Bad Formatting = Bad Book Reviews

Expert: Claudia Jackson

Mrs. Duffee Seated on a Striped Sofa, Reading Her Kindle, After Mary CassattAhh, yes — there is nothing quite like sitting down and reading a good book. Part of the experience is not just the story, but in the presentation itself. In days past, we enjoyed holding the book and the feel of the paper as we “fell” into the story without distraction. Now, we sit back with our eReaders and focus on the story. But wait?!? Has the book’s formatting made our “eyes cross,” left us in confusion, distracted us from the story at a critical moment?

Unfortunately, a bad side effect of the eBook’s quickly changing technology is that the reader’s experience is also changing – sometimes not for the good. More importantly, failure to deliver a quality eBook format is now adversely affecting the author’s reviews! The experience disrupted by the fact that we now sometimes are befuddled by where paragraphs end and begin, sometimes having to look over the fact that there is a page number or book title in the middle of a sentence can, and will, change how we feel about the book. The reader has lost patience with reading the book and now finds fault with the story and gives it a bad review. When in reality the reader was unhappy because where there was supposed to be an “escape into the story.” The sloppily formatted eBook has removed that from the reading experience.

How do we prevent this potential disaster? The answer: Your book needs to be properly formatted with an amazing level of dedication to proper formatting in the most generic presentation possible and be available in as many media types to have it viewed by the broadest audience.

One of the first steps in self-publishing is getting your manuscript ready for upload to the publishing channels that you have selected — hopefully all of them!!! To get the maximum exposure for your book, you need it to be available in perfect form (or as close as you can get to it) in all of the eBook platforms including the Kindle, the Nook, the Sony eBook reader and the iPad. Sounds easy? After all, it’s just text and the upload must be simple. Sorry, there are no standards, there are no common word processing file types, eBooks are page-less and paper books are page-defined. To make matters worse there is no one standard for eBooks and it may not get easier anytime soon as various hardware companies all want their own version of an eReader. For example some of the various formats are:

▪   ePub
▪   Sony Reader (LRF)*
▪   Barnes & Noble Nook
▪   Apple iPad*
▪   Kindle (.mobi)
▪   Palm Doc (PDB)
▪   PDF (Adobe)
▪   Rich Text Format (RFT)
▪   Plain Text (TXT)

Below is an example of what an eBook looks like when it is not formatted correctly. Many publishers, even those that advertise that they are specialists in the self-publishing world, just upload the PDF file that they used to have the book printed. The problem is not just limited to little-known authors. Many of the eBooks released today that were written by author super stars suffer these same indignities. Note some of the problems highlighted below:

▪   No paragraph breaks or indents
▪   Page number ends up in the middle of the page
▪   The “center” feature is lost.
▪   “Italics” is lost (red highlight).

This is not how the author intended to present his book, but this is the impression of the reader. In general, unless the user is reading with a PDF reader, PDF files do NOT make good eBook files.

Same Page – Formatted Correctly (See Below)
This book has been reformatted according to the recommendations of one of the eBook distributors. Notice the difference. The page is clean and the reader can focus on the story and not be distracted by the formatting.

Bad formatting, especially in an eBook where page endings and special formatting does not exist (again as I write this, the rules are changing faster than I can type this article — the EPUB format, for example) dramatically affects the experience for the reader. Again, unfortunately, this can reflect badly upon the author. We see reviews that even comment on this – not to the author’s credit. The reader becomes so distracted by the formatting that the story is forgotten, no matter how well written.

How close did you look at the “good example?” Yep, there is an error — they are easy to miss.

So, when you are about to format your eBook, please read the style guides of the eBook distributor, stay within the rules and boundaries, and most importantly, KISS (keep it simple sweetie)! Your eBook will love you for your extra effort and attention to detail. More importantly, your readers will love you for it!

A very special thanks goes to John Locke (Twitter: @DonovanCreed), author of “Lethal People,” “Lethal Experiment,” “Saving Rachel,” “Now & Then,” “Wish List,” and “Follow the Stone” for allowing me to use the above samples.

Photo Credit: Mike Licht, NoltionsCapital.com


With over 20 years of experience as a corporate computer trainer and consultant, Claudia now works with a Digital Private Press – Telemachus Press who have launched NovelHelp University this year as an inexpensive solution. This site offers all of what the do-it-yourselfer needs to know, including hands-on training and step-by-step guides. Follow Claudia – Twitter | Blog

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  1. cliff.tyllick@yahoo.com'Cliff Tyllick

    One problem with both the reformatted eBook and this blog is the use of full justification. To force the right edge of the text to line up, the html must vary the spacing between words. For me, it’s an annoyance — it makes it a little harder for me to read. But for many people with reading difficulties of various kinds, it’s a deal breaker — they have to work so hard to recognize words that they essentially can’t read what you’ve written.

    I must be getting less patient with inconsiderate formatting as I age, because I simply couldn’t bring myself to read all you have to say.

    Unfortunately, full justification seems to be the default in WordPress. At any rate, most WordPress-based sites have this flaw. But it should take just one change of a setting in your site’s theme to make reading easier on all who happen upon your site. If you do, more people will be able to read and enjoy all you’ve taken the time to write.

  2. FreyaFreya

    @Jo Ann – Thanks :) Made the change. Just goes to show how much can slip through and why editing and proof-reading are important. :D

  3. JASamuelsn@gnail.com'Jason Samuelson

    The errors shown above are slovenliness. Many p-books contain far more serious bad design choices. Especially books designed in Europe.

