Introduction to e-books
This guide discusses the various types of electronic book (e-book) and ways to read them. It also discusses some key design considerations for e-book production and introduces the types of multimedia file formats that can be supported.
An electronic book is commonly referred to as an e-book, and is simply a print book in an electronic format. E-books can be produced in numerous formats that range from very basic text files to well structured, purpose built files that use one of the emerging standards for e-books such as the ePub and Adobe PDF standards (which are covered in the section Emerging standards below). As with print books, the e-book can be reference or narrative focused.
A large part of the interest in e-books is that they offer a new type of user experience for reading books that provide potential benefits such as new ways to access a book catalogue and flexible choices for delivery. The potential for interactivity (e.g. hyperlinking) and the inclusion of multimedia, is where they differ from traditional print based books and is where they can possibly have an advantage to support learning and teaching.
Where a print book is commonly linear and with limited features: a contents list, content and an index, an e-book is structured like a web page providing the reader with additional features that enable fast navigation through hyperlinking, annotation and keyword searches supporting multiple reader journeys through the content. It is these features that will be of interest to those thinking of building their own e-book.
E-books can be delivered or accessed via a number of channels. Common delivery methods are email or download, either from a repository or e-book store. E-books are viewed using an e-book reader, which may either be traditional desktop software or by using a mobile device (including purpose built e-readers) both of which are introduced later in this guide.
Features and key facts about e-books to support teaching and learning
Although there are a vast array of e-books and means with which to view them, there are a number of commonalities and considerations worth highlighting:
- Access - e-books potentially remove limited access issues to key texts that can be a major problem for print books as they are available 24/7
- Many institution library catalogues now offer e-book versions of some of their titles and journals and e-books open the door for a much greater range of books than the library could physically manage
- E-books can support in-class information retrieval by broadening the learning resource range
- E-books support accessibility in terms of being an alternative to print books and they have accessible aids to improve readability e.g. changing text size and contrast
- Flexible delivery – e-books can be located (via hyperlinking) in many places such as course materials and the VLE, offering access at appropriate points
- Teachers can produce their own e-books as learning resources
- E-books can work on desktop computers and mobile devices – note that many devices are included in the 'mobile' category e.g. laptops, mobile phones and dedicated e-book readers such as the Kindle. For clarity devices like the Kindle are normally identified as 'dedicated e-book readers'.
- Usage can be tracked which helps catalogue managers manage expectations and resources such as which books to buy, license or remove
- Portable – many e-books can be stored on a single device and taken with the owner or borrower which further supports access
- Hyperlinking within an e-book can increase the flexibility of topics covered from one source
- E-books may be one solution to support an institutional 'green ICT' strategy
As you might expect, text is the dominant factor in an e-book. However, digital media can often be used too, depending on the e-book file format and target device. In addition to text, digital media use may include:
- Cover image (often also re-used for thumbnails)
- Illustrations (diagrams and decoration)
- Audio for 'text to speech' - normally an e-book reader feature
- Audio books – audio versions that can use a range of voices and languages
- Video – used much like images to provide additional context or advertising
The suitability of different types of digital media, format and sizing again depends on which target file format(s) and device(s) are being supported.
Digital images are well supported across e-book readers of all types. However regarding audio and video, at the time of writing in 2011, it is only recent mobile devices that provide good support for using audio and video within an e-book.
Emerging E-book standards
There is no one agreed standard for describing what format and structure an e-book should take. A list of the many different file formats can be found on Wikipedia: 'Comparison of e-book formats'. There are a number of emerging dominant standards and file formats, whose popularity is based on their features, reader experience, and their compatibility with the popular e-book readers.
Non-professional publishers of e-books can naturally use any one or a combination of their favoured file formats, which could include just about any type of text or multimedia file. Professional publishers, however, are beginning to lean towards two open standard e-book formats, which are:
- ePub – recognised as the standard for e-books is an open standard that supports jpeg, png, gif and svg images, and Flash, which can then in turn enable audio and video
- Adobe PDF – an open standard largely used as an alternative or fallback for the ePub format, it is cross platform, easy to produce and compatible with a range of multimedia
The ePub 2 standard is widely supported and the next version (ePub 3) specification is due in late 2011and will include even better support for multimedia, so use of ePub should be considered when choosing your e-book format and providing an additional PDF version may also be of use for some audience types e.g. people who like to print parts of the book.
