eBook Formatting for Children’s Books

eBook formatting for children’s books is very complicated because of illustrations. Rarely can you take the print version and directly translate it into an ebook because the illustrations and text usually have to match up in some way. Controlling the display in an ebook reader is complicated. We’ll look at some solutions and provide some resources.

ePub Standards Affect eBook Formatting

Formatting any ebook should be simple because there are epub standards. ePub 2.0 was effective in 2009; ePub 3.0 followed in 2010. It’s relatively easy to follow the standards. But not all ebook readers support 2.0, much less 3.0. In addition, there are many older versions of ebook readers which supported a previous standard.

Want to publish a children's book, but don't know how to format the ebook? Tips, software and tutorials. |

Lowest Common Denominator. I once submitted a couple ebooks to the Independent Book Publisher’s Association’s Benjamin Franklin Digital Book awards. I used InDesign to format the print version, and used its export to ebook function to produce the ebook. Indesign’s export supports ePub 3.0. I assumed my files were good. For one thing, the award committee would have the latest software, right? Wrong.

Some judges were using older software, so the eBooks didn’t show up correctly. Or, they had older versions of an ebook reader and files were displayed incorrectly. Maybe you’re thinking that my files weren’t formatted correctly. There’s a free validator program, but it limits the file size to only 10MG. We’ll talk more about file sizes in a minute, but for now, understand that 10MG may be a small ebook for picture books. I like to pay for a month at eBook Flight Deck because it does extra validation for different ebook stores. And yes, my files validated.

I learned that when you publish an ebook in today’s environment, you can’t assume that your reader will have the most up to date software. Instead, it seems wise to format for the lowest common denominator. Occasionally, I still get one-star reviews on picture books because the files don’t show up correctly on someone’s outdated ebook reader. In those cases, I suggest they ask for a refund.

Ebook Readers Complicate eBook Formatting

Wikipedia lists 104 different types of ebook readers, both current and legacy versions. The problem is that many of those older ebook readers are still in use. Each eReader interprets the ePub standards in a slightly different way. Besides that, they may add proprietary coding that affects only certain devices.

It’s virtually impossible to purchase all the varieties and test your ebook. Many people like to purchase a small selection and vet the ebooks in those. I prefer to use the Ebook Flight Deck and realize that I can’t maintain perfection for every single ebook reader in existence. I guess this is a call for ebook manufacturers to more closely follow the standards – but that’s a pie-in-the-sky wish for now.

Dealing with Illustrations: B/W within a Novel

Kell and the Horse Apple Parade  includes b/w illustrations. It's an example of how a children's flowable ebook uses illustrations. |
Kell and the Horse Apple Parade includes b/w illustrations. It’s an example of how a children’s flowable ebook uses illustrations. |
Let’s say that you have a children’s novel that will include black-and-white illustrations in the text. This is common for early chapter books, and becoming more common for middle grade novels.

There are different types of illustrations:

  • Full page illustration
  • Spot illustrations, which are small illustrations embedded in the text
  • Illustrations that form a border across two pages

The problem is that most ereaders allow the reader to increase or decrease the font size. This is a major problem when you want the illustration to stay with a certain text. As you change the text size, how does it shift the illustration?
The usual solution for spot illustrations is to format the illustration with an “align code” that forces the illustration to the right, left or center. For full page illustrations and some spot illustrations, it’s formatted with text above and below it. That may cause awkward page turns when the text size is changed, but it works.

The last type of illustration, the border across two pages cannot be managed without major coding. Ebook novels are almost always formatted as single page spreads that are flowable. You can’t combine that formatting with the double page spreads of color picture books as explained below. You’d have to split it into two images, and then live with the fact that the text and image may not match up.

Recommended software:
First a comment: every time I need to format a new ebook, I feel like I’m starting from scratch. An ebook is a set of files that are zipped together, and then given an .epub extension. But the programs to create .epubs change rapidly to keep up-to-date with new ebook readers being released all the time. These are my current recommendations, but this may change soon.

