designing ebooks and other fun things

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What’s an ebook, anyway?


I used to think that the very basics of ebook formats was a topic that was already very well covered on the internet and, therefore, there was no reason I should even try to cover it. Because I am sure there is someone out there who can do a much better job than I can, right? I just design ebooks, after all. I probably don’t know everything there is to know about the formats – just how to make each one look best, even with some of their (absurd by 2014 standards) limitations.

But then I started noticing a recurring theme in the emails from clients: questions about which format was right for which use, quoted information that was blatantly incorrect, and just an overall confusion on what to use with Amazon, iBookstore, and other online ebook sellers.

And, while I always answer all individual questions with as much painstaking detail as I can provide (seriously, try me), I thought that a general primer wouldn’t hurt. Especially after I tried searching for the definitions and came up with things like this:

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 12.18.12While that’s actually helpful to someone who, like me, already has a basic understanding of what it is actually used for, I think that to an author researching ways to publish their book in an electronic format this definition doesn’t provide any helpful information.

You don’t need an official definition. What you need is the understanding of what it is and whether you need it – preferably in non-technical terms that are easy to grasp. So that’s what I’m going to attempt with this post (and the ones that will follow).

Let’s start with the basics:

An ebook is a really generic term. It doesn’t describe any particular format. All it means is “electronic book” – a book meant to be distributed via digital means, no matter which file type or avenue you choose to do that.


(So yes, technically, even a Word document can be an ebook. I am emphasizing “can” here because that doesn’t mean it should. There’s a reason it’s not commonly used, and that is because it is so easy for anyone to change. You don’t want someone else editing your book without your permission, do you?)

There are quite a few formats that you could use though, and sometimes it can be overwhelming looking at a list of those file extensions, especially if you had never seen some of them before. I am not going to bring all of them up because I am trying to keep things simple, but also because you don’t really need to know about them unless you are targeting a very specific niche of a very specific market. For the rest of us, three formats are plenty: PDF, ePub and Mobi. Let’s go into a bit more detail on each one.


Good old PDF… this file format has been used for ebooks since before the term “ebook” was invented. This is still the format that comes closest to printed books – you can set up every page exactly the way you want, have the border be the exact distance from the edge, use any font you want with any additional tweaking, position a cutout image in the middle of the text and have the text follow the edge of the image – all this fully secure in your knowledge that your reader will see your beautiful beautiful layout exactly the way you see it. In short, exactly the kind of control that every designer wants to have.

PDF has also embraced interactivity, so it’s not just for print books turned digital. You can add as many hyperlinks as you want, internal and external. You can embed video. You can have buttons and rollovers, embed attachments, interactive functions that convert units from metric to imperial, print, or play an audio message from you – and probably a lot more that I simply haven’t had a chance to test yet. (Although you may want to be careful with 100+ rollovers in one file, as I recently found out… it can get buggy. Adobe, I hope you are working on a fix!)

PDF, true to its name of Portable Document Format, is also truly portable… pretty much every operating system out there has its own version of Adobe Reader, or something similar.  So technically, you can read it on your desktop, laptop, tablet and phone – no matter what flavor.

So what’s not to love about the PDF format? You may have noticed that little disclaimer, “technically” I just used above… The truth is, while it is simple enough to read a PDF on a tablet or a mobile phone, that isn’t the main format associated with ebooks on those devices – mainly because most ebooks on those devices are purchased through major retailers – such as Amazon and iBookstore. And those retailers have embraced the above-mentioned reflowable formats: ePub and Mobi. Which answers one of the often repeated questions clients ask me: “How can I get my PDF ebook onto Amazon or iBookstore?” The answer is, unfortunately, that you can’t.

I believe that if the style of your ebook is important, then the PDF version is a must. No other format can look as impressive as a PDF, since there is less control over the overall layout. And in my experience, that perfectly styled look gets attention and spreads the word. Besides, a PDF ebook can also easily become a printed book, should you ever decide to go that route. With print on demand, that’s easier than ever – but that is really a topic for another post and another time.

