How to format your novel for Smashwords

I assume you’re a well-informed, well-prepared author-publisher and have your novel parts in order (with front matter, biography, etc.), so I will only discuss the technical part here: formatting only.

For tips on how to structure your manuscript for an optimal ebook experience, please consult Smashword’s very own tips, or the thousands of online articles on self-publishing floating on the web.

Now let’s get down to business. What you need before we begin:

  • Your novel manuscript in an MS Word document
  • A gallon of fresh, hot coffee
  • A few hours of uninterupted time
  • A big red NO! sign to hold up (or use as a human-sized flyswatter) in case of unexpected demands

Ready? Great!

*rolls up her sleeves*

Sheldon it's on bitch

Before you work any kind of formatting magic, you first have to >

Clean up your manuscript of wonky formatting

Your MS Word document will be converted into several electronic formats by Smashwords’ Meat Grinder, which basically means computer code will be inserted into and wrapped around your text.

If you have anything in that manuscript that’s not neat and tidy and absolutely necessary, it will mutate and mess up your ebook. Your formatting needs to be pristine for ebook conversion to happen seamlessly and those two languages—your storytelling genius, and clear-cut computer code—to merge blissfully into a finished ebook.

There are tons of articles online devoted to cleaning up MS Word formatting. Even the Smashwords Style Guide has a section called The Nuclear Method with instructions on how to strip a manuscript of formatting.

BUT—and this is a HUGE but—following this advice will strip your manuscript of Italics as well. And that sucks donkey balls.

You need to clean up your manuscript without removing your italics. I’ve already written a post on that with step-by-step instructions here:

How To Clean Up Your Manuscript Formatting In MS Word >

Also, there’s a bunch of things that the Smashwords ebook converter (a.k.a. the Meat Grinder) doesn’t like:

  • more than 4 paragraph returns in a row (4 empty lines between paragraphs, chapters, scenes, whatever)
  • headers and footers
  • hyperlinks that point to other ebook retailers (like Amazon) or directly to files (like a PDF); but links that point to social media websites or your own blog are fine
  • non-standard fonts; stick to the fonts Word comes with. You shouldn’t care about fonts in ebooks anyway, since not you but the reader controls how the novel is displayed (font, size, spacing, etc.)
  • text formatted in small caps
  • columns (like in newspapers), tables, text boxes, or text that’s wrapped around an image (if you have images, follow the image formatting instructions in the Smashwords Style Guide. For the rest of the post I’ll just assume you don’t have any.)

Remove these things, or find viable workarounds, and you should be fine.

Next, with a clean manuscript in hand, you have to >

Create your own styles

MS Word is a wonderful piece of software that gives the user plenty of alternative ways of doing things. The same with formatting text. You can format your text by selecting it and applying direct formatting to that piece (by using the formatting options in your Home tab), or you can apply a predefined style to that selected text.

A style is a set of formatting rules applied to a paragraph. A “Heading,” for example, is a default MS Word style that formats text to look like a sub-title (or section title, or whatever). If you’ve never worked with styles before, you can start understanding them by reading this article or this guide, and of course by playing around with them a bit. Where you find them depends on your version of Word, but they’re an intrinsic part of how MS Word works and handles text.

If you have no time to read up on styles, then just stay here and read on (and trust me *rubs hands evily*)

One important thing to know is that everything in a document has a style applied to it. You can’t have something that’s not styled. If you don’t style it yourself, Word will do it for you (and you don’t really want that), but everything in your manuscript is always styled in some way or another. To make sure your ebook looks awesome, you must control the way your whole document is styled, and it must be styled consistently throughout.

Here’s how to define your own styles

  • Open your styles applet in Word
    Depending on which version of Word you have, this will be somewhere else; for Word 2010 it’s here:Word Styles 1
  • Now click on the little button on the lower left, to Create New Style from Formatting
    Word Styles 2
  • You can create your style based on some predefined style, or you can delete whatever’s in that field and create one from scratch.
  • Beside the basic settings you can see right here (font, size, alignment, and b/i/u), another super important setting is hidden below under Format > Paragraph
  • Here, in the first tab “Indents and Spacing” you can define the first line indent of your style, the line spacing, and the paragraph spacing.Word Styles 3
  • In the second tab, “Line and Page Breaks” you have an option that will automatically insert a page break before the paragraph wearing your style. This is very useful when you define your Chapter Title style, because it will set your every chapter to always start on a fresh page.Word Styles 4

I won’t go into any details here, because you can do a lot with styles—a lot you don’t really need for an ebook. So I’ll cut straight to the kind of styles you need for your Smashwords ebook, and go through them in the order in which you’d see them as you pass through the manuscript.

1. Novel Title

Your novel title should be in a bigger, more visible font than anything else in the ebook. It should at least be:

  • centered
  • no indent
  • big= 14 pt (that’s the biggest size accepted in ebook conversion)

You can, of course, make it bold and/or italicized. That’s your choice.

You can use Word’s “Title” style as a base, or you can create your own from scratch. Name it something obvious like “My Novel Title.”

