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Understanding E-Book Formats

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Five years ago, when our small publishing house made our first efforts to break into digital publishing, I remember struggling to learn about this new thing called an EPUB. What is a style sheet anyway, and how do I build a container XML file? Even at my best, all I was able to create back then was an ugly run-on document with weird page breaks and scattered images.

Fortunately, the available technology got better, and after many false starts, we finally got the hang of it. Now about half of our titles are available in digital formats, and we offer conversion services on the side. Everything we learned about e-book conversion came from scouring articles and other resources on the web, plus lots of trial and error. As a way to pay it forward, here is a brief roundup of important points for every publisher working on e-books.

Read on for an overview of the pros and cons, the costs, the competing formats, and other things to consider about including e-books in your catalog.

How Going Digital Will Affect You Day to Day

While screens may entirely replace paper some day, we’re not there yet. For now, digital publishing will most likely be a small sideline to your regular business—no dramatic changes are required. In other words, you don’t have to stop printing and selling paper books when you decide to go digital; multiple formats are OK.

At Brynmorgen Press, we feel that it is entirely possible, and probably a good idea, to offer our titles in both paper and digital formats. This lets us sell to all our customers, whatever their preferences, and it sets us up to ride the tech tsunami instead of getting swept away. There is no reason any publishing company can’t continue to do business as usual while adding a digital catalog.

The job of a publisher is to provide content to people. It is important to remember that printing presses and delivery trucks are just means to that end. Digital publishing does not require any of these steps, and while you may have to charge less for an e-book, you also don’t have to pay for any of that stuff. The numbers will look smaller, but the truth is, digital publishing offers a lot of pretty appealing benefits.

While it can cost thousands of dollars to order a printing, conversion to a digital format costs a fraction of that (or you can do it yourself), and your e-inventory never needs warehousing or restocking. When your books are uploaded to online bookstores, they are available 24 hours a day from anywhere on Earth. You need not worry about shipping or even processing the order.

As customers make purchases, you receive automatic payments (minus the 30% or so that most retailers charge) every time that book sells, forever. Furthermore, if your book is available at Amazon and iTunes, you’ve more or less achieved global distribution already. Creating demand is still on you, but at least you know that customers will always be able to find, purchase, and possess your product immediately.

Some publishers may be dismayed when they ponder the lower prices of e-books. While a handsome hardcover might fetch $45 at the bookstore, $9.99 might be a more appropriate price for the digital edition. Of course you are free to charge whatever you want, but the marketplace will dictate the best price points.

In our experience, physical book sales have not been dramatically affected even when a cheaper digital edition is available. Rather than taking a slice out of our pie, for now at least, digital sales are a small slice of extra pie on top of the regular paper pie we’ve always sold. More important, we’re ready if and when our customers decide to migrate.

Get to Know Competing E-book Formats

At present, two main e-book formats deserve consideration: EPUB and multi-touch books from Apple (see below for comparisons with PDFs, and note that Amazon uses something called .mobi, which is their version of EPUB; it handles conversion automatically when you upload an EPUB file).

Each format has advantages and disadvantages, and may or may not work on devices from different retailers. Even if you decide to hire a conversion service, you need to know what format suits your project and what to expect.

Here’s a basic guide for the uninitiated:

PDF (Portable Digital File)

A PDF can be thought of as a snapshot of your document. Most layout programs will let you export your document as a PDF with the click of a button. Your layout will remain intact, but it will not size for different devices (iPad, Kindle, Nook, etc.).

While this format can be okay for brochures and the like, readers will have to shuffle around the page and zoom in to read small print. And while web links can be made active and text can be cut and pasted, multimedia features and interactive Tables of Contents are basically nonexistent. More important, online retailers will not accept PDFs for upload.

PDF might provide a good way to send samples to clients, mail a flyer, or post a book section to your website, but it is not practical as a book publishing format.


The default industry standard, EPUB will work on just about any platform including Apple (iPad, iPhone, Mac), Amazon (Kindle), Barnes and Noble (Nook), Kobo, and so on (for a complete updated list of EPUB compatibility and features on various devices, visit: https://www.bisg.org/epub-3-support-grid).

