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E-book Basics

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E-book Basics

by Joshua Tallent

As an e-book developer and consultant, I have seen a broad array of books cross my desk. Most of these have subsequently graced the screens of the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, and iPhone, while a few have been too complex to get past the current limitations of the e-book formats and devices on the market right now.

What follows is basic information about the e-book formats available today, plus pointers about how to handle certain kinds of book elements in e-book formats.

Format Options


Many people still think “e-book” means “PDF.” Adobe’s Portable Document Format has long been the most popular format for selling e-book content to consumers, because most computers have a PDF-viewing program. It has also offered some level of piracy protection with built-in Digital Rights Management (DRM).

However, many other e-book formats are on the market, and some of them are becoming much more popular than PDFs. The two most important e-book formats are ePub and Mobipocket.


ePub is an open e-book formatting standard based on technologies like XML and HTML and maintained by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF; idpf.org), the trade and standards association for the digital publishing industry.

The ePub format is quickly becoming the default standard for e-books, with direct support from most major publishers and technology companies involved in the e-book industry. ePub files can be read on Mac and PC computers, the iPhone, the Sony Reader, and the Barnes & Noble Nook, as well as on more than 20 other devices, via either built-in or third-party software options.

Publishers and retailers commonly use Adobe’s Content Server 4 to wrap DRM around ePub files, and Adobe’s Digital Editions software interfaces with that DRM technology, as well as with devices that utilize it.


Mobipocket is a format that was developed in the early days of e-books, becoming popular on Palm handheld devices and similar hardware before smartphones and e-book devices started to take off.

Amazon purchased the Mobipocket company in 2005 and developed its Kindle e-book device to use the proprietary format. Because the Kindle has dominated the e-book consumer market since it was introduced in 2007, the Mobipocket format is an important part of the current e-book world.


A wide variety of other e-book formats exists, but most of them are waning in popularity or have already fallen into disuse. Microsoft’s LIT and B&N’s eReader formats are common on e-book retailer sites and are the only formats besides ePub and PDF distributed by Ingram, but they are both losing ground in the e-book market. Microsoft does not actively support the LIT format, and B&N has stated publicly that the introduction of its Nook marks the beginning of the company’s plan to adopt the ePub format as its official standard.

The list of e-book formats that have fallen into disuse is long and includes RocketBook (RB), Hie-book (KML), PalmDOC/iSolo (PDB), and HaaliReader (FB2). While you may still see e-books for sale in these formats on various e-book retailing sites, they make up a very small percentage of the e-book market.

Format and Device Limitations

Even if you use only ePub and Mobipocket when you create e-book files, you will need to take a lot of variables into account. Some books may simply not work in any e-book format except PDF, especially those with a large number of graphics, tables, or very complex graphic layouts.

ePub’s main limitation is not the format itself but the way the format is implemented and supported in the various devices and programs that can read it. The refresh rate of device screens and their size vary from device to device, and they can be the biggest factors in how an ePub file looks and operates. A book that looks fine in Adobe Digital Editions may look different (in a good or bad way) on the Sony Reader or in the Stanza application on the iPhone. Stanza can support video and audio content in an ePub file; the Sony Reader and the Nook cannot.

The Mobipocket format is limited not only because of the Kindle’s screen refresh rate and lack of color, but also because the format itself has not evolved over time to support more robust formatting and content types.

Which Kinds of Books Will Work


Given all these limitations, the easiest conversion from print book to e-book happens with straight-form narrative books like fiction, memoirs, and biographies. Some publishers choose to limit their e-book options to those types of books instead of taking on more difficult conversion projects.

However, it is possible to convert a much broader range of book types into e-books, and to make them look good on all the major devices where e-books are read. Sometimes that requires adapting the print book a little. For example, a color children’s book may need text moved below images to make it scalable or searchable, and a large table in a business book may need to be reformatted into a list to be readable on a small screen.

Still, some print books just can’t make it as e-books in non-PDF formats. For example, I commonly advise publishers against converting workbooks to e-books. The kind of layout workbooks require is just not possible at the moment in e-book formats and devices.

