I don’t consider myself an expert on formatting e-books, yet so far I’ve done a reasonable job on my own. I’ll let you in on the trick to my “success”.
There are a few things to remember when you’re formatting an e-book:
1. It is not a paperback or a hard-cover.
Well, that’s an eye-opener. Still it is important to understand. An e-book doesn’t have pages. In fact, the inside of an e-book is basically one long, flowing page and the way it’s shown to the reader depends entirely on the software that is running on your e-reader or tablet, and in many cases it can even be influenced by the settings inside the software if you can get to those.
Since there are no pages, there is no reason to add page numbers. If you force them into your book, they’ll show up in the oddest places for everyone due to the nature of the beast. I mean e-book.
For that same reason it’s useless to add your name and the title of the book to the page header, as is done so often in paper books. There are no pages, so there are no headers.
2. Keep it simple.
Simple A: a mistake that many people make is to go overboard on font adornments. They will italicise, make text bold, underline and even combine the lot to make an impact. That is a nice idea, but the end result usually is a messy jumble. If you feel you need a font embellishment option, choose one and stick to that. Note that underlining often is a bad idea, because e-ink e-readers can follow links, and underline often indicates a link. Do you want to frustrate the readers of your book to tap a link in vain, be my guest, but be warned that you may annoy them.
Simple B: fonts. Use one font. A basic one like Times New Roman or Arial will do nicely. Many e-readers and tablets don’t display anything except their own built-in font, so adding all kinds of fonts you love and like will hardly have an effect.
Simple C: spacing. Don’t overdo it, but also don’t underdo it. If you switch a scene in your book, make sure you use something of a separator line in your text, like an asterisk (or a set of three), or a few dashes. Some e-readers will skip blank lines and keep the text going, so that can give you very strange results. A reader needs some indication that the story continues in a different place/from a different viewpoint, so make sure there is something.
Simple D: no tabs, no spaces. Most e-book formats on the inside are HTML- or web-pages. Webpages don’t support tabs, and also most of the time (but not always) multiple spaces will be shown as just 1 space, and spaces usually are entirely omitted when they appear at the start of a sentence. If you want the first word of a new paragraph to be indented, set the horizontal space of your default style in your word processor to what you need.
If you can avoid using images, avoid using images. If you’re creating a picture book you should reconsider your medium.
Images can add to a story when used wisely. Not too big, not too small. However: when is an image the right size? Remember, e-reading can be done on a 3.7″ smartphone as well as a 12″ tablet. Images usually don’t scale to the reader, so be smart about this. If possible, avoid them.
And the remark about picture books and the right medium: if you have beautiful, coloured pictures in your work and someone looks at them on a black-and-white e-ink reader… not much of your vibrant colours will survive.
4. Be consistent
If you’re writing a series of books, be consistent in your formatting. Don’t change the font, styles or spacing with every new book just because you think it’s worth a try. Change one, then change them all. Give your reader the feeling they’re indeed reading a book from the same series.
5. Get the Smashwords Style Guide
Download the Smashwords Style Guide (link leads you to the download page in a new window.) Some people I know have complained that this book is hard to follow. Many thousands however haven’t. If you have a problem with it, then ask others what to make of it. This book has helped me tremendously, I follow it with every book I publish. I have created a template for my word processor based on this book and let me brag that it doesn’t fail. Get the book and use it. The price won’t kill you because it costs nothing except a click and the download time. It’s worth it.
And before you start shouting that you will only publish through Amazon: get the guide. I have once published a book through Amazon first and used that document for Smashwords. Smashwords rejected the file as it contained errors. Then I discovered that the e-book generated by Amazon had those errors as well and it looked awful. My rule of thumb is: if Smashwords’ Autovetter (their conversion system) says it’s good, it’s good.