Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My Top Four Formatting Tips

The past month was a major technological challenge for me. I formatted my new book Unwritten Rules for both ebook and paperback. Yaay! I had been dreading the process ever since I decided to self-publish several months ago. I could have hired someone to do it, but I’m stubborn and hate to back away from a challenge. Many of my friends had conquered the formatting beast, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could do the same.

I’ve always enjoyed learning new skills, but formatting is a bit like Dorothy Parker’s quote about writing—“I hate writing. I love having written.” Well, I hate formatting but love having learned how to do it. At least partially. I’m going to be upfront and admit I only prepared my book for Amazon through KDP and CreateSpace. I wouldn’t mind having it available in other formats and channels, but that’s a much more complex process and I need time to recover from this experience before I even consider tackling the Smashwords “meatgrinder”.

As anyone who knows me can attest, I’m not the least tech oriented. I’ve never had computer instruction of any kind. I never needed more than the bare basics for my job or my writing, so that’s exactly what I picked up. The whole concept of html, etc. makes me break out in hives. However, I did manage to launch my book into the world in two formats, so I thought I’d share a few things I learned along the way.

  1. Educate yourself. I knew I didn’t know anything, so I read as much as I could before I started. The most useful source by far was Catherine Ryan Howard’s Self-Printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing. I can’t recommend this highly enough. She talks the complete novice through the entire process step by step. I had to make a few modifications because her instructions are for a non-fiction book, but most of it was applicable. I also read the free Building Your Book for Kindle from KDP, but it didn’t have enough detail to answer many of my questions. We’re talking rank beginner here. I picked up a few good tips from Geri Russell’s talk at the RWA National Conference, but the online class I took was too tech-heavy for me. I don’t have the patience to go through my 87K, dialogue-heavy manuscript and code every quotation mark in html (not to mention all the other punctuation, etc.) KDP allows you to upload a properly formatted Word document, and that’s what I did—but not until I’d nearly made myself blind trying to do it the more complicated way.
  2. Use tabs instead of indents. For some reason this was the first bit of advice I got from my friends. That meant I had to go back and remove all the tabs and switch to indents, but that proved much easier than expected. Of course, it caused another problem later because I didn’t realize that the “first line” indent would apply to every first line, including all the front matter and the chapter headings. To properly center my chapter headings, I had to go back and remove the extraneous indents. That leads to my next tip.
  3. Try to think like a computer programmer. By this I mean think logically and in a very basic way. This is hard for writers; we tend to extrapolate and embroider. Computers are stupidly logical. In addition to the indent issue, I initially had trouble with the pagination in the print version. The chapters are divided by Section Breaks – an entirely new concept to me. It’s easy to understand in theory, but the details can sometimes trip you up.
  4.   Locate and learn the features of Word. I wish I’d done this first because it ultimately caused me more trouble than anything else. I only switched from Word 2003 to Word 2010 a few months ago and had never taken the time to explore all its features. If I had read Word 2010 for Dummies first, I could have saved myself hours of frustration. The clearest instructions in the world are no better than mud if you don’t understand your     basic tools.

If you’re considering self-publishing, I encourage you to try formatting your own book. It will probably be much easier for you than it was for me, and there’s a real satisfaction in being able to say “I did it!”

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