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What is an eBook? How They Work and How To Make Your Own

Darwin Batinga

Updated September 12, 2022

What is an ebook

The increasing penetration of the Internet in all areas of life is significantly changing reading patterns and reading behaviors, driving the popularity of eBooks in recent years.

“Purist bibliophiles” see them as an abomination to the art of reading while tech-savvy book worms welcome them with open arms.

Love them or hate them, eBooks are here to stay.

It may seem like they were a product of the Age of Digitalization, but the idea of creating electronic books first came about in the 1930s.

The History of eBooks

Seeing the rise of talkies (talking pictures) in movie theatres, American avante-garde author Bob Brown, now regarded as the Godfather of E-Readers, published an essay entitled The Readies, which alludes to a portable reading machine.

Brown wrote: “To continue reading at today’s speed I must have a machine. A simple reading machine, which I can carry or move around and attach to any old electric light plug and read hundred-thousand-word novels in ten minutes if I want to, and I want to.”

The First eBook

Fast forward 41 years later and the first ebook in the world was created by Michael S. Hart – a digital version of the United States Declaration of Independence, which was shared within the shared network of the University of Illinois.

The first eBook ever published: The Declaration of the Independence of the United States of America

The United States Declaration of Independence was the first eBook ever published and was shared among users of the University of Illinois (Image Source).

Hart then proceeded with the launch of Project Guttenberg, which gave rise to the digital copies of the Bill of Rights, the American Constitution, and the Bible.

The Start of eBook Commercialization

In 1993, the company Bibliotypes started to sell eBooks online, and in 1999, the publishing house Simon & Schuster launched iBooks and began producing books in digital and print format simultaneously.

Four important events, which will change the trajectory of eBook adoption happened in 1998:

  1. The first eReaders were launched
  2. eBooks were issued ISBNs
  3. Libraries in the United States started giving the public free access to eBooks
  4. Google was founded

Then in 2007, Amazon released Kindle, which forever changed the landscape of the eBook market.

The Growth of eBooks: Read Between the (Trend) Lines:

While print book sales still outnumber eBook sales, the increasing popularity of eBooks is not to be overlooked.

eBook sales are projected to grow consistently over the next 3 years (Image Source).

According to technology-focused market research firm Technavio, the compounded annual growth rate of the ePublishing industry is forecasted to hit 7% from 2020 to 2025, equivalent to revenues ballooning by $6.93 billion.

Why should you care about these numbers? This question can be answered by looking at the key factors driving this significant growth:

  • Reach technology early adopters. The high influence of technology among significant segments of the populace, more specifically among millennials and Gen Z, can potentially make eBooks a significant revenue source among younger information consumers.
  • Taking a Cue from Big Publishers and Libraries. Marvel and DC have been offering digital versions of their most popular comics while the American Library Association has announced that every title on their roster will be made available digitally to improve access. With established publishing companies and organizations leading the charge, it’s highly likely that the penetration rate of eBooks will continue to maintain its upward trajectory, currently projected to hit 14.1% by 2027.
  • A viable marketing tool. Thin content such as short-form, low-quality blog posts no longer cuts it, which is why more businesses are turning to eBooks to capture leads, spread customer education, and promote thought leadership. Currently, between 30-34% of all eBooks sold on Amazon are self-published titles, a testament to their effectiveness as a sales and marketing tool.

Whether you’re an author, an entrepreneur, or a content creator, eBooks present an opportunity to reach your intended tribe.

If you’ve been pondering on publishing an eBook, the following sections will give you an informational launchpad to get equipped with all the essential things you need to know to bring your first eBook to life.

What Is an Ebook?

An eBook or electronic book is a non-editable, reflowable (modifiable or responsive layout to fit any screen dimensions) book that is converted into a digital file designed to be read on electronic devices such as computers, mobile devices (mobile phones and tablets), and eReaders.

Two Must-Have Characteristics of eBooks

It’s important to note that texts or images in a digital format do not automatically constitute an eBook. Since a number of digital files can be viewed and read on electronic devices, there are two main criteria that must be met for digital content to be considered an eBook.

1. Non-editable

Similar to printed books, the content of an eBook should not be editable in any way, shape, or form. Given that thousands of people can access an eBook across numerous devices with document processing and editing capabilities, its content needs to be protected to prevent modifications without the permission of the author.

2. Reflowable

Readers access digital content via different devices with varying screen sizes. True eBooks must be reflowable, which means that the texts and images should adjust to fit any screen size, maintaining chapters and line breaks, and images automatically resizing to retain their proportions. Think of it as the equivalent of responsiveness for websites.

PDFs are an exception. While PDFs are uneditable, they are not reflowable, which is why eBooks published as PDFs may lose the integrity of their formatting when viewed on different devices. However, since PDFs are arguably the easiest format to export an eBook as and are widely used among self-published authors and businesses, they are considered “unofficial” eBooks.

