Sunday, February 20, 2011

Smashwords: Why Multi-Format Ebooks Matter

Ebook formats are a double-edged sword. If you start rambling off their mysterious acronyms, the eyes of most authors and book readers glaze over.

However, different formats are required to support all the different e-reading devices and reading methods.

No wonder it's confusing. Imagine the Betamax/VHS format war in the '70s, or more recently the Blu-ray vs. HD DVD battle, but quintuple the confusion and you've got the ebook format wars of today.

Adobe would prefer you read your ebooks in PDF, which is their technology; Amazon wants you to read in their DRM-encrypted version of Mobipocket (bad bad!), which is their technology; and then other companies and organizations are fighting to establish their own standards.

We shouldn't require a computer science degree to make sense of ebook formats, and we shouldn't have to worry if the book we buy today will be readable in the future when the formatting winds inevitably shift.

Instead, we should just be able to purchase a book and know the book is readable on any device for all time, even when we switch e-reading devices in the future. This is how we publish and sell books at Smashwords. With one price, you get access to the book in up to nine different formats, seven of which are downloadable. As we add additional formats, these will also become retroactively available for previous purchases.

The other day, in response to a question posed to me in an interview by Maria Schneider over at Editor Unleashed, we crunched some numbers to determine which ebook formats are most popular with our readers. We looked at a sample of over 50,000 Smashwords downloads during the first three months of this year. The results surprised us. As you can see in the handy pie chart above, although the open industry ebook format EPUB is most popular with our customers, no single format dominates all others.

For authors and publishers of books, the message is clear. If over the last decade you were brainwashed (as many of us were) to believe that ebook = PDF file, and you only offer your book in that single format today, you're potentially excluding the 81 percent of readers who'd prefer to read in a different format.

And if you're a publisher and you only publish in Amazon's Mobipocket format, well, you get the picture. Customers want multi-format books, because no single format addresses all reading scenarios.

For those of you interested in a primer introduction to the different formats, below is a summary of the formats offered by Smashwords, borrowed from our Smashwords Style Guide:
  1. EPUB - This is is arguably the most important format today. Epub, managed by the Independent Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), is an open industry ebook format and it's gaining increased support. If your book is available in epub, it can be read on some of the most popular ebook readers and ebook reading software applications (Like Stanza on the iPhone).
  2. PDF - Stands for Portable Document Format. PDF is a file format readable by many devices, including handheld e-readers, PDAs, and computers. A good format if your book contains complex formatting, layout, charts, images or indexes with page numbers. PDF is also a good option for readers who may want to print out their book on their home computers. On the negative side, PDF is a horribly inflexible format. Readers can’t easily change the font size or style to match their preferences, the text isn’t easily reflowable, and the reader is forced to read page by page.
  3. TXT - Plain Text. Plain text is the most widely supported file format, working on nearly all readers and devices. It lacks formatting, but will work anywhere. For obvious reasons, a plain text file cannot include images.
  4. MOBI (Kindle) - Mobipocket is used by the Amazon Kindle. Mobipocket is supported on Windows PCs and on the ereading apps used by many handheld devices. The Smashwords version of MOBI is not burdened by DRM, whereas the version sold by Amazon is. Amazon has received much criticism in the the industry for insisting publishers must supply DRM-protected books for the Kindle.
  5. RTF - Rich Text Format, or RTF, is a cross-platform document format supported by many word processors and devices.
  6. LRF - This is the standard format for the Sony Reader, an ebook reading device.
  7. PDB (Palm Doc) - PalmDoc is a format primarily used on Palm Pilot devices, but software readers are available for PalmOS, Symbian OS, Windows Mobile Pocket PC/Smartphone, desktop Windows, and Macintosh.
As a final note, I should add that our data for the most popular formats does not include formats we don't publish, and we also don't examine how the formats are used on which devices, or to what extent our customers consume multiple formats simultaneously. They may, for example, start the book in one format on one device but finish the book in another format on a different device.

Smashwords: Why Multi-Format Ebooks Matter: "Ebook formats are a double-edged sword. If you start rambling off their mysterious acronyms, the eyes of most authors and book readers glaz..."


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