Is 19 eBook Formats 18 Too Many?

April 2, 2011

Which ebook formats do we really need?

By “need” I’m thinking only about consumer needs, not what the vendors want. *

Formats offered by UK Distributor

I think the only ones we need today are:

1. ePub – Not because it’s any good, but because it’s an industry standard, not just one vendor’s idea.
2. PDF – Because there’s already so much good material in this format, and it preserves “bookishness.”
3. txt – I wish this would go away as an ebook standard, but the folks at Project Gutenberg are my heroes, and can be cut a lot of slack. RTF is preferable as a container for .txt.4.
4. HTML – Because simple native browser support for reading makes the most sense, long term (via XHTML and CSS3).

And the rest be damned (except for a couple of legacy formats, like Newton and PalmDOC, which vendors can support if they’re feeling generous and have time on their hands). Each of these formats could be handled in the browser today except for the darned DRM.

So that’s the theory. The real world has commercial realities that all publishers need to contend with.

I stumbled upon an excellent site from South Africa this morning  – Electronic Books Works and its thorough Knowledge Base. You can also download a good little ebook about ebook design and formatting.

The author recommends four formats for real-world everyday use:

1. PDF
2. epub (with a nod to DTBook)
3. AZW (and its sibling, mobi), and

Makes sense to me.

Footnote * The vendors sometimes want what consumers need, but seem currently to want vendor lock-in, DRM, and other things that benefit primarily them, not us. This should shake out in time…





Wikipedia's format listing

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E-books Just Want To Be Free

July 23, 2010

I’ve known about the excellent Project Gutenberg for a long time now. It was founded in 1971 by Michael Hart and is the oldest digital library. I hadn’t been back to the site for several years because in my mind it was still the place where all you could download was ASCII text versions of books, which must be the worst possible way to read them. Sure, you could change the font to something easier on the eyes, but by definition and by design ASS-KEY lacks all formatting information — forget about line, paragraph or type styles, including bold and italic.

When I did stop by for a visit last month I was pleased to see that Project Gutenberg now offers “over 33,000 free e-books to read on your PC, iPad, Kindle, Sony Reader, iPhone, Android or other portable device.” Yes, the days of ASCII are a footnote today. What a difference a little formatting can make. (Another footnote is “Our books are free in the United States because their copyright has expired. They may not be free of copyright in other countries.”)

Tonight I see that the 5th Annual  World eBook Fair is underway. From July 4th to August 4th you can select from 3,500,000+ free PDF -books. I just downloaded a very good scan of the 1866 edition of Lewis Carroll Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (with the marvellous illustrations from John Tenniel). I previously download an ePub versionfrom Project Gutenberg with the same illustrations. Very nice!


Meanwhile, the timely and trenchant blog TeleRead (“News & views on e-books, libraries, publishing and related topics”) brings word today that the Marc D’Hooghe has updated his Free Literature Site. I don’t know what it was like before, but it’s certainly a treasure now. Under “General” it offers over 400 sources of free digital books. There are 100+ sites for free poetry as well as sites for art books, music (books, scores and audio), and Classical Greek & Latin – Medieval.

Beyond that there is also a fine selection of links to:

  • Working on e-text: tools and information
  • Research, education and scientific publications
  • Books and literature in general

The site is frequently updated with new discoveries (RSS feed available). Some of the latest unique finds include Hinduism e-books as well as the Dutch version of Jules Verne’s De Kinderen van Kapitein Grant.

As Paul Biba notes on TeleRead, “I love browsing in a second-hand bookstore.”

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E-books Won’t Stay Ugly Forever

September 17, 2009

A subject which receives far too little coverage in the great eBook orgy is just how much is lost in the conversersion from books-on-paper to eBooks in one of the many eBook formats. What is lost: nearly every visual element, from typeface choices to page design.

As this May 2009 article on states:

“Ultimately the sticking point for e-books is accessibility,” says (Pablo) Defendini. “A large component of this is making sure the text flows right and the fonts are appropriate, even while giving the reader choice to change that. That flies in the face of the traditional role of a typographer, who is in minute control of everything.”

Project Gutenberg is justifiably famous and lauded for its pioneering efforts to place many books from the public domain into a free database. It has traditionally placed those books into its database in ASCII text only, of course thereby losing all of the typographic niceties, as well as the illustrations. The #1 download from this site is Alice in Wonderland. Here is what the text format appears like on your screen:


To Project Gutenberg’s credit, it is now expeimenting with several eBook formats.

Here is one the the very famous Tenniel illustrations that appears in the most revered version of the book:


The subject of course begs the old question: how important is book design (and illustration) to the comprehension and appreciation of a book.

This is a complex topic I’ll shortly be offering a briefing on. Stay tuned.

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