Writing your own Ebook – Part Four — What Ebook format should I use?

Let’s get straight to the point — there are only 3 formats to go for: EPUB, MOBI and PDF. There are many other specialist formats for specific readers but these 3 formats will cover you for almost all the market.

Now that you know the answer, here is the thought process:

We have looked some of the technical aspects of E-books but how do we decide on the format to focus on. This may be a trivial question, especially if you are planning to write narrative fiction and are planning to go with Amazon only. But if you have any other kind of book and want to get to a wider market you have to think again.

Will my book work as an Ebook?

Before you start work on formatting your book, you have to decide if your book is going to work as an Ebook.

The Ebook is a great format for the kind of narrative text that we get in, e.g., novels, biography, memoirs, inspiration, political books and essays. But the Ebook format is NOT great for many types of non-fiction works: e.g. how-to books, art books, reference books, some cookbooks, and project books that rely on complex formatting, big images, text wrapping around images, vector graphics and tables. This kind of Ebook is really difficult & time consuming to put together, and even when done correctly, you may find that your readers find the format inadequate for the type of book.

Once you move away from the average, there are some books – like coffee table books – that will only work in print format. But you still have two alternatives for most complex books: you can go to Print Publishing or distribute the book as a PDF Ebook. The content in a PDF has a fixed format and will not lose its structure, just because it is on a different device, and shows up on the screen exactly as you created it. PDFs can be fine for tablets and larger screens but are usually too fiddly to use on phones because you have to zoom in & out the whole time.

If you had a chance to read one of the earlier posts about the common E-readers out there in the market, you will have seen that the average screen size is still relatively small and you need to keep this in mind if you are considering a PDF. You need to let your readers know if they need to use a larger screen to view your content.

Ebooks with tables

If you distribute through Smashwords they will not put your book on their premium list if it has “real” tables. This happens even if you upload your own properly formatted EPUB file through their EPUB direct channel. If the book is not in the Premium List it will not be distributed to Apple, Sony, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, OverDrive, etc. and will be available only through the Smashwords website. You will have to replace all tables either with images of the tables or with lists. Changing a simple table to a list is reasonable to do, and the same goes if you turn it into a .jpg or .png image. But if your table has multiple columns and / or small text these solutions don’t work so well, especially if the table has a lot of columns when the text becomes too small to read.

Back to Formats…

There are more than 20 common Ebook formats and there is no single format that every device can read. Screen sizes on E-readers vary, so page sizes, image formats, image sizes, and other elements must vary, too. If you plan to have images in your book you need to be sure that they will display correctly and be small enough so that the book file is not too big but yet still be clear enough to read easily.

One KEY POINT to remember is that, whatever Ebook format you produce, you have to keep it simple! If you keep formatting to a minimum your book can look good on almost all E-readers.

Unless you are publishing professionally it is unlikely (and unprofitable) to look at any format other than EPUB, MOBI or PDF.

Should you produce files for EPUB or Kindle readers?

Ideally you should produce both an EPUB and a MOBI file. When you generate an EPUB file the result generally looks more like your original layout, and MOBI has quite a few limitations by comparison. What most professional developers do is to target EPUB as the primary format and then convert the EPUB to MOBI when the layout is done. This is easily done with Amazon’s Kindle Previewer. You can download this from… http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html/?docId=1000765261 for both PC and MAC.

The reality is that most people focus on Amazon as their selling platform and either let Amazon generate their Ebook file or create a MOBI file themselves. If Amazon is your sole vendor then all is not lost as many of the E-readers out there will read Kindle files. The reverse in not the case unfortunately as the Kindle readers will not read EPUB files and kindle users cannot download EPUBs from Amazon.

Amazon’s Kindle Ebook format is proprietary and is designed to work on their own E-reader devices and some popular E-Readers do not directly support MOBI/AZW files, including the iPad. However, you CAN read Kindle files using 3rd party software or by downloading Amazon’s KindlePC reader (FREE). You can get that here… http://www.amazon.com/gp/kindle/pc/download?forced=1 or if you work on a MAC… http://www.amazon.com/gp/kindle/mac/download/

At the moment, EPUB is the better base format for Ebooks as it produces better results and is compatible with the majority of readers. BUT Amazon is, without much doubt, the biggest Ebook retailer, although Apple is catching up and they favour EPUBs. Barnes & Noble used to be the second biggest in Ebook retailing but appears to have slipped badly in 2014. It has its own proprietary player, the Nook, but seems to have frozen its development so their proprietary format is becoming less important.

