Formatting the parts of an ebook

There are a few components that you’ll need to assemble in order to make a complete ebook, especially one that will be accepted for sale by major distributors and online booksellers. This section describes the key parts of an ebook and how to mark up and format them.


Winnie - CoverIt’s worth putting some effort into producing a good cover. Bear in mind that the cover appears in both the ebook itself and in all important selling situations, such as the search-results page of an ebookstore.

The cover has to work in two situations:

  • Internal cover: In the ebook itself, where its size will depend on the screen size of the e-reader
  • Marketing cover: Usually seen as a small thumbnail, displayed for instance when someone browses or searches in an ebook retailer’s store

It might be tempting to do a quick text-only or generic cover but ebooks, like print books, are judged by their covers. So if you’re on a tight budget, find somewhere else to make a saving. You can do a reasonable job for just a few dollars.

We’ll look at ebook cover design in detail in the module on Production.

Front Matter

Title Page

Winnie - Title PageThis is simply the page that follows the cover and includes the book title and author’s name, usually centered on the page. It’s nice to have, but it’s optional. It can also be combined with the Copyright Page.

Format: It can be produced with text only or text and an image. It’s best centered.


 (Click to enlarge images.)

Copyright Page

Winnie - Copyright PageYou should always add a copyright page as many ebookstores and ebook distributors won’t accept an ebook for sale unless it includes one. It doesn’t have to be long or complicated.

As noted, it can be combined with the Title Page. It can be located early in the ebook – typically after the cover or title page – or can be placed at the back of the ebook.

The minimum it should include is: Copyright [Year] Author name, e.g. ‘Copyright 2012 Joan Smith’ or ‘© 2012 Joan Smith’. A lot of the material that appears in a printed book’s copyright page is irrelevant to the ebook.

Other Front Matter

Winnie - Dedication PageThis might include any or all of the following: a preface, testimonials or reviews, acknowledgements, a dedication, foreword, introduction, or a prologue.

All of these pages are optional for an ebook.




Table of Contents (TOC)

The Table of Contents plays an important role in an ebook. Ebooks can have two Table of Contents:

  • Navigational
  • Linked

Winnie - Table of ContentsNavigational TOC  (also called Logical) is the main navigation system for an ebook, similar to the menu of a website. It is accessed from the Contents button which every e-reader or e-reading app must have. This button is accessible from any page in an ebook.  This TOC is compulsory.

It is generated from the markup for chapter headings and creates — to give it its technical name — the NCX file (Navigational Control for XML).

This TOC might include a nested list two or three levels deep, for instance Chapter, Sub-chapter and Sub-section, or Part, Chapter, Sub-chapter. This will depend on which conversion service you use: Even if you mark it up, some conversions will not display all of the sub-levels.

Different conversion processes handle navigational TOC-building in different ways so you’ll need to consult the relevant documentation. More about this in the Production section.

Linked TOC (also called HTML TOC) is just an ordinary page in the front of the ebook in the same way that a Table of Contents appears at the start of a printed book. The reader will only see this TOC when they page through the early pages of the ebook — unlike the navigational TOC, it’s not accessible from the Contents button. This TOC is usually optional. 

In general, the chapter entries in this TOC should be hyperlinked so that users can go straight to the start of a chapter from the TOC. In fact, some distributors — Amazon included — will insist that you do this or they won’t accept your ebook. An extra level of markup is needed to add these hyperlinks but it will add to the quality and usability of the ebook. Avoid including page numbers from the printed edition since these will be meaningless in the ebook.

Main Text

This is the body matter of the book containing all the text and images. The key decision to make is which method to use to separate the paragraphs:

  • First-line indent. This is where the first line of each paragraph is indented slightly. It is most common with fiction.
  • Block method. This has no indent but instead uses a blank line between paragraphs to provide a visual break. It is favored for non-fiction works.

For both methods, it’s recommended that you set all text to left justified. This will leave a ragged right margin. Although this might not be as elegant as fully justified text, it will be more readable on most devices. And, in fact, many ebook readers will automatically add justification whatever setting you use here.

Tip. Do not use extra spaces, tabs, or extra paragraph breaks to add these indents, or blank lines. They won’t produce the results you expect. The correct way is to modify the paragraph style that you are using for your main text. This is typically the Normal or Text Body style. You should refer to your word-processor help screen if you’re not sure how to do this.


Click here to see how to modify a paragraph style
  1. Display the Styles. In MS Word 2010, they will be on the Home tab, in OpenOffice or Word 2003 you’ll display them from Format > Styles and Formatting menu.
  2. Right click on the style you want to modify (eg Normal or Body Text).
  3. Select Modify. You’ll see a screen similar to the one below. (This screenshot is from the MS Word 2010 paragraph format box.)
  4. For first line indent style: Click Format (bottom left), select Paragraph. Under Indentation select Special: First Line and By: 6mm (or similar value to suit). Ensure other values are set to zero with single line spacing.
  5. For block method: Click Format (bottom left), select Paragraph. Under Spacing select 6pt After (a value of 6pt or 10pt is best). Ensure other values are set to zero with single line spacing.


MS Word 10 - Paragraph Style Modify

Click to enlarge

Chapter headings

Winnie - Chapter One

Chapter headings are the most important elements to occur in the main body. As well as having a formatting role, they are the key to establishing an easy navigation system for the ebook.

Format: The convention in ebooks, as with printed books, is to start a new chapter on a new page and to set the chapter name or number in larger type.

Mark up: It’s essential to mark up every chapter heading. Common ways to mark chapters are by inserting a page break or using a Heading 1 or Heading 2 style.

Unfortunately, there is no single way to accomplish these basic tasks which will work for every ebook conversion service. You’ll have to consult the documentation for each conversion service you plan to use.

Tip. You can create a ‘master copy’ of your manuscript using Heading 1, Heading 2, and Heading 3 styles for a general chapter mark-up system. This allows for several levels of chapter headings and a detailed Table of Contents. For instance, these could map to Section, Chapter, Sub-chapter. The master copy can then be easily changed as required using ‘style search and replace’. This is a feature of MS Word, Open Office, and several other word processors. They allow you to Search and Replace based on styles and special characters rather than just text so you could, for instance, change a chapter number styled in the Heading 1 style to the word ‘Chapter’ preceded by a page break. This process is described later in this section.

End Matter

The pages at the back of the book can include the epilogue, appendices, bibliography, endnotes, and index.

The index is not recommended for an ebook: the page numbers from a printed book’s index will be irrelevant and the e-reader’s Find function can fill the role of the index.

Footnotes won’t work in an ebook due to the absence of pages. They can be replaced by endnotes at the end of the ebook or at the end of the relevant chapter.

The back of the ebook is also a great place to sell so consider using it for discrete self-promotion of past or forthcoming books or related products or services you offer. But note the word ‘discrete’. You might find an ebook is rejected outright from important sales channels, such as Amazon or Kobo, if they think you’re promoting a competitor or trying to lure away their customers. After writing your blurbs, read the guidelines for each of your major ebook distributors to ensure that what you’ve written will comply.


Here are links to the formatting guides for some widely-used ebook conversion services. We’ll look at these and other services in more detail in the module on Production. These guides will provide you with more detailed information for each service. Each one is also recommended as a general guide to give you a better understanding of what’s involved in preparing manuscripts for conversion.

Find out more about this topic on our Digital Publishing 101 useful resources site.


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