E-Book Formatting is Upside Down

When I started writing with an eye to publication, I took my scribbles and typed them in. (Actually, when I first started, I got my wife to type them in.) Standard manuscript format was very plain and rigid, a suitable match for a typewriter. There was no fancy formatting. The best you could hope for was underlining the text to indicate that it should be displayed in italics. Fonts were unheard of, unless you were rich enough to get a Selectric and a collection of different fonts on the type balls.

However, once the editor and publisher got their hands on the process, the layout became very rich, with various fonts, drop-caps, in-line graphics, and mixed-size headings. The publishing industry has spent hundreds of years learning many tricks of the trade to help readers get the most out of the printed word, and the poor writer wasn’t supposed to worry his little head about things like that. Layout was the publisher’s job.
Then word-processors were invented. I even wrote one. At the beginning, they had little more capability than the typewriter they were replacing. The big advantage was the ability to delete without using white-out. However, that changed. In the software arms race, all the big players struggled to add features to word processors, with Microsoft Word winning the de facto standard. Today, whether with Word or any of its competitors, a writer has nearly as many options at hand as professional layout tools did a few decades ago.
A writer can bring to bear various fonts, a range of italic and bold flavors, dozens of underlining and framing options, and even drop-caps. And that’s just for the manuscript. The thing is, because new writers have all this power, they assume that they can use it. The standard manuscript format, instead of being a shining template of order, is viewed as a straight-jacket that chafes. Many people writing their fantasy opus or convoluted mystery use changing fonts like setting a scene. I’ve heard writers muse about writing a story where every character had their own distinctive font so that they could get away from all the he-said, she-said stage direction.
I sympathize. My novels have plain text, internal thoughts, telepathic thoughts, computer displayed text, and even road-side signs; all deserving of different layout options. In my manuscript, I use italics, courier and other fonts, and blockquote indentation to handle these options. When I layout a novel for publication, I can bring lots of options to the process with InDesign.
Then, when I convert to e-book formats, it all goes away. If I’m lucky, I get to keep italics, but the fonts and fonts size are now user options. Formatting is streamlined down to nothing. Today, manuscripts can often be formatted much richer than the e-book file standards allow. I pity the author who spends days choosing the right gothic fonts for their warlock king to speak in. It all goes away.
E-book formatting is upside down. My advice to any author who isn’t a self-publisher is to learn the streamlined and lean manuscript standard format and live by it. It will save endless heartache and frustration.


  1. Plus, most people now just barely enough about fonts to be dangerous. They assume they can throw in all sorts of different fonts just because they can, but they never stop to think whether they should…because when you just throw neat-looking fonts together without considering how they work together to create a cohesive whole, it just turns into a muddled mess.

    And God help you if you touch Comic Sans. 🙂

  2. Oh! And here I was considering adding a touch of Comic Sans to Pixie Dust, as chapter headers. I decided against it, but the thought did cross my mind.

  3. BLOCKQUOTE is not for “indentation.”

    Your manuscript should be marked up semantically. Then subheds (H2 through H6) can in fact be given specific type characteristics, just as in print.

    There’s only one kind of italic, unless you’re referring to obliques (as in Univers) and fake italics. “Bold flavo[u]rs” are called weights and are supported, if poorly, in CSS.

    “Computer-displayed text” gets marked up as SAMP. We don’t have semantics for telepathy – not even implied semantics from printed books.

    While you are striving to sound like an exasperated authority here, I just think you’re doing it wrong.

  4. Joe, I don't have any doubt I'm doing it wrong. Part of the problem is that I'm overwhelmed trying to support multiple formats when I should be spending my time writing. I hope no one thinks I'm an authority here. I'm working with what conversion tools I can find and then correcting the markup when I get erratic results from the various reader software. I quit when I finally get a result that's not too garbled. I'm never happy with it.

  5. I've been looking into the ePub format (mainly because it translates from DocBook which is what I write stories in) and I noticed it does handle HTML stuff, including embedded fonts, type styles, and some CSS (but I don't know how well it is actually used).

  6. D. Moonfire, I think that's the issue. Right now, we have many ePub readers that don't follow all of the spec. For people like me, I can test my novel in a couple of places, but I certainly can't afford all of them, or the testing time to check them well. Until a really great reader takes over the market, designing for simplicity is safest.

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