Formatting Checklist for Self-Publishing Your Book

I’m in the middle of formatting two books for self-publishing – one for a client and one for myself. I thought I would share my formatting checklist while it’s fresh in mind. It’s the details that can make the difference between a “published” book and a professional-looking book.

I have a long history of self-publishing experience, and I am particular about how things are done. It’s possible to take shortcuts, but I don’t recommend it. Creating a book is a lot of work. Don’t drop the ball when it comes to the final stages of formatting your book. You deserve the best!

The following checklist is my minimum to create the quality book I desire. Fortunately, Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing has made this much easier and more affordable than when I first started out 15 years ago.

1. Title Page

Be sure your book begins with a Title Page, which contains simply your title, sub-title (if any), and author name, all centered in the page and spaced appropriately. Just list your name. Do not use “By” (on your Title Page or on your book cover), as that will be the first sign of an amateur publication. Your Title Page should be a right-facing page, i.e., on the right side if the book were open.

2. Copyright Page 

The Copyright Page is the very next page, which would be a left-facing page on the reverse side of your Title Page. Space all the way to the bottom of the page and include your copyright text. Center your text. I keep mine very simple:

Copyright © 2018 Janet Lynn Eriksson

All rights reserved.

[Scripture copyright info, if relevant]

ISBN: xxxxxxxxxx

ISBN-13: xxx-xxxxxxxxxx

Unless you want to be your own publisher and purchase your own series of ISBNs, Kindle Direct Publishing (and probably most self-publishing services) will give you a free ISBN. For Kindle e-books, an ISBN isn’t even required.

Where you see (above) “scripture copyright info,” please be aware that if you quote from the Bible, you need to list the copyright info for the particular translation(s) you have used. Visit the website of your Bible translation(s) and you will find a copyright “blurb” that you can insert into your book. You will also find on their website what your limitations are. In other words, your Bible quotes cannot exceed a certain percentage of the total word count of your book.

Note that on Word, you can make the copyright symbol simply by writing (c) and then hitting “Enter.”

3. Dedication 

The Dedication is a page that comes after the Copyright Page, and it should be a right-facing page. Write a short dedication in the center of the page – ideally just a few words and no more than a few lines. The Dedication is optional – only if you want to include it.

4. Acknowledgments 

Your Acknowledgments (be sure you spell it right, I always have to triple check!) comes next and is also a right-facing page. This page is optional. Many people enjoy the opportunity to thank those who have helped and inspired them in preparing their book. If you don’t want to include this page, that is okay too.

If you plan to write mostly Kindle books (with less emphasis on print books), you might want to skip this page. Kindle readers often prefer to dive straight into the meat of the book. Kindle gives your readers a free preview of a certain number of pages. Reading this preview is often the key that helps readers decide to purchase your Kindle book. They start reading, get caught up in your story, and they want to keep going. When you include a lot of acknowledgments and other preliminary info, this takes up many of the free preview pages. Your readers will get less exposure to the meat of your book, and they might even give up and stop reading the preview.

One way to include an Acknowledgments page without limiting your Kindle readers’ preview is to put the Acknowledgments (and Dedication page as well) at the back of the Kindle version of your book. However, I recommend that you keep it at the front of the paperback version of your book.

That being said, it’s your book! You’ve worked hard to write it, and you deserve to include whatever sections you would like. Set it up in a way that pleases you.

5. Table of Contents

The Table of Contents comes next, and again this is a right-facing page. At the beginning of your book, you will have several of these right-facing pages. This means you will need to leave a blank left-facing page in between each right-facing page. If in doubt, stop by your local bookstore and look at how this is done in different books. Be sure you are looking at books from reputable publishers, as they will have produced a book with correct formatting.

Your Table of Contents should make it easy for readers to navigate the chapters of your book. You might include main chapters as well as larger divisions like “Part I” and “Part II.” But don’t get too cumbersome. If you have a lot of sub-titles within your chapters, it’s not necessarily helpful to include this in the Table of Contents. Think about your reader and keep it simple.

I edited and formatted a book for one client whose book contained several hundred one-minute reflections, each on a different page. While I would love to have included a Table of Contents, it would have been 20+ pages long. That’s too much. So his readers have to search a bit to find a particular reflection.

If you are creating a Kindle e-book, it would be helpful to use an actively linking Table of Contents format (such as the one that comes with Word) so that your readers can click on the link and be taken directly to that page. Kindle is very hard to navigate if the Table of Contents does not include active links.

6. Introductory Insertions

After the Acknowledgments, you can jump straight into your first chapter if you want. Or you can include a brief introduction or some type of lead-in note. For example, in one of my books I included a separate page that contained the scripture verse (written out in the center of the page) that was the theme of the book. These types of introductory material are all optional. If you choose to include them, be sure they are right-facing pages.

Please be aware that most readers skip introductions. If you can do without an Introduction (and make your back cover copy and Amazon book description do the heavy lifting), then go ahead and dive right into the content of your book. If you still feel that your book needs an Introduction, I strongly encourage you not to label it as “Introduction,” especially if it’s important material that your reader needs to be aware of before beginning to read the book. When the word “Introduction” appears, readers skip!

