Overview of eBook Formats

Electronic Books are becoming more and more popular with the success of eReaders like Amazon’s Kindle and the emergence of tablet computers. Although many readers still prefer paper, eBooks take up less space, are often cheaper, and can provide reading enhancements like flexible font sizing and multimedia. One of the most daunting hurdles to readers that are new to eBooks is the wide array of eBook formats. Here are three that are worth paying attention to:

PDF

The .pdf format was developed by Adobe Systems as a way of preserving document layout across computing platforms. Short for Portable Document Format, .pdf files emulate the traditional structured layout of print books. As a result, it is an excellent format for publications that require tight control of layout, fonts, and images, such as legal or technical documents. The price of this level of precision is a limited ability to resize and reflow text. Originally a proprietary format, Adobe has made .pdf available as an open standard. PDF files are also easily viewable desktop computers using free software like the Adobe Reader.

AZW

The .azw format is the propriety format used by the Amazon Kindle eReader. All eBooks purchased from Amazon’s Kindle Store are delivered in this format, which includes a proprietary Digital Rights Management system that requires users to use a Kindle or Kindle software. Amazon has made its Kindle software available for desktops, smartphones, and tablets, allowing readers to read their books on any device. Unlike the .pdf format, .azw files are “reflowable” and allow readers to adjust the font size, background color, etc., of their eBooks. The Kindle and Kindle software will also read the legacy format on which .azw is based, called Mobipocket (.mobi). Many books at Project Gutenberg are available in this format.

ePub

The .epub format is an open standard developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum. ePub files are reflowable and allow readers to adjust the font size, background color, etc., of their eBooks. The IDPF hopes to finalize the ePub 3 standard by mid-2011, which will include support for embedded video and audio. ePub files are supported by several devices including the iPad, Barnes and Noble Nook, Borders Kobo, and the Sony eReader. The Google Books project and Project Gutenberg both offer books in .epub format.

A note on Digital Rights Management (DRM)

All three of the eBook formats discussed here can come with a variety of proprietary digital rights management encoding that may limit which files may be read on which devices.

The Academic User and the Ebook Experience

Char Booth (one of the presenters at the upcoming webinar on library analytics, which we’ll be participating in – please join us!) has a very good article at LibraryJournal.com this week: “A Rising Tide: The Academic User and the Ebook Experience.”

Many public libraries are beginning to offer ebooks that are downloadable to the patron’s ereader (Kindle, Nook, etc.) and, as Stephen Abram notes in a blog post, ebook checkouts increased by 200% in 2010. But, because of how our ebooks are provided and licensed, academic libraries have not been as quick to offer similar services. But user expectations are changing; those of us who work at reference desks or respond to emails from patrons are starting to get questions like “I got a Nook for Christmas – how can I download ebooks from your library?”

Booth notes:

Delivery platform aside, I find that most digital monographs suffer from the equivalent of a serious personality disorder (e.g., poor communication, lack of self-awareness, negative self-image, inaccessibility, inconsistency, and delusions of grandeur). They tend to be too disparate, DRM-protected, and reminiscent of e-journal content to be accessed or read gracefully, making them a hard sell. At my own institution, I observe patrons struggle to access and understand library-digitized and publisher provided ebooks in a research context. Their shared dissatisfaction is exposed by common questions: How can I tell this is an ebook? Why can’t I print or read offline? How do I turn on the accessibility features? Why won’t the link I copied last week work now? Can I get this on my Kindle?

She goes on to discuss HathiTrust specifically, noting that it “highlights the value-added ebook proposition offered by libraries: service orientation and craft-level production, the two things most difficult to replicate in the large-scale digitext economy.”

Check out the article, and let us know what you think. Do you have an ereader? Have you had questions from students or faculty about ebooks? (If so – how have you responded to them?) Do you think their expectations are changing? What suggestions would you have for the Libraries as we move forward into these newish technologies? Please feel free to leave comments on this post!