Let’s talk about e-book formats

For a little short of five hundred years, Cambridge University Press has been printing books. When it came to decisions around format, the options were simple – what size paper and whether to print full-colour or black & white. For a considerably shorter time, we’ve been publishing e-books. Here’s what I’ve learnt about e-book formats in that time.

The e-reader

The first thing that’s different about an e-book compared to a print book is that you need software to access it. We call this software an e-reader. Some people get confused between the e-book and the e-reader, thinking they are the same thing. The e-book consists of the book’s content as well as some functionality, such as a hyperlinked table of contents. The e-reading software includes functionality such as bookmarking and note-taking as well as display manipulation

This e-reader could be an app on your phone or tablet or embedding in a browser on your laptop. A browser is an interesting analogy to use to understand the e-reader. A browser takes the HTML code of a website and presents it in a way that is easy to read. In the same way, the e-reader takes the e-book file and displays the components in a way that is easy for the user to interact with and read. The e-reader is also responsible for the digital rights management (DRM), limiting copying and multiple-access to the e-book as well as access periods for subscription sales. These restrictions are significant for commercial publishers.

There are several standalone e-readers available as well as proprietary ones. Some will support more than one format; others are limited to a specific format. Cambridge has an e-reader as do many other publishers. Amazon is the dominant player in this market with its Kindle e-reader.

Cambridge uses two e-book formats, PDF and EPUB, both widely used in educational publishing.

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