Self-Publishing 101: How to Make an eBook

Formatting and publishing your own eBook can be an intimidating experience for a novice self-publisher. That’s why services like Smashwords are so popular: they can take a standard Word document, convert it into all popular eBook formats, and publish them to a bunch of venues for you. They take the hassle out of independent publishing.

But, for those of us who want bit more control over their publishing experience, formatting and creating eBooks by hand can be a rewarding experience. Why would you want to do this by hand, when there are services out there that can do it for you?

  • Microsoft Word is a pain. Basically, it is overkill for the eBook writing process. Most Word features are either not needed in an eBook (e.g., margins, padding, page numbering), or won’t translate during the eBook conversion (e.g., font selections and footnotes). And, your Word document has to be meticulously formatted for it to convert cleanly. (If you’ve glanced over the Smashwords style guide, you know what I’m talking about.) Most people default to Word because it’s what they’re used to using, but I find that other options are much simpler, elegant, and conducive to the writing process.
  • Formatting by hand gives you greater control over the look of your final eBook. I’m a typography snob, and I love the control that formatting eBooks by hand gives me. I can embed fonts, change the way that paragraphs and headings are formatted, even include drop caps into my opening paragraphs. While there is a bit of a learning curve involved in tweaking eBook output, I find the result to be well worth the effort.

In this three-part series I’m going to go over writing and formatting your eBook file, converting it to popular eBook formats like ePub and MOBI, and tweaking the output with a bit of styling. You’re resulting eBook files will be ready to upload to popular outlets like Amazon and Barnes & Noble for sale and distribution.

Ready to dive in with me?

Part 1: Writing and Structuring your eBook

In the first part of this series, I’m going to show you how to write and structure your work to get it ready for eBook conversion. It’s not as scary as it sounds — in fact, once you get the hang of it, I bet you’ll greatly prefer writing this way over clunking around in Microsoft Word.

You’re going to write your work in plain text (you know, those files that have a .txt extension, and have no embedded fonts or styles). And you’re going to structure this text using a popular mark-up syntax called Markdown.

What is Markdown?

Markdown was initially intended to make it easy for web coders to plain text and easily convert into HTML (for the web). It has since grown into a way for coders, writers, and other content creaters to create minimal text files that can be easily converted into HTML, ePub documents, PDF’s, and more.

While “Markdown” is referred to as both the syntax used to markup text files for conversion, as well as the script that converts it into HTML, all we need to worry about is the syntax end of things.

Does all this sound too complicated? I promise. It’s not. To prove it, let’s take a look at the beginnings book chapter created with Markdown:

Chapter I: Down the Rabbit-Hole

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought Alice "without pictures or conversation?"

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

There was nothing so _very_ remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!"

That doesn’t look so scary, does it? It looks much the same as if you were to dust off a typewriter and pen your novel the old-fashioned way. In fact, the syntax was designed to be very readable and intuitive.

Let’s take a look the Markdown here. First, you’ll notice that the chapter heading is underlined with dashes:

Chapter I: Down the Rabbit-Hole

This marks up that text as a first-level heading (or, in our case, a chapter heading). So, when we convert this into an ePub, the software recognizes it as a chapter heading, and formats it accordingly (i.e., includes a page break before the chapter, and renders the chapter heading in a large font).

Next, notice the blank lines in between the paragraphs — this delineates the paragraphs in the text. (Easy enough.) And finally, check out the _very_ in the last paragraph. See the little underscores on either side? That indicates that the text is emphasized, or, for the purposes of an eBook, italicized.

Those three syntax rules — for chapter headings, paragraph breaks, and italicized text — are all that many fiction writers need. Of course, Markdown includes syntax for more complex things like tables, images, and links, and I encourage you to take a look at the Markdown documentation to learn more. But, in the meantime, this should get you started.

Markdown-editing software

Now, you can create a Markdown file with any basic text-editor (like Notepad for Windows). If you’re going to be doing a lot of Markdown writing, however, it’s helpful to have software made just for that purpose. There is a slew of great Markdown-editing software. Many of them have some groovy features, like a double-pane that shows you what the text looks like, formatted, as you’re writing, or tools to convert your Markdown to web pages or PDF’s.

I’ve included below a list of basic Markdown editors that are free (or very, very cheap). I tried to select software that had syntax highlighting (so you can easily discern the Markdown syntax from your text), a clean, minimal interface (to get out of your way) and a distraction-free writing mode (to let you focus on your writing).

icon.175x175-75 (1)Writedown
(Ubuntu Linux)
Check out these editors, and see if they meet your needs. You may want to invest in a more robust editor down the line, but, honestly, you probably won’t use those extra features in your fiction writing.Once you’ve written and structured your work, it’s time to prep it and convert it to your eBook formats.

3 thoughts on “Self-Publishing 101: How to Make an eBook

  1. wombat37

    Interesting. I’ve always used Word, so am quite used to its oddities, but I am tempted to try this method as it looks more likely to help me feel in touch with the writing rather than the software I am using. I look forward to further posts.

  2. Christina Ramey Post author

    Yes, that’s why I love writing in something like plain text. You’re not distracted by all of the buttons, fonts, and rulers cluttering your standard word processor screen. It can be hard to convince someone to stray out of their comfort zone (like Word), but it can’t hurt to try!

  3. Elena Sheremetyeva

    Hello, Cristina!

    I would like to suggest you to have a look at new solution for authors, who stick to use Microsoft Word – Writage (

    It is new add-in for Word, which enables to edit Markdown documents. Writage designed to everyone who likes to start writing structured documents and don’t have time or don’t want to become familiar with Markdown syntax. They can simply convert their Word documents into Markdown documents in one step from MS Word directly.


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