Creating an e-book: Tips on formatting and converting your document

Your company needs an e-book and the project has landed in your lap? These tips and tools can help you get the job done right.

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Destination formats

Odds are you won't have just one destination format for your e-book, but several. If your target readers are using a variety of devices -- a Nook, a Kindle, an iPad -- it helps to support as many of those devices as possible. The Kindle, for instance, is notorious for not supporting ePub format files.

These are the most common e-book destination formats and their quirks.

ePub

An open, non-proprietary format that uses XHTML as the basis for its document format, ePub is widely supported as an output format by various e-book production applications -- iTunes, for instance, only accepts ePub as a source format. In fact, it couldn't hurt to render a copy of your product as ePub no matter what other formats you're also planning to output to.

EPub has a few downsides. Its formatting methodology assumes that the text will be reflowed to fit the target device, so books that require PDF-style page fidelity won't work well in ePub. Also, there's no support for equations, apart from inserting them as images -- TeX or MathML, two commonly used languages for representing math, aren't supported. And ePub doesn't have a standard way to interpret or share annotations, which might be another drawback for people publishing digital textbooks.

To that end, it's best for "straight" text, or for documents where reflowed formatting won't be an issue.

Mobi and Kindle

A variant of an earlier version of ePub, Mobi -- or Mobipocket -- was developed by the company of the same name as a format to be used with its e-book reader software, designed originally for PDAs and later smartphones. After Amazon bought the company, it made Mobi into the basis for the Kindle reader's own e-book format. Mobi supports digital rights management, but unencrypted Mobi documents can be read on the Kindle without issues.

PDF

PDFs can be read as-is in the majority of e-book readers, including the Kindle. Exporting to PDF is best when you want to maintain absolute fidelity to page layout -- images, typefaces and so on.

Ironically, this is the very feature that can make PDFs a problem in some scenarios, which I hinted at before. Other e-book formats are designed to work independently of any particular device resolution, so pages reflow automatically for each device. This is one of the reasons the Kindle didn't make use of page numbers at first, since the page numbering for a particular book could vary depending on what device or screen size you were reading it with.

PDFs, on the other hand, reproduce as closely as possible the formatting of the original page, no matter what the size of the destination device. A PDF formatted for an 8.5-by-11-in. page may be quite readable on a large display, but looks cramped on a Kindle or Nook. Some PDF readers, such as Adobe's own Acrobat Reader application, are able to reflow a PDF to fit an arbitrary screen size -- but this isn't a universally available function, and you shouldn't count on it being present.

If you're committed to using PDFs, you may want to consider exporting your document with different page sizes as a courtesy for people using e-readers with small screens. This may require some research to figure out what page sizes render best with popular e-book readers.

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