Formatting your E-Book on a Budget 

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Let’s face it, as a self-publisher there are any number of reasons to open your wallet. From an editor, to cover art, everything costs a little (or a lot) of doe-ray-me. Creating a great e-book is by no means a zero-overhead endeavour, and like many a starving writer you may be wondering where you can afford to cut corners.

Everyone knows that your book must be readable. No matter how good your writing is, if your fonts fluctuate, your paragraphs

Begin and end with no rhyme or reason. Or words seem to into thin air, people aren’t going to read your book for long. This is why it may surprise you that you can format your own e-book, on a budget, even if you’re not technologically inclined.

Every e-reader has its own standards and way of doing things. Some even allow the user to choose their own font and display settings. What this means for you is that if there’s a flaw in your formatting, someone somewhere is going to find it, and be thrown off by it.

If you’re like me, and “code” might as well be Greek, and hours of frustration from learning complicated software isn’t for you, you may be thinking of paying someone to format your e-book. This is the most expensive option you can choose. While it’s possible to find e-book formatting services for seemingly very little cost, they are also very limited in options. You’ll quickly find that including things like pictures and more than one file format add to your bill. Typically these services require you to pay for every revision you make as well. While the base prices on the websites seem attractive, once you’re staring at your actual bill the rose-tinted glasses will quickly fall from your face.

You may also be thinking about the free “meat-grinder” option. This is the automatic formatting option provided by e-book sellers such as Smashwords and Amazon. The meat-grinder is notorious for churning out sub-par swill with so many errors it renders text unreadable. Don’t trust your investment to this option; it’s better to shell out a little bit of cash than put it through the meat-grinder.

So, you don’t know code, you don’t want to pay an arm and a leg, and you don’t want to throw your baby into the meat-grinder. What’s an author to do?

Thankfully, there are options.

But before you choose which option is best for you, you’ll want to learn a wee bit about formatting. Specifically, which pre-formatting standards yield the best results. You’ll want to make sure there is as little chance for error as possible, because finding mistakes after the fact can be like threading a camel through the eye of a needle. This is true whether you format your e-book yourself using a program, or send it to the (gulp) meat-grinder.



Make sure your final manuscript is a .doc (MS Word) file or .rtf file. I know, I know, it’s a pain in the ass, especially for those of us that have Macs and want .doc files, but it’s one of the best things you can do to help yourself. The majority of good e-book formatting software is optimized for .doc, .docx, or .rtf files. It’s better to bite the bullet on this one.

Next you’ll need to be sure you’ve stripped your baby of any and all of the “fancy” stuff. This includes headers, footers, tables, columns, auto footnotes, and other fancy-pants stuff. What you should have left is plain old text. If you have pictures it’s often best to remove them as well. I recommend putting in a placeholder, something easy to search for, such as ***PICTURE#1***. This will make it easier to reinsert the pictures once you’ve imported your manuscript for formatting.

You can leave your bold, italics, and underlined text if you’d like, or to ensure a flawless process you can preface each instance with the easily searchable (I), (B), and (U) and fix it up later. If you’re in MS Word there’s a great option that allows you to search your manuscript for words with special formatting such as italics and bolding. You should become familiar with this function so you can easily proof down the road.

You’ll really want to research how to prepare your manuscript for formatting well, since I’ve only written the very basics here. Other people have written entire books on the subject, and quite a few of them are free. Below are a few free resources you may want to check out. Although most are specific to the service with which the resource is connected, I find these guides apply universally.

Smashwords Style Guide

Building Your Book for Kindle

Take Pride In Your eBook Formatting

Standard vs. Fixed Layout

eBook Creator Guide



Here’s where we get to the nitty-gritty, and where you’ll need to crack open that bank account. There are seemingly infinite possibilities for e-book formatting software out there. When looking to format my novel for e-book and paperback, I think I looked at them all. Here are my top two picks so that you can benefit from my hours of research.

Option 1: Scrivener

For the technologically inclined e-book formatter.