If you need to include introductory material, just include the content – with no label. You can write an entire introductory section before Chapter 1, with no label, and readers will probably read it, thinking it is a prologue of sorts (but don’t call it Prologue, or they will skip it). Just let the material sit there on its own, and your readers will probably read it, thinking the book has already started. Or you can simply repackage your introductory material and call it Chapter 1.

7. Chapter Titles and Sub-Titles

You will want to format your Chapter Titles and Chapter Sub-Titles using a larger style “heading.” Depending on the formatting software you use, you might have options available to select for this.

If you are using Word, you can use a style heading and sub-heading. This will also help you create active links in your Table of Contents (Word formatting helps you choose what types of headings or sub-headings you want to include in your Table of Contents). I have found it helpful to use a different type of formatting for pages (such as the Acknowledgments and About the Author pages) that I don’t want to appear in my Table of Contents. I only want my chapter titles to appear in the Table of Contents, so those are the only ones where I will use actual style headings.

You can also insert “separators” – such as three asterisks or three diamonds or some other symbol that you select – to break up long content within a chapter. Or use more sub-titles or sub-headings (but be aware that your Table of Contents will probably pick these up automatically unless you set them up manually).

If you want, you can also style your first paragraphs of each chapter (and first letter of each opening paragraph) differently. Look at different samples of published books to see how this is done.

I prefer that each chapter begins on a right-facing page. Chapter One (or introductory page, if you go that route) should begin with page number 1, which means all right-facing Chapter Titles should be on odd-numbered pages. Some publishers do not follow this standard (I know paper is expensive), but it makes for a cleaner and more professional-looking appearance. If you have larger divisions in your book, such as “Part I” and “Part II,” they would also get their own right-facing page.

It is your choice whether you want to write “Chapter One” before the title of the chapter. You can skip that and just write the title itself, or you can write the numeral 1 followed by the title. If your chapters don’t have titles, just write 1, 2, 3, or One, Two, Three. Novels (fiction) usually have just numbers. For non-fiction books, chapter titles help readers know what to expect from each chapter.

8. Fonts, Line Spacing, and Indentations

Your font selection for your chapter content should be easy to read. Think about your reader. What will be the easiest font to keep your reader turning the pages? Some writers prefer serif fonts (like Times New Roman) and others prefer fonts without serifs (like Arial). Likewise, readers have their own preferences. Resist the temptation to use a font (such as a slim cursive font) that looks beautiful to you, but that your readers will find almost illegible or difficult to read.

Personally I use Garamond size 13 font, and I use a multiple 1.1 spacing between lines. I decided on this after many years of experimenting. Ultimately I chose what is easiest on my (52-year-old) eyes. It is not large print, but it is bigger than regular print. I can actually read it while wearing my (otherwise dysfunctional) trifocals.

You don’t want too much spacing between lines, but you want enough that it looks professionally published. I studied a lot of different published book formats before deciding on the line spacing I use now.

Ultimately you have to choose what makes you happy and what you think your readers can navigate easily. Study professionally published books from reputable publishing houses. Try out different options. Share samples with people and ask for their feedback on ease of reading.

Keep in mind that the larger your font size, the more pages your printed book will have. This is not an issue for Kindle, but if you want to offer a paperback version of your book, more pages means the cost of the book will be higher for your readers. Find a happy medium.

Also, your book will look much more professional and be easier to read if you use full justification. The world will not end if you leave your paragraphs on left justification (I did that for one book – not intentionally, I simply forgot, and it was fine). But it just looks a lot better if you use full justification.

While some writers may prefer the block format of paragraphs (such as the format I’m using on this blog article), your book will look more professionally produced if you indent your paragraphs. (It is a stylistic choice, and you can choose what works best for you.) If you do indent, be sure to use an indentation spacing that is appropriate for published books. This is not the typical five-space default tab indent that you find on most Word documents. It is more like a two-space indent, and it looks more professional.

9. Headers and Page Numbers

Before you format your book, I recommend that you study samples of professionally published books to see how they use their Headers. Many of them will show the author’s name on the left Header and the book title on the right header. Others use different variations. Some are in all upper case, while others are not. The font, ideally, should match your page content, and you might need to change the default if you are using Word.

Page Numbers either appear in the upper corners or at the bottom center of the page. If you are new to self-publishing, I recommend looking at what is standard in your genre before choosing your Header and Page Number format. Who are the top traditional publishing houses in your genre? Check their books and see how they set up their Headers and Page Numbers.

Ideally, these Headers and Page Numbers should appear only on content pages, not on blank pages or preliminary pages (like the Dedication Page, etc.). This requires the use of section breaks. To be honest, this is one place where I compromise my standards. Word section breaks are not as friendly as I would like them to be. I rarely have the patience to deal with them. While my Headers and Page Numbers do not appear until my first chapter, they do appear on blank pages between chapters, and I would prefer that they didn’t. (I think I managed to achieve that with only a few books, and it was a frustrating process.) It’s something I have learned to live with.

