Ebook formatting can seem unclear and mysterious at the best of times. People often ask me: "What is formatting exactly? Is it really necessary? Will my ebook fall apart without it?"
The short answer is, your ebook WILL need to be formatted, but the long answer is, formatting can mean many things to many people. The dictionary defines formatting as the general appearance, or size, of a publication...And also as the arrangement of text on a screen...Oh and also as the way data is encoded into a file to allow viewing on different devices. Are you any the wiser? Let me simplify it by saying that ebook formatting is twofold: it's the professional layout and design of the ebook's content, and it's also the physical creation of the ebook file. To break the two components down:
Ebook Layout and Design
Printed/Paper books have to be professionally "typeset" before they can be printed or published, which means making the type look good and making the publication readable. It encompasses things like page size, spacing/laying out the text, fonts, chapter pages, blank pages, margins, headers & footers -- the list can seem endless. And all of this must also be done for ebooks to make them readable.
On top of this process of typesetting, for ebooks you must also add in the element of design. Ebooks that are viewed on computers can look fantastic with color and graphics. It is all part of the general viewing experience and therefore part of the formatting package.
You might also want to include proofreading in the formatting mix, because it is a logical step when arranging the text.
Ebooks can be viewed in a variety of ways. It is the job of the ebook formatter to produce the ebook in both a format and a file that is right for its target platform.
Computer Viewing-- This remains the mainstream platform for self-published authors. My preferred file type for computer viewing is a PDF file (Portable Document Format) because it is stable, virtually virus-proof, compatible with computer/operating systems, and you can control the exact look and feel of your document. PDF files are read with the free Adobe Acrobat Reader and are normally small files with quick download times.
.Exe files are an alternative, but they can be very susceptible to viruses, and firewalls hate them.
Handheld Readers-- In some ways, these are what ebooks are all about -- reading on the move. Handhelds such as the Sony Reader, Amazon's Kindle and iRex's iLiad are great for the business of reading, but they would not be your first choice for viewing complex designs and colour pictures. Formatting for this platform therefore has got to be simple -- plain text with an uncomplicated, flowing ebook structure. Also, the file types for this platform can be complex and diverse -- ranging from .epub files to .mobi variations.