However, if you are interested in getting your ebook on Amazon, iBookstore, B&N and what have you, you will probably want to look into ePub and Mobi formats as well.


The main thing you need to know about ePub is that this is the default e-reading format used with most tablets and smart phones and, therefore, most major ebook retailers – with one big exception: Kindle/Amazon. Amazon uses the Mobi format, which works on all Kindle readers – but more on that below.

If you want to sell your ebook on iBookstore and B&N, or if you want an easy format for people accessing your site via a tablet, ePub is what you need.

There are some things you should know before you start though… the main ones being that it is reflowable (this refers to ePub 2 – see note below on fixed layout)* and has certain limitations. Limitations like not being able to use a background image with text over it, or the lack of support for multiple columns of text on some devices.

Remember that “perfectly in control over the look of your ebook” feeling I described when talking about the PDF format? Yeah… that’s pretty much out of the window with this one – unless you understand exactly what those limitations are and plan for them, so that your ebook looks good even if (gasp!) the user has decided to reflow it in two facing pages on his tiny phone screen while changing the font and increasing it to maximum size. (I do hope that doesn’t happen to you, but you never know.)

With the abundance of devices and apps that read the ePub format, and the fact that some of them support the newer ePub 3 standard and others don’t, the best way to make sure that your ebook looks as good as possible is to keep things simple.

Simple doesn’t mean bland though, and it certainly doesn’t mean using black text over white background throughout your book in whatever font the reader has selected as default. (There is nothing wrong with that approach for fiction books – I happen to have lots of those in my e-library too, but that isn’t really the kind of ebook we’re talking about here, and that approach would certainly not make for an appealing cookbook, or a guide book.) Simple just means using graphical elements, colors and custom fonts with the understanding of how they will be rendered on all those different devices – and using them in a way that will still work, no matter what the limitations or user overrides are.

Creating an ePub that is as close as possible to the PDF version as it can be with those limitations is what I strive for. You may decide to simplify things and go with mostly text instead (but please only do this if it makes sense for your particular topic) – either way, if you want your ebook in those major ebook stores, you need the ePub format. Unless you are only interested in selling your ebook through Amazon – but even then, Mobi and ePub are actually a lot more similar than they used to be, and ePub is a good starting step for the Mobi version.


This format is an Amazon proprietary format, and has always been used with Kindle readers. Until recently, submitting a mobi file was the only way to get your ebook into the Amazon ebook store – but recently, that has changed and you can actually submit an ePub file and have it automatically converted to Mobi directly on the Kindle direct publishing website.

The newest Mobi standard is actually rather similar to the ePub, so creating an ePub first and then adapting for Mobi requires only a few adjustments, in most cases.

Besides Kindle readers, this format also works with various Kindle apps, so it is very likely used even on those device that have ePub as their default format… this isn’t necessarily great news design-wise, since the different apps can also display a bit differently or have limited support for things like custom fonts. Still, as with the ePub format, knowing the limitations and planning for them usually provides a good result.

And hopefully, these limitations will continue to disappear, given enough time.


* There is also a fixed layout option for both ePub and Mobi formats which does make the file more similar to a PDF – precise control over all elements on a page. I may go into more detail on this in a follow-up post, since the premise truly is promising – however, for the moment, the main thing to know is that fixed layout is not compatible with all devices, so at this point, it should probably be considered as an additional option, not the only option… unless you are certain that most of your target market is using the compatible devices OR unless you are selling ONLY through major ebook stores, which will only allow a purchase of these ebooks when made from a compatible device. If you are planning to sell ePub and Mobi through your own website though, the older, more limited but compatible with all formats are a safer bet.


Did I forget something? Have a question that wasn’t covered, or some info on a new development that I haven’t heard about yet? Leave me a comment below.

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