If you only market through Amazon you are missing up to 50% of your potential market!

Marketing in the UK

Amazon is a truly international business and it markets successfully into many countries. But not everybody buys through Amazon, or Smashwords. The UK is an important market for all booksellers and is number 2 in terms of the number of English language titles published each year. The International Publishers Association (IPA) report that UK publishers released 184,000 new and revised titles in 2013 and the US released 304,912 — so it is a big market, even compared to the US.

Formats used by the main Retailers:

  • Ebook store — Ebook format
    Amazon Kindle — AZW/MOBI
    Ebooks.com – EPUB
    Foyles – EPUB
    Google Play – EPUB
    Kobo – EPUB
    Uncuva – EPUB
    Waterstone’s – EPUB
    WH Smith — EPUB

Special note about Pricing

If you distribute through Amazon you need to keep an eye on the final size of the file. This is not generally a problem with a narrative book but as soon as you start adding complex formatting and illustrations/images the file size will increase rapidly, especially with Kindle files.

There is a limit as to the size of the file you can upload to their site but you need to keep in mind that Amazon charges a delivery fee of $0.15 per MB. This is deducted after all other costs so basically comes from YOUR profit margin. If you have a 10MB Ebook will cost you $1.50 per sale. If you have a complex book with lots of lovely photos and it has a size of, say, 50MB it will cost you $7.50 for every download. You really need to look at your pricing policy when you have a big book or you might end up owing them money for every Ebook you sell.

With the new changes in VAT rules affecting Ebooks from 01 Jan 2015, you will need to take a look at your prices anyway. When you take account of all the deductions I think many people will have no choice but to increase their prices. We have VAT + Withholding + fees from Amazon & Smashwords which means that the taxman can take around 50% of the gross and leave little for the author. If you are properly registered with the online retailers you can avoid the withholding tax but you still need to set money aside for your eventual payment of taxes in your own country.

I think that many authors, who have not already done so, will need to create their own websites where, especially if they are below the tax threshold for VAT, they will get a much better return for their work. The challenge, as always, is how to bring new books to the attention of your prospective audience – Marketing!

Next Part

In the next part we get into the real detail of your Ebook design. We will look at the common problems with Ebooks and start looking at the steps to take to get a good result.

©DavidCronin 2015

The previous posts in this Ebook Doctor series can be found here.



35 thoughts on “Writing your own Ebook – Part Four — What Ebook format should I use?

  1. Pingback: Writing your own Ebook – Part Four — What Ebook format should I use? | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  2. Pingback: Making your own Ebooks, Part Five – What can you do with your word processor to make your Ebooks better | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  3. I am wanting to write my novel on E.book. Real novice. Need yo do a website from what you said. What do I need this for? And is it easy yo set up myself


    • Hi Linda – the process actually is easier to manage if you write your book first in a word document and have it edited carefully – when you are happy with it that is the time to worry about formatting and websites. If you read all the five parts to date and the rest of the series which is another three or four posts you can then decide if you feel able to format the book for one or more of the Ereaders available yourself. Take it slowly and step by step.. But as I said, the book comes first and it is only when you have reached a point where you and others you have asked to read it are happy with it do you consider the formatting. Good Luck and best wishes


  4. I only do MOBI. Nooks are on their way out, and iPad has a Kindle app. Most people read on Kindle, so I stick to that, and Kindle sales far exceed any sales I have ever done on Nook and iBooks. Forget Smashwords. My stuff has been stolen from them before.


    • Hi Roger – most of us settle on one or the other. I do Epub too for my books as I have a Kobo reader as do many of my contacts… like most innovations eventually it will settle down to the main providers.. When we did the analysis is was based on the figures available at the moment but like so many things in this industry it will change dramatically over the next year or so…thanks for commenting best wishes Sally

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Writing Your Own Ebook Part Six – Creating the Ebook Framework | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

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  7. Pingback: Making your Own Ebook Part Seven – Finishing the Framework for the book | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  8. Pingback: Making Your Own Ebook Part Eight – How to clean the formatting in your Word file | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  9. Pingback: Making Your Own Ebook – Part Nine – Making a fresh start | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  10. Pingback: Making Your Own Ebook – Part Ten – Metadata, Your Digital Book “Cover” | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  11. Pingback: Making Your Own Ebook – Part Eleven – Fonts | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  12. Pingback: Writing your own Ebook – Part Twelve Finale– Images – and Useful Links | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  13. Pingback: Formatting your own Ebook – Q & A with David Cronin | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

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