How to Find the Best Ebook Format

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

How to Find the Best Ebook FormatAs a book designer, I understand the desire to mirror a book’s print design with its ebook counterpart. But as an ebook reader and developer, I know that print publications are different enough from their digital versions that one design does not always fit both purposes.

In this and following posts, I’ll discuss how I decide which format to recommend, along with differences between design for print and for ebooks.

Fixed-Layout or Reflowable?

Particularly for complex print layouts, publishers often want the fixed-layout treatment, in which the ebook is identical to the print design, including font choice and size, as well as text and image position.

But to this, I ask clients the following: Have you read complex fixed-layout ebooks on devices like the iPad or iPhone? Are you comfortable with pinching and zooming and panning around the screen? What do you think of the reading experience on a smartphone? Have you lost the context of the zoomed area?

Or how about the popups on a Kindle? The page or spread stays flat, so you can see it as you magnify a region, but text (or spot art) pops up on double tap. Is that a smooth reading experience?

After a while, do you even know where you are on the page? Does the interaction needed to read the book help or hinder the reading experience?

I’m not a fan of fixed-layout when it comes to complicated designs. But I do think it’s great for kids’ picture books, art books and other publications with a small amount of text surrounded by images. I just don’t want to work up a sweat maneuvering around the screen.

I’m not always successful at convincing clients to go the reflowable route. To be honest, I have a lot more fun rethinking a print design for reflowable adaptation than I do building a fixed-layout document. But my own reasons aside, I think readers benefit from a careful consideration and choice of format.

A much more practical issue is font usage, as the ingredients of a fixed-layout ebook can include embedded fonts. Those can be problematic. First, fonts must be OpenType or TrueType (font.otf, font.ttf), not PostScript (which you might find in older, backlist titles).

Second, fonts embedded in ebooks of any format must be licensed specifically for ebook use—not print, not web, but ebook. These licenses can get expensive, or may not be available at all.

Another complaint against the fixed-layout format is accessibility: it’s tough to make these books work well for text-to-speech. Reading order can be upset, and embedded images can go un-described (via alt tags in the HTML markup). What good is a picture book when half the action takes place in the illustrations and can’t be understood by some readers?

Why Design an Ebook?

If you decide on the reflowable format, design is essential. Too many books on retailers’ shelves look the same, are hard to navigate, or have inconsistent reading experiences. Even a simple novel, with Chapters One, Two, etc., should be thoughtfully put together. Design the table of contents instead of leaving it as a plain list, for example, and use unique ornaments—with color—in the chapter header.

One purpose of print design is helping readers find their way from chapter title to text to sidebar to footnote. Another is decoration: using typefaces, color, imagery and ornament to embellish. Sometimes navigation and decoration work together to provide extra meaning (for example, in a cookbook, blue recipe titles can indicate main courses; red titles, desserts).

But navigation, decoration and meaning work differently in reflowable ebooks. Users change font and font size at will, causing reflow; decoration may or may not display well in different reading modes (particularly night mode); and light-blue heads may not be very visible in e-ink devices, and text to speech doesn’t mention that it’s reading a blue recipe title instead of a red one.
Who Decides: The Tool or the Designer?

Developing reflowable and fixed-layout ebooks is a combination of design and technology. Developers need to know how to build solid, semantic HTML documents, and how to wield CSS to create attractive, useful books.

Plenty of ebook developers build their EPUBs using web-building tools (Dreamweaver, BBEdit, etc.), but many are InDesign- or Quark-based. Both applications offer export to EPUB, and both try to capture the print design and translate it to HTML and CSS, the building blocks of EPUB and KF8/MOBI.

I use InDesign, so I can only speak to its exported product. Allowing InDesign to build a CSS style sheet and tag text often gives me more grief than I want to deal with (extra markup; too many character, paragraph and object overrides). Over time, I have created a custom CSS that I almost always use.

A benefit of using my own CSS is that I mentally separate print from digital. I don’t think, “InDesign will translate the print design exactly and I’ll be happy with the result.”

Instead, I examine a print publication design, and as I translate it into an ebook, I ask:

• Do typographic flourishes provide information, or are they decorative?
• If they provide information, will that meaning be lost if a reader uses text-to-speech or other assistive technology?
• If they are decorative, do they read well on a small smartphone screen or an e-ink device?

I don’t need to mirror the intricate type treatment of a list of recipe ingredients, for example. Caps/small caps, italics and swooshy fonts might be lovely on a page printed on glossy stock surrounded by lots of white space, but how do they look on an iPhone screen? And do those small caps indicate meaning, which would be ignored in text-to-speech?

These are all arguments for why a considered format choice and thorough ebook design is worthwhile and needed. Most aren’t hugely complicated, but even small touches can make a difference to a large selection of readers.

Kevin Callahan is presenting on ebook production best practices at the Digital Book World Conference + Expo.

