Ebooks, Editing, Publishing, Writing

How to make an ebook for free

Black & white photo of a woman typing on a laptop.

By Sharon Lapkin

If you’ve been thinking about making an ebook, now is the time to do it.

Downloadable ebooks are experiencing unprecedented levels of popularity and are generally considered prized giveaways and items of value.

Web entrepreneur Neil Patel lists ebooks as the second most successful way to create lead generating content.

The Digital Marketing Institute sees ebooks as unique content marketing tools because they play an integral role in a company’s marketing strategy by demonstrating authority and subject matter expertise.

Ebooks are your unique opportunity to demonstrate your expertise to potential clients. I’m going to show you here how to make a PDF ebook for free.

What is an ebook?

An ebook is a piece of long-form content with at least 2,000 words. It includes text and images, and can include tables, graphs, infographics and screen clips.

Structured like a traditional book, an ebook contains a table of contents, page numbers, a hierarchy of headings, links, captions and source lines.

It can be detailed content that focuses on a specific topic—drilling down to examine concepts at a granular level. Or it can be complex content that is broken down into easy-to-understand concepts.

The text design, or layout, is as important as the content itself. Good design enables readers to focus with clarity, clearly understand the content and retain it in their memory.

Ebooks also need to be visually appealing. You want your readers to enjoy the experience and find it aesthetically pleasing. This increases the likelihood of them sharing the reading experience with their friends and colleagues.

Let’s start with Microsoft Word 

Authors and editors in publishing houses use the Word program to create the books you find in bookstores.

The content, or manuscript, goes through an editorial process before it is handed over to a graphic designer who lays it out in Indesign. Then it goes through a series of editorial checks before the editor signs it off and sends it to the printer.

We’re going to follow the same process with one exception. We’re not going to send our book to the printer – instead we’ll convert it to PDF file and make it available as a downloadable ebook.

PDF is the ideal format because it is universally recognised by PCs, Macs and ebook readers. PDF also keeps the content stable, and unlike Word, the different elements on the page do not move about during transit.

Plan your content

The first thing to do is create a plan of your content.

It should have the following components:

  1. Cover
  2. Table of contents
  3. Introduction
  4. Main content
  5. Summary
  6. Call to action

Let’s break it down even further.


Be bold and creative. Your cover is the first thing your potential readers will see, and within a few seconds they will decide whether to read on.

Go to Canva and design a cover yourself. You can upload your own photos to Canva and set custom measurements. For A4 you need 21 cm x 29.7 cm. Alternatively, there are A4 templates available in Canva’s gallery. Just add your own graphics and text, download as a PDF and insert it into the front of your ebook.

Microsoft Word also has the functionality to create a cover for your ebook. Go to the Word Document Gallery and select a template of your choice. Add your text and colour scheme, save and insert into your ebook.

Table of contents

A table of contents (TOC) is always created at the end when your content is stable and complete. Leave a blank page for your TOC and come back to it at the end. In the meantime take care as you write your headings because these are what will end up in your TOC.

For an ebook it’s relatively easy to create a TOC manually. Your headings should be hierarchical, so ensure you select the ‘A heads’, or the largest heads, for the main headings in your TOC. Subheadings can be listed under it, but keep them consistent. If in doubt refer to a TOC in a hard copy textbook and use this as an example.


In the introduction explain to your readers what your ebook is about, what your expertise is and why they should read it.

Don’t forget to tell them what’s in it for them.

Main content

This is the ebook’s reason for being.

Divide your main content into sections that flow sequentially. Ensure it isn’t repetitive and break it up with graphics and images. Be sure to insert links to your website and blog where relevant.


Summarise the takeaways from the main content. Describe the main message in a nutshell.

What should your readers know after reading your ebook? They’re downloading it because they want to know how to do something, so make sure you deliver it and don’t stray from your message.

Call to action

Use this opportunity to convince your readers to extend their relationship with you. Even though this section is likely only a few sentences, spend some time thinking about how to convert your readers into your customers.

You need more than great content

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that writing high-quality content is all that matters. In fact, it’s only half the story.

The layout and formatting of an ebook is as important as the content, and it all needs to come together like a symphony. For this you need consistency.

There should be a heading hierarchy, so there is order and consistency in the way the content flows throughout the ebook.

The spaces between the paragraphs need to be the same, and the treatment of tables, images and graphics should also be consistent.

Layout consistency is the key to comfortable reading. It enables the reader to focus on the content without being distracted, and it signifies professionalism.

The best way to do this is to create and use paragraph styles—a function of Word.

Let’s look at headings first.

Always use the same font for headings, and use a common font such as Ariel, Helvetica or Calibri to save downloading time.

The following headings show the difference in point size necessary for clarity:

Choose your font carefully

(*A head)

Why font type is important

(*B head)

The best font

(*C head)


(*D head)

Each head level reduces either two or one points in size as we move down the hierarchy.

The fourth head, the C head, is italics because the third head was size 11 font and any smaller would cause legibility issues.