The 3 Most Common eBook Formats

Just do a quick Google search of “eBook formats” and you will see dozens of electronic book file types, some are used more than the others. There’s a very slim chance that you will use even a quarter of these. You just need to focus on 3 of the most common formats that are used today.

1. EPUB (.epub) Format

The EPUB format is an eBook format compatible with almost all devices, including computers, smartphones, tablets, and eReaders (except the Kindle), making it the most widely used eBook file type among publishers. All EPUBs are Digital Rights Management (DRM) protected, which gives authors and publishers the right to control what the purchasers of their works can do and cannot do.

EPUBs follow either a reflowable or fixed design.

  • Reflowable EPUBs allows text and images to adapt to fit all screen sizes. These eBooks follow a flat and liner design, wherein images float along with the texts. There’s no option to do overlaps or text wraps. It’s the format that eBook readers are most familiar with and work well with text-heavy materials.
  • Fixed EPUBs are more sophisticated in terms of design. Its fixed layout allows for any formatting, effects, and images to be retained. It also supports javascript making it more interactive with added functionalities such as animations. Another unique feature of fixed EPUBs is Read Aloud wherein words are highlighted as a voiceover narrates the content, making it a popular format among children’s storybooks.

2. AZW (.azw) and AZW3 (.azw3) Formats

Also known as Kindle files, AZW is a proprietary eBook format that Amazon uses for its Kindle eBooks and eReaders. It follows the same format as its predecessor – the MOBI – but with DRM protection which restricts its compatibility with Kindle readers and devices with a Kindle app. Further, AZW eBooks can only be purchased from the Amazon Kindle Store. AZW files can store complex information such as highlights, annotations, and bookmarks.

When the Kindle Fire was launched, Amazon created a new Kindle format called the AZW3 or the Kindle Format 8 (KF8). It’s the next-generation Kindle format, adding support for HTML and CSS to the older AZW file and giving the newer Kindle eBooks more options for styles, fonts, and layouts.

3. PDF (.pdf) Format

As explained in the previous section, PDFs aren’t necessarily considered true eBooks because they are not reflowable. While publishers and content creators can execute great designs using PDFs, they can be difficult to read, especially when displayed on smaller screens. Further, PDFs only have minimal copy protection, which means that users can download PDF eBooks and share them for free. They also can’t be sold on Amazon or the iBookstore.

Despite these downsides, PDF remains to be one of the most widely used digital content formats, especially among businesses and marketers, owing to how easy it is to publish one.

Different eBook Devices

eBooks can be downloaded and accessed across several devices, which can be segmented into two main categories:

  • General electronic devices
  • Electronic readers (eReaders)

General electronic devices include desktop and laptop computers, smartphones, and tablets. Note that you may need to download specific apps depending on the format of the eBook you want to read (Kindle App for AZW/AZW3, Adobe Acrobat Reader for PDF, ReadEra for MOBI).

On the other hand, Electronic Readers or eReaders are devices that are specifically created to store and display eBooks. eReaders appeal to bibliophiles who want the portability of an electronic device but still retain some aspects of reading a physical book.

Below are 3 of the most popular eBooks available today:

1. Kindle (Amazon)

What is an eBook? Kindle eReader

2. Kobo (Rakuten)

What is an eBook? Kobo eReader

3. Nook (Barnes and Noble)

What is an eBook? Nook eReader

The Advantages of eReaders Versus General Electronic Devices

If you can just download an app using your existing device, why spend on an eReader?

The answer really boils down to preference but there are advantages to using eReaders over a computer, tablet, or smartphone.

  1. Mimics the experience of reading a physical book. Many readers use a technology called E Ink which displays texts and images as if they were printed on paper. This also makes reading eBooks on eReaders easier in really bright conditions.
  2. Great battery life. Most eReaders can last for weeks with a single charge.
  3. Enormous storage. When you use your other devices to download eBooks, they will be sharing storage along with your other files such as photos, music, and videos. This can limit the number of eBooks you can download and store. On the contrary, eReaders can hold hundreds of books at any given time.

Where Can You Purchase eBooks?

The marketplace for eBooks is booming, proof of which is the increasing number of online merchants that sell digital content. The most popular eBook stores that offer a comprehensive roster of titles that are compatible with both general electronic devices and eReaders include:

  • Amazon Kindle Store
  • Kobo
  • Barnes and Noble
  • Google Play
  • Author’s own website

Top Benefits of eBooks

While eBooks are not every reader’s cup of tea, it’s undeniable that they changed the practice of reading forever – and arguably for the better.

Below are the main advantages of eBooks:

1. Eliminate Physical Storage Constraints

Not all bookworms are blessed with homes that can accommodate their book collection. With eBooks, hundreds of titles can be stored on one device, eliminating the need for physical storage spaces.