Where this format falls down is with the very limited formatting options. Text and images are mashed together into a single flowing column so that sidebars, insets or any complicated formatting whatsoever are out the window. In EPUBs, readers can change font and font size as well, so the publisher really has no control over what the book looks like once it reaches a reader’s device. Although it is possible to add links to external videos, websites, and so on, capacity to include multimedia in the text itself is limited. This is because most retailers severely restrict document size when uploading.

While EPUB3, the latest edition, allows for more multimedia content than earlier versions, this lack of style and flexibility of format are still problematic for image-heavy books. It is possible to create workarounds for some of these obstacles if you have coding/computer programming experience, but for the layperson, not so much. EPUB may evolve into a more dynamic platform, or may be phased out by something else. Only time will tell.

Until recently, some coding experience was required just to build an EPUB file, but several programs can now handle that for you. Adobe InDesign CS5, Pages, Stanza, and Calibre are a few of the programs that let you export EPUB files. A learning curve is involved, however. Expect to watch several web tutorials before you get it right.

Alternatively, plenty of third-party providers will do the conversion for you. They can generally work from your original text and image files, your layout document, or even a PDF. The service generally costs $200-400.

For a book that is mostly text, EPUB is probably the way to go. You can upload EPUB files to all available platforms to be read on all devices. If your book is image heavy and/or uses a multi-column format, though, you will have to make drastic compromises when you convert to EPUB.

“Multi-touch” iBooks

We love iBooks, Apple’s proprietary format, so much that we specialize in this kind of conversion. In our opinion, it is the Cadillac of e-book formats and overcomes all the challenges we’ve faced with EPUB. We primarily publish richly illustrated textbooks and guides about jewelry and metalsmithing. The complex formatting that makes our books dynamic falls apart in the EPUB single column layout, and the liquid scrolling makes them all but unreadable.

Multi-touch books, on the other hand, use a fixed format so that we can style our e-books just the way we want. Furthermore, this platform makes it easy to include video, audio, interactive photo galleries, keynote presentations, and so on. This is hands down the best format for designers. BUT Multi-touch e-books can be sold only at the iBook store and can be read only on the iPad or a Mac computer running the current operating system.

For conversion, Apple offers a free program called iBook Author at the App Store. Using this layout software, it is possible to create and publish your own beautiful iBook. The program is elegant but a bit quirky, and you should expect to invest a week or two learning the ins and outs. The cost for outsourcing conversion depends on a book’s complexity and length, and generally runs from $200-$500.

This is far and away the most attractive and versatile format. Although it’s limited to Apple users, they number in the millions. We encourage any client who has a complex layout (textbook, children’s book, art book, and so on) to use it. If the client is worried about limiting access to Apple users, we suggest creating both a multi-touch iBook and an EPUB. That way, readers get the best possible format permitted by their devices.

Upload for Access

The final step in e-book publishing is uploading your files for sale on various online platforms. Of course, the biggest players are Amazon and Apple (for iTunes). Other large retailers include Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and Scribd. Each company has a slightly different protocol, described at their websites.

It is important to remember that books must be approved by each vendor before they go on sale, and this process can take a few weeks. And it is important to take note of each vendor’s pricing structure. At Amazon, for example, the standard contract offers the publisher 70% of sales, provided that the book is priced at $9.99 or less. Anything over that and the commission is only 35%.

In other words, you earn less by charging more until you charge a lot more. Obviously the goal at Amazon is to keep prices low as the public continues to get comfortable with the idea of digital books. Remember that this format eliminates most of your traditional overhead. When all is said and done, we find that the profit margins are remarkably similar.

For now, this is the landscape of digital publication, though the technology is constantly evolving. The good news is that it doesn’t cost a lot or take a long time to convert, and that it is completely possible to offer both a digital and paper catalog simultaneously. In our opinion, taking the time to convert is a good way to gauge the morphing marketplace, and it will set you up to roll with the changes.

Jeff McCreight heads the e-book group at Brynmorgen Press. To learn more about its conversion services or catalog: info@brynmorgen.com.

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