Hooking the Reader & Sticking the Sale—Formatting Matters

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For those who are considering self-publishing, there is an element almost as important as the writing itself, but it’s a bit of an unsung hero. Formatting.

Presentation is vital. Chefs get this. Fashion designers get this. Car dealers get this. So should we. This is our art, but what makes us professional is when we care enough to send the very best.

We live in the best time to be a writer. Paper is going away. Not all the way, of course. Yet, with digital devices taking over every aspect of our lives, we need to think like business people. In sales, we used to say, “Fish where the fish are.” With the mass influx of smart phones, tablets and e-readers, the most likely place a reader will consume our work is going to be via digital. Also, when one considers we now have entire generations where paper is an anomaly? Digital is critical.

Writers often make the mistake of believing readers (consumers) are like them. We can believe they love the smell of a bookstore, the feel of paper *shivers*. This is short-sighted considering that only roughly 8% of the literate population would list “reading” among the top ten hobbies.

In fact, every novel that’s ever broken records has managed to do the remarkable—hook people who normally believe they don’t like reading (interest the fat part of the bell curve). From Harry Potter to Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, these books captured the attention of “non-readers” and that’s why they broke bank and made history.

We have a tough job as authors. We need to convince people to pay money and invest a minimum of twelve hours to do an activity they believe they do NOT enjoy. Yes, we can help this with a great story, but we must also remove what’s called friction.

Ah, friction. I’ll give an example. I loathe shopping for clothes with the power of a thousand suns. One time I saw a REALLY cute top on Facebook in my feed (one of those paid inserts). I did what I normally would NEVER do. I clicked. At this point, they’d pretty much made the sale.

But then, I had to create a log-in and then approve the password and then when I returned to the site? The shirt that captivated me was nowhere to be found and there were too many pages to search through. I deleted my account and will never return. Likely will never click on another clothing ad.


The retailer made the sale too HARD.

When it comes to our e-books, potential buyers will often look to the sample pages and, if the formatting looks like it was done by a one-eyed marsupial with a meth habit? Pass. Or maybe the consumer goes ahead and downloads or makes the purchase. Formatting is crucial.

In writing, anything that interrupts the fictive dream is BAD JUJUIf our formatting is a train wreck, odds are the reader won’t finish, let alone recommend. Also? People can give nasty reviews that have nothing to do with story, so why take the chance when that ticked off one-star review is completely avoidable?

This said, our job is to make sure everything goes as seamlessly as possible. We have two choices when we self-publish. Since we are taking on all the roles traditionally handled by a publisher, we can either learn to do it ourselves or hire a pro.

Even if we outsource, learning to do this on our own can help us be better at hiring good formatters since we understand the lingo and what to expect.

I rarely do this, but Kait Nolan is one of the most professional people I’ve ever worked with. She’s put together a fun list of 5 Things To Do Instead of Formatting EBooks. As a huge fan of outsourcing? I’m inclined to agree with her list and she is a PRO when it comes to formatting.

Take it away, Kait!


I have long been a proponent that formatting ebooks is not hard. I’ve talked at length elsewhere about why it’s important that you know how to do it (even if you hire out), and I even teach a class on exactly how to do it, step-by-step for those who have an industrious DIY spirit and want to learn. But despite all that, there is one incontrovertible truth about ebook formatting:

It’s a pain in the butt.

Formatting ebooks, particularly if you’re new to it, is a tedious and exacting process. Not HARD, but definitely time consuming. That’s where I come in. I format ebooks often, fast, and well–and you can hire me to take your manuscript and turn it into whatever form of ebook you want—from a basic “Meatgrinder” ready Smashwords file to every major file format available. Because I’m chained to a computer most days, I can generally offer quick turn around and ready answers to all your formatting questions. All that is to say that if you hire me, you can use your time for more important things.

  1. Instead of sorting out how you’re supposed to change out the 175,000 tab indents you used at the start of your paragraphs to correct paragraph styles, you can plot the demise of Julian Fellowes for daring to Do Something Horrible to the Adorable Bateses on Downton Abbey.

