Just what is an e-book anyway? Part three

This is part three of an in-depth look at e-book files. See Part one and Part two.

So, we’ve looked at the functionality of an e-book file and have taken a closer look at the inside of an e-book. Great. But, how does this affect writers? How do we approach e-book design to maximize all these awesome reader-controlled functions?

The cardinal rule of e-book design

The design of an e-book, IMO, should never impede the e-reader’s built-in custom options unless absolutely necessary. A reader’s ability to customize their e-book experience is one of the main benefits of e-books versus printed books.

Think of a reader who has a visual impairment and needs to make the text large in order to be able to read. Or, a reader with partial color blindness who needs to be able to change the text and background colors in order to read. If these custom functions don’t work as expected in your e-book file, then these readers will not be able to read your book.

When I started working on e-books, my biggest paradigm shift was letting go of what the page looked like. As a designer, I want to make each page pristine (controlling the font, the font size, the line and page breaks, etc). It took me a while to let go of control on the page level and begin to focus on the structure of the book. I learned quickly that e-books can look vastly different from e-reader to e-reader depending on screen size, e-reader operating system (OS), file type, the reader’s custom options (like font size, font face, background and text colors, orientation), and if and how an e-reader can interpret custom embedded fonts in your e-book file.

Let’s look at the definition of ‘graphic design’ for a moment. I think this definition from The Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario says it best:

“Graphic Design is an interdisciplinary, problem solving activity, which combines visual sensitivity with skill and knowledge in areas of communications, technology, and business. Graphic design practitioners specialize in the structuring and organizing of visual information to aid communication and orientation.”

Let’s look at the three knowledge areas the RGD talk about in their definition as they relate to e-book design.


Really, a graphic designer’s job is not to make pretty pages, but to structure the content in a way that makes the content easier (or more enjoyable) to read and comprehend. Once the core functionality of reading is addressed, then the designer can look at making the content visually pleasing.

Not only do we have to consider dozens of different devices, we also have to accommodate a least two different sets of specifications. There’s been a lot written about EPUB3 and KF8 in the past 18 to 24 months, how great it’s supposed to make the e-book reading experience…and it does, but not on all devices or on all platforms. Some reading platforms have been slow to adapt to EPUB3/KF8 and backwards compatibility has been challenging. Readers are not upgrading their devices as quickly as forecast. This leaves publishers in the difficult position of supporting both specifications in one file.

If you want more info on EPUB3 and KF8, I wrote a blog post about the testing I did with these formats.

Nate Hoffelder writes a realistic blog post on the current status of EPUB3.

What are the business impacts? Not all these impacts are negative, some may be positive, depending on your product, target market and situation.

Say you want to develop an e-book product catering only to EPUB3 and KF8 devices. First, that would limit the number of online reseller partners you can choose from. Second, that decision would narrow your target market. Third, customers purchasing your book, not realizing it’s intended for new devices only, could complain to the reseller that the product doesn’t work. If your product gets too many complaints, your reseller may drop it. And, there’s the possible negative effects on your personal brand from unhappy readers.

OK, then you want the best of both worlds…looks great in EPUB3/KF8 and works on older devices. To my knowledge, there is no easy (automated) way to test e-book files on all e-readers other than looking at that file on that device and testing. There are software programs that will approximate the view of some devices (here’s a good list from PressBooks) but these are not 100% accurate. To accurately test means buying all the major devices, and taking the time to review the file on each device, documenting issues and unexpected results. Then comes the revisions to try to address those issues. Then more testing, then more revisions. And so on, and so on.

Amazon has an interesting solution to this problem, which also adds to their bottom line. In most of their plug-ins (like the export to Kindle plug-in for InDesign) the software writes two separate files, one for older kindles, and one for KF8 compatible kindles and compresses them together in one MOBI file. This creates larger file sizes. Most authors I work with prefer the 70% royalty option, where delivery fees are charged based on the file size. The larger the file size, the more profit for Amazon.

The next option would be to create a fixed format e-book, so we can control each page. This means removing all the e-books ability to reflow text, disabling many of the customizable features of the e-book for the reader. Fixed format e-books are great for books that rely heavily on large photos/illustrations like comic books, children’s books, cookbooks and some non-fiction books, but come with trade-offs that your audience may or may not appreciate.

For now, I advise the authors I work with to focus on the functionality of the file for all readers. This means removing design elements that could be interfere with the e-reader customizable options, or could be misinterpreted by the device. These elements include embedded fonts, some images, drop caps, first line treatments and very large or small font sizes.

I hope you enjoyed this closer look at e-book files. Agree? Disagree? Comment below. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Is there a topic you have been meaning to research and just haven’t got the time? Comment below or send me an email…let me know what you want to know. I’ll do the research for you and write about it in a future blog post.

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Just what is an e-book anyway? Part two

Check out Part one of Just what is an e-book anyway?

Now that we have looked at how an e-book functions, let’s look at what’s under the hood of a typical e-book file.

There are many different types of e-book file formats. Here are some:

  • EPUB, EPUB3 – the open source de facto file format and it’s newer sibling.
  • MOBI, AZW, KF8, PRC – proprietary formats owned by Amazon, similar to EPUB.
  • IBA – proprietary format owned by Apple, similar to EPUB.
  • BBeB – proprietary format owned by Sony and Canon, similar to EPUB. BBeB files can have LRS and LRF or LRX file extensions.
  • PDF, TXT, RTF and others – static file formats that can be read on various e-book readers and computers.

At the highest level, an e-book file is an archive file format, much like a ZIP file. An archive file format is a kind of file that can take large and/or multiple files and compress them in size to save space. Like a ZIP file, e-book file formats like EPUB and MOBI compress multiple files together to create one file.

Let’s break one apart and look at what’s inside. In this example, I’m using a test EPUB file that I created specifically for this blog post. Here’s what we get:

File directory of an expanded EPUB file

The file directory of an expanded EPUB file, showing the component files.

What’s all this? Remember an EPUB file (as well as MOBI, AZW, PRC and others) are like mini web sites, and are written in XHTML and CSS.

XHTML (or Extensible HyperText Markup Language) is a variation of HTML (or HyperText Markup Language), the main programming language for creating webpages. Each section of the book is kind of like it’s own web page.

CSS (or Cascading Style Sheets) is the code that describes and controls the look and formatting of the web page and its elements (like how the fonts look).

You also notice some other important files for the EPUB format:

  • content.opf – this file contains all the e-book’s metadata, the file manifest and the linear reading order. In other words, the file contains all the descriptive data for the book, lists all the parts of the book and directs the order of the parts.
  • toc.ncx – this file describes and controls the hierarchical or navigational table of contents…the table of contents that runs the navigation on the device. For example, the list of chapters that appears in the left hand side in Adobe Digital Editions:
  • NCX view in ADE of EPUB test file

    The NCX view in Adobe Digital Editions…see the table of contents on the left?

  • container.xml – this file helps define the contents of the book.
  • mimetype – this file, which needs to be uncompressed and unencrypted for the e-book to work, basically tells other programs and devices that this is an EPUB file.

So, those are the parts of an EPUB file. MOBI and other proprietary formats have similar structures and use XHTML and CSS as well.

For those who are curious, I created the test EPUB file by creating a book file (and all supporting chapter files) in Indesign CS4 (Mac) and exporting the book to Adobe Digital Editions. To break apart the EPUB file, I used EPUB Unzip 1.0, a free application for Mac. For more info on how to break apart your own EPUB files, see this great article from Anne-Marie Concepcion at Indesign Secrets.

In the final installment, we’ll explore how all this affects your approach to designing an e-book.

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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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