Can-do Coaching

The key to doing good e-book conversions is knowing these formatting and device limitations and being creative about e-book design. Here are some ways to deal with elements in print books that need some special handling.


Because the definition of a “page” is not the same for e-books and print books, you can’t make sure footnotes will show up on the bottom of the page/screen. But you can turn the footnotes into endnotes and link the reference numbers in the text to the endnotes at the back of the book. You can also create a link back from each endnote to the paragraph with the reference number.


Hanging indents are possible in the e-book formats, but it might be easier and more consistent to format bibliography paragraphs with no first-line indents and with some space between entries.


Because of differences in “pagination” between e-books and print books, many publishers just remove the index from an e-book altogether. Instead of sacrificing the index, you can link each page number in it to the e-book text, specifically to the content in the e-book that was at the beginning of that page in the print book. This process can be time-consuming, but the time will be well spent, since an index adds as much value to the e-book as it does to the print book.

Full-Color Graphics

While the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, and many other e-book devices do not have color screens, color images in your e-books will work for readers who are using a computer, the iPhone, and various other devices. Including color in your e-books is also a good way to prepare for future device improvements.

Bear in mind, though, that if a book consists mostly of full-page color graphics, the content will need to be revised. I rarely suggest making e-books out of print books that have full-page graphics or books that depend on specific typography because the designer’s intentions won’t translate easily.


Tables can be difficult to design in e-books, so it is usually best to take a screenshot or scan of the PDF or print layout and include that. If a table is necessary, be aware that the Kindle 1 does not have table support, that tables on the Kindle 2 and Kindle DX will probably not look very good, and that tables on various ePub devices may also have display problems.

Sidebars and Pullquotes

Floating elements are not supported in e-book formats, partly because small screens make floating content hard to read. Sidebars and pullquotes need to be inserted into the main flow of the text. They can be set apart with borders or horizontal lines in ePub files but only with horizontal lines in Mobipocket files.

E-book Devices

The number of dedicated e-book devices on the market is growing around the world. The latest count I have seen is about 30, and it seems like a week does not go by without the announcement that another device is being designed or released. However, many of these devices are not for sale in the United States, and most of them lack the functionality to be long-term successes.

Exact numbers are not available, but by most accounts the Amazon Kindle has the largest dedicated device market share in the United States. Some analysts have proposed that Amazon has 45 percent of the device market, Sony has 30 percent, and the rest of the competitors (Bookeen, COOL-er, Irex, etc.) have 25 percent. Because the Barnes & Noble Nook has not been released yet, there is no telling how much market share it will steal or where it will steal it from.

The number of devices on the market will continue to grow as companies try to wrangle a stable place in the new e-book market. It will also be significantly influenced by multiuse handheld devices, like the rumored Apple tablet and the already-leaked Microsoft Courier, as well as the iPhone, iPod Touch, and Android-based smartphones. I tend to think that the device market will stay in a configuration much like it is today for a long time, with a few top-selling dedicated reading devices and a wide array of other devices that allow e-book reading but are not designed specifically for that purpose.


The e-book market is still growing, and it will continue to grow as consumers latch onto the idea of buying books in electronic formats. The devices that support e-content consumption are becoming more powerful and more feature-rich, and the capability of those devices to support more complex formatting is increasing. Publishers who start working with e-books now will have a better grasp of how the industry works in the future and will be able to adapt their approach in this rapidly changing landscape.

Here is my advice to publishers:

• Find an expert who can help you navigate the e-book world, preferably someone who works in it every day.

• Get your most popular titles into the ePub and Mobipocket e-book formats and get them up for sale on popular, high-traffic e-book retailers like Amazon, Sony, and B&N.

• Develop a strategy for selling all your new titles as e-books and for expanding your reach in the market by adding new distribution channels and retailers.

Whatever you do, I urge you not to assume that the e-book world will fade into the night or continue to corner only a small percentage of print book sales. Jump into the digital world now and position your company to succeed as the e-book market matures.

Joshua Tallent is the owner and founder of eBook Architects, a conversion and consulting company based in Austin, TX, that assists authors and publishers who have e-book questions and needs. To learn more or to contact him, visit eBookArchitects.com.

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