As with music, movies, photography, television and many other industries in recent years, publishing has been turned on its head by the digital revolution and the invention and proliferation of ebooks.
Ebooks have some huge advantages. As a reader, it’s great being able to download a book at 10 o’clock at night without getting off the couch, and they are cheaper than print books. For publishers (and especially small publishers) ebooks solve two significant problems: distribution and printing. With ebooks a small publisher can have the same distribution reach as Penguin. You can sell all over the world. And print costs are a major outlay that suddenly disappears with ebooks (although there are other formatting costs instead).
But ebooks have two major drawbacks for publishers: because of the low price expectations of readers the profit margins on ebooks are low, and the formatting of ebooks is a bit limited compared to print.
Like websites, ebooks have to be readable on a variety of different screens, such as mobile phones, tablets and laptops. For this reason, ebook text is what is known as ‘reflowable’. This means that the ‘page size’ adjusts to whatever size the screen is and the text ‘reflows’ to fit this page size. For this reason, ebooks don’t actually have fixed pages. On your mobile phone an ebook might be 600 ‘pages’ long but on your tablet the same ebook might be only 300 ‘pages’ long. To get around this problem, ebooks have what are known as ‘locations’; each ‘location’ is attached to a section of text and moves with the text when it moves.
A number of different file formats are used for ebooks. The most common is EPUB, and you’ll need a MOBI file for Amazon.
EPUB is the ebook format used by the vast majority of ebook stores and readers. EPUB – not surprisingly – stands for electronic publication. EPUB files can be a bit buggy, and you may experience minor layout errors. The EPUB format is improving but at the time of writing it seems almost impossible to entirely remove minor formatting issues, especially if your book contains a range of different text styles, lists or tables.
MOBI is the ebook format used exclusively by Amazon, for no other apparent reason than to lock customers into buying from Amazon. The book will look slightly different, but it’s basically the same as EPUB. However, it can only be used with an Amazon device or software.
Technically any file format you can put your book into can be an ebook, such as a Word file or PDF. You’re unlikely to use a Word file as this would offer no protection against changes to the file, but PDFs with appropriate security can be useful. For example, you can use them on your website to provide a free sample chapter, or even your whole book.
The formats you’re most likely to use are EPUBs to list on most of the bookstores, MOBI to sell your book on Amazon and perhaps PDF to put a sample chapter on your website.