eBook formats

In another post we offered a new definition for a book and an ebook:

‘A books is a transferable, portable, standalone and interactive package of readable knowledge employing any of the various forms of media, including words, sounds, and static, moving or interactive images. It can be produced or reproduced on physical objects such as paper sheets, or in digital form’.


‘An ebook is simply a book that is produced in digital form.’

ereadersSo any book that’s produced in a digital format can be considered an ebook. As a result, an ebook may appear as a simple .txt, PDF, OpenDoc, MS Word, html, and of course the conventional ebooks formats such as ePub and Mobi, as long as it fits within the definition of a book. There are tens of ebook standards out there, ePub and Mobi being only the most common formats in use. You may stumble upon ‘Mobi Pocket’, ‘DjVu’, ‘BBeB’, or ‘eReader’, but ePub is fast becoming the MP3 of the ebook publishing industry, followed by Mobi (only because Mobi is the format that Amazon has created for its Kindle, and because Amazon is the largest book distributor and retailer in the world!), so I can safely advise you to forget about other formats. All you need are the four main standards: TXT, PDF, ePub, and Mobi. Assuming that as publishers you already know what you need to know about TXT and PDF, I would suggest that you focus on producing great ePubs, as great ePubs can easily be converted to other formats, including Kindle’s Mobi. You may also stumble upon ebook mobile apps, and if that is what you want to create, you can. But start with ePubs and take it from there.

There is an important fact that you would need to accept before stepping on the road of becoming an ebook publisher. You are going to share your power with the readers. In traditional publishing, you dictate how the readers would see your content. You carefully choose the fonts, you decide on the page templates, you meticulously get rid of widow and orphan lines, you create graphical balance between text and images and images and images on facing pages, you loyally obey the rules of the Golden Section, spend hours on deciding the relation of the text area and the white space, and you produce books that you believe are going to provide readers with the best reading experience possible.

Guess what, users have different tastes. When you produce an ePub, you are handing over the power of deciding how the text looks like to your readers. They may prefer to read your novel in a Sans Serif typeface, although you strongly believe that a novel should be set in a Serif typeface. You may love your expensive in-huse font, but a reader may just want to read in Helvetica. In graphic design, white text on a black background is considered sacrilege, but I have seem many users who have set ‘White over Black’ as the default setting in their ebook reading software. And most annoyingly, you have no controle over your widows and orphans.

Of course, ePubs don’t strip you of this power, you can design your ePubs in any way you want, but most eBook reading software such as iBooks just ignore it and hand the power to the reader (there are ways to go around this and create fixed-width ePubs, but the beauty of the concept is that the format is the container for the content, the content is the most important asset, and the readers can choose how to consume the content, so they will read more, as they feel that your book is ‘their’ book.)

There is a practical parameter involved as well: You don’t know the size of the screen the user is using to read your book. eBooks can be consumed on various tablets, personal computers, smartphones and e-readers. You cannot — it’s simply not practical — to produce dedicated ebook for every single device and every single screen size out there. You need to produce one file that fits all. In the old days you chose your book size, or maybe two or three sizes and you published the book in those sizes. Now you can’t, you don’t know what screen your reader will be using to read your beloved book.

That’s where ePubs step in, and PDFs bow out. The main concept behind an ePub standard is that the content is ‘re-flowable‘. You can read about the origin and the specific details of ePub on Wikipedia, but I’m talking about logistics of publishing here and I’m not giving a technical lecture.

The concept behind the ePub filem having roots in the old Open Book standard, is amazingly and geniusly simple: An epub is a zip file with the extension of .epub, containing html files, a CSS file defining the styles, other assets such as images and other media you may use, plus a manifest file that explains what goes where. Basically, it’s a packaged website. So, the Web is taking over the book publishing industry. Your typesetters and production team now need to have web development skillsets available to them: XHTML, CSS, HTML, XML and Java Script.

Well, it would have been great if these skillsets were available, but these skills are expensive, and most publishers cannot afford to have an in-house team of front end developers. But if you have adopted a Digital First strategy, you don’t need those skills for most of your books, as you have XML files for your books. If you remember, an XML file is a set of rules for encoding documents in a format that is both human-readable and machine-readable. This means that there are hundreds of software solutions out there that can convert your XML files to html files, and empower you to create a CSS for your files and package them as ePubs. Even book design software such as Adobe Indesign now allow you to export your books as ePubs. If you get your XMLs right, you can produce ePubs and other ebook formats in no time. If you have the epub file of your book, you can convert it to Mobi at no extra cost, and with these two formats, you can publish your ebooks on almost all e-readers, tablets and smartphones out there.

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