  2. Instead of digging into the code of the EPUB that Smashwords keeps rejecting to figure out what in the heck they’re talking about being wrong when the file clearly passes the IDPF validation test for EPUB 3, you can write a fanfic of the Olicity reunion that should TOTALLY happen in Season 3 of Arrow.
  3. Instead of beating your head against a wall trying to figure out why Kindle keeps indenting your block paragraphs even though they are set to block paragraphs, you can make a pie and enjoy it while watching the King of Pie Appreciation, Dean Winchester, in…pretty much any season of Supernatural (3 is my favorite).
  4. Instead of going through the whole nuking of your formatting to get rid of garbage code (and following that with tequila shooters because OMG), you can watch Pitch Perfect for the three hundredth time in preparation for getting Pitch Slapped in May. #AccaAwesome!
  5. Instead of getting an eye twitch trying to design an NCX table of contents from scratch, you can even be all responsible and stuff and use all the time you’ve saved to take care of the rest of your business concerns–promo, blog tours, writing the next book…or marathoning all of Firefly. Your call.

However you decide to spend all that freed up time, you won’t regret the investment in a professionally formatted product. So the next time you need a book formatted for publishing, look no further than The Forge Book Finishers for affordable ebook finishing.


headshot formal smallKait Nolan is stuck in an office all day, sometimes juggling all three of her jobs at once with the skill of a trained bear—sometimes with a similar temperament. After hours, she uses her powers for good, creating escapist fiction. This Mississippi native has something for everyone, from short and sweet to Southern contemporary romance to action-packed paranormal—all featuring heroes you’d want to sweep you off your feet and rescue you from work-day drudgery. When not working or writing, Kait’s hanging out in her kitchen cooking and wishing life were a Broadway musical.


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  1. Awesome list of things to do! I tried to format my own stuff and almost threw my laptop against the wall several time. Thankfully I found a great person to do it for me, but if I hadn’t I would be begging Kait right now!

  2. I love the use of the word friction. I browse blogs the same way. If I have to open the small window to read a paragraph, then click on a link to read the full article — I’m gone. Great point for our books too.


  4. A very good point. I mentioned in an blog interview about indie publishing – “You don’t get to skip having a team by going indie – you just have to be the HR department on top of everything else.”

  5. A really fun read, Kait. Not looking forward to formatting my NaNo-WIP, but when I get brave enough to try it (generally after 2+ glasses of Merlot), I’ll holler at you.

  6. @Kim, Be sure to save a copy BEFORE you start messing with it so that anything you do AFTER the Merlot has an unaltered base file 🙂 Just in case.

  7. You know, I wasn’t even thinking that there were formatting issues with E-books. Can someone create something that will just do it with one click of the button? LOL

  8. Oh yes. I’m very nearly at the formatting stage and have decided I’ll almost certainly pay someone else to do it. Makes my head ache even thinking about it. Having said that I really would like to learn to do it myself. Just wish I had the time!

  9. So totally agree with, “I had to create a log-in and then approve the password and then when I returned to the site? The shirt that captivated me was nowhere to be found and there were too many pages to search through. I deleted my account and will never return.” … I’ve also encountered sites that want me to create an account and log in, just to see what they were selling. Now, when I see that infernal screen, its ‘about face – forward march’.

  10. Use to be an old motto when building websites “Don’t make me think”. That seems to be true with many things. Good points. thanks

  11. Great post, I’m a bit worried about formatting but I’m so far away from that point I’m trying not to worry about it. I’m hoping Scrivener will work its magic. (I fear this is being naive)

    • Rachel Thompson on February 23, 2015 at 3:15 pm
    • Reply

    Free time is good, I’d use a format service to have some, but I would not wast free time watching TV or the other forms of mind numbing media. I’ve heard many writers that produce say, step one in becoming a writer is turn off the TV. I’d add, and all e other distractions.

  12. @Somemaid, Scrivener is fantastic…but there’s a significant learning curve on learning what the myriad of settings DO (which, in and of itself, is an equally bald spot inducing process).

