Just what is an e-book anyway? Part one

An e-book reader

source: wikipedia

Ever wonder what an e-book really is? What’s inside that EPUB, MOBI or AZW file? Why should you even care? Well, understanding the core functionality and programming of an e-book can help you make better decisions to develop an e-book product that meets (and hopefully exceeds) your readers’ expectations.

The Mechanical Encyclopedia

La Enciclopedia Mecánica. source: farodevigo.es

The idea of an electronic book is not new. In fact, the first electronic book, called la Enciclopedia Mecánica, was patented in 1949 by Ángela Ruiz Robles, an inventor and teacher from Spain.

Sixty odd years and many technology advances later we have a thriving and ever-changing e-book industry, thanks to pioneers like Ángela.

Why are readers flocking to this technology? Let’s review some of the benefits:

  • You can carry many books with you. A newer Kindle Fire can store as many as 6,000 good-sized novels, assuming 1,000 books per GB of available storage.
  • E-book files are typically less expensive than printed books because there are less costs to produce an e-book than a printed book.
  • E-books are typically lighter than printed books. Even my ancient AluraTek Libre e-reader is lighter than a typical trade paperback.
  • You can immediately start reading your purchased and downloaded e-book. You don’t have to wait for shipping or fit in a trip to the bookstore.
  • E-books are marketed as more environmentally friendly than printed books (although there is debate whether this is actually true.)

E-books’ cool features rely on the reflowable e-book file format (like EPUB, MOBI and AZW to name a few).

What do I mean by reflowable? Well, think of an e-book as a kind of web site, where each chapter is a separate web page. Most of those web pages have content that is longer than one screen.

Instead of making you scroll down (like your facebook news-feed does), the e-book file finds how many characters (including spaces) can fit on one line and how many lines can fit on a single screen, and automatically figures out the page breaks for the whole book. You’ll see websites do a similar kind of pagination (like amazon or eBay listing pages).

In other words, reflowable e-books are “responsive” to the screen size of the device, and automatically reflow the text to fit the width and height of that screen.

The e-book industry would not exist without this reflowable function. Imagine if you had to create a different file for every different screen size? That would be expensive for producers and confusing for consumers.

The early developers of mobile websites ran into similar issues, and since the adoption of HTML5 and CSS3, have developed “responsive” web design. In responsive design, the web site is designed to recognize the width of the screen on which it is being displayed, and adjust the design (sometimes radically) to fit that screen and still be legible and functional. Here’s an example:

responsive web design example

An example of responsive web design, showing both a desktop computer and smart phone view of the home page. Source: mobify.com and thepaintdrop.com

Other cool features of e-book files that allow readers to customize the experience:

  • All devices allow the reader to change the size of the font or typeface in some way.
  • Some devices allow the reader to change fonts or typefaces in the e-book altogether.
  • Most devices allow the reader to change from portrait to landscape view.
  • Most devices allow the reader to change the color or shade of both the text and background.
  • All devices use the navigational table of contents built into e-book file formats, allowing the reader to jump to a certain section automatically.

When you add in benefits of specific devices (like wifi-enabled e-readers) you can see why readers are adopting e-reading en masse.

In the next installment, we’ll look “under the hood” of a typical e-book file and have a closer look at its parts.

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In e-book formatting, the K.I.S.S. principle still applies

… or, we have to wait a little longer before rich media in e-reader formats is a viable option for most authors.

Part One
I’ve been knee-deep in research into e-reader formatting for the better part of two weeks, learning all about the enhanced capabilities of KF8 and EPUB3.

The challenge
A couple of weeks ago, I finished an animated book cover for award-winning Patti Larsen, and wanted to figure out if we could make it work in an e-book. Well, I love a challenge, so off I went, digging through the thousands of google results, looking for the HTML 5 and CSS 2 & 3 holy grail of e-book formatting and how to get this animated .gif of Patti’s Family Magic cover to work in the e-reader file on the device.

