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Save Time and Money by Designing with E-books in Mind

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Save Time and Money by Designing with E-books in Mind

by Jonathan Scott

I have a message for anyone involved in print book production, design, and layout: If you don’t already design your books for the dual life most of them will have, start doing that now.

I expect there will always be print-on-paper books, but I also expect that every new book will soon be published in both print and digital formats. And I know that—regardless of the claims of automatic conversion software vendors—there are no quick and painless ways to make a quality e-book with our traditional print design and word processing tools. Whether you have staff do the work, do it yourself, or hire a conversion service, the process takes time. And in business, time equals money

Fortunately there are some things designers of traditional books can do to make creating digital formats easier, faster, and cheaper. Using Word Styles tops the list.

Tagging Tactics

Having been involved in print design for decades, I was used to a world where what you saw was what you got. It didn’t matter what methods the typesetter and designer used to create a layout—the galley proofs showed how the book would look in print.

The digital world doesn’t work that way. Different e-book reading devices display books differently, and readers can customize the look of a book even more. That’s why those of us in book design have to look under the hood of a book layout, into what many designers fear: code.

The fact is, an e-book has more in common with a Web site than it does with a traditional book. That doesn’t mean every print book designer should know how to create a Web site, but it does mean that people who create a print book need to understand which methods of print layout work best for digital formats.

An e-book, like a Web site, relies on those things called “tags”—pieces of code that aren’t visible when you read text, but define how that text looks: its font, its size and color, how much spacing is around it, and so forth.

Styling is an efficient method of “tagging” either paragraphs or portions of paragraphs with information that defines them.

Take a chapter heading, for example:

<heading1>This Is My Chapter Title</heading1>

What this text looks like is defined in a Style Sheet, where the code might look something like this:


font-family: “Bauhaus”;

font-weight: normal;

font-size: 2em; (24pt);


When we are preparing a manuscript for printing, instead of defining every chapter heading as “Bauhaus” and “24 point,” we can simply tag all chapter titles with a Style name such as “Heading 1.”

Later on, when the manuscript needs to be converted into an e-book, we may find that one or more fonts we chose for the print version won’t work at all in an e-book reader, or that a font won’t work at the same point size. Since we used Styles, these incompatibilities are easy to fix. We simply change the definitions of elements such as “Heading 1,” this time using specs that will look best in an e-book reader. For example:


font-family: “Times”;

font-weight: bold;

font-size: 2.5em; (30pt)


Immediately, everything that was tagged as “Heading”—that is, all chapter titles—will appear the new way:

<heading1>This Is My Chapter Title</heading1>

Now, if all this seems foreign and complicated, don’t worry. Fortunately we don’t have to know how to write all this complicated code. Our familiar word processing and desktop publishing software has powerful and easy features built into them that can write code behind the scenes—if we choose to use Styles and use them properly.

Unfortunately, almost none of the book layouts and manuscripts my e-book conversion company receives have been created using Styles correctly, whether the material was prepared with basic word processing programs or the most up-to-date desktop publishing software.

First Styles Steps

The first thing you need to do when you’re using Styles is decide how many you need and what you want them to look like.

The number of Styles in a book can vary widely. A novel might have one Style for a chapter name, one for an unindented first paragraph, and one for body text. A nonfiction book might also have four or five different subheading Styles, as well as Styles for quotes, footnotes, references, bibliography, table of contents, and many others.

Styles can and should be used to define font, size, color, indents, line spacing, and paragraph spacing. This may mean breaking a lifetime of habits of indenting with tabs, double-spacing, and choosing a new look for a paragraph without creating a new style for it.

How many Styles you use is not important, and neither is what you name them. What matters is applying Styles consistently throughout a book.

Most current versions of Word for the PC display a line of default Styles that Microsoft has set up to make styling easy:


A typical view of Microsoft Word, showing default Styles.

Although it’s possible to create your own set of Styles to format a manuscript, it’s generally easiest to adopt or modify the Styles Word has built in.

If you right click on any of the Style squares that display in the menu, you will be able to choose Modify. Then you can rename the Style, by, for example, changing Normal to Body Text, and you can select font, size, spacing, and so on. (Remember, it will be easy to change these later when the manuscript is converted into an e-book).

Next, choose any of the other styles such as Heading 1, Subtitle, and Quote; go to Modify and define them as you like.

The options here let you modify Word’s built-in styles to create whatever layout design you want.

To format an entire paragraph, all you need to do is place your cursor somewhere in it and click on the appropriate Style square. To format only selected text, you’d use a Character Style. Both Word Help and Word manuals offer detailed instructions.

Remember: you’ll want to modify (or create) a Style for each type of format you use in the book.

More Powerful Programs

Desktop publishing programs such as InDesign can make formatting still easier and much more flexible, but many designers don’t take advantage of InDesign’s powerful Styles capabilities.

To benefit from them, use InDesign’s Window menu to open the Paragraph and Character Styles palettes. The program has no defaults; instead InDesign allows you to create your own Paragraph Styles and Character Styles. But these Styles work as they do in Word—a Paragraph Style defines an entire paragraph and Character Styles allow you to define a Style for a few words, a single word, or even a single character:

InDesign makes creating Styles very easy. And every update to the software is incorporating more features for e-book preparation.

Styles in Context

Because Word’s and InDesign’s Styles features make it so simple to redefine all design elements for correct and attractive display in both print and digital products, using Styles correctly is the first important step in creating an e-book. Converting Styled Word files to HTML and using InDesign’s Export to EPUB feature can be next steps, but they’re outside this article’s scope.

Please note that companies such as Lightning Source, Smashwords, and Amazon offer free conversion to e-book formats from common formats such as DOC or RTF. In some cases, this automatic conversion may provide acceptable results, but be sure to preview your e-book carefully [see “Proofing Books in the Digital Age,” this issue). Anyone involved in creating e-books will confirm that there are no easy ways to get good output.

Although approaching design in terms of Styles may seem daunting, the learning curve for Word and InDesign Styles is short, and once Styles are set up, they are easy to find and apply with no need to reformat. Whether you style a manuscript yourself, assign that task to a designer on staff, or hire an outside firm for design and/or conversion, using Styles makes production of e-book versions easier and cheaper with less chance of errors.

I don’t have to tell independent publishers how useful it is to reduce time and money costs in this era of overburdened staff and thin profit margins.

Jonathan Scott is the president and customer service director of Middleton Book Conversion, which specializes in e-book conversions and creations for small and self-publishers. To learn more: target=blank>middletonbookconversion.com and jscott@middletonbookconversion.com.


Tips on Designing for More Than One Format

Don’t use forced hyphens for formatting. They’re likely to wind up in an e-book in the middle of a line.

Don’t use forced line breaks. They’re also likely to wind up in the middle of a line.

Remember that specialty fonts such as Old English or script, which might help communicate in a print book, won’t work in most e-book readers.

Avoid laying type over a background image. Most current and all older e-book reading devices don’t support this option, although new

devices eventually will.

Do use your software’s Auto Page Numbering feature. If you manually place page numbers, they will flow into the e-book in the wrong places.

Don’t use tabs. The only exception is for tables, but keep in mind that only small tables with few columns work in an e-book.

Don’t use double-line spacing to create extra space between paragraphs or sections of type. They’ll vanish in an e-book. Instead, use a paragraph style

that specifies line spacing.

Above all, don’t think you have to sacrifice design in a print book just to make its e-book counterpart easier. By using Styles, you can have—and afford—

both a print edition and electronic editions that readers will enjoy and recommend to others.

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