In July 2010, Amazon.com reported that sales of its Kindle e-books outnumbered that of hardbacks on its store. Bibliophiles who swore by printed books have begun to see the advantages of e-books today. Although they don’t completely switch over to e-books, they have invested in an e-reader and have a small library of e-books loaded on it.
In India, e-readers have not yet become as popular as they have in America, but the trend is catching on.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an e-book as “a book composed in or converted to digital format for display on a computer screen or handheld device.”
E-books offer several advantages to the modern way of life. You can load hundreds or thousands of books into your e-reader, based on its capabilities, so the weight you have to lug around diminishes remarkably. E-books never go out of print or fade. Often, it is cheaper to print out an e-book than to buy a print version. Lots of e-books are offered free online, especially those that are in the public domain.
Many e-readers offer features like changeable font size, good readability in all kinds of light from bright sunlight to total darkness, translation into other languages, bookmarks, highlighting, dictionary reference, annotations, text-to-speech software for visually impaired or dyslexic readers and so on. Also, some e-readers let you shop for books directly from the device.
As with anything, there are disadvantages to e-readers and e-books. An e-reader may be stolen or damaged, destroying your e-books as well so you need to re-purchase the e-books. E-book formats change and evolve over the years, so e-books may need to be converted to be kept up to date. Books with pictures, diagrams or maps are more convenient to read in print. As many bookworms will say, a printed book has a feel and personality of its own, which an e-book just does not have.
That said, e-books have been around for a decade and are here to stay. As an author or publisher, it is important to keep up with the trends and know what formats work best for your books so you can make the best of the technology and use all available channels to reach readers.
The standard PDF
Adobe’s PDF (portable document format) is a common format for electronic documents and e-books around the world. Most devices can read PDFs and, in that sense, it is a universal format that represents the original set page exactly on any device. But it has its limitations—PDF is a fixed size format, so the text is not reflowable. Zooming in to increase the text size causes some of the text to go off the screen so that you need to scroll to see the rest. This makes for uncomfortable reading. If you fit the entire page to the screen, the font often becomes too small to be legible.
In reflowable text, the length of a line or page is not predefined; instead, the text is unrestricted so that fewer words are visible if the font size is increased or more fit in the screen if the font is smaller. Also, if the screen is small, fewer words are shown per line and a fewer number of lines appear per screen. So, the concept of a defined page goes away. This is similar to how Internet browsers often display text.
If you use fancy features that a particular e-book creation software offers, not all e-readers may be able to handle it, so it becomes difficult to ensure that your books appear as intended across all readers. PDF, on the other hand, is a mature format and most platforms have good PDF readers available all over the world.
Main formats today
Most new e-book formats are HTML based but also contain extra information specific to books such as the concept of chapters, bookmarks, table of contents and meta-data like author name, publisher and ISBN.
While there are several e-book formats available in the market today, including the popular Mobipocket and Topaz, the main formats that authors and publishers need to be aware of are PDF, EPUB and AZW.
The format widely considered the standard today is EPUB, which is used by most devices including iPad, Nook, Pi and Wink. Many free applications are available for reading this format on computers and smart phones. Google Books offers free e-books in this format. Several online libraries also offer EPUB formatted books. This is easily the most important format for e-books today.
Amazon.com created a proprietary format called AZW for its Kindle e-reader and all Kindle applications. If you use Amazon.com’s Direct Publishing platform, it can convert several formats, including EPUB, into AZW on its own. So, if you have your files prepared in EPUB format, you’re pretty much sorted out.
While EPUB looks like a perfect answer to the issues with PDF as an e-book format, it has its limitations, too. Reflowing can be a problem if the book is image heavy (like picture books or comics) or uses very wide tables. While people have worked around these issues, EPUB is still not ideal for every kind of book—especially if relative positioning of content is important.
There are a few questions that authors and publishers have about security of e-book files and DRM, which we’ll address in a separate post.
Here’s a quick glance comparison of EPUB and PDF formats:
|Retains original format and settings for uniform viewability||Yes||No|
|Free e-reader applications available for the format||Yes||Yes|
|Multiple platform on Mac OS, Windows, UNIX and mobile phone OS||Yes||Yes|
|Extensibility (number of software providers worldwide who use the format for creation, plug-ins, consulting, training and support, etc.)||Many, worldwide||Fewer, as it is relatively new|
|Supported on e-readers||All||All except Kindle, which does not support it directly|
|Security features and DRM||Yes||Yes|
|Supports colour images, video, Flash||Yes||Yes|
Formats authors should use
It is clear that both EPUB and PDF have their benefits and weak points, so which one should authors prepare their books in?
If the content is suitable, that is, if it is mainly text and can be reflowed well, prepare it in both formats. If the content is not suitable for EPUB format, you can prepare it as PDF alone. If you already have the e-book in one format, there are plenty of converters available that will convert the book from one format to the other, but how well this works is based on the content and what these formats are good for (see table).
You could decide on the format based on your target readership. For international readers, EPUB would be a better option as e-readers are rapidly gaining popularity in the west, but for an Indian readership, you could get by with a PDF for now.
However, as e-readers become more common and these formats evolve, the decision on formats may need to change.
How to prepare the book in different formats will be covered in a separate article.