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10 thoughts on “How to Find the Best Ebook Format

  1. Ronnie

    Another design element is the index. When an ebook is exported from, say, InDesign, embedded index entries are usually stripped out. How much more useful for finding information in a complex nonfiction ebook when you can click index entries and go directly to the content you are looking for.

    1. Kevin

      Ronnie, that’s a great point; I’ll be talking about indexes in a later post. But it is possible to export a live index from InDesign; there’s a script called LiveIndex, which links an index’s page numbers to the location within the book. This can then export to EPUB.

  2. Michael W. Perry

    In addition to children’s story books, there’s another area where fixed formats are useful. That’s for textbooks. Several of my books are for nursing students and for the iBookstore come in both fixed and reflowable formats. The former allows professors to assign readings, knowing that the digital version created by InDesign is identical to the print version.

    There my gripe is one Apple should have addressed long ago. Customers should be able to buy both formats, fixed for their iPad and reflowable for their iPhone, in one purchase. They shouldn’t have to pay twice for the same content.

    Another frustration lies with the many inadequacies of epub. I’ve published a detailed, day-by-day chronology for Tolkien’s complex The Lord of the Rings called Untangling Tolkien. I like the print format because the pages are wide enough to allow sidebar references to where the events occur in the various books in the trilogy and other books by Tolkien’s son, Christopher. Small type in sidebars isn’t distracting.

    But when I’ve tried to imagine translating that content into a digital format, I get frustrated. Those sidebar references would have to become clumsy, pop-up notes. That is bad enough in some readers and utterly awful in iBooks, where for reasons that defy all sense, the pop-up note is dominated by a huge number that thrusts the text down, almost out of sight. And I thought Apple didn’t like ugly. That is ugly. Ugly and stupid.

    What I’d like to do is put certain elements of the book, particularly those references, in an accordion webpage style. Readers could tap to make the reference appear and tap again to make it disappear. Very elegant but apparently not something the developers of epub and various readers have seen fit to offer.

    Keep in mind that particular feature would work equally well on large or small screens and whether the note is long or short. It’s also enter into the text flow rather than appear over it, blocking a reader’s ability to read. None of that is true of those clumsy pop-up notes. They are better than nothing but only just barely.

    As I am fond of telling people, Gutenberg did better with his first major project, the beautiful Gutenberg Bible, than the entire digital books establishment has been able to accomplish in over a decade and a half. It’s still hard to create ebooks that aren’t dull and ugly.

    1. Kevin

      Michael, thanks for your comments! One reason you can’t purchase a fixed-layout book and get a reflowable edition for free is that they are different products, with very different workflows to produce them. It’s slightly analogous to hardcover and paperback; you wouldn’t expect to buy one and get the other for free. Each format has its advantages and disadvantages, but are still different products. Your point sort of proves my point, that the fixed-layout format is not really suitable for highly designed books that might well be read on a smartphone.

      Not all content is suitable for digital adaptation, without being adapted itself. I don’t think it’s necessary to reproduce exactly a print design, but it’s preferable to use a reading system for what its best at.

      Finally, I’ve seen some very beautiful ebooks. Most aren’t replicas of print books, but are instead created with the possibilities and drawbacks of the various reading systems in mind. Ebook developers are tasked with creating books that work well on a wide selection of devices and apps, both brand new and old, big and small, color and e-ink, using a variety of reading systems. It’s not easy to do, but it is possible.

  3. web mounika

    The ePub format is an open format designed by the Open eBook Forum and developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum. Based on XHTML and XML, it was made with the intention to be a both source file format and end user format. Examples of software that can open this format are EPUBReader Firefox add on, Adobe Digital Editions, and QuickReader. Meanwhile, devices that can open this file include the iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Sony Readers, Kobo Reader, and the Nook from Barnes & Noble.

  4. Subbareddy

    An ebook format should offer a good reading experience, be an open standard format (or at least openly licensed), have the support of both publishers and hardware vendors, and be guaranteed to work for the foreseeable future, if not forever. Unfortunately, there isn’t one. Buying ebooks requires compromises and an act of faith. Always assume your ebooks will not last very long, so you won’t be disappointed if they don’t.

    The Wikipedia page on ebook formats lists a couple of dozen, but most can be discounted. Some are effectively out of date, such as Microsoft’s LIT. Some formats are supported because they are common in other areas and it’s useful if an e-reader can handle them. Examples include Microsoft Office document formats (doc, docx) and web-style HTML.

    Some formats are proprietary and may not be widely supported where you live, such as KML (the HieBook eBook format), RB, (Rocket) and WOLF (HanLin). Another Wikipedia page, Comparison of ebook formats, has a table to show which e-readers support which formats.

  5. rekha

    The page or spread stays flat, so you can see it as you magnify a region, but text (or spot art) pops up on double tap. Is that a smooth reading experience.

  6. Leza Vargas

    I have had zero luck finding an ebook formatter that can make my book work. I have multiple storylines within the same book. The grown up version of the old choose your own adventure books. Help!



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