You can style your “by [author name]” line, or any other text you have below your title (The XYZ Series, Book 12) in their own way, or by using the same style as your front matter (see below). Your choice.

2. Section Title

With “section” I mean manuscript sections other than your novel text, such as your Copyright Notice, Disclaimer, Dedication, Acknowledments, Foreword, Author Bio, Other Titles, etc.

For these, you should have an own style that’s at least:

  • centered
  • no indent
  • normal sized (12 pt)
  • has a page-break before (so each section starts on a fresh “page”)

3. Front Matter

Front matter is all the text that comes before your novel. In an ebook that’s usually just the copyright notice, a disclaimer (if need be), and the dedication page. Everything else you have should be placed after the novel, because ebooks have that nifty preview function on retailers webpages, and you don’t want readers to plow through pages and pages of stuff before they get to your actual novel.

Front matter formatting should be very simple:

  • centered
  • no indent
  • single line spacing
  • normal sized (12 pt) or smaller (10pt, no smaller)

4. Chapter Title

Now we get to the good stuff. Your chapters should ideally start each on a new page, and not at the bottom of a previous one. So you want your chapter title style to be at least:

  • bold
  • bigger sized than your novel text (14 pt)
  • have a page-break before
  • have paragraph spacing before (so it’s not stuck at the upper edge of the reader’s screen, but has a nice bit of white space above it)
  • have paragraph spacing after (so there’s a bit more space between it and the actual text underneath; you shouldn’t have more than one paragraph return there, so us this setting instead to increase that space)

You can have it in ALL CAPS, left aligned, centered or right-aligned, however you like.

If you have subtitles, format them like this:

  • normal sized (12 pt)
  • no indent
  • no page break before

You may also have other things (like quotes, verses, etc.) before your actual chapter text. Play around with formatting these, but don’t forget that less is always more when it comes to formatting.

5. Body Text

This is the style you will apply to your actual manuscript text.

This is also the only style best created based upon Word’s own “Normal” style, and not created from scratch, for a very simple and important reason: to protect your Italics. (Word is a bit freaky in this respect.)

Your body text style should be:

  • left aligned (ebook readers automatically justify text depending on screen size, so don’t mess with that, stick to the basics)
  • not bolded, not italicized, not udnerlined — don’t touch those settings in the first place
  • first line indent of however much you like, but keep it smaller than 0.5″ (a good indent size for ebooks is 0.25″)
  • no paragraph spacing before or after
  • you can have paragraph spacing before and/or after, if you like it that way, but DON’T combine it with a first line indent. Also, keep in mind that the Kindle ebook format automatically adds indentation to a paragrapf if none is predefined, and you will still end up with an annoying mixture of indents and spacings. Ugh.

6. First Paragraph

According to common and classic design expectations of fiction, the first paragraph in each chapter and scene is not indented. Nowadays, this is left up to you, but keep reader expectations in mind (after all, you publish for them, no?).

Because the Kindle ebook format automatically indents any left-aligned paragraph that has no indentation defined, we have to use styles for a little trick.

The First Paragraph style should be:

  • have a first line indent of 0.01″
  • the rest is the same as your normal body text

This indent is barely visible to the naked eye, but it’s there, so Kindle will leave it alone, and to the reader it will seem as though the first paragraph is not indented at all.

7. Any additional special styling you need in your novel

For example, I have a passage that contains text output from a computer. So I defined a style for it to have it look different than normal text.

Now that you have your styles defined, next we need to >

Apply your Styles to the manuscript

You’ve cleaned up your old formatting, and you created your styles. Now things will get interesting.

1. Place the cursor somewhere in the text, and hit Ctrl+A on your keyboard to select the whole document. Now go to your Home tab, Style section, and apply your Body Text style to the whole manuscript.

Go check if you still have your Italics. If not, your Body Text style probably wasn’t created based on Word’s own “Normal” style. You can rectify that by right-clicking your Body Text style name, going to Modify, and selecting Normal in the “Style based on” field. Any change you make to your style, will automatically apply to all text formatted that way in the manuscript. You won’t have to re-apply that style again. (Cool, eh?)

2. Select your novel title, and apply your Novel Title style.

3. Select your section titles, one by one, and apply your Section Title style.

4. Select your front matter text, and apply your Front Matter style. Check if the font size is okay. Don’t make it smaller than 9 pt or bigger than 12 pt.

5. Select your first chapter title, and apply the Chapter Title style. Apply your respective styles to subtitle, quotes, etc. as well, if you have any.

6. Now place your cursor anywhere within the first paragraph of your chapter, and apply your First Paragraph style. Your first paragraph should now appear to not be indented anymore (in fact, it has that 0.01″ indent you defined earlier).

7. Go to your first scene break (it should be marked with # or *** or whatever sign you used while drafting) and place your cursor before it. Apply your Front Matter style. The scene break should now be centered. You can also not have any signs to indicate scene breaks; but then you should have at least one empty line (hit return).

