We should not see print and electronic literature as in competition, but rather in conversation. The more voices that join in, the richer the dialog is likely to be. —N. Katherine Hayles

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The eBook

Do you have a manuscript you need converted to an eBook? Our staff may be reached at editor@compassrose.com.

An e-Book (also: ebook, eBook) is an electronic (or digital) version of a book. The term is used ambiguously to refer to either an individual work in a digital format, or a hardware device used to read books in digital format. Some users deprecate the second meaning in favor of the more precise “e-Book device.” However, the term interplay works out colloquially in the long run, e-Books are an emerging and rapidly changing technology, and since at least 2004 have included the newer experimental e-Magazines, pioneered in part by Baen’s Books in their release of the first Grantville Gazette e-Magazine.

The term “e-text” is often used synonymously with the term e-Book, and is also used for the more limited case of data in ASCII text format, while the more general [e-Book] can be in a specialized (and, at times, proprietary) file format. An exception to this rule is the academic e-text, which commonly includes components such as facsimile images, apparatus criticus, and scholarly commentary on the work from one or more editors specially qualified to edit the author or work in question.

An e-Book is commonly bundled by a publisher for distribution (as an e-Book, an e-zine, or an Internet newspaper), whereas e-text is distributed in ASCII (or plain text), or in the case of academic works, in the form of discrete media such as compact discs. Metadata relating to the text are sometimes included with e-text (though it appears more frequently with e-Books). Metadata commonly include details about author, title, publisher, and copyright date; less common are details regarding language, genre, relevant copyright conventions, etc.

Format Types

The e-Book community has many options when it comes to choosing a format for production. While the average end-user might arguably want to simply read books, every format has its exponents and champions, and debates over which format is best can become intense. The myriad of e-Book formats is sometimes referred to as the “Tower of e-Babel.” For the average end user to read a book, every format has its advantages and disadvantages. Formats available include, but are by no means limited to:

Image Files

An e-Book can be distributed as a sequence of images, one for each page. In this way, any image format can be used as an e-Book format. This method of distribution produces files much larger than all others, and also has the disadvantage that the user cannot select text, nor can the e-Book be read by a screen reader. Distribution as images is most suitable for comic books, books about art, or other very visual works.


Published as a “.doc” or “.txt” file.

e-Guides were first introduced on eBay by a seller with the user name “ColidgeGraduit.” e-Guides are usually in plain Microsoft Word or Notepad files, and are usually short guides in a step-by-step format. The e-Guide simple format is easily prone to plagiarism, since almost anybody can just save the file to their computer then resend it to someone else claiming it as their own. Security measures are being introduced in order to secure simple Microsoft Word documents from being edited by the recipients.

Rich Text Format (RTF)

Published as an “.rtf” file.

A standard formalized by Microsoft Corporation for specifying formatting of documents. RTF files are actually ASCII files with special commands to indicate formatting information, such as fonts and margins.

Hyper Text Markup Language

Commonly known as HTML.

HTML is the markup language used for most Web pages. e-Books using HTML can be read using a standard browser (e.g., Mozilla, Firefox, or Microsoft Internet Explorer) with no need for special equipment.

Open Electronic Book Package Format

Commonly known as “OPF FlipBook.”

OPF is an XML-based e-Book format created by E-Book Systems. e-Books created in this format are also known as FlipBooks as the viewing software presents the book in a 3D flipping format. There is an on-going project to make the OPF readable using a standard browser (e.g., Mozilla, Firefox, or Microsoft Internet Explorer) with no need for special equipment. Currently it requires the viewing client for the full flipping experience.


FictionBook is a popular XML-based e-Book format, supported by free readers such as Haali Reader and FBReader.

Text Encoding Initiative

TEI Lite is the most popular of the TEI-based (and thus XML-based or SGML-based) electronic text formats.


Plucker is a free e-Book reader application with its own associated file format and software to automatically generate plucker files from HTML files, Web sites, or RSS feeds. The format is a compressed HTML archive, somewhat like Microsoft’s CHM.

CHM Format

Also known as Microsoft Compressed HTML Help.

CHM format is a proprietary format based on HTML. Multiple pages and embedded graphics are distributed along with proprietary metadata as a single compressed file. In contrast, in HTML a site consists of multiple HTML files and associated image files in standardized formats.

Portable Document Format (PDF)

Published as a “.pdf” file.

A file format created by Adobe Systems, initially to provide a standard form for storing and editing printed publishable documents. Because documents in .pdf format can easily be seen and printed by users on a variety of computer and platform types, they are very common on the World Wide Web. But since they are designed to reproduce page images, and the text cannot be re-flowed to fit the screen width, PDF files designed for printing on standard paper sizes are hard to view on screens with limited size or resolution.