All e-book file formats require software to display the contents of an e-book. The software may run on one of three platforms, Desktop (your standard computer/laptop), mobile devices (mobile phones, tablet PCs etc) and dedicated e-book readers.
Desktop Software readers
E-books can be read on a computer using e-book reading software designed to display various e-book file formats. Below are just some of the popular software readers and their associated supported file formats:
|Reader||Input formats||Output formats|
|CBZ, CBR, CBC, CHM, EPUB, FB2, HTML, LIT, LRF, MOBI, ODT, PDF, PRC, PDB, PML, RB, RTF, SNB, TCR, TXT||EPUB, FB2, OEB, LIT, LRF, MOBI, PDB, PML, RB, PDF, SNB, TCR, TXT|
|Stanza Desktop||DRM-free Amazon Kindle, Mobipocket, Microsoft LIT, and PalmDoc, as well as Microsoft Word, Rich Text Format, HTML, and PDF||Amazon Kindle, Mobipocket, PalmDoc, Rich Text Format, HTML, plain text, and others|
|Mobipocket reader Desktop||mobipocket, plain text, PDB, Microsoft Office, EPUB, HTML||n/a (only reads files)|
|Adobe reader||Adobe PDF||Adobe PDF, plain text, rich text, jpeg,PNG, TIFF, HTML, .doc, XML|
Specific e-book reader platforms
In addition to being able to use standard computers and mobile devices, there are also dedicated e-book readers. Wikipedia has an extensive list in their 'Comparision of e-book readers' Current market leaders of e-book readers include:
|Device||screen resolution:||Supported digital media types|
600 x 800 pixels
|Supports importing of jpeg, gif, BMP and png image file types|
|Sony Reader||600 x 800 pixels||Supports importing of jpeg, gif, BMP and png image file types|
JISC Collections also have a Compare e-book Platforms tool that compares the features of two or more different platforms.
Creating and editing e-book environments
As with traditional print publishing, most e-book manuscripts begin life as standard office documents, e.g. Microsoft Word written by the author. Professional publishers then take the manuscript and design the layout etc using professional tools such as Adobe InDesign or Quarkxpress. These documents can then be exported to the required e-book format. Future edits can then be made using the professional tools instead of starting from the manuscript.
Non professionals will commonly produce the manuscript using a word processing application such as Microsoft Word and then use a tool such as Calibre to convert the manuscript into one or more e-book formats. The majority of these tools do not offer an editing environment and edits must be done in the original application used to write the manuscript.
The difference between non-professional and professional tools for creating and editing revolve around the fact that the Professional tools automate many of the editing and production workflows.
E-books can be distributed to desktop computers, mobile devices and e-book readers in a number of ways as outlined below.
E-book online stores, publishers, and repositories – a typical store allows you to browse via your computer or device and then purchase books which are then downloaded for viewing. The e-books themselves may be downloaded in a number of ways as shown below.
Simple download – e-books are either made publicly available or available upon registration or payment and then a link is provided which allows the requested e-book to be downloaded directly to a computer.
Apps – there are a growing number of software applications (apps) that allow you to directly search, browse and download/purchase e-books straight to your computer or device. These apps may be integrated with online desktop stores.
Email – some e-books are emailed to you or your device and then manually added to your e-book reader software or device.
Library – educational publishers have begun to provide some of their catalogues as e-books that staff and students can borrow like a traditional book. This method is in its infancy as there are challenges around how to lend and record usage of e-books.
Our sister service JISC TechDis has a guide to Accessible e-book Platforms that should be considered essential reading if you are looking at delivering e-books via a distribution platform.
Examples of e-book stores and repositories
Provides access to a core collection of e-books aimed at the FE community.
A membership organisation that supports the provision of digital content for education and research in the UK.
Project Gutenberg is the place where you can download over 33,000 free ebooks to read on your PC, iPad, Kindle, Sony Reader, iPhone, Android or other portable device.
Provides access to millions of free and public domain Google eBooks.
Each major mobile operating system has its own native app store that will allow you to view and/or purchase/download e-book apps and e-books. Examples of app stores are:
Designing an e-book
Like all resources, an e-book requires appropriate design for its medium, both at the presentation level and at the structural level. Designing an e-book requires careful consideration of the key principles of both traditional print book design principles and emerging digital design principles, for desktop, mobile and e-book specific devices.