8. Format the first paragraph of the new scene the same way you formatted the first paragraph of your chapter — apply the First Paragraph style.

— Repeat until all your chapters & scenes are properly formatted —

9. After your novel’s end, you should have your biography, acknowledgments, other titles, and whatever else you want. Format this part just the same way — by applying styles. Don’t do any direct formatting. If you want something here to look different than elsewhere in the novel, define a new style for it and apply it.

Now let’s do a very important last check-up.

The most important difference between formatting a Word document for print, and for ebook, is the fact that ebooks technically don’t have pages. Text is displayed on a new “screen” based upon the settings of the reader, font size, line spacing, screen size, etc. ^You can’t control where a page begins and where it ends. The only thing you can control is your styling — where you can tel a piece of text to alyway begin on a new screen. In Word, you can do that with Page Breaks or Section Breaks.

Because we want our ebooks to look super clean, we must control every single page break (or section break) in our manuscript.

We already defined our Chapter Title style to always insert a page break before, but there might be residual page breaks hidden in the manuscript from our drafting stage (or wherever), and we must clear them out.

To eliminate unwanted page breaks from your manuscript, follow these steps:

1. Set your document view on Draft. (from the View tab)

This view simulates the way text actually flows in an ebook, without visible pages. You will see some dotten horizontal lines now and then. These are your automatic page breaks (inserted via styles), or the place where your text would be split into pages if it were printed. But it won’t. Unfortunately, this feature of Word can’t be disabled, and you’ll just have to ignore those lines.

You will probably also see some dotted lines names “Page Break” or “Section Break.” These are manually inserted breaks, left-overs from previous formatting. These are what we’re after.

If you don’t find any, then Congratulations! You’re done! But if you do find some, read on:

2. Open the Find and Replace function.

Vero Formatting - Find and Replace

3. Click inside the “Find what” field and type:

  • ^m^p — for a manual page break (plus a paragraph return, ’cause they’re usually paired)
  • ^b^p —for a manual section break (plus a paragraph return, ’cause they’re usually paired too)

4. Leave the “Replace with” field empy, and hit Replace All

All your manual page breaks and section breaks will be removed from the document — without affecting the automatic page breaks inserted before each chapter title formatted using our Chapter Title style.

Scroll through your novel once more to check, but at this point it should be clean and under control.


You’re ready to feed your baby to the Meat Grinder! 😉

Happy Success GIF

Published by Veronica Sicoe

Science Fiction Author — I deliver the aliens.

20 thoughts on “How to format your novel for Smashwords

  1. Veronica, I love you! Why can’t the Smashwords guide be this easy to understand? I’ve spent the last three hours reading the SW guide. The thing that was annoying me the most was that I’d have to manually go through re-adding all the italics – a huge job that was bound to be sketchy. Found your guide, and now I’m ready to eliminate that problem (it means starting over on the formatting, but I’d figured out the creating styles stuff anyhow, so that won’t be such a pain in the ass to re-do). Oh, and you’re a sci-fi author, like me! 🙂 I’ll be checking out your work – it sounds a lot like my own – when I’m not in a formatting frenzy!
    Thank you to infinity and beyond!


    1. Hi David — so glad you found my formatting guide useful! 🙂 I hope you have quick and clean results.

      And thanks for the interest in my work. Snoop around the blog too, if you have time. Plenty of alien stuff. I see we’re both fans of that. 😉


      1. I’ll definitely have a gander at the blog! Most of the formatting done now. That italics trick was a lifesaver, as expected! Followed you on twitter – followback and drop me a tweet when you launch TDL and I’ll give you a share 🙂 Good luck with it, by the way!

        Did you let the TOC generate from ‘Chapter One’ etc headings, or did you do a proper bookmarked TOC?

        My worry is that I might get rejected by Apple for some of the links in the back. I’ve heard they’re pretty fussy. I haven’t linked to any other retailers, but I’ve got a mailing list sign-up/get book 2 free offer linking to my mailing list sign-up, so I’m hoping I don’t get bumped by Apple for that!


      2. Glad to see it all went well! 🙂
        I’d never use Word’s automatic TOC. It sucks. I made a bookmarked TOC, which is quite easy. I also don’t use Word’s headings, and deleted all automatic bookmarks that were left over from previous headings usage in the file.

        I don’t think Apple will have any beef with links that go to your own website.

        Good luck!


  2. Thank you SO much for this! I’d self-published 2.5 years ago, but only recently was kicked out of the premium catalog pending revisions (based on Apple’s new requirements, if I’m not mistaken). I had tried to fix and re-submit FOUR times, and it got kicked back every time. Was seriously ready to pull my hair out (and had begun to lose substantial sales over it), and then I found your tutorial yesterday and was able to finally figure it all out, and my book was accepted back into the premium catalog again today! Seriously, thank you – I’m going to go buy your book for my Kindle in appreciation!


    1. Woohoo!! I’m so glad this was of help to you, and that you were able to clean up your formatting! This totally makes my day. 🙂

      Wish you the best of luck & success, Rachel!


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