PDF files are created mainly using Adobe Acrobat, but Acrobat Capture and other Adobe products also support their creation, as do third-party products such as PDFCreator, OpenOffice.org, and FOP. Acrobat Reader (now simply called Adobe Reader) is Adobe’s product used to view PDF files. PDF files typically contain product manuals, brochures, magazine articles, or flyers as they can embed fonts, images, and other documents. A PDF file contains one or more page images, each of which you can zoom in on or out from. The PDF format can include interactive elements such as buttons for forms entry and for triggering sound and Quicktime or AVI movies. Acrobat PDF files are optimized for the Web by rendering text before graphic images and hypertext links. Adobe’s PDF-like e-Book format is incorporated into their reader.


Published as a “.ps” file.

PostScript is a page description language used primarily in the electronic and desktop publishing areas for describing the contents of a printed page in a higher level than the actual output bitmap.


Published as a “.djvu” file.

DjVu is a file format that has been long in obscurity, but that is starting to surface now that free tools to manipulate the files are available.

DjVu is a format that particularly excels in storing scanned images. There are even advanced compressors specializing in low-color images, such as text documents. Individual files may contain single pages, or they can be collections of multiple pages.

The images are divided in separate layers (such as multi-color, low-resolution, loosely compressed background layer, and few-colors, high-resolution, tightly compressed foreground layer), each compressed in best applicable method. The files are also designed to decompress very fast, even faster than vector-based formats.

The advantage of DjVu is that it is possible to take a high-resolution scan (300–400 DPI), good enough for both on-screen and printing, and store it very efficiently. Several dozen 300 DPI black-and-white scans can be stored in less than a megabyte.


Published as an “.lit” file.

The MS reader uses patented ClearType® display technology. Navigation works with a keyboard, mouse, stylus, or through electronic bookmarks. The Catalogue Library records reader books in a personalized “home page.” A user can add annotations and notes to any page, create large-print e-Books with a single command, or create free-form drawings in the reader pages. A built-in dictionary allows the user to look up words.

eReader (formerly Palm Digital Media)

Published as a “.pdb” file.

eReader is a program for viewing Palm Digital Media electronic books. Versions are available for PalmOS, PocketPC, Symbian OS, Windows, and Macintosh. The reader shows text one page at a time as paper books do. eReader supports embedded hyperlinks and images. Most eReader-formatted books are encrypted, with the key being the purchaser’s full name and credit card number.


Published as a “.prc” file.

The Mobipocket Reader has a home page library. Readers can add blank pages in any part of a book and add free-hand drawings. Annotations—highlights, bookmarks, notes, and drawings—can be applied, organized, and recalled from a single location. Mobipocket Reader has electronic bookmarks, appearing in the page margins. Dictionaries allow users to look up definitions through a built-in lookup function.

The reader has a full screen mode for reading and has Microsoft ClearType® support. On Palm OS, readers can use sub-pixel rendering with the MobiType® font. Mobipocket Reader runs on many PDA types (including Palm OS, Pocket PC and Windows CE, Tablet PC, Casio BE-300, Psion, Symbian OS Smartphones, Franklin eBookMan) and on Windows 2000/XP. Mobipocket products do not allow reading on Linux, Macintosh, or other operating systems. These systems may be used only as a conduit to a PDA.

The Mobipocket e-Book format based on the Open e-Book standard using XHTML can include JavaScript and frames. It also supports native SQL queries to be used with embedded databases.

The Mobipocket encryption system is not a password-based system. Its DRM relies on the PDA hardware serial number.

ExeBook (EXE)

Published as an “.exe” file.

ExeBook is a compiler that produces an e-Book file that, when executed, produces a simulated book on screen, complete with page texture. The e-text is encrypted as graphic images so that automatic text copying is very difficult. The fear of EXE files picking up viruses, however, is hampering its acceptance.


Published as an “.exe” or “.dnl” file.

DesktopAuthor is an electronic publishing suite that allows creation of digital Web books with virtual turning pages. Digital Web books of any e-publication type can be written in this format, including e-brochures, e-Books, digital photo albums, e-cards, digital diaries, online resumes, quizzes, exams, tests, forms and surveys. DesktopAuthor packages the e-Book into a “.dnl” or “.exe” book. Each can be a single, plain stand-alone executable file that does not require any other programs to view it. DNL files can be viewed inside a Web browser or stand-alone via the DNL Reader.

Newton e-Book

Published as a “.pkg” and more commonly known as a Newton Book; a single Newton package file can contain multiple books.

