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Ebooks, digital books, electronic editions, and plain old electronic books. There are many terms used to describe them, but they are catch-all phrases that collectively refer to any product that tries to deliver content in the style of a traditional book through a digital file that is read from a screen.

Executable Ebooks - The Early Years

In the infancy of the Internet, ebooks were nearly always stand alone software programs that attempted to simulate the experience of reading a physical book. Or, it was simply a way to bundle up a small website and deliver it in one tidy package to an end user.  Content for these old-school executable ebooks was often run through an "ebook compiler" (you can still find them for sale - but don't waste your money) and a software file popped out the other side.

These early ebooks had some fundamental flaws which quickly killed the popularity of the format. First, they were Windows only files. If you wanted any other device to display your ebook, you needed to create (and maintain) a separate version.

Second, it was very easy for malicious people to slip some nefarious code into the file and infect a readers computer with the latest and greatest virus. People quickly became suspicious of any executable file they downloaded from the Internet.

Finally, the quality of executable ebooks was all over the map. People quickly tired of gimmicky page turning effects and bad layouts inherited from the website design software used to create the pages that were compiled into the finished book.

Adobe PDF Ebooks - Technology Matures

Adobe rides to the rescue. The Portable Document Format (PDF) was launched by Adobe in 1993. The PDF format captures the text, the fonts, the graphics and the layout of the document which means that every user gets pretty much the same experience when they open and view the file. It also allows hyperlinks so viewers can jump directly to web based resources. And,  PDF documents can also be opened on every major computer platform, so one file serves a wide customer base. But the thing that makes PDF continue as a dominant ebook format is what Adobe did on July 1, 2008...

...On July 1, 2008, Adobe made PDF an open standard. This basically means that anyone can include the tools to produce a PDF document into their software for free.

Now, PDF making tools are everywhere. Open source software like Open Office Writer and industry standard tools like Microsoft Word can all export documents directly into the PDF format.

The PDF formatted ebook is alive and well today and will likely continue to be viable for years to come thanks to Adobe's decision to turn the format into an open standard. But, it does have limitations.

While most tablet computers and smart phones can view a PDF ebook, they don't play nicely with e-readers like the Kindle. E-readers like to allow the reader to adjust font sizes easily which changes the way the text flows on the screen. When viewing PDF files on these devices, the resulting display can easily get distorted.

So, PDF is very good , but not perfect.

Kindle, Nook, iPads and the E-reader Revolution

Since the earliest days of the Internet, there have been many attempts to create the perfect electronic device for reading ebooks. It wasn't until 2007, when Amazon released the first Kindle, that the e-reader began to emerge as a mainstream device.

The Kindle has now had several new versions released and software allows users to access their library on many devices. Apple has launched the iPad with built-in ebook reading capability and ebooks available through the iTunes store. Waves of Android based tablets are arriving that can also tap into a variety of ebook formats (including Kindle books and books from the iTunes store.) And, the Nook and the Sony e-Reader are also viable options for ebook consumers. The e-reader has finally arrived as a viable consumer electronics device and a digital book publishing platform.

By January of 2011, Amazon reported that ebook sales had surpassed their sales of hardcover books. According to American Publishing Association, by mid-2010, ebook sales made up 8.5% of all book sales in the US market.

One of the key factors behind the success of this latest round of e-readers are the integrated marketplaces behind the devices which make finding and accessing new content easy. To sell your content for viewing on many of these devices, you have to use their sales platform. They set the rules and the marketplace establishes an expected price range for content (which tends to be low).

Most e-readers can display PDF documents, but the owners of the devices are more likely to get content from the official marketplace.

Current State of the Ebook Market

Selling ebooks today means publishing for e-reader devices and selling through their marketplaces and also delivering PDF formatted ebooks and selling and delivering products through your own delivery system.

Both approaches have inherent strengths and weaknesses. Your specific business goals will determine which approach is best for you.

Here is a quick rundown of the major strengths of each format.

Strengths of PDF Format:

  • Control over look and layout of your ebook
  • Live web links within the document
  • Broad range of pricing possible
  • Total control over the selling platform
  • 3rd party marketplaces available to sell through

Strengths of E-Reader Formats:

  • Well established (and trusted) marketplaces
  • Easy one-click ordering within the device
  • No customer support on sales
  • No website or merchant account required to sell

Each platform can achieve a wide range of goals, from building a mailing list to generating a major portion of your income. In fact, most people will ultimately end up publishing through both platforms depending on the project goals.

The key to choosing the right format(s) for your ebook is to have a well defined goal for each project before you get started. Know who the target audience is and how and where they purchase content. Know whether your aim is to generate income from the sale or build a customer base and upsell them to other products and services.

Finally, don't forget good old fashioned print books. New print-on-demand publishing options (POD) make it easy and inexpensive to release your products in physical formats as well.

Authors and publishers have never had more options for releasing their work and building an audience. The challenge now is getting the word out and breaking through the clutter. But that is a subject for another time.

What Exactly Is An Ebook?, 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating

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