Ebooks, Kindle and PDFs, Oh My!

Kindle & Ebook Design

How do I turn this on?

When it comes to books nowadays, you’ll hear many terms thrown around pretty regularly:

Ebook, PDF, Kindle, Nook, ePub, .mobi…the list goes on. We don’t blame you for being confused…it’s confusing.

Don’t fret, we’re here to make some sense of this stuff for you.

Luckily, despite the confusing terms, dot-whatever file types and cute device names, there are really only three different electronic book formats we need to worry about. Let’s look at each of these.

But first, we best play Socrates and clarify our language and terms a bit.

Standard Electronic Book Definitions

Ebook: Generically, ebook just means “electronic book.” That means it’s read on a computer or hand-held device. If what you’re reading is on a screen of any type and not on paper, it’s an ebook.

However, when you see “download my new ebook” on the internet, about 99% of the time that means a PDF document (.pdf file type). A .pdf (Portable Document Format) is a document that can be read with Adobe Reader, Preview on a Mac, and other software. Pretty much any computer in the universe, brand new off the shelf, can open and read a .pdf.

Kindle: A Kindle is a hand-held book reader. It reads many different file types, but its favorite at this time is a known as .mobi. That’s the file type that offers us the best control over how the Kindle actually presents the written work.

Now, when people want a book for their Kindle, they usually don’t say “ebook” which fairly universally means a pdf. Instead they’ll specifically ask for a Kindle book or say, “Can I get this on my Kindle?”

Nook: Nook is much like Kindle, in that it’s another hand-held reader. However, it does not use .mobi files like the Kindle does. Instead it uses .epub files.

So much for the semantics. What’s the real difference between these?

A .pdf ebook is a fixed document, much like a magazine is fixed. We all know that once a magazine is printed, its words and images stay put forever after. The text will never grow or shrink in size and one column of text will never magically become two columns. It’s set in stone.. Er…paper.

A .pdf is the same. Once a .pdf is created, it is fixed in layout. Yes you can zoom in and out, but that’s really just the equivalent of holding a magazine closer to your face. Unless you’ve got really bad breath, it doesn’t change the document one little bit.

Wow, Jack. That's an impressive increase in size.

But…Kindle and Nook books are different. They both have a resizing text feature, meaning users can make the text bigger or smaller to accommodate their vision and reading comfort.

Because of this resizing, text will flow differently from page to page. If, for example, you increase the text size, fewer words will now fit on the electronic “page”, so text that was once on page 5 might end up on page 6. Make sense?

Because of this fact, Kindle and Nook books require a bit of a special touch when it comes to layout and design. Once the text starts moving about, obviously so will chapter beginnings and endings, page breaks, etc.

I hope that brings a little clarification to the e-book confusion.

But what do I need? An ebook or Kindle book or…?

Now, one last thing. We get a lot of questions from clients, writers and business owners about what they really should be offering their customers. Do they just need a pdf ebook, or something set up for the Kindle and Nook?

The answer is yes, all of the above.

Honestly, it’s just better to have them all. If you’re selling an ebook, some of your customers will only read it on their computer screens (like I would). Others will only read it on a Kindle (like my father would). But then other folks will read some of your ebook at home on their computers, and then want to read the rest with their Kindle on the subway. So give them both. It can’t hurt.

Bonus benefit of having each format is that you can feature it on your sales page, in the selling-points of your book. Something like this will do quite nicely and actually improve sales:

“Each electronic download comes bundled with a .pdf as well as both Kindle and Nook formats! You can read it anywhere you wish on any device.”

Dig it?

Dig it.

Note to potential clients: Just to clear up some questions we get, at Charfish we do PDF design as well as Kindle and Nook formatting. However, these are different services and are billed separately. We’ll chat with you before we start any projects and figure out what’s best for your situation!


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Charlie Pabst is a guitar-wielding designer, a sharp-shooting writer, and a tell-it-like-it-is ever-kid. He is also not afraid of hyphens.

He is the founder of Charfish Design and Ignite Living.

You can read more about him here. And you should definitely follow him on Twitter.

4 Responses to “Ebooks, Kindle and PDFs, Oh My!”

  1. QUESTION? Will someone answer this pretty please… if i make an e-book that’s just a pdf – what’s the risk that someone will post it to the internet? And if so, is this a bad thing… I mean I think passing around my pdf book to friends might be a good thing… putting the whole think as open source might discourage sales ? what do you think?

    my book is available hard bound, kindle and all… I’ve been holding off selling my own e-book for this reason? Do i have anything to be concerned with, or what? THANKS FOR THE INPUT!

  2. Hi, Julia –

    Well, that’s a great question, to which there really is no simple answer.

    With the nature of the internet and digital goods, piracy is going to happen. If you put your book up for sale you can expect a large number of people to buy it, a far lesser number will try to steal/download/bootleg it, and then a tiny number indeed will feel it’s their purpose in life to make your product freely available to anyone else who wants it.

    Like life, the internet is host to its share of ne’er-do-wells and criminals. The rest of us (the vast majority, indeed) are honest. My advice is always the same: do your thing. Do it the best you can. You’ll probably lose a small amount of money to criminal/unethical behavior, but you’d lose far more money if you don’t do it at all, right?

    The vast majority of your customers will be more than happy to pay you for your products if they’re awesome.

    You’ve inspired me to write a post about it, as it’s a fairly common question/worry. I’ll have it up this coming week, so stop on by.

    Thanks for the question! I hope this helped at least a little 🙂




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