Scrivener is possibly the most-used formatting software out there. It’s affordable, at around $45, and does the job well. You can sign up for a 30-day free trial, to see if you love it before you pay for it, and Scrivener has a ton of extra frills to help you organize and write your e-book. For the price you get huge bang for your buck and once you buy the software it’s yours to hold and love and squeeze forever. This is a nice perk if you’re on a budget, because once you pay for it you never have to shell out for formatting again. You’ll be able to write like Agatha Christie without needing her bank account, too.

Although Scrivener has enough devotees to make Apple blush, there are some pretty big drawbacks to it as well. For one thing, there’s a massive learning curve you must master to use the software. If you’re not a technologically inclined person this software can be confusing and overwhelming to learn. There are tons of tutorials out there to help you use Scrivener, but you’ll essentially have to read a book to figure out how to format yours.

Another issue with Scrivener is that it’s not optimized for Windows. If you’re on a Mac everything works like a dream. If not, the software is pretty clunky and some of the bells and whistles don’t work at all.

Another drawback is that Scrivener currently has no cloud features. In this day and age it seems that everyone wants to have access to their everything wherever they are, from any device. Scrivener requires tedious work-arounds like using DropBox if you want to use it on the road.

Overall I recommend Scrivener for authors who are comfortable with the techy side of life and don’t need access to their work at a moment’s notice.

Option 2: Pressbooks

For those of us who would still have trouble programming the VCR (if we used them anymore).

This is the option I ultimately chose to format both my e-book and paperback. The major deciding factor was its user-friendliness. If you can use WordPress you can use Pressbooks. The reason for this is because Pressbooks is a WordPress-based tool. It may not have all the fancy bells and whistles of Scrivener, but it’s so easy to figure out that it only took me about 45 minutes before I was using it well.

Affordability was also a major player in my decision to go with Pressbooks. Much like with Scrivener, you can use Pressbooks for free, but unlike Scrivener there is no time limit. In fact you can format and publish your book completely for free if you’re willing to live with the Pressbooks watermark.

If you don’t want the amateur stain of a watermark then you can upgrade your account. To get watermark-free .mobi and .epub files, you’ll need to shell out a measly $20. If you’re looking for .pdf files of your manuscript (needed for print) the price is a bit steeper at $99, but it includes the MOBI and EPUB option and in most cases is still cheaper than paying someone to format your book for you. Also, you get unlimited output of your book files, so if you need to make 500 revisions to your book, it’s no biggie. A side note on the price, too: Pressbooks often runs sales that offer deep discounts, so it’s possible to get an upgraded account for cheaper.

Another added benefit is that since Pressbooks is cloud-based you can sit down at any computer or device with Internet and a web browser and get to work.

No one’s perfect, though. Just like with Scrivener there are some drawbacks to using Pressbooks. The first is that you pay per manuscript. This means if you plan on rivalling Agatha Christie’s output you’ll have to pay for each new book. In the long term, Pressbooks ends up being much more expensive than Scrivener.

Another drawback is that support is limited. Scrivener has droves of pros offering their advice on how to use the software. Pressbooks isn’t well known enough for that yet. The only help, beyond the How To Guide, is their tutorial videos on YouTube, or searching the support forum. If you can’t find your answer on the forum, you can post and wait for someone to get back to you.

Finally, Pressbooks does offer a few bells and a whistle or two to help with the actual writing of your manuscript, but they can’t really compete with Scrivener on this front.

I recommend Pressbooks for authors who have limited tech skills and who want to be able to access their work from anywhere at any time.

So which should you pick? In my opinion, both Scrivener and Pressbooks are great options for formatting your e-book yourself. Choosing either one you can’t go wrong and you’ll be much better off than sending your baby to the meat-grinder, or paying through the nose to have someone else format your book for you.

You could flip a coin, but I suggest picking one that is the most comfortable for you technologically and financially. The great thing about both is that you can try them on and wear them around the house for free before committing to one or the other.

Do you have any formatting stories—advice or otherwise—to share with other Mashers?


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M.F. Wahl is a self-published author and a proud member of the Horror Writer’s Association. She has recently released her first novel DISEASE. M.F. Wahl loves the macabre and both her horror and sci-fi writing delve deeply into darkness. She can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and on her website.

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