In her previous post, publishing consultant Ally E. Peltier examined the primary print formats available. Today she’ll discuss e-book and audio formats.
How to Choose the Right Digital Format for Your Book
The wealth of information about digital formats available online can make any non-techie’s head swim. And the technology changes every day, so this post will probably be outdated before you read it!
Below I’ll present a brief overview of the most recommended formats for e-books and audiobooks to give you a starting place, and to help you bypass the bulk of confusing material out there. Check out the resources suggested below for further detail and don’t forget to research the latest options.
In the early days of the digital book gold rush, every e-reader on the market had a proprietary file system, requiring publishers to offer books in multiple formats. Today e-readers (and publishers) increasingly use EPUB—a semi-universal format developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum, an industry consortium.
However, not all e-readers work well with EPUB, most notably the Kindle. Here’s a handy reference chart from Gizmodo that shows which e-readers use which formats:
- Amazon Kindle: Kindle (AZW, TPZ), TXT, MOBI, PRC and PDF natively; HTML and DOC through conversion
- Apple iPad: EPUB, PDF, HTML, DOC (plus iPad Apps, which could include Kindle and Barnes & Noble readers)
- Barnes & Noble Nook: EPUB, PDB, PDF
- Sony Reader: EPUB, PDF, TXT, RTF; DOC through conversion
Prepare yourself by accepting that, at least for the near future, your best bet is to release your e-book in multiple formats.
Which e-book formats should I start with?
If your e-book is heavily illustrated or has a complex layout, PDF will probably be best despite its reflow limitations because it will preserve your design elements. For books with simple running text such as a novel or self-help, EPUB is best.
For most, starting with a PDF, EPUB, and a Kindle-friendly version should suffice. These will allow you to target the most popular e-book markets. You can “publish” your e-book directly into these markets, or use third party distributors, some of which help with formatting and take a cut for “distributing” your e-book to sales outlets.
Smashwords is the most popular portal for multiplatform e-publishing; it uses a “meatgrinder” tool to turn your Word document into up to ten different formats (including those necessary for the Kindle and iPad). However, it can take untold hours to remove invisible format quirks embedded by MS Word (Smashwords’ helpful guide shows you how).
Also, Smashwords currently doesn’t have a distribution deal with Amazon (rumor has it they will this fall), so though you can create a Kindle-friendly version of your e-book for direct sale on Smashwords or your own website, you’ll still have to go through Amazon’s process to get your e-book into their Kindle bookstore.
PDF: The simplest, fastest way to convert your manuscript to an attractive file read easily by nearly all devices, including computers. Because this format locks the text in place instead of allowing for page reflow, PDF e-books can be difficult to read on smaller screens. Best for e-books you deliver via your website but not ideal for wide distribution through third-party outlets. Angela Render gives great tips on creating PDF e-books.
EPUB: This near-universal format is quickly becoming industry standard. It’s robust enough to handle color, hyperlinks, and even multimedia enhancements (probably a contributing factor to Apple’s choice of supporting EPUB for its iBookstore). Popular resources for creating EPUB files include Smashwords’ Meatgrinder, Calibre, and Stanza. Adobe InDesign, popular amongst book designers, can also be used to create EPUB files.
MOBI/AZW/PRC (Kindle): These can be read on any Kindle device as well as any device running a Kindle app. Because it still reigns as the most popular place to buy and download e-books and for the same reasons you’d want your print book listed with Amazon, at least one of your formats should be Kindle-friendly.
Currently, the Kindle is black and white only and its multimedia capabilities are limited, so if your book requires color images or embedded hyperlinks, videos, or other pyrotechnics, don’t even bother with MOBI/AZW/PRC. You can still sell your e-book on Amazon.com as a PDF. Also, if your e-book is DRM-free (DRM=digital rights management—see below) there are many accessible resources that easily convert EPUB to various Kindle formats, so going with EPUB doesn’t necessarily mean no one using a Kindle can read your book. Just remember that you most likely will need to upload files directly to Amazon if you want to sell your e-book in their Kindle store.
Each format of your e-book requires its own ISBN. Find out more here.
You must decide whether or not your e-book will support DRM. I say forget it. Check out this detailed discussion of DRM and e-book piracy for reasons why.
The online market is trending toward “micro-niches” and seems to prefer tailored content, meaning a shorter e-book with a narrow focus may do better than a longer, generalized one. Some retailers such as Amazon (through its Kindle Singles program) offer optional categorization for e-books based on word count and other factors.
You can’t control how your e-book will appear to readers (that’s determined by the device used) unless you publish a PDF, which has its own drawbacks as discussed previously.
Your cover should be a high quality JPG close to, but not more than 1000px on its longest side. Electric Book Works says this is the optimal size for most e-readers and e-book distributors.
Know your audience: Young audiences prefer e-books to audio books, while adults enjoy both. Busy professionals—especially commuters and travelers—prefer audio. But a significant portion of audio book listeners get theirs from libraries, while e-book readers tend toward purchases.
As long as there are multi-taskers, audio books will remain popular: The Audio Publishers Association estimates a one billion dollar industry. As with e-books, there are many formatting possibilities, but CDs and MP3 downloads are the most popular.
CD: Despite the accessibility of digital downloads, CD sales currently represent 72% of the audio book market. CDs are easier to loan and resell, which may account for some of their popularity. Abridged versions=fewer CDs=cheaper packaging, but with audiences overwhelmingly preferring unabridged editions, this isn’t the place to skimp.
MP3: There’s no doubt the world is going digital; the latest statistics from the APA reveal an increase from 17% to 21% of the market in just one year. MP3 files can be played by the widest variety of devices out there and those using proprietary formats often make it easy to convert your files for playing on their devices, so if you can offer only one digital download, make it an MP3. Ultimately, though, offering multiple digital formats will give you the widest reach.
In the next installment, we’ll discuss what kind of professional services you should consider and why they’re crucial to your book’s success.
Ally E. Peltier is an editor, writer, and publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge of the publishing industry and more than a decade of experience to help others reach their publishing goals, whether it’s showing a writer how to improve his manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish, or ghostwriting a book to help an entrepreneur skyrocket her business.