Note each head has an asterisk before it. This is so the new styles created sit at the top of the style list in Word.

Creating a heading style in Microsoft Word on a Mac.

Creating a heading style in Microsoft Word on a Mac.

To manually create your own heading style on a Mac go to go to ‘Format’ then ‘Style’ and select ‘New’ (marked ‘1’ on the image above). Then write the name of your new style in the box (2). Insert an asterisk at the beginning so all your style stay at the top of the list.

Next go to the Formatting function (3) and select your preferred font, point size and bold.

Creating a heading style in Microsoft Word on a Mac.

Creating a heading style in Microsoft Word on a Mac.

To finish creating your heading style go to ‘Format’ (1) and open up the ‘Paragraph’ menu (2). Go to ‘Spacing’ and make a six point space before and after your heading. For large headings the space before and after may need to be more. Experiment until you have the space that fits your heading best.

The main text

There are two types of main text—indented and ‘full out’. Full out text aligns directly to the left from the top of the page to the bottom. Sometimes an indent on the first line is needed, such as at the beginning of paragraphs. To set this in your style, go to the ‘Special’ menu to the right of (4) below and adjust it for the first line indent.

Use the same font for headings and text in your ebook, and never use more than two different fonts. You can add variety to a font by changing the size and by using different colours. Dark grey is a good alternative to black in captions and source lines.

Creating a full out, or hard-left alignment style in Microsoft Word on a Mac.

Creating a full out, or hard-left alignment style in Microsoft Word on a Mac.

To create a style in Word for ‘full out’ text, or text that aligns sharp left, create a new style (1), name it (2)—then go to the Format menu and ‘Paragraph’. Make sure there is no indentation—that both left and right margins (4) are zero.

In ‘Spacing’ (5) you will need to select how much space you want between paragraphs. Usually 6 pts above and 6 pts below will do it. You also have the  option to insert horizontal space between the lines (6). You can try 1.5 for more room between the lines, or write your own recipe in the box to the right.

Creating a block indented style in Microsoft Word on a Mac.

Creating a block indented style in Microsoft Word on a Mac.

To create a style for indented text follow the instructions above until you get to (4). Instead of setting it at zero, set it at the width of indentation you want. Here is is 1.2, which is quite wide. Keep your Spacing (5) at zero pts if you have a block of text. If you want to insert paragraphs in your text set this at 6 pts above and below.

Once again set your horizontal spacing between lines of text for single, 1.5. double or your own recipe.

Indented text moves the text over .6, 1.2, 1.8 – or whatever size indent you want for a selected amount of text. This may be for a quote, stand-alone text or to align with another element on the page.

How to format a list in Word

There are two list types generally used in publishing – bullets and numbers.

Bullet lists are much easier to construct in Word because there is no renumbering and the same style can be used in subsequent bullet point lists.

Write your bullet point in sentences and hit return between each one.

Once you’ve written the list points highlight the entire list and go to your style tab in Word.

Lists always have a hierarchy. This allows room on the page for sub-lists to be formatted. If you indent your first list you have reduced space on the page for your second-and third-level lists. Note the bullet list below is indented because WordPress has the indent as a default. Ideally, the bullets should align with the beginning of the sentences above them on the left-hand edge of the page.

Another difference between bullet and number lists is that number lists need a new style created for every new number list. If you don’t do this and use the same style the numbers will run onto the new list.

For bullet lists you can reuse the same style because they don’t need to be sequential.

  • A bullet is round.
  • A bullet list is not necessarily sequential.
  • Bullets can be found in the ‘Tabs’ tab.

A number list is constructed in the same way as a bullet list, except in the ‘Tabs’ menu click on ‘Tab’ then ‘Numbers’ and select the type of number format you prefer.

Editing and proofreading your ebook

When your ebook is written and styled it needs to be edited and proofread.

The best time to edit your ebook is when it’s still in Word format. If you wrote it yourself commission somebody else to edit it, and ask them to use track changes so you can accept or reject their corrections. If you can, though, hire a professional editor. If you need to know why, take a look at my article Yes, you need an editor.

Once the editing is done and corrections are taken in and checked, convert your Word document to PDF format. Print it out to check the resolution because onscreen resolution is 72 dpi; whereas, print resolution needs to be 300 dpi—and some people may want to print your ebook.

Finally, you should proofread your ebook as a PDF. This final check is to ensure no typos have been missed and that every page is where it should be. Read How to proofread like a professional, and also remember to check that the page numbers in the TOC correspond to actual pages (a lot of people forget to do this). Also check it has a page at the end that acts as a back cover.

Before you press ‘Publish’

Always wait a day or two before you publish. While it’s exciting to get your work out there, it’s important to go back to it with fresh eyes and read through it carefully.

Most global publishing houses and major news outlets have at least one horror story to tell about overlooked errors that caused them embarrassment. So take your time and be completely satisfied that your ebook is perfect before you send it out into the world.

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