    @Clara, The initial learning how is time consuming, but a huge chunk of time is saved once you learn to simply not commit formatting sins in the first place. From a formatting standpoint, I write a very clean first draft and can generally spit out all major formats in about fifteen minutes because I know what NOT to do. Which I teach in my class 🙂

  13. I’ve been researching formatting for self-publishing and, though there are some things that sound easy to do, if you don’t know code or aren’t tech savvy, I can see how there could be a huge issue. I’ve been using Calibre to format my books (since Scrivener’s Kindlegen keeps giving me errors), but I’ve heard of various issues to the program. I think later updates to the program have resolved them. Still, I’ve heard with Smashwords, in particular, that the formatting can be a nightmare. Or trying to format a MS Word doc into something that works for e-reading devices–also a nightmare.

    Still, I want to learn what I’m doing wrong, so I can avoid any errors when it’s time to publish.

    Since then, I’ve been looking at ebooks published by trad publishers and seeing how they look as far as paragraphs and how the TOC looks and all that–particularily with Kindle devices and how they look on both larger devices and smaller ones (there is a difference).

    Excellent post!

  14. Although I doubt I’ll ever self-publish, I hope those considering it take this info to heart. Initially, it seems Ike the answer to their rejection woes, but without a stellar product and a big commitment to self-promotion, they are likely to be disappointed. Thanks for a great blog.

    • jeanmariebauhaus on February 23, 2015 at 6:09 pm
    • Reply

    Love this. I’m also a freelance book formatter, and I spend way too much time trying to explain to skeptical potential clients why it’s worth properly formatting their e-books and why just uploading their Word docs to KDP is a terrible idea. Now I’ll be tempted to just point them to this post and save time.

    1. More than enough work for everyone. Kait can’t do them all, so feel free to point them this way. 🙂

  15. I have self-published one e-book and, as Kait wisely said, it wasn’t hard but it was time-consuming. I’m working on a bribe-to-subscribe e-book right now for my website and am seriously considering hiring someone to help with the formatting. Michael Hyatt has suggested on his blog that the way to make the best use of your time when you’re writing and blogging is to concentrate on what we like to do or at we are good at doing. Then hire someone to manage other tasks. That is sound advice. I would especially recommend it given some of the challenges I know other writers have faced trying to successfully format their own e-books.

  16. I love you too so much!I was just about to look up this information and poof, it’s right here almost as if you were reading my mind thank you for the helpful post.

  17. It’s amazing what a difference formatting makes–something I realized when my first book was published. The chapters suddenly looked more separate. More like–well, chapters. A reader could really draw a breath between them. Just the other day I was reading an unformatted manuscript for a friend and I found myself really struggling to understand what role the various parts would play once they were sorted out visually.

    • Tamara LeBlanc on February 24, 2015 at 12:29 pm
    • Reply

    I recently had my novel formatted by a professional in the hopes of many Epub sales. She was quick, professional and reasonable. I’d like to learn how to formatt for my own knowledge, but I don’t think I’ll ever do it for sales purposes (just in case I screw it up) I have lots of friends who used my formatter and they were ALL happy.
    By the way, Kait, season 3 is also my favorite Supernatural collection!!!! I’m a die-hard fan, but that season was OH SO Amazing!!
    Thanks for the wisdom Kristen and Kait!!

  18. I did the formatting on Intersection Diaries myself. Converted the original Word-document to both Epub and Mobi with a free software called Calibre on the Mac. Was a piece of cake. It took some trial and error to get the cover-page right, but all in all, I found it easy.

    Just my 5 cent.


  19. Awesome post! Thank you 🙂

  20. Thank you to Heather Rainier who pointed me to you, Kirsten: your wisdom is educating me further almost every day. Yup – I have been fighting with formatting and as technology is not my thing – Kait will get me. Assuming she’s happy to work with a Brit author who uses “u”s in unlikely places! (Colour, Honour, Neighbour etc).

  21. Reblogged this on rababoojee and commented:
    Great words

  22. Kait does a terrific job of making Kristen’s point about the importance of formatting, albeit unintentionally: I couldn’t concentrate on the piece by the former due to the incessantly jumpy GIF files snapping around on my computer screen. Just as the latter predicted, I quickly stopped reading.

  23. I hope to be in a position to format my novel sometime in the next 6 months. As a software engineer I’m hoping that experience will help me tolerate the pedantic file formatting software I’ll no doubt have to work with. Not stressed yet. Looking forward to it!

  1. […] picture ebooks was formatting—the illustrations gave ebooks problems. As Kait Nolan explains, good formatting matters in regular novel ebooks, […]

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