Everyone is familiar with how paper books look – we’ve grown up with them, and they’ve been around for hundreds of years. Ebooks, on the other hand, are new territory, and often do not behave the same way that paper books do. A lot of people aren’t entirely sure about how a paper book translates into an eBook, and – quite naturally – make assumptions based on what they’re familiar with. Sometimes that’s a little bit wrong, and in a few cases, it’s very wide of the mark.
The biggest difference is that when you lay out a print book, you know exactly how much space there is on each page. You know that it’s a paperback, or a hardbound book. You know what kind of binding the book has. You probably even know the kind of paper it’ll be printed on. This allows you to lay out the text just so, and make any images large enough to look right, add sideboxes, tables, charts, or whatever else you want, and do so very precisely.
Ebooks are not like that. You don’t know what kind of device your reader will be using. It could be any one of the devices shown below. Color or black and white? A small phone screen or a big PC screen? eInk or LCD? There are all kinds of variables! On top of that, most eReading applications allow your reader to choose things like the line spacing, font size, and even the font – which is why you shouldn’t (and mostly can’t) force your choices for those on the reader. For some people, this is a godsend: my former elementary school teacher commented that she could finally read a wide range of books again on the Kindle thanks to the possibility to set a very large font size that’s easier on her eyes.
On the above devices, how can you tell how much “one page” of text is? It changes from device to device!
All of this means that, in some ways, your book is a lot more like a web page that readers page through than a book with clearly delineated pages.
It also means that your book is better off if content is linear with one thing following the next. Elements like sidebars don’t work very well – think about trying to have a sidebar and text side by side on a mobile phone screen! We have another post explaining how to make content linear: “The One Thing about Kindle Formatting” .
Another thing that often needs explaining are footnotes. If you don’t have pages, you can’t put things at the bottom of them. eBooks use hyperlinks, so rather than footnotes, we use endnotes, which work pretty well. The reader can easily click on the link to the footnote, read it, and then hop back to the main text.
Print books, obviously, are opened from the front and then you flip through things like the copyright page more or less quickly, depending on your curiosity, to get to the actual contents. eBooks traditionally start at the actual contents themselves, which would typically be the introduction, or first chapter. This confuses a lot of people, who are used to print books. But it’s what people reading eBooks are getting used to, so we recommend sticking with what most (but not all) books do and starting where your content starts. Most people have already seen the cover while buying your book, and they can easily go back and view that or other front matter if they wish to do so. Don’t force them to.
Kindle books don’t have back covers. You should definitely invest in making a nice front cover for your book, as that will be displayed on Amazon when people are looking around at books to buy, but a back cover does not figure in the eBook world. Print books have back covers that people see when they pick up the book and look at it, so they end up being fairly important in the sales process. But eBooks, if they have a back cover at all, would likely only have one in an out-of-the-way place that would only be seen by people who actually buy the book. Here is some more information on eBook covers: http://blog.liberwriter.com/2013/02/26/kindle-book-covers-what-you-should-know/
While a hyperlinked table of contents is part and parcel of a professionally formatted eBook, an index is a different matter, and rarely included. One reason is that eBooks are very easy to search. Type in “Venice” and your reading device will come up with a list of all mentions of the word Venice in the book you’re reading. A good index does more than point to all instances of a word – it points to the most important mentions of the word. In any event, though, given the ease of search in eBooks, and the cost of going through by hand and creating a hyperlinked index, it’s generally omitted, even from books from major publishers.
If this all sounds a bit negative, I don’t think it is – it means that you, as an author, can concentrate on your writing, and not worry too much about the formatting. One of the very positive aspects of the relatively simple state of formatting for Kindles, for instance, is that your book, formatted by LiberWriter – or even on your own if you take the time to learn how to do it – is going to look just as good as those published by a big publishing house, because even if they wanted to shower money on making the book look “fancy”, there’s just not that much they can do. That’s a big point in favor of self-published authors!