Formatting Documents for e-Publishing

I have a collection of short stories I would like to publish online. I’ve been working on cleaning them up for the past six months or so, and I’m now at the point where I need to confront a variety of technical questions. I know that a lot of people have already wrestled with these issues before me, so I’m asking for links/comments that will shorten my learning curve and prevent me from having to reinvent the wheel.


  1. I write in Word, and that’s not going to change any time soon. My goal here is trying to develop a clean, clear work flow that makes the transition to any/all online publishing options as simple and painless as possible. (Including print-on-demand.) The first thing that (I think) I need to know is whether I should convert my original Word docs into another file format first (say, e-Pub, but that’s only an example), then change that internet-friendly file to meet the requirements of any particular publishing site/service, or whether I should only do so on a case-by case basis. What’s the right first step here?
  2. I need all the how-to links and advice I can get. I’m willing to read until my eyes bleed, but again, the goal is short-circuiting the learning curve. Who’s been down this road recently and written about it? Site-specific feedback is fine: I’d like to read about Smashwords author experiences, Amazon, etc.
  3. I know there are passionate views on both sides of the e-Pub file format issue. I’m not even sure what all the fuss is about, but I’m willing to learn. Who should I be reading? I like the idea of non-proprietary file formats. I know I’ll have to deal with Amazon’s proprietary format at some point, but I’m not eager to abet its dominance. Opinions? Links? Is this even worth wading into, or should I just stick with the practical issues related to getting my text ready?

Any and all feedback/links/comments appreciated.   

Update: Brad J. Murray’s comment (see below) jump started the learning process for me today, and to further the conversation I wanted to pass along some of the places I’ve been as a result of his advice.

  • A link to Calibre — a very interesting program with a user-friendly and painless demo that explains the utility of the app. Take a few minutes to check it out, even if you don’t use an e-reader or plan to get one in the near future. It will fill in a lot of blanks for you about where the whole digital publishing revolution is headed.
  • Dear Author posts about using Calibre: Part I; Part II.
  • A link to Adobe’s InDesign page. Powerful software that would be overkill for most people, but which also allows for the kind of control you can’t find in many other apps.
  • Articles and info about InDesign and e-publishing from Joel Friedlander ( I particularly think the piece titled The Trouble With Word Processors is worth a read. Reading the post and comments — which Joel responds to in detail — will help anyone understand the context and parameters of current e-publishing design issues.
  • Wikipedia comparison of e-book formats.
  • Year-old Smashwords post about all those formats. Brand-new, perfectly-timed, up-to-date post about all those formats.
  • Self-Publishing Review post declaring that Ebooks are a Disaster. Includes notes from Moriah Jovan about the hoops she has to jump through in order to publish to various file formats and sites.
  • Another two-part series here, this time from Nathan (Wayzgoose in the comments below) at The Secret Life of eBooks. Good info on the output you’ll be getting from various readers and file formats. Part I; Part II.

More links will be added as warranted.

— Mark Barrett

Ditchwalk Delivered via E-Mail


  1. says

    The first thing you have to realize is that with any reflowable document, regardless of format, it’s going to look like crap. Basically, the whole point is to reduce the amount of formatting in the hands of the publisher and increase the control of the device and the end-user. So that means, regardless of technology, you want to limit the amount of formatting in your document because it’s mostly wasted energy. Worse, if you do anything clever that is essential to delivering the text, it will probably be lost. So there’s tip one: don’t be clever.

    Now, specific document formats don’t matter. They all achieve pretty much the same goals and consequently are easy to convert between. I use the ePub format because it’s directly supported by InDesign, which I’m using to lay out the print and PDF variants anyway, but MOBI is also a solid choice. Both of these represent a superset of most of the other formats, meaning that if you pick one of these two as your first output format, you won’t lose a lot of information when converting to others.

    So your actual first step is not so much to change your tools as to identify the output format that already serves your existing tools. Then get a converter — I use Calibre (not including an URL — too much chance I wind up in your spam filter — so Google for “calibre ebook convert”) myself because it supports my OS and converts to and from pretty much any eBook format. There is some learning curve because the user interface is awful, but the technology under it is solid. Anyway, once you have a converter you are in a good position to just output in every ebook format that you want. Amazon format is basically MOBI+DRM and Calibre converts (and delivers, if you have a Kindle) handily enough to AZW by adding any digital rights mgmt info you need.

    Good luck Mark! As I noted, the real issue is giving up formatting. Once you’re past that psychological barrier, it’s just a conversion problem and so there’s no reason you can’t support every eBook format under the sun.

    • says


      Thanks for the quick reply. This is worth its digital weight in gold:

      So that means, regardless of technology, you want to limit the amount of formatting in your document because it’s mostly wasted energy. Worse, if you do anything clever that is essential to delivering the text, it will probably be lost. So there’s tip one: don’t be clever.

      I do almost no storytelling through formatting (part of my mania for transparency), so this comes as both useful knowledge and a relief. I can’t imagine the horrors poets face.

      Thanks, too for the rest of your note — I feel like I’m suddenly six weeks ahead of where I felt I was two hours ago.

      • says

        Yeah, the current state of the “digital revolution” actually hauls the writer back to the old days of double-spaced, typewritten manuscripts. The big difference is now the publisher is stuck there too. 😀 This will be changing and changing fast because people (especially layout artists) love their pretty stuff, which is why we still see a lot of PDF documents in my niche (game books). Poets have it hard — I’ve seen verse forced to display as bullet lists in some of my Kindle documents.

  2. says

    Hi Mark.
    Just responded to your Twitter, but wanted to ask a question about your project here. You say you’d “like to publish online.” Do you mean sell a published work on-line, or simply post them for people to read on-line. There’s a big difference. Brad really hit on some of the major issues, and I’ll happily reply as well, but if you are thinking of simply getting a great reading experience for your work on-line, check out my site Wrote a Book for people who just want to publish their work on-line for people to read. It might meet some of your needs.

    • says

      Hi Wayzgoose,

      Do you mean sell a published work on-line, or simply post them for people to read on-line.


      I’ve gone back and forth about pricing, free content, freemium models, etc., and after all is said and done I believe my content has value so I’ll be setting a price. (I’ll be trying to catch regular readers up on all that in subsequent posts.)

      I’m looking to take advantage of the retail and marketing opportunities open to self-published writers, but I want to do so on a professional basis. I recognize that I’m trying to hit a rapidly evolving and shifting technology horizon, but I can’t wait for things to settle down — hence my interest in base formats from which to modify existing texts.

  3. says


    Thanks for the shout-out. Even though you may not use InDesign to produce your files, I learned a tremendous amount about the ePub format, what’s possible, and how to set up files properly from a pair of video tutorials from Gabriel Powell on Instant Indesign. Here’s the link for the first of two parts: This will repay the time it takes to watch whether you use InDesign or not.

    I hope you’ll continue this account of your transition to e-Book land, it should be interesting, and I’d love to follow along. There’s more discussion on my blog today about the whole e-book transition; not nuts and bolts, but more philosophical, for those who are interested.

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