What I learned is that adoption of HTML 5 and CSS 2 & 3, so hyped last fall and earlier this year, is not being embraced as quickly as originally anticipated. Although the software is now in place, it’s taking longer to make older models (like Kindle Touch) compatible, and consumers are not rushing out to upgrade their devices.

Family Magic animated .gif cover

Family Magic, Book One of the Hayle Coven Series


Thanks, Patti, for letting me feature this artwork!

My background is print design… page layout, vector illustration, Photoshop, the pre-press process and what happens when a design hits a press. I’ve worked in and around this process for more than 20 years. More recently, I’ve learned about advanced PDF functionality, like embedding media like audio and video. If e-readers worked on fixed format PDFs, this animated cover would be a done deal.

Fixed format
What do I mean by “fixed format”? Well, think of taking a print book and producing an e-book that looks exactly like the printed version. So, a designer working with fixed format can exactly control the look of the page. The reader cannot adapt the content (change size, font or background) to their reading preferences. This fixed format comes in handy when working with e-books that require lots of formatting, like children’s book, cookbooks and textbooks.

The achilles heel of fixed format? Devices are different, with different screen sizes and other specifications (think about the difference in size and screen between a Kindle 2 and an iPhone). To fit each e-reader device perfectly, a fixed format version would have to be produced for each different spec. I believe at last count there’s over 40.

Responsive formats
EPUB, MOBI and other e-reader formats are based on the complete opposite of fixed format layouts. A designer doesn’t design the page, but the structure. The final look of the page is controlled by the screen size of the device and the reader, who can change size (and possibly font). The content reflows based on these options. This makes the format more versatile, allowing it to work on multiple screen sizes. There are many e-reader formats out there, but most devices (and most authors) cater to EPUB and MOBI formats.

OK, I can wrap my head around that. It’s like designing a web site using a content management system and responsive design, and uses web development languages (HTML and CSS) instead of page layout programs.

Trial and error
For testing, I started with the easiest of .epub and .mobi file conversion…formatting in Microsoft Word and using Smashwords and Kindle conversion tools. The animation didn’t work, but I really didn’t expect it to. Most likely Microsoft Word can’t handle the animated .gif and stripped out the animation. I also got to see the K.I.S.S. principle in action. Considering how many different devices and file types there are available, it’s pretty cool how one Microsoft Word file, built to specific standards can be converted to work so many ways.

My next step was to go looking for EPUB editor/creation software. I found Sigil. It’s great. It also you to build WSIWYG (what you see it what you get) and also by code. Very helpful for someone like me that understands the basics of coding, but isn’t a coder. Using Sigil, I see how similar e-book files are to web pages.

FYI…I did manage to produce an EPUB file that played the animation in Calibre, but Adobe Digital Editions wouldn’t play along. My poor, old AluraTek Libre wouldn’t open the file at all.

P.S. Online sales sites (like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc.) do not support animated .gifs on their listing pages at this time.

More research
Reading further into the recent changes in e-reader software, I see that older technology (like animated .gif) won’t be supported. Sounds like the e-readers are playing a little catch-up to their www cousin, so Kindle and Adobe are skipping over some things. Alas, animated .gifs are not going to work. Other video and audio formats (like mp4) will be supported, but few devices are capable of supporting these enhanced content formats now.

What KF8 and EPUB3 do allow, though, is enhanced formatting. Finally designers can add their touch to the look and feel of the e-book file, embedding fonts, drop caps, justification, and a lot more. KF8 has the ability of two sets of instructions in the CSS file, directing both KF8 enhanced formatting instructions (now only supported by Kindle Fire) and basic formatting for older devices. If it works, it would be the best of both worlds… a beautifully designed book that can also be responsive, and support older devices.

The new challenge
I filled Patti in on my findings, and mentioned the enhanced formatting possibilities I had learned about. It started a new challenge, which has been my focus this week.

One file to rule them all!
Next week, I’ll fill you in on my experiments in enhanced formats and one .mobi file for all Kindle devices.

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