Electric Book Works Web, mobile and print publications

What is an ebook?

This is easy to answer, until you really think about it. So, first, let’s not think too hard about it: an ebook is a book you read on a screen rather than paper. The author and publisher have developed that book as if it were going to be on paper, and have then distributed it digitally.

Now, let’s complicate things. Here’s a list of the things that make ebooks what they are, starting with the most obvious:

  1. Ebooks are books read on a screen.

  2. Ebooks are sometimes converted versions of paper books (created from scans or print PDFs), and sometimes they’re designed as ebooks from the start.

  3. Ebooks are stored and delivered in carefully chosen file formats (much like word processing is mostly in Word’s .doc, and spreadsheeting mostly in Excel’s .xls), so that they can be read offline (that is, without having to get extra info from a web server somewhere else).

  4. Ebooks depend on software to be opened and read (like a .doc file depends on a good Word-like program). The quality of this software determines the quality of the reading experience.

  5. Consumers expect ebooks to cost less than print – usually between 50% and 80% of the print book price. (Pricing is a whole other issue for a separate discussion.)

  6. Ebooks are found and downloaded from the Internet.

  7. Ebooks are sometimes read online, much like a live website. (The online/offline distinction is important for all kinds of reasons.)

  8. Ebooks sometimes include sound, video, or interactive forms, quizzes, or even games.

Those are some fundamentals, just to get us started.

Before we go further, though, there is one caveat that I should get out of the way early: you cannot determine or control the appearance of an ebook as you can with print. You don’t decide what your reader will see. You just provide your design preferences, and hope that your reader’s device and their display choices won’t make a mess of it. Beyond that, your job is to put the document together well, so that it can be read in the widest possible number of applications.

Arthur Attwell 16 February 2010
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