I really should know more about ebook formats. Help please?

I like the concept of ebooks, but I’ve never gotten a Kindle or Nook or anything like that. I just read them on my computer. So there’s a lot I don’t know about ebook readers. Like I only just now found out that EPUB is supposed to be great because you can read them on anything, and I only found this out because apparently JK Rowking is releasing the Harry Potter books in EPUB (via Matt Yglesias).

Yet I should really know this stuff, because I’m definitely going to be releasing my book as an ebook, and it would be good to be able to make intelligent decisions about format. So, uh, first question: how do people feel about PDFs? It’s what most of the ebooks I have on my hard drive are, but initial Googling doesn’t give me a clear idea of how well they work on readers.

And… what else should I know about this stuff? I’m so ignorant, I really don’t even know what questions to ask.

UPDATE: Thanks to Jenora, I now get the difference between PDF and EPUB. Next question: if I were to only release my book in PDF and EPUB, would that be enough? Does anyone love the Kindle format so much they’d really want to have that? I don’t give a damn about DRM, personally.

  • Alverant

    My first question is what do you want to do with your eReader? Like do you want to check out books at the library? Last time I checked (2 Christmases ago) the Kindle didn’t. Persaonlly I’m not too thrilled with the Kindle mostly due to Amazon’s business plan. You’re not so much buying eBooks, but buying permission to read them. If Amazon wanted to revoke that permission (as what happened with 1984) then you’re screwed.

    Personally I like a physical book that I can read without having to plug anything in except maybe a lamp and won’t cost a lot if it gets stolen. OTOH the big advantage of eBooks is that they don’t go out of print and there are many eBooks that are free since they’re in the public domain. That’s also a big weakness is that it means anyone can become a publisher so there isn’t much quality control making it hard to find a book worth reading.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Yeah, I don’t like Amazon’s model either. Is B&N’s model any better?

      But I’m mainly looking at this from an author’s point of view. Is, for example, there any point in offering both EPUB and PDF?

      • Alverant

        Not sure. But I don’t trust B&N to stay in business much longer. Amazon has killed the big book store, it just takes some of them longer to die. I think your best bet would be to write down what you want in an eReader then see what qualifies, if anything. You don’t have to buy one soon right? So there’s nothing wrong with waiting.

  • Ryan

    Start here:
    http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=14356
    http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=15262
    Trust me, it’s worth your time, especially the latter.

    As for epub as a specific format, you can get a good overview from Wikipedia:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EPUB
    Or you can go to the EPUB format creator’s (International Digital Publishing Forum) website:
    http://idpf.org/epub

    There are lots of tools (free and pay) for converting into EPUB, but your mileage may vary as “caveat emptor” applies…

  • piscador

    The main difference between PDF and other ebook formats is that PDF files are preformatted to fit a particular page/screen size. PDF files were originally designed to be printed out on a variety of output devices and still retain the original document formatting. Effectively, this means that quite often if the text is big enough to read easily you must scroll from side to side to read the entire line: if you resize the text so that the entire line is viewable, it will be too small to read in comfort.

    The various ebook formats work the same way: if you resize the text, the passage will wrap around so it still fits the screen. EPUB has a number of advantages: easily creatable (LibreOffice will save to EPUB files, for example) and portability among various devices and operating systems, for starters. In contrast, Microsoft’s LIT format is usable on relatively few devices/programs.

    Hope this helps.

  • Jenora Feuer

    Really basic summary:

    - PDF is a page layout format, which describes the exact locations and kerning of all data on the page. Everything will look exactly like it will on the printed page. This is great if you have a large, high-resolution screen, or want to do very specific fancy layouts. It is lousy if you’re on a small screen like a standard e-reader.

    - EPUB is a markup format, which just describes things like ‘this is a header’ and ‘this is a cross-reference’, much like HTML. (In fact, it’s mostly HTML in an archive.) The reader device gets to decide how everything is laid out. This is great if you have a smaller or less capable device; it’s also better for accessibility devices such as audible or Braille readers. (While PDF can do these, it often requires storing everything twice, once for the visible layout, and once for the accessible version.) The downside is that it’s usually more boring to look at on a larger screen.

    - Amazon has their own custom format as well, which is more like EPUB, but which has Amazon’s own DRM built-in. I’m less familiar with that.

    Doing multiple formats is good if you can do it: O’Reilly does most of its ebooks in both EPUB and PDF, and sometimes others as well. This gives you the best of both worlds, one version that can be read anywhere, and one with all the layout intact. If you can only do one format, EPUB will be preferred by anybody with a small e-reader like my Kobo.

  • Yaron

    As for your followup question, it will probably be enough.

    Basically conversion between the common eBook formats mostly ranges somewhere between easy and extremely easy.

    The Kindle, for example, supports the mobi format (Amazon’s azw format is a very very very slightly modified standard mobi format with their won separate DRM scheme) natively, so there’s no problem throwing a mobi file at it. And converting from ePub to mobi is trivial…

    Depending on how you handle the publication, it’s also possible that you could convert to mobi in advance and allow a direct download.
    But if not there are standalone tools to do this, and there is the wonderful Calibre program that can do these conversions while managing the entire eBook collection.
    And for Kindle users who don’t otherwise want to deal with any books from a non-Amazon source, Amazon do have the option of having them convert it for the user and add to the device.

  • piero

    I’m no expert on digital publishing, so instead of buying a Kindle I downloaded the Kindle application for Windows. It works pretty well: i can enlarge the text so I can read my monitor from my bed, and a wireless mouse will do the scrolling. I you choose the sepia-toned scheme, your eyes won’t get tired and the text will still be quite easily redable.

    I don’t know much about Amazon’s business model, but I’m pretty sure they will never revoke my licence to read the books I’ve bought. Can you imagine the public reaction if they ever did that? It would be commercial suicide, or voluntary bankruptcy. Add the lower price of digital editions, and I see no reason to buy the hard copy version. Of course, a harbound, well-printed book on high-quality paper is a thing of beauty, but it costs far more than I can afford.

    • Yaron

      Piero,

      It’s not just that Amazon can revoke your license for books you bought and take them off the device, it’s that they already did it in the past. And yes, there was a lot of noise. And no, apparently it wasn’t a commercial suicide since they’re still here and still huge and still selling eBooks.

      For extra fun, the most noise was for the book… wait for it… 1984. Because if you have to pick a book to do this with, what could be better, right?

      I don’t want to stick a bunch of links here, but just run a search for “Amazon” and “1984″, and you’ll see it. It’s a real story, not an April’s Fool story.

      Mind you, the circumstances were murky in that the seller didn’t have the right to sell the book, so Amazon selling it for them was still a violation of copyright and a mistake on their part.
      But at the end of the day they still decided to just go ahead and remove this book from the devices and libraries of people who paid for them. No discussion or requests or anything. They just removed it, as well as any annotation that some users wrote.

      (Same as if you bought a paperback that the seller later discovered they bought from an unlicensed publisher, then the store will send someone to break into your home and lift the book, and possibly any notes you had on it, from your shelves, all quietly and without talking to you first.)

      And by now, years later, the capability to do this still exists in their software. They said they won’t do it, but technically they can, they didn’t patch this option out.

      Of course this is why even with the Kindle device (the hardware is pretty terrific) you can avoid managing your library through Amazon, and instead do it yourself, together with stripping the DRM from all books you buy from them (legality may vary depends on where in the world you are). That way they can’t remove it from your library, and probably they can’t even remove it once from the device (since the book won’t be identified as coming directly from Amazon but instead as a different one you put in yourself).

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