Making Digital Books: Formatting Your Novel (or Story) for Smashwords

Making Digital Books: Add your ebook to the top of the stack!

So here we go with our adventure in making digital books.

Please note — I’m posting these entries a little bit out of order, chronologically. I probably should’ve started with copy-editing your book, finding a cover, and writing a great description.

And then jump into choosing a digital distributor to help you sell your ebooks. And talk about (ugh) marketing.

But I wanted writers who were ready to dive into the process to be able to hit the ground running. The lovely thing about digital publishing is that you can always go back and update just about everything related to  your digital book, including the ability to upload a new cover, new synopsis and related text, and even a brand-new version of your novel or story.

Nothing digital is ever truly permanent. Which is mostly a blessing, but sometimes a curse. You can spend way too much time fiddling and tweaking and re-uploading stuff, over and over with. Trust me, I speak from experience!

So let’s start with the digital distributor that can help you get your ebooks out to a wide audience in a snap: Smashwords.

I’ll discuss more about digital distribution strategies later, too, but in a nutshell, I think if you get your novels up at Smashwords,  and then Amazon’s Kindle Digital Publishing (KDP) site and Nook’s Pub-It, you’ll be in a great place to reach lots of reader. I’ll cover KDP and Pub-It in my next 2 blog entries.

A Brief Overview of Smashwords:

You can sell ebooks through the Smashwords site, but the first really great thing about Smashwords is that they distribute your ebook to over half a dozen sites, including the following websites:

  • Barnes & Noble (I recommend opting out of this and posting your novels directly with Barnes & Nobles’ Pub-It system)
  • Amazon (also, opt out here and do it yourself with KDP)
  • Sony
  • Kobo
  • Apple’s iBookStore
  • Diesel
  • Scrollmotion

So after your get your book formatted and uploaded to Smashwords (and assuming it passes their validation process), in a few weeks you’ll get your books “shipped” to the other websites listed above. At no charge!

The second cool thing about Smashwords is that they can do a lot of your formatting for you. Remember, there are a lot of different ebook formats, and some are specific to your type of ereader (such as your Kindle or Nook or Sony Reader).

Smashwords uses a system affectionately called the Meatgrinder that takes your Microsoft Word document after you upload it, chews it up, and spits it out into the following formats:

  • ePub (.epub format, used by the Nook, the iPad, Sony Reader, Kobo, and more)
  • Kindle (.mobi)
  • PDF (a popular format for reading on your computer)
  • HTML (for reading in a web browser like Internet Explorer or Firefox)
  • JavaScript (also for reading in a browser)
  • RTF (“rich text” format, good for reading in Word or other word processing programs)
  • LRF (for older Sony Readers)
  • Palm Doc (PDB)
  • Plain Text (just text, no formatting, very basic)

NOTE: I’m focusing on prose novels and stories in this series — mostly text. If you’re doing a comic, a kids’s book, or a book heavy on illustrations and art, see my digital comics entries or the Formatting ebook I created with artist Niki Smith

For some folks, starting with a Word doc is a pain if you don’t use Microsoft products, but it’s just another hoop you’ll need to jump through. I think the benefits far outweigh the negatives, here.

Steps for Formatting for Smashwords

You can (and should) use the Smashwords Style Guide to get your Word doc into shape for the Smashwords Meatgrinder, but that doc is huge, and a bit overwhelming. So look over that doc, and then jump back here for my quick and dirty checklist version.

Formatting your Word document for Smashwords:

  1. Copy the Word file containing your novel or story to a new location on your computer. Don’t use your original file (just in case you blow something up!).
  2. Open your Word file ans click the Show/Hide button: ¶. This feature allows you to see where your line breaks are, and other formatting symbols.
  3. Make sure the AutoCorrect options are off. This will keep Word from automatically changing text and characters against your will. In Word, press F1 to launch the Help and type “AutoCorrect” to find how to turn this feature off.
  4. Delete any headers and footers in the Word doc.
  5. Also, delete any forced page breaks you may have entered into your document. Instead, insert three blank lines (press Return three times) to achieve some white space in the ebook.
  6. Set the Style of all text to Normal. Click the Normal style and select Modify to change it to the following:
    1. 12 point Times New Roman
    2. Justified text (don’t use ragged-right, which looks bad on an ereader)
    3. 1.0 spacing
  7. Find and delete any tabs by searching for “^t” and deleting the symbols. You don’t want to have any tabs in the document for Smashwords, as it messes up the spacing.
  8. Add scene breaks in the middle of a chapter. You can add three blank lines or add centered * * * * * to show a scene break.
  9. Press Ctrl+A and set the paragraph indents to  .5″ for the whole document.
  10. Now you’ll have to go through your book and center all chapter titles and scene breaks if you used * * * * *. You’ll also want to remove the .5″ indent for the chapter titles and scene breaks.
  11. Change all underlined words to italics. Here’s a quick shortcut:
    1. Press Ctrl+F and click the Replace tab.
    2. For the first text box, press Ctrl+U.
    3. For the second text box, press Ctrl+U twice, and then press Ctrl+I.
    4. Make sure there isn’t any text in either box, and then click Replace All.
  12. Instead of using two hyphens for an em-dash, change them to a real em-dash: “—”
  13. Update any symbol text so you are actually using the real symbol, such as ©, ®, and ™  and … (for ellipses).
  14. At the start of the Word file, paste the required Smashwords front matter. This includes title, copyright date, and a couple short paragraphs required by Smashwords, which is covered in the Smashwords Style Guide. I have a “boilerplate” Smashwords file where I can copy this info from, as well as the back matter material (see next step).
  15. At the end of the Word file, after your novel or story, paste any back page matter, such as an About the Author page, and excerpts from 1-2 of your other ebooks.
  16. UPDATE, 10/27/11: If your ebook is a short story, or a book without chapters, you’ll need to add a short Table of Contents after the copyright page. For more info, see Step 20 of the Smashwords Style Guide.
  17. Save your Word file. It’s now formatted for Smashwords!

