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Ebook Format Primer

Amid all the recent ebook news, many publishers may still be unclear
about the different formats and devices. How do ebooks actually get
made? What changes need to be made to existing workflows to enable content distribution to ebook devices? We’ve put together this primer to help clear things up.

The simplest solution, of course, is to partner directly with the ebook manufacturers and let them take care of the details. These partnerships must be drawn up for each new platform and publishers are at the whims of the device-makers’ terms of use. Innovative publishers may want to first experiment on their own and be prepared to shift platforms strategically: this means ebook distribution must fit into existing workflows. Although some of the formats below support digital rights management, consider eschewing DRM in favor of flexibility and cross-platform support.

Let’s start with the major devices first:

  1. The Sony Reader primarily uses Sony’s proprietary Broadband eBooks (BBeB) format for documents with DRM but also supports RTF and non-DRM PDF. Sony does not provide any official tools for end users to convert to BBeB although at least one unofficial open source tool can convert HTML to BBeB. The most flexible non-DRM formats are RTF and PDF. Microsoft Word can readily save to RTF and Microsoft offers detailed instructions on converting from XML to RTF, but pure open-source alternatives are not mature. XML to PDF conversion has stronger open source support but files may need to be specially tweaked for optimum display on the Reader.
  2. The Amazon Kindle uses Amazon’s proprietary AZW format, which supports DRM. There are no tools available to directly convert to AZW, but AZW is a wrapper around the Mobipocket format and DRM-free Mobipocket files can be read on the device. Mobipocket documents can be created using a free (but not open-source) tool called Mobipocket Creator. As if the format wars weren’t confusing enough already, “Mobipocket DRM” is not the same as AZW, and files created as Mobipocket DRM cannot be read on the Kindle. Mobipocket Creator does have a “batch” creation mode which could be integrated into an existing workflow, but the software is Windows-only. The Kindle also supports HTML and Word documents, but not PDF.

Specialized readers aren’t the only way consumers may be viewing ebook content. Ultra-portable laptops like the Eee PC and OLPC XO are price-competitive with standalone readers. (I have an OLPC and reading by the pool in bright sunlight is quite a joy.) The next version of the iPhone is expected soon, and while the first edition was already a serviceable reader, the next version is likely to be more so, and to reach a wider audience.

All the devices listed above, except the Sony Reader, can read a common format: HTML. If XML is already a part of your workflow, converting to HTML is trivial.  If not, HTML is a worthwhile investment for a number of reasons:

  1. XHTML is the standard markup for book content in OPS/.epub. .epub support is just getting off the ground but is expected to become widespread.
  2. If your publishing workflow includes HTML, your organization is able to distribute content to dozens of devices in addition to the open Web.

HTML is also the lingua franca of online search engines, and inclusion of partial or full HTML books will attract casual surfers and can drive community engagement with your content. Whether it’s BBeB or AZW that becomes the Betamax of the next decade (and one, if not both, will be obsolete by then), HTML conversion is guaranteed to pay off in the foreseeable future.

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Comments: 10

  1. Any reason you left the iLiad out of this discussion?

  2. As a developer, the iLiad sounds great to me: the platform is open to third-party applications (unlike the Sony and Amazon devices), it has WiFi, and it supports a wide range of formats including both PDF and HTML.

    However, it’s expensive ($699 retail in the US) and doesn’t have a major corporation backing it. If the price came down it could be a popular geek platform, but where things stand now I don’t see ebooks going big without combining the device and the distribution, the way Amazon/Kindle and Apple/iTunes do.

  3. Thanks for this post! Any chance of an updated one coming soon? I’m trying to use Stanza to export straight to azw, but having all kinds of issues. No fun.
    I do wish someone would cook up a direct-to-azw converter.

    Thanks again.

  4. An updated post is a great idea, as some things have changed (sadly, not the number and variety of formats supported by the Kindle). I’ll try to put something together in the coming weeks. Thanks!

  5. Couple of days back I’ve ordered Kindle after researching through the available options (I am in India and anyway i needed an American connection to get any e-book reader). What made me decide in the favor of Kindle 2 was the availability of dictionary. Despite the absence of expandable memory slot (SD slot), no support for pdf, doc i went for Kindle just becasue it has inbuilt dictionary (yes a limited one).

    The point is what will it take to make other e-book reader manufacturer realize that, dictionary is as essential to reading as the book, we all stumble on one or two words, which asks for dictionary reference.

    Dictionary is a must, not a frill….

  6. Stanza will convert any PDF to *.azw (amazon kindle) format. Simply open your document, and file/export/*.azw

  7. > Stanza will convert any PDF to *.azw (amazon kindle) format.
    > Simply open your document, and file/export/*.azw
    > Done.

    yeah, right. have you actually _tried_ it? the results are garbage.

    you might not notice it, because stanza strips away all of the
    _formatting_ from most input formats, and displays raw text.
    but my goodness, is that what we’ve devolved to, here in 2009?

    and let me hasten to add that the fault is not all with stanza…

    .pdf as an archival format sucks badly, because it doesn’t retain
    much of the formatting information when you copy text out of it,
    so there’s no way a traditional “conversion” program _can_ work.

    but still, the “beer googles” on stanza users is getting to be
    downright humorous… it does have some charms, but it’s still
    an extremely primitive program in a number of respects…


  8. bowerbird – this article is kinda old but there are sites/services out there now that allow you to download to multiple formats (kindle/ipad/whatever) with just one purchase of an ebook. http://ebookdistribution.org has more details and more up to date info if you’re still interested.

  9. “but still, the “beer goggles” on stanza users is getting to be downright humorous… it does have some charms, but it’s still an extremely primitive program in a number of respects…”
    I agree completely bowerbird. You are spot on.

  10. I think it’s important to note that there are tons of different eBook formats and they all done work for all of the different eReaders, Mobile Devices and PDA’s. For some people it will probably be best to have there eBook formatting done by a eBook service site and have them do the formatting, because if it’s done wrong it can cost a lot of time and money.