What is an eBook and how is it made?

What is an eBook and how is it made?


What is an eBook?

Simply said, an ebook is a book in digital format, readable on a computer, tablet or smartphone. It can be of any shape, any size, any style. The only restrictions are technical and imagination.

There is a lot of heated argument about whether ebooks will replace printed books, the heat generated almost exclusively by people with their own monetary interests in pushing one over the other.

The reality is that eBooks complement printed books and vice versa. Printed books will not go away; they will be bought and loved for different reasons, not least of which the pleasure of holding one and putting it on a real shelf to see at a glance and remember its beauty. Print books are more than the content in its pages; they are works of art that brighten up a home. If content is the overriding need, such as training manuals, then digital format is likely best, but not exclusively so. If the content is primarily really large, big spread images (the coffee table book) or the book’s entire purpose is to deliver content in a truly beautiful package (leather bound, gold intaglio) then the printed book, frankly, is unbeatable. So it’s both.

The making of an eBook

So, you have all your content ready, your words, your images, your maps, your videos, your extras and your design.

Maybe the design comes from the print version of your book? Well keep it in mind but put it to one side for a moment. First we have ro go into some technical intricacies, the type you don’t really want to hear.

With the exception of eBooks published in pdf format, all eBooks are essentially specially packaged files written in HTML, the HyperText Mark-up Language with which websites are made. Think of eBooks as differently designed, downloaded websites and you are not a million miles away from the truth. The same goes for ‘apps’ by the way.

Since the heart of an eBook is a programming language, there are both industry standards and customized variations of those standards. The two standards are called ePub2 and ePub3. The basic difference between them is functionality, this in turn a consequence of the development of the underlying HTML. The ePub2 standard is baed on HTML4 functionality while the ePub3 standard is based on HTML5.

So what about all those other formats you hear of, like iBook, Mobi, KF8, Nook, ACS? They are all customized versions of either ePub2 or ePub3. Sometimes the customization extends the functionality a little; mostly it is introduced to make the eBook work only on their reader (Nook, Google, Kindle, iTunes), or to incorporate digital rights management (Kindle), or create an environment that masks the underlying programming (iBooks, Caliber, Scribd).

The Big Four

PDF technology is beginning to get better than just a dumb scan, with some multimedia functionality possible. The benefit is that, although simplistic, PDF is readable on everything.

The ePub2 version is the classic eBook format, the one you are likely thinking of now. If configured right, an ePub2 version can be converted into a Mobi version, which is then acceptable to Kindle when it in turn converts the package to its proprietary KF8 format.

The ePub3 version, which itself comes in two flavors, can deliver almost as many functions as the iBook version, and indeed can do things the iBook cannot yet do. This works on iPads and, if you have the right ebook reader installed, on Android based tablets also. If you have a visually rich work, or one that really jumps in quality with interactivity, then you have to do an ePub3 version.

Then there is the master of them all, Apple’s iBook. It incorporates the best functionality, being ePub3 at its core, and its output is designed to work on the best platform available for eBooks, a proper sized tablet. Being Apple of course, that means Apple iPads and iPad minis only.

Does that mean I must learn to program?

If you want to avoid learning about the package structure and how to make an eBook by writing pure HTML, then the only way to go is to use one of the eBook making applications or services that are increasingly available.

Both Apple’s Pages word processor and Adobe’s InDesign publishing application can export work to ePub format. I have tried Pages and, frankly, it is useless for anything beyond brutally simplistic ePub formats which don’t even work with some eBook readers. I have not yet tried InDesign for making an eBook, but is it a good product for publishing in general. Sigil is a powerful tool for structured eBook writing; it is popular with authors who like to write-and-make at the same time. Scribd and Caliber are two others, focused exclusively on making eBooks, and both are free. However what they all output is ePub2 format, which is limited compared to ePub3.

While hunting for eBook-making software, you will inevitably come across companies offering to make the eBook for you, or better yet a menu-and-template system where you upload your work in slices and their software magically stitches the whole thing together. These services certainly work, their eBook-making being something like Caliber, and the output will, in varying degrees, be presentable. One way or another you will pay for this, of course. But this might be the least worrisome route for you to take; that’s certainly what their business model is based on.

Apple’s iBook Author is free, and by far the easiest with which to make eBooks. Unless you want to create some special widgets, you don’t even get the scent of a thought that this might be programming.

What does all this mean?

It means that, if you want a eBook version of your work, available on as many retailer sites as possible and in as many countries as possible (and these are the two driving reasons for wanting an eBook version in the first place), then, depending on the type of book you have written, you don’t make one version of an eBook, you make up to four: pdf, ePub2/Mobi/KF8, ePub3 (fixed or flowing), and iBook.

If that wasn’t enough, each version has to be designed independently (so forget the print design). Not only does functionality between versions differ and eBook readers present eBooks differently but, thanks to the tablet’s physical size, the reading experience is different too. For example, iBooks are best read horizontally but PDFs are best read vertically, not in a two-page spread, because you see more of the single page – vital if the tablet is small or very oblong, like the iPad Mini and Samsung Galaxy.

No wonder authors prefer to focus on the creative side of writing….