What is an ebook ?

What is an ebook ?

Authors’ comments as they view their ebook for the first time are often revealing.

“I thought the pages of my eBook would look like my printed book.”
“I got my friend to download a copy and the font looks different on their Kindle.”
“Wait! That quotation shouldn’t go over the page!”

Comments like this show that there is still a lot of misunderstanding over what an ebook really is.

That’s understandable. The idea of a reflowable ebook is still pretty new, after all. Ebooks have only been around for ten years or so, while printed books have been a part of our lives for hundreds.

If you’re publishing an ebook, you may see it as either a modern extension of your printed book or a direct replacement. The problem is that if you equate it to printed books, you may end up with certain expectations.

Ebooks are different to printed books in many more ways than is immediately obvious. And that means that authors can be left confused at best, and disappointed at worst. You don’t need to feel either. When you publish your book as an ebook, it should be an exciting experience. So to keep it that way, let’s talk you through what an ebook is, what makes them special, and how a publisher will make your ebook. That way you can marvel at the finished product for what it really is, not what you thought it might be.

Before we start, it’s worth a quick mention that there is more than one type of ebook. That one’s for a different article. Here, we’ll focus on the most popular format: reflowable ebooks.

An ebook is a conversion of your book

People will often describe ebooks as an electronic version of a printed book. Although this is true, it can suggest that your ebook will look like the pages of your printed book, just on a screen. And as you might have gathered by now, it won’t.

A better definition is that an ebook is an electronic conversion of your printed book. Ebooks look different to printed books because they are not a direct copy. Instead, we use the print version as a guide to translate your book into what is principally a different language: HTML code.

Ebook publishers take all the words and images in your file, tag them, and then convert them into HTML. They then take the coded version of your book and package it up into a format called epub.

So all those beautifully typeset pages in your print book will turn into something that looks like this:

What are ebooks ?

Don’t panic, though, because how ebooks use that code is very, very clever indeed.

It’s this code that allows your readers to download your entire book within seconds. They can then store it and read it easily on any digital device they choose.

Readers control how an ebook looks

If we think of your ebook as an encoded language, then for a reader to read it, they’ll need a decoder.

That’s exactly what an ereader like a Kindle is. Clever software like the Kindle viewer or iBooks converts all this code to make the words and images fill the screen of your Kindle or iPad in a readable form.

Because every device is different, this ‘readable form’ will need to change from screen to screen. What looks great on one size screen could look awful on another. The beauty of HTML code is that this adaptability is built in.

Rather than squashing a fixed set of words or images onto each page, HTML lets the words and images flow. They’ll change to fill any size screen you view them on.

This changes the concept of pages entirely. One person might read your book on an iPad where it fills 150 screens, and another on a smartphone where it fills 500. This is very different to a printed book where every printed page will look the same to every reader.

It doesn’t stop there, though. eBooks offer the reader even more control over what their copy of your book looks like because they can set all their own preferences.  If readers don’t like hyphenation, they can switch it off. Maybe they fancy changing the background color? No problem. And if they’re finding the font too small, they can make it bigger.

Ebooks use fonts differently in other ways, too. The typesetting fonts like Bembo or Garamond that you see in printed books were designed especially for printing in ink on paper. In a similar way, developers have created special typefaces for e-ink devices and digital screens. These are fonts like Bookerly on Kindle and Baskerville on the iPad.

The result is that every reader can now read your book in their favorite combination of font, size, and color.

Authors have less control over styling

All this is obviously great for the reader, but giving readers this level of control does have a flip side.

It means that, as an author, you don’t get to control what your book looks like to your readers’ eyes. This idea can be enormously frustrating for the author who has been careful to manicure their book pages. If the presentation of your book is something you’ve put a lot of thought into, it can take quite some getting used to.

Imagine your print book has chapter pages that contain a number, a title, and a quote. If you view this on a smartphone with a big font, maybe the number and title will still appear together, but now the quote is on the next screen.

The same will be true of headings you’d hoped to keep next to some particular text, or captions next to figures or tables. While your eBook publisher could attempt to force some things together, there’s no guarantee that it will work consistently. In fact, it can often cause unexpected issues and create more problems than it solves.

Unfortunately, if you want to publish your book as an ebook, total control over design is something you’ll have to let go. Your ebook content will flow as it decides best. It’s simply part of the ebook world where readers have the power.

Ebooks are for ereaders

Commercially produced and sold eBooks are designed for readers to view on their own dedicated ereaders. This might be a Kindle, Nook or Kobo device. Tablets and smartphones also usually come installed with ereader software.

If you intend to publish an ebook and do not have an ereader, it’s really worth you investing in one. By viewing your book on an ereader, you’ll gain important insight into what your reader might see and feel as they read your book.

If that’s not possible right now, then don’t worry: you could always download Amazon’s Kindle Previewer software. It’s free to download and allows you to see what your ebook will look like on a variety of devices such as tablet, phone and Kindle.

You can even change the fonts and font size just like the owner of a device might do, so you really can see your ebook as customers are likely to.


eBooks have different rules

Reflowable ebook technology is young, so standards don’t stop still for long. Every year brings new developments, new updates, and new devices.

However, at the moment, naturally, there are limits. Some things just cannot be done, others will only work on certain devices or the newest devices, and other things are just not advisable until the technology evolves a little more.

What this means, is that you simply can’t take anything for granted.

We’re thinking about things like colored backgrounds, watermarks, page borders and text in the header area here. Because reflowable ebooks don’t have pages, you can’t use design features and layouts like this. Likewise, text wrapped around or placed over an image isn’t possible yet either.

Text in columns? Not yet, we’re afraid. Tables? These are best included as single images to allow for resizing, and that might make them hard to see on small screens.

How about fonts? You may desperately want that fancy font from your print book, but it’s never a good idea for you to embed heading fonts into an ebook file. Ebooks need special licensing to use fonts which are often very expensive. What’s more, even if you did manage to find a way to include your longed-for font in the HTML files, most Kindle devices completely ignore embedded fonts anyway.

Now, we know all this sounds quite negative, but there is another side to it.

Although eBooks offer design limitations, they also offer extra features that print books will never have.

With eBooks, you can replace grayscale print images with color versions at no extra cost. You can also include a dynamic table of contents that readers click to navigate their way through the book. How about two-way clickable links to guide your reader to footnotes, references, and external sales links? You could even signpost your readers to your website or bonus content.


eBooks are a completely different world from traditional print publishing and, as such, can be a lot to get your head around. Although your printed book provides the roots for an ebook, how it grows from that can be unexpected and frustrating.

But eBooks have their own kind of beauty and potential. Their extraordinary flexibility and interactivity is their gift. They mean your readers can access your book anywhere and at any time and find new ways to make it their own.

Ebooks are personal, exciting and always changing. Try to get to know them, accept them as they are, and appreciate the opportunities they offer. If you can let go of their limitations, exploit their advantages, and trust your readers, ebooks can be an extraordinarily positive part of your book’s life.