Sunday, 2 June 2013

Design and Format An Ebook like a Pro! – Part 1

By Colin Dunbar

Author's Note

There is a wide variety of ebook formats that can be divided into 2 categories: PDF/exe and e-publications (ePub, MOBI, etc.). This article discusses design features for the PDF ebook format. In should also be noted that although a fictional work can also benefit from design principles, this article covers the design of non-fiction ebooks.


To format an ebook is pretty clear, but why in the world do I need to design my ebook?
Good question.

I'll be the first to admit, the content (subject matter) of your ebook plays a big role in the success of your ebook. But when you consider where and how ebooks are sold, you'll see the advantages of a professional ebook design.

An ebook is sold from your web site (or an online bookseller), and it's common to offer a money-back guarantee (especially for non-fiction ebooks). Therefore, if your ebook has an amateurish (or shoddy) design, you may end up getting a lot of refunds. Not good for business (especially if you're focusing on this monetization model).

Another common practice with ebooks is to offer a free sample (usually a free chapter). If your reader struggles to read the sample, or it's plain and boring, do you think s/he will buy the ebook?

Word-of-mouth is a powerful promotional strategy. If a book is difficult to read/use, there is little chance that the reader will tell anyone else about it - except maybe to say how bad it is.

Design Elements

plain ebook page
Plain page

designed ebook page
Designed page

Richard Hendel says in his book, On Book Design, "Every choice made by a designer has some effect on the reader. The effect may be radical or subtle, but it is usually outside a reader's ability to describe." Even though Hendel is talking about hard copy books, it's actually no different for ebooks, especially when we see how ebooks are growing in popularity.

Ebook design can be thought of as the furnishings in a home. Sure, a dull, empty house will still give us cover from the elements, but it's the furnishings that make it comfortable and attractive. They are what turns a house into a home.

And that is what a professional book design does for your ebook. It helps to transform an "offering" into a "sale"... more sales mean more income for you!

Apart from the mechanical book design structure (i.e., Copyright page, Foreword, etc.), there are things like paragraph length, sentence length, white space, etc. that should also be taken into account.

These are the elements I'm going to discuss in this article:
  • Ebook cover design
  • Table of Contents
  • Depending on length of book, alphabetical index (easy for reader)
  • Suitable headlines and subheads
  • Paragraph and sentence length
  • Font selection and size
  • Suitable images that support the text (non-fiction)
  • Language that is easy to read
  • Layout that suits the type of book (ex., children's book versus business book)
  • Margins, headers, and footers
  • Tables and graphs
  • Numbered and bullet lists.
Ebook design is not about tricking your manuscript out with fancy trimmings, it's about turning a good manuscript into an effective, easy-to-use, or entertaining, professional product.

Keep in mind that even the best design cannot substitute poor quality content. Before you consider the design elements, make sure your manuscript has been checked, edited, and proofread.

Ready to get into the design principles to turn your ebook into a masterpiece?

Let's go...

Front Cover

example ebook cover
Example ebook cover

The cover of your ebook is the first thing your reader sees when the ebook is opened. Just as with a headline on a web page, make the cover hook your reader! An added benefit is that it can also be used to advertise your ebook on your site (apart from your 3D e-cover). You could also use a thumbnail of your flat cover image to advertise your ebook on other sites (ex., you can upload a thumbnail to ClickBank or eJunkie).

When designing your front cover, consider things like colors, images, and fonts. Make it look great!

Table of Contents (ToC)

Can you imagine a hard copy book without a ToC? Not very practical, hey?

Similar to your site's nav bar, your ToC allows your reader to navigate your ebook, and find what they are looking for. An ebook without a clickable ToC is just as good as having no ToC at all.

This is essential in a non-fiction ebook, where your reader will likely return to check (or re-read) something. A clickable ToC makes it easier for your reader, and that makes your ebook more enjoyable to use.

Headlines and Subheads

example page header
Example page header
Similar to a web page, headlines divide the content of your ebook, and make it easier for your reader to find something. And it's your headlines and subheads that make up your TOC. There's no reason not to be a little creative with your chapter headlines (just don't go overboard).

Using creativity with your headlines adds to the visual appeal of your page layout. You can consider using a different font and color for your headlines - it's not uncommon to use a sans-serif font for your body text, and a serif font for your headlines.

Paragraph and Sentence Length

As ebooks are generally read on-screen, big blocks of text can make it difficult to read (the same is true if your reader prints your ebook). This is especially true for non-fiction. Always look at your paragraph lengths, and break them up into shorter pieces wherever possible. This is also the case with sentences; long sentences make it difficult to grasp the meaning of what's being said.

Font Selection and Size

In an ebook, you should use a sans-serif font, as this makes on-screen reading easier. As mentioned above, there's no reason not to use a serif font for your headlines, and a sans-serif font for your body text.

example PDF page
Example PDF ebook page
The font size in ebooks should be a little bigger than in hard copy books. Generally, 12 point is a suitable font size for ebooks. Don't go overboard and use a font size of 14 point - this has "amateur" written all over it. But, if you have an ebook specifically for children, it would be suitable.

Suitable Images

If you have a how-to ebook, naturally your images will be of the steps described. But for other non-fiction subjects images should be carefully chosen - they should not be unrelated, or added just for the sake of having "pretty pictures" in your ebook. This will also look amateurish.

Images can also contribute to the overall design of the page.

That's a wrap for Part 1.  Please check back next week for Part 2 on how to Design and Format An Ebook Like a Pro!

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