So You Want to Make an e-Book

Here are some insights into different formats available for creating e-books—and some issues to consider.

When picking an e-book format, you’ll be making trade-offs among these factors:

  • device compatibility (What devices/platforms can customers read it on?)
  • sales compatibility (Where can you sell it?)
  • features (What does it look like? What can it do?)
  • ease/cost of conversion (How long will it take? How much will it cost?).

ebook-format-comparison

These are the five major formats to consider for publishing an e-book:

  •  PDF
  •  EPUB2/KF8
  •  reflowable EPUB3/KF8
  •  fixed-layout EPUB3/KF8
  •  iBooks Author format

There are other formats, but these five cover the vast majority of business cases. Whenever you hear “e-book,” you can take it to mean that the speaker is thinking of one of these five formats.

Which e-Book Format is Right for Your Project?

Here’s a more detailed look at some of the trade-offs you can expect to make in choosing an e-book format:

Portable Document Format (PDF)

You’re probably familiar with PDF already.

Device Compatibility: fantastic

  • PDFs can be read on all kinds of e-readers, and other platforms, to boot.

Sales Compatibility: poor

  • There’s no major e-book sales platform that will sell PDF. You’d have to sell them through your own website, or in some other way.

Features: ok

  • PDFs can do almost anything: sound, video, animation, interactivity—but not on e-readers. If your customers use Kindles—even the newest Kindles—PDF loses any advantage it has here.

Ease of Conversion: fantastic

  • This is as close to push-button as it gets. Since the book was probably exported as a PDF already (for press) it’s likely an easy process to re-export, this time targeting digital platforms.

EPUB2/KF8

Export as EPUB2 (an older version of the EPUB format). Because Kindles won’t read EPUB, also export in Amazon’s proprietary Kindle Format 8, which replaced the “Mobi” format.

Device Compatibility: good

  • If it’s an e-reader, it probably reads EPUB. If it doesn’t, it’s probably a Kindle. It doesn’t have the best support on devices like PC or Mac, but with few exceptions, e-readers can read these files.

Sales Compatibility: fantastic

  • Sell KF8 files through Amazon’s store; sell EPUB2 through Apple’s and through Kobo, Barnes & Noble, eBooks.com, Google Play Books, and likely any more outlets that spring up in the near future.

Features: poor

  • EPUB2 more or less limits books to text and images. There’s very little in the way of design options, and next to no support for multimedia. There’s no way to use multi-column layouts or marginalia—all content must sit in the same flow of text. It may be impossible to achieve the “look” a publisher is after.

Ease of Conversion: good

  • Perversely, the harsh design limitations make this a faster process than it would be otherwise. The conversion process boils down to deciding what should or should not appear in the electronic version, and in what order it should appear.

Reflowable EPUB3/KF8

The newest version of EPUB, and Kindle Format 8.

Device Compatibility: ok

  • Support is still iffy for EPUB3. If your customers use Kindle Reader, iBooks, Kobo, Android’s Play Books, or Readium for Chrome, this should be safe. If they use Nook, though, or some other less notable e-reader, watch out.

Sales Compatibility: fantastic

  • Just like EPUB2/KF8, you can sell these just about anywhere that calls itself an e-book store.

Features: ok

  • Reflowable EPUB3 lets books include multimedia features like videos, sound clips, and audio narration—but note that these aren’t widely supported; only those using iBooks or Kobo (notably not Kindle) will be able to make use of them. Layout options are still nearly non-existent.

Ease of Conversion: good

  • Almost identical to converting for EPUB2. Integrating embedded multimedia does have some cost associated with it.

Fixed-Layout EPUB3/KF8

EPUB3 and KF8 have a special “fixed-layout” mode to give the publisher more control over what the book looks like on the screen.

Device Compatibility: poor

  • Support for fixed-layout EPUB3 is limited to Apple’s iBooks and Kobo tablets, but it is growing (slowly). Only customers with Kindle Reader will be able to read Kindle Format 8.

Sales Compatibility: fantastic

  • Although many buyers may not be able to read these files, almost any e-book store will sell them.

Features: good

  • The design options open up with a fixed layout. An e-book in these formats can closely match the page structure from the print book, and can include embedded multimedia and even interactive elements and animation (so far only in iBooks).

Ease of Conversion: poor

  • Converting to a fixed layout means redesigning the book, to one degree or another. Note that Kindles and iPads have screens of various sizes and shapes, so depending on which platforms are targeted, more than one layout may be required.

iBooks Author Format

Books created in Apple’s proprietary iBooks Author format can have all kinds of wonderful features, but they are limited in their compatibility and availability.

Device Compatibility: terrible

  • You can only read iBooks Author e-books on an iPad, in iBooks. Period.

Sales Compatibility: ok

  • Only Apple’s iBookstore will sell an iBooks Author e-book. Publishers could also sell through their own website. One wrinkle here is that Apple will promote iBooks Author e-books to help out their pet format, whereas they will unconditionally not promote similar e-books made with fixed-layout EPUB3.

Features: fantastic

  • E-books in iBooks Author can have a wide variety of built-in interactives— slideshows, popups, quizzes, games, and embedded multimedia. In addition, almost anything you could put on a website, you can put in an iBooks textbook (that’s the official name for a book made with iBooks Author). And iBooks Author offers  great opportunity for visual design.

Ease of Conversion: terrible

  • Making a book in iBooks Author offers all the disadvantages of converting to EPUB3, plus the requirement that the book be copy-pasted piece by piece from InDesign into iBooks Author—a challenging piece of software to use. To complicate matters further,  publishers must consider the different sizes and shapes of iPad screens and a reflowable layout option when the reader turns the iPad to a vertical orientation.

The format you choose will really depend on your market and what works best for them. We’d love to hear what makes the most sense for you.

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