August 10, 2011

The Difference Between Regular Documents and eBooks



So, I've been tinkering with a How-to Guide for eBook formatting. It's a whole different ball of wax writing non-fiction than fiction, but it's going well. I'm working on this guide because a lot of eBooks out there have shit formatting, and much of the guidance online (with a few, notable exceptions) is creepy affiliate marketing scams. I think there's a good market in this for the self-publishing community. It's not very secy stuff, but here's one of the sections from the introduction.

To understand why it is essential that you don't convert eBooks directly from your word processing software into the EPUB or MOBI format, eBooks have to be envisioned differently than regular documents.
A typical document in your word processing software has the following characteristics:
  • Defined fonts, color, and justification by the author
  • Fixed number of pages by the author
  • Fixed margins by the author
  • Fixed page size (usually A4 or 8.5"x11") by the author
The manuscript you have created in your word processing software can be defined as "What You See Is What You Get" or WYSIWYG. Word Processing software is great for preparing reports, typing letters, and sharing amongst friends in email. The .doc format created in Microsoft Word is an example of a working WYSIWYG document that can be easily changed. The PDF format is an example of a finalized WYSIWYG document that cannot be easily changed.

However, eReader devices come in all shapes in sizes, ranging from a big desktop PC down to a tiny iPhone. Fixing the document with a set font size, number of pages, and margins for settings on a PC would prove to be a very poor reading experience for someone using an iPhone. Therefore, eBooks have developed to have the following characteristics:
  • Defined font, color, and justification by the reader
  • No defined number of pages
  • Page size based on reader's device
  • Reflowable text
By allowing flexible characteristics in eBook formats, readers can have an enjoyable experience no matter what type of device they are using. Because word processing software favors a fixed approach, it is necessary to strip all the predefined formatting within the word processing software and convert your document into formats that are flexible.

While the PDF format is widely popular and utilized, some readers may be unaware of how to open an eBook on their computer or tablet or wonder why there aren't any page numbers. However, it is never wise to poke fun at the customer, especially when 114 million eBooks were sold in 2010 alone. Computers, smartphones, and dedicated eReader gadgets can all read eBooks with the right apps installed.

There is a lot of nerd politics behind how eBook formats developed. But for an easy explanation to your readers and for the self-publishing community, there are essentially two major eBook formats:

MOBI/PRC/AZW - These were developed by a French company called Mobipocket that later got bought out by Amazon.com. The AZW format that is used on the Kindle store is almost identical to MOBI and PRC, except that it has a different type of Digital Rights Management (DRM) algorithm. DRM limits how you can transfer the actual eBook format from one device to another, and it is widely disliked by readers. The MOBI/PRC/AZW format is typically only associated with Amazon.com, but since they are about 75% of the eBook marketplace, these formats cannot be ignored. MOBI/PRC/AZW are based on XHTML, so turning your manuscript from a word processing program into clean XHTML code will facilitate an error-free conversion process in software such as Calibre.

EPUB - This format is referred to as an Open eBook standard, which means a bunch of smart people from different companies and organizations got together and decided how EPUB would be defined. Many eReader devices and apps use the EPUB format to include Barnes & Noble Nook, iBookstore, Kobo, Sony Reader, Adobe Digital Editions, and basically everything except Kindle. It is based on XHTML as well, so working with clean XHTML code will ensure a clean conversion process.

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