooks do not require an ISBN. However, paperback books and hardback books require a unique ISBN in order to be sold through retail outlets. The unique number will also come with a barcode, which will need to be added to the back of the printed book in the final stages of the publishing process.
It is possible to download the barcode and add this to the back of the file for the book cover yourself, but I prefer to let the publisher (i.e. Amazon’s KDP) add the barcode to the book file at the publishing stage.
How Do I Copyright My Book?
In order to assert copyright in your self-published book, you will need to add a copyright notice after the title page. This notice can simply read: “Copyright 2022, Author Name, All Rights Reserved”.
You can use the word ‘copyright’ or the symbol: ©. Either is acceptable. You also need to display the year the work first entered publication. If you are publishing a second or third edition, also note the year this new edition entered the public. “Second Edition Copyright 2022”.
The name of the copyright owner is usually your own name, or a pen name unless you have decided to register a corporation which you wish to hold the copyright to your work, in which case that name would be used.
The phrase, “All Rights Reserved” or “The moral rights of the author have been asserted” is required in many countries around the world, and it is best to protect your work globally by adding that here.
What Is The Best Book Formatting Software?
Professional book formatting tools allow you to take a plain document and automatically add a table of contents, chapter breaks, fancy headings, and stylised fonts and themes to the interior of your book.
Most formatting software is expensive. But these will be the go-to option for an experienced self-published author who is already earning, or a new author with a big budget to throw around.
Atticus is the best formatting software for the self-published author. Atticus offers beautiful, professional quality interiors for ebooks and print, as well as accessibility for both Mac and PC users at a fraction of the cost of Vellum.
There will still be a slight learning curve with any of these tools. But once you have your preferred interiors up, you will produce beautiful professional book interiors with just a few clicks. My book formatting record sits at fifteen minutes, and that includes signing in to the proxy server to access the software!
Atticus – $147 Best Choice for the Professional Self-Published Author★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Atticus is the disruptive newcomer, and though the software offers slightly fewer themes for the interior of your book than Vellum, the software is cheaper (Only $147 before tax), available for a PC, and offers cloud-based storage.
I missed out on Atticus by a couple of years, and really wish I had known it was in the works, as I would have held off on purchasing Vellum in favour of this. If you are ready to move to the next stage of your publishing journey by investing in a simple-to-use software that will save you hours in fiddly formatting, then you really can’t go wrong with Atticus.
Check out Atticus
Vellum – $249.99★ ★ ★ ★ ★
For a number of years, Vellum has been the gold standard go-to for the professional author. Offering a reassuringly large range of professional themes for your book’s interior, including gorgeous genre-specific art. Vellum will make your book’s interior professional and unique.
What you gain in ease of use, you lose in control. I had to let go of some very specific ideas for my book interiors when I moved over to Vellum. But I have been much happier for it and my books have never looked better.
The two enormous problems with Vellum are the cost and lack of access for PC users. The package is a one-off price of $249.99 before tax.
There is a cheaper option, only $199.99 before tax, which limits you to ebooks only (no paperbacks, or hardbacks) but considering that print-ready files are the more difficult of the two to format, this isn’t an option I would advise anyone to consider seriously.
How to use Vellum on a PC
Vellum is a Mac-only software but there is a simple workaround. By using a cloud-based Mac rental service such as Macincloud.com, you can access your own private Mac desktop, where you can keep all your files and software securely, for as long as you like.
Macincloud.com lets you pay a monthly subscription, or pay per hour. The current charge is $1 per hour (which you buy in blocks of 30 prepaid credits), though they will always round up, so if you log in for twenty minutes to prepare a book, they will charge you for the full hour.
I log into my proxy Mac desktop and open up my Google Drive. Once my file is ready on my Mac desktop, I upload it to my Google Drive and then download it to my PC. This is fiddly and time-consuming, and because MacInCloud.com doesn’t have the latest version of the MacOS, it means I don’t have the latest version of Vellum, so I am missing out on a lot of new features and holding out for a PC version of Vellum.
Check out Vellum
Adobe InDesign – $20.99pm Steepest Learning Curve / Best For Magazines★ ★ ★ ★ ★
This option is overkill for the average author. Adobe InDesign is the high-grade publishing option used by big publishing houses and is ideal for magazines and newspapers.
Adobe InDesign offers the ultimate control of your book’s interior. Whatever you can imagine, you can make it happen with InDesign, and you pay for the privilege. Not just with the cost, but also with the learning curve.
If you really need the level of control over your book interior that Adobe InDesign offers, then expect to complete an in-depth course covering how to make use of the software, which can set you back as much as $300 for a beginner, as well as the monthly cost of $20.99 for the software.
Check out InDesign
Scrivener – $49★ ★ ★ ★ ★
If Adobe InDesign is the smart older brother of Atticus and Vellum, then Scrivener is the overlooked middle child.
Designed as software to help authors compile their notes and write their novels, Scrivener also offers the option to compile your manuscript into a print-ready file to upload to your publisher of choice.
Interior design options are limited, and the results can be buggy with page breaks added mid-sentence and scatty page numbers. But if you already own Scrivener, and don’t mind debugging your file, then this could be an option to get your book to readers.
I own Scrivener but have had too many issues with the file conversion to really recommend this as an easy, flawless option.
Check out Scrivener
How Much Does It Cost To Format A Book?
The cost of outsourcing your book formatting can vary wildly, from good quality freelancers charging under $50 to overpriced specialist websites charging upwards of $500. For a complete package, including print-ready and digital files, you shouldn’t need to pay more than $100 for a 70k word novel.