All systems running the Newton operating system (the most common ones include the Newton MessagePads, eMates, Siemens Secretary Stations, Motorola Marcos, Digital Ocean Seahorses, and Tarpons) have built-in support for viewing Newton books. The Newton package format was released to the public by Newton, Inc. prior to that company’s absorption into Apple Computer. The format is thus arguably open and various people have written readers for it (writing a Newton Book converter has even been assigned as a university-level class project).

Newton books have no support for DRM or encryption. They do support internal links, potentially multiple tables of contents and indexes, embedded grayscale images, and even some scripting capability (for example, it’s possible to make a book in which the reader can influence the outcome).

Comparison with Printed Books


  • Text can be searched, except when represented in the form of images.
  • Take up little space.

    —Hundreds (or thousands) may be carried together on one device.

    —Approximately 500 average e-Books can be stored on one CD (equivalent to several shelves’ worth of print books)

    —Because they take up little space, e-Books can be offered indefinitely, with no out-of-print date, allowing authors to continue to earn royalties indefinitely (copyright law permitting), and allowing readers to find older works by favorite authors.

  • e-Books may be read in low light or even total darkness, with a back-lit device.
  • Type size and type face may be adjusted. However, enlarging, e.g., a PDF document magnifies the text but preserves the original layout and spacing; a practical limit on zooming follows from the requirement to keep a text column within the width of the screen (otherwise horizontal scrolling would be needed during and after reading each line, which would be very cumbersome). However, tagged PDFs can be reflowed in Acrobat 6 and 7, eliminating the horizontal-scrolling problem in zoomed PDFs.
  • Can be used with text-to-speech software.
  • Readily reformatted for independent platforms.
  • Instantly copied

    —When a backup is kept in a remote place, cannot be lost by fire, etc.

    —Once distributed, elimination is next to impossible.

  • Distributed at low cost.
  • Distributed instantly, allowing readers to begin reading at once, without the need to visit a bookstore
  • Simultaneously share book (if networked).
  • Errors may be easily corrected with downloadable lists of errata or simply with corrected text. (This can also be an advantage for printed books, in different circumstances.)
  • At the moment, e-Books are commonly published by independent publishing houses, which can mean greater editorial and authorial freedom and more room for experimentation.
  • An inexpensive format for works that require color.
  • An excellent choice of format for works that benefit from search and cross-reference capabilities, such as dictionaries, reference works, and certain kinds of textbooks.

From the user’s point of view:

  • Can be incompatible with new or replacement hardware or software
  • Require care in handling and storage of the files, to avoid damage or loss
  • Reading can be hard on (or even harmful to) the eyes
  • Lacks the quality of a print book as an item
  • Limited battery life on portable devices
  • Can “phone home” to track readers and reading habits
  • Can restrict how many times a document is read
  • Can restrict printing

From the publisher’s/author’s point of view:

  • Can in some cases be hacked, or disseminated without approval from the author or publisher (some formats are more susceptible to this than others)
  • Not normally a good format choice for works that have extensive and/or large illustrations, such as works in art history, photography, large maps, etc.

Printed Book

  • Less eye strain over extended reading time
  • If small, very portable.
  • Usable in adverse environmental conditions.
  • Robust and durable.
  • Readable when severely damaged.
  • Requires no power source, and no alternative reading device like a PC or a palmtop.
  • Errors are forever; this unchangeability sometimes adds to its value.
  • Have more value as collectors’ items, e.g., first editions
  • At the moment, print books are primarily published by established houses including numerous international conglomerates, which can result in greater funds available for promotion of a title.
  • From the user’s point of view: Can be priced in a way that inhibits availability
  • From the user’s and author’s point of view: Can be put out of print and made unavailable to readers
  • From the author’s point of view: Can be difficult to get a publisher to amend errata
  • Can be an awkward format for reference works or works that have many internal cross-references.
  • An expensive format for works that require color, since color printing commonly requires several passes of paper through the press (typically three to five passes).

e-Books as an Industry

It may be noted that many of the new e-Book publishers are former print publishers, and most established e-publishers offer print versions of many of their titles. The line between the two is fast blurring.

e-Books have their own bestseller lists, including those compiled by IDPF and Fictionwise. They even have two yearly awards for excellence in e-Books. The longest standing and most inclusive of these is the EPPIE award, given by EPIC since 2000. The other is the Dream Realm Award, first awarded to Speculative Fiction e-Books in 2002.

Do You Need Help Creating Your e-Book?

If you found your way here because you are looking for a graphic artist to help with your e-Book or print book layout, we can help you. To reach one of our freelance editing and design professionals, e-mail: editor@compassrose.com.

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