The Language of E-books

Competing formats and incompatible devices have spawned a complex lexicon

3 min read
The Language of E-books
Illustration: Richard Mia
Remember the Internet Explorer vs. Netscape “browser wars” back in 1995 or so? That’s where e-book formats are today.

Jani Patokallio

September 14, 2000, is a date which will live in, well, “nonfamy,” if I may be permitted such a neologism. That day, Microsoft released Windows Millennium Edition, its most forgettable operating system. It was also the day I posted the entry p-book to my Word Spy site, along with the following prognostication: “Within a few years, using the word ‘book’ without any kind of modifier will be confusing because people won’t know if you’re talking about a book printed on paper or one that’s printed on electrons (so to speak). So I predict that ‘p-book’…will become a common noun that will help us distinguish between the paper and electronic formats.”

For a while it looked like I couldn’t have been more wrong. The number of citations for “p-book” (as well as “pbook”) in the Nexis media database went from 20 in 2000 and 19 in 2001 to just 1 in 2003 and 2 in 2004. But as e-books have become more popular, the word p-book has been showing renewed signs of life, with 20 citations in 2010, 24 in 2011, and 28 in 2012.

Language prediction is a mug’s game, but it’s certain that digital books (as opposed to printed analog books) are here to stay. Sales of e-books (also known as ebooks or eBooks; there is much hand-wringing in the industry over the correct spelling) have slowed down recently, but they remain the fastest growing (or, for some companies, the only growing) segment of the publishing industry. The past few years have seen a steady increase in the number of writers—amateurs as well as professionals—who are getting into digital publishing (or e-publishing). For many writers, breaking into DIY publishing is a simple matter of saving a word processing document as a PDF, then putting up that file on a website along with a PayPal donation form.

But for serious publishers, authors, and writerpreneurs, getting e-published means dealing with the arcane world of e-book formats. The most common of these by far are EPUB and Mobi. EPUB (the books themselves are often called ePubs) is based on Web technologies (the latest specification, EPUB 3, is derived from HTML5 and CSS3) and is used by Apple iBooks, Adobe Digital Editions, and the e-readers Nook (from Barnes & Noble) and Kobo. Mobi (short for Mobipocket) is the e-book format used by older Amazon Kindle devices (and these e-books are sometimes called mobis), with the newer Kindle Fires using a file type called Kindle Format 8 (KF8).

EPUB and Mobi (as well as KF8) are known as package formats because although they are distributed as a single file, the file is actually an archive that contains multiple items. These formats are riddled with inconsistencies and incompatibilities between different manufacturers (and even different devices from the same manufacturer). Sorting out problems involves tackling an acronym- and abbreviation-filled technology (OPS! OPF! OCF! WTF?). So it’s no surprise there’s a thriving ecosystem of self-publishing providers offering to help authors get their e-books to market. These include formatters (who take your plain text and give it an e-book shine), converters (experts at the finicky task of converting digital books from one format to another), and aggregators(companies that offer a full range of e-book services, including editing, cover design, and marketing strategies). Some even handle POD (print on demand: turning the e-book into a p-book).

E-book publishing is a bit of a mess, with some folks saying it will die off in the near future, choked by proprietary technologies, vendor lock-in, and overly restrictive digital rights management. But the success of EPUB and Mobi is undeniable. With apologies to Winston Churchill, it would appear that these standards are the worst forms of e-books, except for all the other forms that have been tried.

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