How to Format a Fiction Novel for Self-Publishing: 7 Rules

self-publishing Dec 23, 2020

So you’ve done the hard work of planning, writing, and editing your novel, and you’re at the exciting point where you’re wondering how to format a manuscript for self-publishing. Firstly, congratulations! There are many writers who never make it to this stage. When you follow prolific writers, it’s easy to feel behind, so don’t forget to stop and smell the roses! 

Formatting a novel for self-publishing can be one of the most daunting parts of the process, largely because most authors do it themselves. While the exact steps you need to take will differ depending on which software you use, there are 7 rules every author needs to follow. Let’s explore those rules, and then we’ll cover some of the best pieces of software to use. 

How to Format a Novel for Self-Publishing: 7 Rules 

  • Format the Indents Don’t Hit Tab! 

This rule is going to make you want to cry if you’ve done exactly that, but using tab instead of the inbuilt indent can make your formatting look all wrong once it gets to a kindle file, so make sure you use the one that’s part of your word processor. 

  • Use the “Automatic” Color 

This is one even experienced authors get wrong. You need to make sure the black text in your file is set to “automatic” not to black. Why? Because if you color your text and a reader sets their kindle to dark mode and is reading on a dark background, your text will essentially disappear. That doesn’t make for a good reader experience and may even lead to unnecessary negative reviews, so make sure your text color is “automatic”. 

  • Use Page Breaks Carefully 

Insert page breaks to make it clear where your pages end and begin, and avoid leaving extra blank pages in your ebook format. While an extra blank page here and there to get your new chapter in the right place in your paperback may make sense, it will be unnecessary and just increase the file size of your ebook, so leave them out. 

Also make sure your chapters don’t simply run into one another – have a clear page break. 

  • Include a Table of Contents 

A table of contents may seem unnecessary for a fiction book, but make sure you have one. It’s the best way to create a good reading experience. If you format your chapter titles as your “Heading Style 2” it will appear in your contents in most formatting software. 

Microsoft Word lets you link styles with Table of Contents (TOC) listings. Usually, you’ll be able to find the TOC commands under the “References” tab. 

  • Download the File and Go Through it On Your Devices 

Once you’ve formatted your ebook file(s), download it to your phone, kindle, or tablet (or all) and go through it there. Not only is this a good way to catch any possible errors your eyes didn’t catch, but it will allow you to see your book as your readers will see it. Try playing with the settings within your ereader apps and see how your file looks in different modes. 

Similarly, if you’re formatting for paperback, look through the preview and then order a sample copy. 

  • Don’t Include Page Numbers in Ebooks, But Do for Physical Copies

Ebooks don’t need page numbers, so don’t include them in your formatting. You also won’t need headers or footers because while we expect to see them in a physical book, they’re not included in ebooks. However, for your physical book files, you will need to include page numbers, and you may also want to include the headers that many books on your shelf include. 

  • Take Advantage of Your Backmatter 

Your book’s backmatter is your opportunity to talk to the readers who have just finished and – hopefully! – loved your book. Make sure you put the thing you want them to do most first. Things you may want to include are: 

  • Preorder your next book 
  • Leave a review 
  • Join your mailing list 
How to Format a Manuscript for Self-Publishing: Software 

There are many options for formatting your book. Here are some of the best: 

  • Vellum: this is by far the most popular software, but it comes at a cost. It’s $249 to buy and it’s only on Mac. You can use it on a PC via Mac-in-the-Cloud, but it’s not going to be worth the price if you don’t plan to publish frequently. 
  • Word: Microsoft Word isn’t the easiest to use for formatting, but it’s one most of us have access to. 
  • Google Docs: Google docs is a great option for drafting your manuscript because it’s all saved in the cloud, and you can also export to ePub file or .docx to convert elsewhere. 
  • Adobe InDesign: this is the best software for doing complex formatting, especially for physical books. However, it’s also not the easiest to get to grips with. 
  • Scrivener: if you draft in Scrivener, then using it to export your files is likely a no-brainer. 
  • Hire a formatter: if you don’t have the time, skill, or desire to do it yourself, you can find formatters inexpensively online. Just make sure that you’ve followed the rules above before you hand them the file for perfection. 

Great formatting can be the difference between a book being a huge success and getting negative reviews for being difficult to read. Remember that your book needs to look the same as traditionally published books, so take your time here. Make sure follow these 7 rules and you’ll soon have beautiful files that are ready to publish!

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