If you only have a short novel or non-fiction book, with no internal images, expect to pay a freelancer around $20-$50 for an ebook, and perhaps another $20-$50 for the print-ready PDF.
If you have something more complex, such as a long book with a considerable amount of internal images, tables, graphs, complex formulas, or other additions, you can expect to be charged considerably more than $100.
You should also expect to pay a higher fee if you want to hand over all the interior details, such as the copyright page, and the book size, and are not willing to take the time to format your manuscript with the correct indentations, header sizes, and chapter breaks as described above.
How To Outsource Your Formatting
There are dozens of freelancer websites offering expensive services to naïve first-time publishers, but some of the more regulated freelancer sites include Fiverr and Upwork. I use Fiverr all the time for a variety of minor tasks that I don’t have the time or expertise to complete myself.
I know the freelancer won’t get paid until I approve their work, and if there are any issues (and I have faced a few) then I can always contact customer support to act as an intermediary.
If you are thinking of outsourcing your formatting, here are a few things you should do before you hit the buy button:
- Check the freelancer’s portfolio to make sure they have formatted books similar to yours in the past.
- Read through a few reviews, good and bad, to check that the reviews correspond to the work being advertised and confirm the freelancer’s skill (there will always be a few disgruntled customers, but this does not mean the freelancer was at fault).
- Contact the freelancer before you hire them, with a clear description of what you would like them to do, preferably with interiors you would like them to emulate.
- But remember: Simple is best – you don’t want your reader distracted. The simpler and cleaner your book is to read, the more immersed your reader will be.
- Prepare all your files in the format the freelancer requests (usually .docx) and make sure everything is edited and error-free. You are hiring someone to format your files, not edit your work.
- Make sure you know what the freelancer is going to do. Are they going to write your copyright page? Are they going to format all of your headers and prepare your document for file conversion? The best way to avoid disappointment is to know what to expect.
Outsourcing your formatting means letting go of all those irritating minor issues and technical difficulties, but it also means losing control of your manuscript. This can cause a number of unforeseen issues later on.
So before you make your final decision to outsource, here are a few things to remember:
- If there is a typo in your finished book, you won’t be able to correct it yourself.
- If there are incompatibility issues with your manuscript, this may cause formatting issues in your published book, such as added blank pages or missing chapters. You’ll be forced to go back to the freelancer each time to correct it.
- If you want to add or remove a link to a free sign-up offer, update your ‘also by’ section, or your author bio, you’ll have to go back to the freelancer.
- The seller may charge significantly more for print-ready PDF files on top of the standard charge for ebooks, check you are buying everything you need in your first purchase.
Many authors also worry about their work being stolen by service providers. This is highly unlikely, but not impossible. Ensure you place a copyright notice on your work, keep a record of your communication, and always familiarise yourself with the terms of service and complaint procedure before you purchase a service online.
How To Format A Book For Free
Formatting a book for free is simple. You can use a combination of Google Docs to prepare your document and a free tool such as the Reedsy Book Editor or Kindle Create to design the interior and convert the manuscript into an ebook or print-ready file.
But there is a steeper learning curve, you may run into technical difficulties, and there are often very limited options for the interior aesthetic of your book.
However, if you feel confident about online tools, aren’t afraid to troubleshoot problems, and want a clean, professional book interior without the fuss of a dozen fancy chapter headings, then these free tools could work for you.
Reedsy book editing tool is relatively new on the market and provides a genuinely good option for a clean, ready-to-publish book.
You will need to open a free account with Reedsy, so expect a bunch of marketing emails. But the tool itself is quite user-friendly, has some good interior design options, and has a clear, user-friendly guide to help you take your book from manuscript to ready-to-publish.
Draft2Digital has been around a while and is the go-to tool for publishing your book outside of Amazon. They have tools to help you write the copyright and dedication pages of your book if you have struggled to work out exactly what your book needs.
They also offer the option to upload your book to publishers such as iBooks and Google Books, for which they will take a cut of the profits. But you don’t have to use this service, you can use their tool to format your book, download the files and head elsewhere to publish.
Kindle Create is made by Amazon, specifically for its self-publishing (KDP). So it contains everything you need to make your book ready for digital and print publishing.
However, it doesn’t have the most user-friendly interface, nor the easiest-to-read guide. It exists, so I am bound to tell you about it, and if you are in any way concerned that Amazon won’t accept your file, use their software to convert your manuscript.
For those who are more technically minded, Calibre is a free software for ebook formatting. It offers the most flexibility in terms of design, as it allows you to access the code and make changes directly to the file.
If this sounds exciting, it might be for you. If it sounds daunting, then it might be best to give Calibre and hard pass.
Scribus is an open source, and free, software package with similar features to Adobe InDesign.
Most suitable for brochures and magazines, Scribus also offers you the ability to create ebooks and print ready files. With a similar learning curve to InDesign, and a number of free tutorials, if you crave the complexity without the price tag, Scribus might be for you.
When you are ready to format your book, decide whether you want to do it yourself or outsource the task. If you are on a tight budget, there are some great free tools available that can help you get the job done.
When you are ready to publish your book, you’ll need to choose a platform such as Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, Draft2Digital, or Smashwords.
And that’s it! You now know how to format your self-published book. The next step is to go and do it and get your book out there!
If you are already worried about the next step, you might want to take a look at my article, Is It Hard To Self-Publish A Book? (And where to start)
Good luck, and happy publishing!