Regarding the use of standards and e-book design, in the A List Apart article on ‘Web standards for E-books’ by Joe Clark (last accessed March 2011) provides general advice on the structural considerations.
Metadata allows you to provide additional descriptions about the e-book. It is important to consider this at the design stage to enable people to better find the e-book once it is published and stored in a collection.
Finding an e-book
Once libraries make a decision to invest in e-books then thought needs to be given to how the related metadata will be managed so that library users are able to find the desired resource.
Metadata records can be purchased at the same time as the e-Books. E-book publishers offer a number of alternatives in relation to the provision of metadata records. This can take the form of downloadable MARC 21 (MAchine Readable Catalogue) records, lists of URLs that can be inserted into OPACs (Online Public Access Catalogues) or simple A-Z lists.
Alternatively, libraries might decide to create their own metadata records once the e-books have been provided. This is particularly pertinent for libraries that retain a cataloguing department within the library service. That said, there is a growing trend for libraries to purchase shelf ready books (as well as e-books)
Once the metadata record has been created the information has to be made available to users. The library might decide to create a separate e-book catalogue or incorporate the e-book titles within the main library catalogue.
Audio book recording
Digital audio books are sometimes grouped under the classification of an e-book and they are briefly mentioned below in regards to recording your own.
Here it is assumed that the audio-book is a copy of a text-based book in which case your only concern is how to record the audio.
Our guides Recording Audio Voiceovers for Teaching and Learning Materials and Audio Post-Production Techniques for Spoken Word cover the essentials that you will need to order to record your own audio book.
Embedding digital media
With the ePub format being the dominant file format for e-books we focus on adding media for this type of e-book. For adding multimedia to a PDF see our Adding Multimedia to a PDF guide.
The ePub format uses XHTML 1.1 as its mark-up language so we can use any of the supported elements from the official XHTML 1.1 specification. In short this means that we embed presentational elements that are used for websites such as images, video and audio.
Embedding images (resolution, file formats and view port) The ePub standard supports the inclusion of the following image file formats:
JPEG, PNG, GIF, SVG
Images will typically be used for the e-book cover, diagrams, photos and graphics. All print books have a cover and there is no reason not to include one for your e-book. Embedding images can be done either by manually coding the image at the required location or using a third party tool. Threeprint consulting provide a Best Practices in ePub Cover Images guide which includes coding examples to follow for manually coding images into the e-book file.
An example of manually adding an image is shown in the code snippet below:
alt="Image of the outside of the office"/>
Adobe provides a Working with Images in Adobe InDesign PDF guide which covers how to handle images and embed them using their software.
Embedding video and audio (resolution, file formats and view port)
Audio and video is not supported directly in the ePub standard but it is possible using various workarounds for some devices.
At the time of writing (feb 2011) there has been some use of HTML5 and specifically its <video> element to allow video embedding, however this will render the file as invalidly marked up.
HTML5 – the <video> tag is a workaround that works for some e-book readers e.g. Apple ipad but is not yet widely supported. Threepress have provided documentation of their experiments with using HTML5 and video
E-books, like websites may be viewed on many different types of device and configuration by students. This flexibility whilst beneficial does provide new challenges to bear in mind. One practical challenge is that of sizing media for the available viewport. The term viewport is used to describe the viewable area of the device that is displaying the e-book and refers to both height and width.
Devices have different viewports and as such there is no one size that media can be designed to in order to fit all viewports. However we know that most of the current mobile devices support 460 pixels width or larger so we can guess that a 460-1000 pixel range would be a good to consider. This is one reason that you can often get an e-book in multiple versions that support specific devices so that the media is optimised per device.
Generally the e-book reader is able to appropriately scale the media but it is worth bearing the viewport in mind.
The e-book arena is still in its infancy in terms of both their creation and use within teaching and learning. However the role of books is firmly established in education and will likely play a growing role in education over the next 5-10 years. As such it is worth considering how you may wish to use them. Already there are many e-book resources available and publishers are seeking ways to increase their usage.
Finally remember that if you decide to produce your own e-books, pay careful attention to structure and don’t be afraid to experiment, as you may well be setting a future standard.
References and further reading
[Recording] JISC Digital Media webinar "Getting started with ebooks" Feb 2012
[Book] Bringhurst, R. (2004) ‘The Elements of Typographical Style’. Hartley and Marks, covers key topics such as format, typographic control, layout and reader user experience.