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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