What’s an ebook? Beginner’s Guide to Ebook Reading, Creation and Distribution

Our comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know about ebooks, including ebook technology, reading devices, creating ebooks, and more.

Monica Dube |

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. What’s an ebook? Read on to learn more about epub.

The article has been updated on January 3, 2018 with changes.

Book and ebook reader

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 e-reader). 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 is a difference between an epub, a word document and a PDF file.

a) The text is not editable

While you can (and do) read your friend’s dissertation or your neighbor’s recipe book on your smartphone, 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. All ebook reading apps are designed to restrict any kind of editing while leaving open the possibility of adding notes and highlighting (without changing the original file).

b) The text is reflowable (unless it isn’t)

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). PDF is the ideal format for print: it is designed with the exact paper size in mind. It always looks like the print version. Never changes.

Ebooks, on the other hand, 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. You expect websites change their layouts when you are looking at them from your tablet or phone; the same goes for epubs.

The epub 3 standard, however, introduced fixed-layout epubs: everything on the screen has an absolute position. Fixed-layout epubs lose much of their adaptability but still recognise the device and app they are displayed with.

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 large print and 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!

History of books, library

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 e-reader devices to emerge (Rocket Ebook and Softbook), but the breakthrough didn’t happen until 2007, when Amazon launched their very own e-reader, 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 e-readers 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.

popular devices: ebook reader

What’s an ebook device? Ebooks can be read on any digital screen: computers, tablets, iPads, smartphones and e-readers. 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 e-reader and finish on your smartphone.

Some people consider this silly, but I find it fascinating: my e-reader 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 e-reader instead of a tablet: e-readers 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 e-readers currently available, but popular features include text-to-speech, note-taking opportunities, easy collecting and sharing of quotes and backlight.

ebook reading with coffee

Photo by Aliis Sinisalu on Unsplash

4. Leading ebook formats: what’s an epub?

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. All old ebook readers accept epub 2 format, and most new readers take in epub 3: the format of interactive, fixed-layout books. Epub 3 format supports embedding of not only images and sounds, but even videos. Textbooks and interactive children’s books are usually made using epub 3. Epub 3 also offers global language support: it handles non-latin scripts like Arabic and Chinese effortlessly.

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 printing and easy, platform neutral sharing of fixed-layout documents, it is no surprise that reflowing the text is problematic. (It can be done, though.) The big backside of pdf is that it is not accepted by any of the major ebook stores.

ebook reader applications

Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

5. Creating an ebook

If you have written a book and would like to distribute it in major stores, you’ll have to create an ebook. There are several ways of doing it: you can convert it yourself in the cloud, on your laptop using an ebook editor, or hire somebody to do the conversion.

If you write and edit your book in Word (or another document processor), you’ll have to prepare the manuscript for ebook conversion. This is true if you entrust a professional, but is increasingly so if you decide to convert your ebook yourself. Microsoft Word and Google Docs, however, use an entirely different system of styling and formatting a book than ebook editors: if the two system clashes, it can result in pain, sweat and long hours of troubleshooting.

The most important advice we can give you is actually the advice of the US Navy. The KISS principle (Keep it simple, stupid!) is one of the main principles of ebook formatting. As the ebook reader apps and devices strip the books from most formatting, there is hardly a reason for taking hours selecting different fonts and colours. There is a fair chance that it won’t be displayed anyway. Use styles for formatting, especially headings:  these will be used to create your table of contents later. There is no need to manually add a table of contents with page numbers – page numbers are uninterpretable in case of an epub.

Check out our ebook writing apps masterpost for advice on choosing the best free and paid ebook conversion software and ebook editors.

Best ebook writing apps

6. Downloading, opening and reading ebooks

If you don’t own an e-reader, you can still have the whole ereading experience. There are plenty of apps letting you buy, organize, borrow, lend and – most importantly – read ebooks.

Reading ebooks on PC or laptop (Windows and Mac)

New Windows computers come with a built-in solution for opening ebooks: the Microsoft Edge browser is set as default for opening epub files. While the way it displays it is by no means pretty, it is certainly legible.

By all means the most popular software to open, read, organise and convert (for private use) ebooks on a laptop or desktop computer is Calibre. Calibre is the non-profit love child of Kovid Goyal and is an ebook managing must-have. It is thanks to Calibre that my ebook library is much better organised than my physical. It works literally on any platform: Mac, Linux and Windows. Calibre does not only work as an ebook reader, but converts everything to everything, has a code-based editor and is excellent at metadata manager. It can also send books to the ebook reader, even via email to Kindle. I had great use of this functionality when I worked as a beta-reader: it made converting word documents for private use a child’s play.

The time machine (epub)

Most big distributors developed their cross-platform apps to ensure synchronisation, proper display and protection. Kindle app works both from PC and Mac, and Kobo has its own app for computers.

The library service OverDrive uses Adobe Digital Editions for PC and Mac. ADE, despite its imperfections is the industry standard tool for displaying and working with fixed-layout epubs. It is also specializing in accessibility features, working closely together with the operating system’s own accessibility options. At the time of writing this article, ADE is at version number 4.7 – most of the upgrades contain much needed bug fixes.

Adobe Digital Editions

To solve the serious problem of what will my book look like on different devices, Amazon has developed the Kindle Previewer. It is free for Windows and Mac, and supports many different screen sizes and editions of Kindle devices.

Reading ebooks on Android

All Android devices come with a built-in ebook reading tool: Google Play Books. You can use Google Play books to read your own ebooks if they are in an epub or pdf format. You can also buy ebooks in the Google Play Books store.

Google Play

Use the ‘Upload files’ function from your browser to upload books into your Google Play Books account. You can then reach them from your phone or your tablet.

Other popular apps include Kindle, Nook and Kobo, all with built in shopping function. The library giant OverDrive uses Libby for phones and other portable devices. All of these apps are able to handle notes, highlights in different colors, most of them have built-in dictionary, can handle categories or shelves.

Reading ebooks on iPhone

The same is true for IOS devices: all major stores have an IOS compatible app, and so does Apple itself. As books published through iTunes are of the highest quality (Apple being one of the few distributors actually requiring a valid epub), so everyone reading books bought directly from Apple can be sure that the books are working at the Apple device.

what's an ebook

Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash

7. 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 Gutenbergand BookBoon. Check out this list for more.

It might comes as a surprise, but it is worth checking out your local library: they will probably have a contract with a library e-publication supplier. The Rakuten owned OverDrive is in contract with 10.000 public and institutional libraries worldwide, mostly in the US, Canada, UK, but also in Brazil, India and Norway. In China, CNPeReading supplies libraries with fresh digital content. Most suppliers offering this service have a handy and easy to use app: just search for your desired ebook or audiobook straight from your phone.

Most e-readers 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 Kindle Unlimited, Bookmate or Scribd.

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