2. Save Money

For new releases, eBooks are at least 10% cheaper than their printed counterparts. Older releases and classics come in at more affordable prices and bring with them more savings. For avid readers, these incremental savings can accrue over time allowing them to save money or have more purchasing power to acquire more eBooks.

3. Portability

With eBooks, you literally have a library at your fingertips. No more eeny-meeny-miny-moe on which books to bring when you’re going somewhere. Pick up where you left off or start reading a new book wherever you are.

4. Instant Access

eBook readers enjoy the advantage of downloading new titles as long as they are connected to the internet. No more driving to the bookstore and falling in line, which could be a nightmare for highly-anticipated books (think of the long lines every time a new Harry Potter book is released). Plus, since eBooks are sold in unlimited quantities, you don’t need to reserve or place a backorder when copies run out.

5. Technology-Enhanced Reading Experience

Change the font size and font style. Highlight sections just by dragging your finger across the screen. Easily search for specific content within the book. Add annotations. Create bookmarks. Get definitions with a built-in dictionary.

It’s the technology that comes with eBooks and eReaders that separate them from their printed counterparts.

How to Create an eBook in 10 Steps

Creating and publishing eBooks are no longer just for authors and writers. Anyone and everyone with a story to tell and content to share – marketers, professionals, celebrities, public figures – can publish an eBook, especially because self-publishing is extremely feasible because there’s no printing cost involved.

Even if you have zero experience in writing books, you can launch your own eBook by following these 10 steps:

  1. Set your objectives. Why do you want to publish an eBook? To launch yourself as an author? To generate leads for your business? Position yourself as a thought leader in a specific area?
  2. Choose an interesting topic. Take time to research and get to know your audience. What is it that they want to know more about?
  3. Give your eBook a title. It should be clear and catchy at the same time. You can have several working titles in the beginning. As your eBook takes shape, you can narrow it down to the one that encapsulates your work the best.
  4. Make an outline. Having a structure will streamline your writing process. You can evolve this as you go, but have the pillar components mapped out before doing the actual content.
  5. Write your eBook. Now that you have the major pieces in place, it’s time to write your eBook. If you’re doing this as part of your marketing strategy, you can have several team members contribute content. Or, you can hire a ghostwriter if writing isn’t really your forte.
  6. Edit and proofread. No one likes to read a book that’s incoherent, incohesive, and full of grammar and spelling errors. Edit for clarity and cohesiveness. Oftentimes, first-time eBook authors get so attached to their work, so the best practice is to get an editor or proofreader.
  7. Add visuals. All texts and no images make an eBook a dull read. You don’t have to go visuals-heavy, but pay attention to your book cover design and consider adding images to key sections.
  8. Design, format, and layout your eBook. This includes choosing a font style, color, and layout treatments. Make sure the design aligns with the content and with your brand.
  9. Convert your eBook. The easiest way to do this is to publish your eBook as a PDF, but if you have the resources to do it, consider tapping into an external resource that can convert your eBook into several file types.
  10. Publish and promote your eBook. Treat your eBook as a new product or service that you just launched. You need a full-on marketing strategy to promote your eBook and reach your intended audience. You can create a microsite dedicated to your eBook. Make sure to promote on social media. You can also tap into influencers or even secure interviews with relevant news outlets.

What Are the Best Ways to Sell or Distribute an eBook

Given that dozens of eBooks are published every day, selling your work won’t be an easy feat but it’s not impossible as well. The key is to be visible and accessible across multiple and diverse channels.

Here are some of the best platforms that you can use to sell and distribute your eBook:

  1. Your own website
  2. Amazon (just make sure your eBook comes in a supported format)
  3. Other eBook marketplaces such as Apple Books, Nook, and Kobo
  4. Promote your eBook to your email list
  5. Constantly link to your eBook on your social media posts
  6. Find relevant influencers to promote your eBook

There are dozens of ways to give your eBook the exposure for it to gain traction. You just need to explore all opportunities, come up with creative distribution and promotional tactics, and stay targeted to make sure you reach your intended audience.

TL;DR: eBooks Have Changed How People Create and Read Books

Together with the invention of the printing machine, the invention of eBooks and eReaders can be considered as one of the turning points that shaped the publishing industry and influenced how people read.

Creating involves a number of nitty-gritty details – from the actual writing itself to the technical aspects to sale and distribution. All things considered, it provides a launchpad for aspiring authors to launch their first book – whether it’s to pursue a creative passion, promote an expertise, or market a business.

Darwin Batinga

Darwin has over a decade of experience in marketing communications with special focus on brand messaging development, strategy, marketing and sales funnel developments. He has also worked as a contributor at various publications such as Futurism among others.

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