As you begin the process of publishing professionally, remember that your ultimate goal is to provide a positive reader experience. Publishing in the right format for your audience will give you the opportunity to develop a lasting relationship with your reader, either through building a dedicated readership, or by converting a reader to a client. eBooks are an effective, easily accessible, and relatively inexpensive format to produce professionally.
As an author, you know that you should be publishing your book as an ebook, right? You should. There are a variety of reasons for doing so and we’ll touch on those another day. But the focus of today’s post is to understand what an eBook really is, what it isn’t, the limitations of different formats, and how to create a positive reader experience using this versatile format.
What is NOT an eBook?
According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, an eBook is “a book that is read on a computer or other electronic device.” By that definition, a PDF or even a blog post can be an eBook. Let’s talk about PDFs for a moment. The nearly universal Portable Document Format (PDF) is an electronic image or text that represents how something would appear on a printed page. Without diving a bit deeper, it would seem that the PDF is a great option for distributing an eBook. In many industries, this is still the predominant format that the majority of content marketers use to publish their eBooks. The challenge with the PDF format is that it has a fixed layout, meaning that regardless of what size of screen (desktop, iPad, smart phone, Kindle, etc.) you view the book in, everything on the page stays relative to the size of the page. So when you view something at 6” wide on a desktop screen, it might appear at .5” wide on a phone screen. Do you see the challenge here? Designing content that will scale to different sized screens so that it can still be readable and consumed effectively by your reader on a variety of devices requires a different format. A blog post will do that, right? Sure it will, mostly. Most modern websites are optimized for viewing on a mobile device and even those that don’t have that functionality built in can often be overcome by using apps or software that your phone or mobile device has available to you. Yet, blogs also have their limitations. Long form text in a blog can be tedious. Imagine how much you need to scroll down to view a text of 10,000 words. In the world of editing, a page is 250 words. That means that you’d be reading a 40 page book as one continuous document, without any real breaks for the reader. If you break it into segments, your reader will need to have internet access to move to the next chapter or section. Your reader’s experience and ability to finish your book and reach your call to action could very well depend on whether or not they have internet access. You also have little control over how your content is used and it can easily be stolen by anyone who has access. Because of these limitations and the wealth of advantages of available in other formats, dedicated eBook formats are highly recommended for a positive reader experience.
Dedicated eBook Formats
Unlike the previously discussed formats, which can be used for a wide variety of content, dedicated eBook formats are most ideal for long form, linear text. That might be 2,500 words, or 250,000 words where the content is intended to be read from beginning to end. While these formats can, and often should, include graphics and images, the focus of the book is the text. Your reader should be able to get just about everything need out of your book by reading the words, not viewing the visuals. Your visuals should support and reinforce your content, not substitute for it. The two primary dedicated eBook formats are .epub (compatible with the majority of major eBook devices and apps) and .mobi. (for Kindle). There are some other formats but these are the two major ones that will allow your book to be published through all major sellers and which can be read by nearly everyone with a digital device (computer, tablet, or smart phone.
True eBooks have reflowable text that will adapt to your screen size and accommodate reader preferences like font size, style, color, and line spacing. If you have a reader with poor vision, they can increase the font size to one that’s comfortable for them to read, regardless of the screen size. How is that different than being able to zoom into a PDF? When you increase the size of a PDF to view it, you increase everything, including the size of the page. The text remains in the same relative location on the page. If you zoom a PDF in 500% so that you can easily read the text on your smart phone and there is a sentence that spans the entire page, you’ll need to scroll all the way across to the other side of the page to read the rest of the line. And you’ll need to keep doing that over and over to read the rest of the content. With reflowable text, everything adjusts to fill the screen and your reader will simply “flip” the page to get to the next, no scrolling or zooming in and out. The amount of visible text will increase or decrease on the screen, based on reader preferences.
eBooks and PDFs are produced using different processes, and in some ways, it’s a bit more complicated to produce a professional quality eBook. When you consider the best format in which to publish your book, the most important consideration is your reader experience. What format will allow your reader to consume your content without disruption? No matter what your content is, the goal is to have your reader reach the end. At the end is where they’ll look for the next book, write a review, share your book, or act on your call to action. If they don’t reach the end because you haven’t facilitated a positive experience, they won’t have the information they need to act.
We touched a bit on the benefits of reader customization, the ability for readers to change their preferences so that they can consume your book in a manner that is most appealing to them. Those same benefits can also create some significant challenges. For both authors and content writers, understanding how readers consume eBooks and the limitations that are inherent to the format is very important. As an author, you will have limited control over the ultimate appearance that each of your readers will have, based on their personal preferences and settings on the devices on which your book is viewed. To that end, clean and simple will always serve you well. This is a challenge especially for content marketers who are used to visually bold and colorful graphic layouts. There is definitely a place for PDFs, such as presentation-style content (i.e. your typical Powerpoint), workbooks, picture books, or graphic novels. However, if you’re using several paragraphs (at minimum) and your goal is to have your content read from beginning to end, eBooks are the best format for your book. Now back to those challenges. As a publisher (and yes, by publishing your content for consumers, you are a publisher), you want to ensure a positive and predictable reader experience.
eBooks are mini, self-contained websites. The back end of an eBook is written in code that tells an app or device how to present your content. There are hundreds of different apps and devices for eBook reading and they each support different features and coding protocols. Some can have embedded fonts and interactive features such as sound, animation, and videos. This is a very appealing prospect to those who rely on visually dynamic page layouts. However, many apps and devices do not support these features and trying to include them in your eBook can create viewing discrepancies. When a feature or coding is not supported, the app or device may substitute with a supported feature or attempt to “translate” the code into something it recognizes. When the supplied code isn’t supported it may not display properly, or even at all. As with many things in life, the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) standard applies here as well.
Now, the K.I.S.S. standard and the reflowable nature of eBooks has some inherent compromises for writers and this can cause some discomfort. The biggest complaints from authors are about how and when words hyphenate, the existence of “orphans” and “widows,” and where the last line of a page sits on the screen. In print or fixed layout formats, like PDFs, we can have absolute control over these items. With reflowable text, they will appear and disappear based on the reader’s preferences and they will probably differ between readers. Changing any one of a number of preferences that are available to readers can cause or remove any of these issues. Simply changing the font will means that characters will take up a different amount of space on the screen and the text will reflow to accommodate the new preference, causing these issues to appear or disappear throughout the book. For some of these issues, in some devices or apps, you can control if and when they will appear by changing the coding. Where supported, this can sometimes be helpful, but can often create other issues that affect the reader’s experience. And for the record, thoughtful hyphenation is REALLY important. When done well, readers rarely notice hyphenated words. Ideally, they’re so wrapped up in the content of your book, that they’ll never even notice that a word that splits over two lines is hyphenated. This is an industry standard in print and digital and is appropriate to use in eBooks. Avoiding hyphen creates a visual imbalance to words on a page and readers WILL notice uncomfortable spacing.
Remember, the reader experience should be your ultimate focus and to create a positive one, you need to understand the benefits and limitations of the different formats so that you can cater to your intended audience.