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Kindle Formatting Tips: Part 1

kindle-screenshot.jpgUnfortunately for the publishing industry, there are many options today that make self-publishing a viable alternative to securing a traditional publishing contract. That doesn't mean it's easy or inexpensive: Expect to shell out time and money to find the right combination of solutions to fit your plan. Also know that you won't have the marketing power, reputation, and connections a "real" publisher has--and that, as more people accept self-publishing as a normal mode of publishing, you'll have to be smarter about competing in a sea of similar content.

One of the simplest favors you can do for your book is make a Kindle edition. Once created, a Kindle version becomes (almost) instantly available within the Amazon store and provides a usually less expensive option for potential buyers (versus CreateSpace or Lulu hard products).

Don't be intimidated if the Kindle seems too space-age or if you don't own one. As long as you understand how it works, you (or your designer/techie) can create a Kindle edition.

First things first: Don't assume (like I did the first time I did it) that PDFs will easily convert to Kindle. They don't at all and pretty much just create a mess. If your book is straight text with no page numbering, headers, or page breaks, a PDF may actually work--but this is one arena where the virtually universal PDF fails.

The best format to upload for a Kindle is an HTML file. If your manuscript is in Word, you can export as an HTML file and make changes from there. From a PDF, select all, copy, and paste into an HTML file. Then apply formatting in either case.

If you're new to Kindle, you'll quickly find that it's not super-easy to find information about how to format the HTML file or what is allowed (or not allowed). Here are a few tips:

  • Work within the allowed HTML tags. Although Kindle does allow some inline and referenced CSS (which we can get into later), I say skip it altogether for best results when you're starting. Don't use specific fonts, sizes, and especially colors (black-and-white only here, y'all). Instead, you should rely on basic HTML tags, like <h1> through <h5>, <em> for italics, <strong> for bold, <u> for underline, and <hr> for horizontal rules.
  • Learn the special Kindle tags. The four basic Kindle tags will define where the table of contents, cover, start of content, and page breaks reside:
         - Cover: <div id="cover" align="center">
         - Start of content (optional: This can be used to skip over title pages, etc.): <a name="start" />
         - Table of contents: <div id="toc">
         - Page break: <mbp:pagebreak />
  • Rely on anchor links for easy navigation. Kindle users should be able to easily move around their book. The device allows them to go to the beginning of the book at any time, but what if you have a million chapters or footnotes? Use anchor links to link the titles in the table of contents to respective content, and use more to link reference numbers to their respective footnotes. (For more info, go the anchor links info page at W3C.)
  • Create a plan before making your Kindle file. Especially when your manuscript has already been transferred into a market format, you'll need to review your content and spend a little time to figure out what your HTML formatting should be. By doing this in advance, applying styles to your HTML document will be fast and easy to understand. For instance, you may decide:
         - All chapter titles will be <h1> with right alignment and a page break
         - All section titles will be <h2> with center alignment
         - All subsections will be <h3> with center alignment
         - All sidebars will be <b> and <i>
  • Use page breaks wisely. You need to insert page breaks where they make sense. Page breaks within a hard book or PDF ebook will not be the same as Kindle.
  • Preview your work in a browser. By reviewing your HTML document in a browser, you will be seeing a fair representation of the structure Kindle users will see. It is not an apples-to-apples preview, but proofreading and noticing weird formatting is easier to see.
  • Preview your work in the Kindle utility. Amazon's Digital Text Platform website is where Kindles are born. You can easily create an account and mock up a test title, then upload your content to see what it will look like to actual Kindle users. This is especially important when figuring out where page breaks should be.  
This is enough to start with. Next time we talk Kindle, I'll include information about using CSS, incorporating images, and packaging your items for upload if you have more than just an HTML file.