    Though it’s been documented for hundreds of years that serifed text faces are more functional and easier to read, some publishers idiotically set books in sans serif faces. And to make it worse some of them use very spindly and eccentric sans serif faces. Although you see this more in magazines than books, another major idiocy is to reverse out type or surprint it over a busy or dark background.

    The basics of design that works have been known for centuries. It astounds me that publishers can be so stupid or arrogant as to stab themselves in the back with defective design.

  4. bloggurl@gmx.com'catherine

    I’m reading my first eBook on our iPad Kindle. I was wondering why bullets keep showing up at the left of text throughout the story. I will be more open now that I know about the bad formatting and that authors may be finding out about it too late themselves – the hard way.

    I think people publishing their own eBook should also be super careful about proof-reading their manuscripts, hopefully by someone else too.
    You might expect a few mistakes in a book but the typos and redundant words I’m finding in the eBook I’m reading are numerous. Sloppy editing is something that can be prevented.

  5. steve@tianobookdesign.com'Stephen Tiano

    Until typographic tools for creating ebooks improve radically, the first design “rule” should be to run text ragged right. Period. That will improve the typography immensely from the get-go.

  6. claudia@novelhelp.com'Claudia

    Thank you all for your comments! I see many regarding type-faces. Unfortunately, the “publisher” of the ebook cannot control the type (i.e., serif vs. san serif). Many eReaders, including Kindle, iPad, and Nook, allow the user to change not only the size of the font, but the type as well.

    The user is getting more control of the appearance of the eBook that they purchased and can make changes to enhance their reading experience. Therefore, it can at times, be a challenge when creating the “code” for the eBook.

    Unfortunately today, many publishing houses just upload the PDF file that was used to print the book and use it for ePublishing (above example). That is where you see many of the errors. And, I too, am guilty of producing errors as there is a learning curve in trying to stay one step ahead of the quickly changing technology.

    As far as justification? It also cannot always be controlled. We upload our books to Kindle, formatted with a ragged right margin and after the book is compiled on the Kindle side of the house, the book is right-justified. The software compiler on the Kindle also throws in a .5 indent for every line. So we have found in many cases that we have to modify the html code before we upload the book.

    Stay tuned because NovelHelp (that’s me) will be giving away tutorials on the various ePublishing platforms!

  7. danielaudet@comcast.net'Daniel Audet

    Is there a simple “how to” book or online source for writers to format? Should I use a “pro”? How does everyone feel about Smashwords? Hopefuly someday soon this issue will be a “plug ‘n’ play” kind of obstacle….I can dream can’t I? (laughing….)

  8. claudia@novelhelp.com'Claudia

    Hi Daniel. Thanks for your comment. If you have the computer skill set, there is no reason why you cannot do it yourself.

    I am a BIG supporter of Smashwords. Have you seen their guide? The best thing you can do to format your book is to NOT format your book. It needs the bare minimum.

    My sister company, “Telemachus Press,” uses Smashwords for all their eBook distribution (excuse the “commercial” they are “pros.”)

    BUT….I also have a DIY blog site http://www.NovelHelp.com where there are lots of tips and tricks for the DIY’er. Believe me, if it has been done wrong…I’ve done it! What is used in Telemachus Press is shared on the NovelHelp website.

    If you go to the NovelHelp “download page” I have a Word for Windows sample document that is already formatted for Smashwords and you could copy your book into it.

    Ahhhh…yes one can dream. But if this technology was “plug and play,” and actually worked, think of all the folks that would be out of work! Somebody should write a book. (-;

  9. editor@writers-edge.info'Georganna Hancock

    The most frequent complaint of ebook readers is the lack of editing – you know – grammar, spelling, punctuation – not formatting. What does the reader know about that? They cannot intuit was is and is not possible with current ebook programs or what the author intended – or didn’t.

    But preparing the files for an ebook is exactly like editing. You need to know what you’re doing or else hire a pro. Both jobs are time-consuming perfectionistic, exacting, detailed, nit-picking perfectionistic work.

    I also review books and have on occasion refused to review a print book because it was obviously printed from an original .PDF file not proofread. I don’t review ebooks – too hard on the eyes! Maybe that will change when I buy a Kindle Fire.

  10. jennifer@thequeensempire.com'Jennifer

    As an author, I try to be careful with editing anything I write. It has to do with being proud of your work, the presentation, and your reader. Not claiming perfection by any means but do put the effort in.

    The formatting presents more of a challenge because that’s bringing technology into the mix, which can be a confusing, frustrating experience mainly because of the number of steps involved and the different rules for each one.

    You have to get out of pdf ebook thinking and into word document mindset. Strip double spacing between lines, paragraphs,indenting, and remove images, etc. So you really end up with a plain Jane of a piece, although with advancements and color ereaders some of that is changing as well.

    I have 3 books available only at Amazon and Barnes and Noble so far. I’m sure I have more to learn…hang in there with us readers. It can be challenging in the beginning when you need to do everything yourself but believe me, would love to and look forward to paying someone else to do all things technical :)

    Claudia, I think I’ll take you up on the Smashwords document. There guide is quite daunting, which is one reason I haven’t pursued that one yet. LOL Thanks everyone…great feedback!

    Jennifer