What’s an ebook? Get started!

It is the content that matters, not the format – while reading on e-ink readers, tablets and smartphones is an important part of millions’ lives, there are still other millions who wouldn’t ever consider downloading a book. Despite their increasing popularity, there are still several misconceptions about ebooks worldwide. This article aims to provide a beginner’s guide to those who still believe that the smell of ink and paper is an essential accessory of reading.

1. What’s an ebook?

This should be straightforward to answer, you would think. At first glance, we could say that an ebook is a book read on an electronic device (computer screen, tablet, smartphone or eReader). But this description is somewhat vague and wide, including many things that are not an ebook. Therefore it is better to approach this question from the perspective of what an ebook does.

a) The text is not editable

While you can read your friend’s dissertation or your neighbor’s recipe book on your smartphone (and probably will), it doesn’t count as an ebook as long as you can change the text. Ebooks made for public distribution are in a format that is not easy to change (ideally impossible) without the author’s permission.

b) The text is reflowable

While PDFs are literally impossible to edit, they still don’t qualify as ebooks: if you have ever tried reading a PDF on a tiny screen, you perfectly know why. You can’t change the layout: reading a PDF on an e-reader device is almost as uncomfortable as photographing a whole book and reading that (which is something none of us would ever do, obviously).
Ebooks are created in a format that changes shape according to the device you read it on. You will still have chapters and paragraphs, but the line breaks aren’t forced: it will always perfectly fill your screen.

c) You set your own rules

Since the layout is not fixed, you will be given the option to customize it and change it for your own needs: the details differ by device, but you are usually given a couple of fonts to choose from (usually a serif, a monospace and a sans-serif) and can change font size and line spacing. And we have not even mentioned great text-to-speech opportunities most e-readers come with – ebooks bring long awaited equal opportunities into reading.

While these are the basic characteristics, ebooks can do this and much more: built in dictionaries can help your language learning, hyperlinks enable easy navigation between chapters and they have great multimedia potential – enhanced ebooks are the topic of another article. They don’t smell like traditional books, but they are easy to carry around, perfect for one-handed reading and literally impossible to lose. (Well, you can lose your device, but I’m sure everybody keeps back-ups in the cloud.) Now it’s clear what’s an ebook and what’s not. Let’s see who came up with the idea first!

2. History

The idea of a library that fits in your pocket has been imagined by several writers during the last century, but by the time readers were fascinated by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978), ebooks were already around. The Project Gutenberg was launched in 1971, creating ebooks as we know them today, and digitalizing books ever since.

We still had to wait until 1998 for the first eReader devices to emerge (Rocket Ebook and Softbook), but the breakthrough didn’t happen until 2007, when Amazon launched their very own eReader, Kindle. With the dramatic price drop in 2010, the competition between the leading manufacturers increased (Kindle, Kobo and Nook being the leaders of the Western market) and the popularity of ebooks and eReaders skyrocketed.
Currently, most ebooks are sold in the US and UK, but other markets are also increasing their market share: China, Germany and Japan are leading the list.

3. Popular devices

What’s an ebook device? Ebooks can be read on any digital screen: computers, tablets, iPads, smartphones and eReaders. To ensure portability, bigger companies (including Amazon and Kobo) provide you with all-platform apps: you can start reading on your computer while drinking your morning coffee, continue where you left off on your eReader and finish on your smartphone. Some people consider this silly, but I find it fascinating: my eReader came without built in lighting, so I can’t use it in bed after my partner has gone to sleep, but can keep on reading on my phone (with night mode automatically on). It’s magic!

While the age of cheap smartphones and tablets caused a decrease in selling dedicated ebook readers, there are still reasons why one would buy an eReader instead of a tablet: eReaders come with a battery lasting for weeks, capacity to store thousands of books, paperlike e-ink display and the ‘beach effect’: while LED is virtually unreadable in direct sunlight, e-ink works in rain and shine. (Don’t take it with you to the shower though.)
We are aiming to devote a whole article comparing the most popular eReaders currently available, but popular features include text-to-speech, note-taking opportunities, easy collecting and sharing of quotes and backlight.


Photo by Aliis Sinisalu on Unsplash

4. Leading ebook formats

There are dozens of ebook formats, but most of us Earthly mortals will only meet a couple during our lifetime. Ebook readers usually prefer a specific format but most of them will still accept multiple formats. The difference between the formats is mainly in how well they handle fixed-layout and reflowable books, if they support DRM (digital copy protection), whether they support pictures and multimedia content and what are their preferred devices.

a) .txt (Plain Text)
You don’t know how far a plain text format will take you. Being the most widely accepted ebook format, txt cannot do anything but give simple, reflowable text. It’s a winner.

b) .azw and .azw3 (Kindle)
Kindle’s very own format can pretty much do everything you expect from it to do. It supports reflowable and fixed layout books, handles DRM and interactivity. The only backside being that it is only accepted by Kindle devices and Kindle apps.

c) .epub (epub)
ePub, being currently after its third major update, can do everything the Kindle format can, but is much more likely accepted: literally every device can handle ePub – except Kindles, of course.

d) .mobi (Mobipocket)
When Amazon launched Kindle, mobi was the first format they used. While it had since been replaced by azw, it is still hugely popular. Mobis can be read by almost any device, except Nooks and Sony Readers.

e) .pdf (Portable Document Format)
While technically not an ebook format, this is the one most people are familiar with. Designed for easy, platform neutral sharing of fixed-layout documents, it is no surprise that reflowing the text is problematic. (It can be done, though.)

PlatformsReflowableFixed layoutDRMInteractivity
.epuball but Kindle
.mobiall but Nook & Sony

Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

5. Applications

If you don’t own an eReader, you can still have the whole ereading experience. There are plenty of apps letting you buy, organize, borrow, lend and – most importantly – read ebooks. The most popular is obviously Kindle for all platforms. The runner ups include Aldiko, Cool Reader and FBReader. We’ll deliver a detailed analysis of applications in a follow up article – come back soon!

Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash

6. Download ebooks

Yes, we all know, ebooks are amazing, but where can you get them from? Well, there are plenty of services offering free (legal) ebooks to download for any platform. The popular ones include Google Play bookstore, Project Gutenberg and BookBoon. Check out this list for more. Most eReaders and apps let you shop and download straight from the platform, so you won’t have to worry about converting.
If you read a lot, you might want to consider signing up to a subscription service, such as Amazon Unlimited, Bookmate or Scribd.

Have you written an ebook? Or are you just about to write one? If you need help with editing, converting or distribution, do not hesitate to contact us – we’re here to help.
Happy publishing!

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