10. Trim Size and Gutters

You need to format your book based on your chosen Trim Size (the size of your printed book page). I typically use 6 x 9 for non-fiction books, although with some clients I have used 5 1/2 x 8 1/2. Your format also needs to account for the Gutters. The Gutters are the larger space that you need on the inside margin of a page where it will be caught up in the book’s binding. Keep in mind when you open a book, there is a part of the page in the center, near the binding, that you can’t see or read. An extra-long margin is needed for that Gutter, and the Gutter alternates from left to right as you move through the book.

I self-publish with Kindle Direct Publishing, and they provide a free downloadable template for formatting the book according to Trim Size and including Gutter margins. (They even have one template that includes all of the preliminary pages discussed above.) I highly recommend using some type of pre-formatted template whenever possible. In the old days, the early days of self-publishing, I had to do all of this manually, and it was a lot of extra work. Templates and formatting software help tremendously.

11. About the Author

Your book should end with your About the Author page. It should also be a right-facing page. The content should be formatted just as you have done throughout the chapters of your book, with paragraph indents as needed and full justification. Some templates try to center this content, but I disagree with that format. As always, check samples of professionally published books to find the style you prefer.

Include a short bio of what you want your readers to know about you as the author of this book. If you write multiple books, your author bio can change to reflect different genres. It should be relevant to the readers of that book. You can write your author bio in first or third person.

Include your website, if you have one, or some way for your readers to contact you, if you would like to hear from them. You might want to set up a separate email account for this to minimize spam on your regular email account.

You can include your photo. If your photo is on the back cover of your book, you don’t need to include it again on  your author page, unless you just want to. I know many writers who are reluctant to include their photos. Let me encourage you to please share your photo with your readers. They want to see who you are. It helps them to identify with you.

As you write more books over the years, your bio will no doubt change. It is not necessary to go back and update your originally published bios. People grow and change, and readers are aware of that. However, if you want readers of all your books to have your latest contact information, you might consider going back and updating your old published bios. It may or may not be worth the effort, and only you can decide. If you have an active author website with an email newsletter subscription, along with actively updated author pages on places like Amazon and Goodreads, your readers should be able to find you and keep up with your latest publications.

12. Index

Not every book needs an index, but it’s important to be aware of this option and make the right decision. I have edited and formatted books for various business professionals where an index was important for their readers. Word makes this very easy. The index function allows you to select your words for your index, and then Word will automatically scan your book and compile an index.

Learn from Studying the Professional Publishers

The above is my checklist on book formatting. There is a lot of detail involved, but once you go through this process a few times, it will seem second-nature. Admittedly, formatting is my least favorite part of the book preparation process. But it’s necessary, and it is worth the effort when you see your book in print. As you go along, you will find ways to make the process easier for yourself.

My biggest recommendation, as I have mentioned throughout this article, is that you study books that have been published by the best publishing houses. Figure out what makes their appearance work so well. Mimic what you see.

While I am a big fan of self-publishing, I was trained in traditional publishing. I believe all of us who are self-published can learn a lot from those publishing houses that have been producing high-quality books for such a long time. I don’t have their budget, and I know my books will not look like theirs. But I want to do the best I can with what I have. So I still set my standards to theirs and do my best to meet those standards in whatever ways my budget and time will allow.

My Experience with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing

As I have mentioned, Kindle Direct Publishing has made the self-publishing process so much easier. When you hear the word “Kindle,” you might think I’m talking only of e-books. But Kindle Direct Publishing enables you to publish paperback books as well as Kindle e-books.

When I tell people I publish with Kindle Direct Publishing, the first thing they ask is, “How much does it cost?” Actually, it doesn’t have to cost anything except the percentage they take out of your book sales price. I literally have put no money into this process, and I receive royalty payments like any other published author when my books sell.

I use Microsoft Word (rather than an expensive design program) to handle all my interior book design needs, and I am able to accomplish every aspect of formatting my books simply by using Word. Over the years, I have learned how to properly format a book’s interior and how to produce those results using Word. But Word certainly meets all of my needs.

There are areas of self-publishing where you can invest if you have the budget. It’s nice, for example, to hire a professional artist to create a customized book cover. That was always one of my priorities when I had the funds. Maybe it will become a priority again some day. For now, I am content to use the free online “cover creator” provided by Kindle Direct Publishing.

You can also invest in hiring an editor and a proofreader (these should be two different people, and my article “Are You Ready for an Editor?” explains why). But when those kinds of services become a luxury, you can still write and publish your book. You can ask people you know to read over your manuscript and give you feedback on areas they found hard to understand, or places where they would have liked to see more details.

For my own latest book, self-published on Amazon, I wrote and self-edited the manuscript but had no budget for further professional input. Granted, I am an experienced writer and editor. But my point is this: the process of self-publishing doesn’t have to cost anything except your time. If you have a story or message to share, I would encourage you not to let anything stand in your way of sharing it.

Here’s to your forthcoming, self-published book!