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Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Inaugural tech: Part II

The first post on this blog was an introduction, essentially, to the Internet. This is part two. And now we’re talking straight publishing. Ready? It’s epub and mobi, the ultimate showdown.

Epub and mobi are the buzzwords of publishing’s digital revolution. But what exactly are they? For starters, epub and mobi are file formats– .epub and .mobi, to be specific. These formats describe ebook files, much in the same way .jpg and .tif describe image files, or .txt and .doc describe text files.

Epub is the file format that most ereaders use. Kobo, Nook, Sony, iPad, and other devices read .epub files. The format is maintained by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) and, like HTML, is free. As such, it is, really, the industry standard.

So, you ask, if epub is the standard…what does mobi have to do with anything? Quite a bit, in fact. Mobi is Amazon’s proprietary ebook format. Amazon purchased the mobi format before epub was firmly established as a free standard. While the average digital publishing enthusiast can learn how to code an epub by trawling around the Internet, creating .mobi files is not a do-it-yourself project. Why is that important for us? Because Amazon Kindle, which until recently held about 80 percent of the ereading market, only reads .mobi files. For publishers, this means that they must send book files to Amazon to be converted to mobi. And keep in mind that Amazon charges about $250 per title for this service and retains most of the rights to this file format. This means publishers cannot distribute free Kindle versions of titles to authors or reviewers. But for publishers, that tradeoff is small compared to the prospect of excluding titles from the Kindle program.

So it essentially breaks out like this: Kindle uses mobi. Everything else uses epub. So publishers have to create two ebook formats for each physical format, right? Well… not exactly. Although non-Kindle ereaders may all use epub format, they’re not all directly compatible systems. A good analogy for epub, which I borrowed from an epublishing pal of mine, is to compare ebooks to websites and to compare ereaders to Internet browsers. Each browser will render a website slightly differently; sometimes pages don’t load in Internet Explorer, or text size is different on Chrome or Firefox. Ereaders are the same way. For optimal display, epub files need to be tweaked for the appropriate reading device.

This makes it more difficult for publishing: if we want to have high-quality products in every format, we suddenly have to invest a lot in all of these different formatting processes. We’re not quite there yet.

But there’s hope. As IDPF grows, and as publishers begin to invest more in electronic formats, standards and devices could move toward being more interchangable—allowing publishers to create just a few formats usable on dozens of different platforms.

That vision of the future opens up all kinds of exciting possibilities: greater flexibility for consumers to jump between devices; greater control for publishers over formatting and design; anything could happen. I, for one, can’t wait to see what will.

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About Leah Thompson

Writing and publishing professional in the Boston area.

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This entry was posted on November 20, 2011 by in Technology and tagged , , .

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