Why does Formatting Matter?

By Eldon Farrell

Before we can answer that question, we need to agree on what it is you’re selling when you publish a book. Too many new authors incorrectly believe the obvious answer—that they’re selling books. Let me remove that assumption from your brain right now.

You’re not selling books.

From a hundred-foot view, if you like, what all authors are selling... is an experience. Nobody plunks down their hard earned money to buy a book. They purchase an escape from the ordinary. Or, in the case of non-fiction, a deeper understanding of a subject that interests them. Readers crave the experience they have when reading. As authors, it’s our job to entertain them, to educate them, to captivate them, to scare them, but never to sell them a book. The distinction may be subtle, but is nonetheless important.

And this brings us to formatting. What is it, and why does it matter?

If we can agree that we’re selling an experience, the importance of formatting becomes crystal-clear. As any reader can tell you, their reading experience is affected by more than just your ability to put words together. The choice and size of font used, the line spacing, and the layout of text on the page—whether it be print or digital—all contribute to a positive or negative experience.

Think about it this way: if you had the option of buying one of two items that were completely identical except for one is inside a perfectly wrapped package, and the other one is inside of a beaten-up box, which would you grab? Formatting is, simply put, the packaging for our stories. Don’t lose out on a sale in the crowded marketplace because your packaging is off-putting.

But what do I mean by that? Let’s look at an example. Here is a properly formatted block of text:

As you can see, the first paragraph isn’t indented, the text is flush on both sides, and it’s generally easy for the eyes to read due to the even line spacing.

Now, here is that same text without proper formatting:

Doesn’t look as good, does it?

Bear in mind, the content of both examples is exactly the same. Only the presentation differs. Taking your book from the word processor of choice into HTML can produce any of these formatting errors, as well as others. Can you imagine a reader opening your ebook and seeing the second example? Do you think they’d sit through 300 pages of that?

And before you think this is just ebook related, trust me, printed books present their own set of challenges. Grab any novel you’d like off your shelf at home and I can tell you what you’ll see. Laid flat, the right and left pages will approximate each other. What does that mean? Each will have the same number of lines on them. They will be justified so they both appear as blocks of text. But those blocks will have the font spaced (or typeset) properly so that there are no unsightly gaps. With printed books, headers and footers will often be present, and they also require special formatting to keep them away from the edge of the page and the body of the text.

Now, can you do all this yourself? You might still be thinking “What’s the big deal?” All you have to do is use free online formatting software for ebooks and a template for print. And, yes, you could. But both are template-based, meaning...don’t expect anything fancy. Your book will be formatted according to stringent guidelines, and errors might still creep in. If your source file isn’t prepared properly, the results could be underwhelming even with templates.

Which is why it’s important to have a trained eye go over your manuscript. You don’t edit yourself, or design the cover yourself, because those require specific skills. The same is true of formatting. Don’t sell your book short when it’s so close to being shared with the world. Have a professional formatter apply that last touch to truly let your masterpiece shine.

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