E-book Formats: The Basics

January 2011
by Linda Nix

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Do you understand the difference between e-book readers and apps? Are you frustrated by having to produce different book files for different platforms? Is it hard for you to decide which format(s) you should be using to produce your books?

The term e-book can mean a range of things in different contexts, which is confusing enough. What makes it worse is that writers with technical and production backgrounds assume a basic level of IT knowledge that many people in the publishing industry do not have, though they are competent and experienced book publishers, editors, marketers, and so on. Those writers forget that it is easy to use a computer or smartphone every single day without any understanding at all of the hardware, software, and data involved.

Consider the confusion around the term app, for example. App is just another name for software. Can you imagine a senior (non-IT) executive enthusiastically declaring “I love software” in the same way that I heard one declaring “I love apps”? There are some real distinctions for IT purists, but for most of us the terms software, program, application, and app are interchangeable.

So when we refer to e-books, are we referring to the content, the format, the app, or the device?

Sometimes it is difficult to make any distinction. And some vendors blur the distinctions between hardware and software as well as distinctions between software and content so they can entice publishers and readers to choose their content, on their platform, on their device.

Most publishers, authors, and readers prefer a variety of choices; publishers and authors want books available in as many channels as possible, and readers want as many books as possible available in their chosen channels.

The information that follows is designed to provide some e-book basics that can empower publishers (and readers) to make informed choices.

An e-book is a digital file. Most people are already familiar with digital files, since word-processing documents, spreadsheets, images, emails, Web pages, PDFs, and so on are all digital files.

Digital files are, by definition, digital. At a certain level—machine level—they are all a series of 0’s and 1’s (binary digits). How you read and manipulate the files depends on your hardware (the machine), the hardware’s operating system, the software installed on that operating system, and, of course, the format of the file.

Some familiar examples: Word documents are saved in Word files with the filename extension .doc. To read a Word file, you need the Word program (usually as part of the Office suite). But the Word program you use depends on which version you have (e.g., Word 2003, Word 2007), which in turn depends on which operating system you are running (e.g., Microsoft Windows or Mac OSX). In turn, the operating system depends on your hardware (Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7 are all operating systems that work on PCs, while OSX and iOS are operating systems that work on Apple Macs and iPhones respectively). To be readable, a Word file needs to be saved in a format compatible with the version of Word software you are using, which needs to be compatible with the operating system installed on your hardware.

Similarly, email files are generally .txt, .rtf, or .html files. To read an email file, you need an email program such as Outlook, Mail, or Eudora, or a Web browser (for Web-based mail such as Gmail). You then need to have this program installed on the right operating system (e.g., Outlook on Windows, Mail on OSX), which depends on your hardware.

E-books are no different. To be accessed (read), an e-book file must be saved in one of several specific formats. Most people are familiar with the .pdf and .html formats, and increasingly familiar with .epub. Just as for other digital files, you need the right software to read the right format, and you need that software installed on a compatible hardware device.

The table below shows the major formats and software for reading e-books, and their compatible operating systems and devices.

Format

Software (“apps”)

Operating systems

Hardware (devices)

PDF (Adobe)

Adobe Reader

Adobe Acrobat

Web browser plug-ins

Mobile apps (e.g., iAnnotate, GoodReads)

Vendor platforms

Windows

OSX for Macs

iOS

Desktops

Laptops

Notebooks

Tablets

Smartphones

HTML & XHTML

Web browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Explorer, Opera, Safari)

Vendor platforms

Windows

OSX for Macs

iOS

BlackBerry

Android

Desktops

Laptops

Notebooks

Tablets

Smartphones

EPUB

Adobe Digital Editions

iBooks

Kobo

Stanza

Windows

OSX for Macs

iOS

Android

BlackBerry

Various e-book device systems

Desktops

Laptops

Note-books

Tablets

Smartphones

B&N Nook

Kobo

Sony eReader

Kindle

Kindle

Kindle

OSX for Macs

iOS

BlackBerry

Android

The e-book as app—that is, the standalone app specific to a single book—is outside the scope of this article, but this fast-developing area is worth watching. In most cases, e-book apps will need to be cross-platform apps.

Device Differences

Whenever new hardware arrives on the scene—think Apple’s iPad, the Kindle, the Nook—it comes with a new operating system. The manufacturers have decided whether to let users install software on the device as they please (as users can with most computers, tablets, and notebooks), or under controlled circumstances (as with approved apps for the iPad and iPhone, for example), or not at all (as with dedicated e-book devices such as the Kindle, Nook, and Sony eReader).

If a device lets you install software, then the chances are there will be an e-book app for it. If not, then the e-book app is built into the device, which means the choice of format has been made for you, although in some cases the app can be freed from the device for installation on other devices (for example, Kindle is now available for multiple hardware/operating systems).

It is easy for people to forget that the most common apps for reading e-book files are Web browsers and PDF readers, which are available on most devices.

Many PDF e-books are sold via proprietary vendor platforms—usually Web browser–based—that control access to them. Examples include eBooks.com and Books.Google.com (Google Books will be offering books in a choice of PDF or EPUB formats, for viewing within a Web browser online and offline).

So while many people think buying an iPad means being locked into Apple’s iBook platform for reading e-books, using it is actually more like using a computer or notebook on which you can read e-books in the software of your choice, any Web-based platform that supports the Safari browser, any PDF Reader app, the Kindle app, the Kobo app, the Stanza app, and so on.

E-books have been, and still are, going through format wars, which are as much about devices as about file formats. The likely winners look to be the EPUB format and XHTML, both of which are open XML-based formats and can be read on a multitude of software platforms and devices. The PDF format is also likely to remain in the picture for some time to come. Other important formats with niche markets are Mobipocket and DAISY.

Linda Nix has extensive experience in online sales platforms and multiformat production systems and more than 20 years of experience in publishing for print and online, across a range of production, editorial, marketing, IT, and business roles (many combined) for small and large organizations in Sydney and Seattle. She recently began consulting under the name Golden Orb Creative Services, a move allowing her the freedom to publish her blog Gossamers (goldenorbcreative.wordpress.com). To reach her, email goldenorb@me.com.

 

 

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