Sample Smashwords Document and Page

For an example of a doc that’s gone through the Smashwords Meatgrinder and passed all validation, check out my Word doc for my novella “The Last Sorcerer” (a precursor to my novel A Sudden Outbreak of Magic and the sequel I’m currently working on, A Wild Epidemic of Magic).

And here’s the Smashwords page for that story: “The Last Sorcerer.”

Uploading to Smashwords

After you’ve gotten your Word doc all formatted, it’s almost time to upload it to Smashwords. Before you upload, though, you’ll need a cover and some brief descriptive text about your ebook. I haven’t covered this yet, but you can do a quick look around at Smashwords and see how other writers do their covers and descriptions.

Or take a look at My Smashwords page to for some ideas.

To upload your formatted Word doc to Smashwords:

  1. If you haven’t done so already, register at Smashwords.
  2. After you’re logged in at Smashwords, click the Publish tab.
  3. Add your ebook’s Title, and a Short and Long Description.
  4. Add your cover as a .jpg or .png file, 20MB maximum.
  5. Add your Word file.
  6. Click Publish.

Depending on how busy the Smashwords servers are at the time you clicked Publish, your book may take anywhere from 5 minutes to a day or 2 to convert. You can click away from that page and come back later to your Dashboard to check your status.

Final Steps

  1. Go to the ISBN Managerfor Smashwords and add a free ISBN to your book. This ISBN covers the digital version of this book (not print or audio versions). I use this ISBN for all versions of my ebooks. This ISBN lists the publisher as Smashwords in the Bowker database, so if it’s important to you to have the publisher listed as you or your publishing company, you can buy your own ISBN, but they’re not cheap. Personally, I don’t think ISBNs are all that important in the digital world.
  2. Go to the Distribution Channel Manager for Smashwords and select Opt Out for Amazon and Barnes & Noble for your novel. If you’re just doing a short story, you may not want to opt out here, but I recommend uploading your own novel files to Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I’ll explain that in a later post.
  3. Let people know your ebook is available at Smashwords, with other websites coming soon!

And that’s it for Smashwords formatting. I hope you’ve made it through this huge blog post, and hope you found it useful.

If you have any tips or questions, feel free to share in the comments or via Facebook or Twitter! And thanks for reading.

Back to the Making Digital Books Table of Contents.

If you found some valuable information in this entry, feel free to make a donation to UnWrecked Press via PayPal:

8 thoughts on “Making Digital Books: Formatting Your Novel (or Story) for Smashwords

  1. Michael,

    Thank you so much for this series of blogs. I am undertaking e-pubbing my novel, and this is exactly sort of hands-on technical information I’ve been looking for. Thanks for taking the time to share. I look forward to the other installments!

    John R. Phythyon, Jr.


    1. Thanks, John! I work as a tech writer for my day job, so I enjoy organizing all this info in one place and sharing it with others. There’s a pretty good learning curve with ebooks, so I really hope this helps. Good luck with your book(s)!


  2. Great series, glad to see it going up. After reading about justifying text I thought, hey, do I do that? I realized I generally don’t but it seems like most e-readers automatically justify the text anyway because they have to reflow the text depending on the user settings. Still, it probably doesn’t hurt anything to do it either.


    1. Thanks for reading and sharing the blog links, Ryan! Now that I think about it, I think most ereaders DO justify the text, but every time I see the ragged-right edges in my Smashwords doc, it makes me cringe. I have to fix it… (And it makes the PDF looks nice!)


  3. Just a quick note — Smashwords is getting more particular about how their ePubs display, so I’m updating this section with a new step or two on adding a very short Table of Contents, mostly for ebook STORIES. For novels, they use the “Chapter” text to create the Table of Contents, but as most stories don’t have Chapter titles, you’ll need to add a short ToC so the ePub formats properly. See Step 20 of the Smashwords Style Guide — you just add the ToC using Word’s Bookmark feature.

    Lemme know if you have questions, and I’ll try to get this updated as soon as possible!


  4. Thanks, Michael! This page has been extremely helpful. Funny you mention to use fully justified text without ragged right. I had always believed that it was the right way to do it as well, even though many seem to think ragged right is the way to go. Thanks again.


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