Jutoh. Jutoh is a solid program that is fairly easy for beginners, but has the complexity needed for advanced formatting.

Vellum. My current favorite novel program is this slick program, Vellum. This program has some built in styles that look nicer than the usual formatting. It allows for adding simple black-and-white illustrations and is very simple to use. Another great feature is that you can add in affiliate links to different ebook stores. When you do that, the output will include a different file folder for each ebook store, and it includes everything needed to upload. In other words, it will copy the cover file to each folder. You don’t have to go hunting for any files. A breeze to use. It doesn’t do fixed-format ebooks.

Dealing with Illustrations: Full Color Picture Books

When you discuss full color picture books, everything is more complicated. There two major problems: placement of text on the image and file size.

Burn: Michael Faraday's Candle is an example of a fixed-format children's picture book. |
Burn: Michael Faraday’s Candle is an example of a fixed-format children’s picture book. |

Placement of text is actually easy to solve by embedding the text in the image itself. The disadvantage of this approach is that it defeats the advantages of ebooks: flowable text, reader control of text size, and searchable text. Nevertheless, this is my strategy of choice because–see the discussion above–I format for the lowest common denominator. This type book is called a fixed-format ebook, as opposed to the reflowable format of novel ebooks.

I format my print book in Indesign, then export .jpg spreads at a lower resolution with all text embedded. Print files must be 300dpi for most printers. I export spreads for eBooks at 96dpi. Then there are several options.

Kindle Kids Creator Program. Kindle formatting is one of the most difficult because they add proprietary coding. I’ve concluded that it’s best to just go along with their program. I use the exported spread images and follow their directions. It has some advantages because it alloww you to set certain areas to zoom. This can make text more readable and image details show up better. It’s touted as an amazing addition to children’s ebooks, but I’ve rarely seen it used to a real advantage. Unfortunately, KKCP only exports Kindle formats and for every other ebook store, you must provide an .epub. That means you’ll have to create two different versions of the ebook.

File size matters for Kindle ebooks because Amazon charges $0.15/MG for a download fee that the publisher pays. Unfortunately, my color picture books are about 8MG. Priced at $2.99, 70% royalty rate, I should gross $2.09. However, the download fee of $0.15 x 8 = $1.20.

$2.09 – $1.20 = $1.09 gross profit.

Half the profit of a full color children’s picture eBook is eaten up by the download fee. This is motivation to keep the Kindle ebook as small a file size as possible. No other ebook distributor currently charges a download fee. If you publish at 35% royalty rate, Kindle doesn’t add in the download fee. If you choose the 35% option for a $2.99 price, you wind up about even with $1.05/sale.

For the epub version of the picture book, which goes to Apple, Nook, Kobo, and any other platform, I hand code the ebook, using template files. I’ve tried every program around and nothing seems to work well. Exporting to epub from InDesign gives you a ePub 3.0 validated file, but remember I’ve had problems with that on older ebook models. To understand hand coding, the best I can do is send you to R. Scot Johns tutorials and templates for fixed-format ebooks. In any case, his tutorials are extremely helpful to understand the issues involved in creating the fixed-format style. Even if you hire someone to format your files, it’s helpful to understand the format better.

My template files include the ebook packaging files, and a folder for images. For a new ebook, I must change the metadata to include the ebook’s title, ISBN, and etc. And then add in the images for the new ebook. I’ve standardized my file numbering system, just naming the files 1.jpg, 2.jpg, etc. That makes it simple to drop in the images for the new ebook.

Formatting children’s ebooks is complicated. But it can be done.

Here are some examples of my eBooks.

Kell and the Horse Apple Parade – Flowable Text Children’s Book

An example of a flowable text children's book. |


BURN: Michael Faraday’s Candle – Fixed Format Children’s Book

Burn: Michael Faraday's Candle - example of fixed format children's ebook. |



All formats also available on Follett, Mackin, Permabound, and Ingram.