The Pros and Cons of Ebooks


Tiger of the Stripe Blog

The Pros and Cons of Ebooks

As someone who grew up in the era of printed books and, indeed, hot-metal typesetting and letterpress printing, I like books as physical objects. On the other hand, ebooks do have advantages. The most obvious, from the consumer's point of view, is portability. You can read ebooks on your mobile phone, a tablet device or a dedicated ebook reader. However, a phone is rather small for comfortable reading, many, possibly most, tablets are larger than many books, and dedicated readers, such as the Kindle devices, restrict the formats which can be viewed.

Early ebooks split into two distinct types: simple text files and book-like files using Portable Document Format (PDF) or similar technology. If the layout of the page was important, the latter was the way to go because it retains all the formatting information. In fact, nearly all printed books are now supplied to the printers as PDF files. The trouble is that, by definition, PDFs cannot both retain all their formatting and reflow on small devices to retain their readability.

By far the largest player in the ebook market is Amazon with their Kindle books. Unfortunately, these rely on a number of proprietary formats which, as well as being rather poor, give unpredictable results on the many platforms on which Kindle books can be viewed. Until fairly recently, pop-up footnotes were not supported on Kindle. This is extremely limiting for academic books. Clicking on a footnote marker without them, means being taken to another page and then being required to click on another marker to return to the original page. Most Kindle readers (dedicated devices and programs running on mobile and desktop devices) do not support pop-ups and may never do so.

Most non-Kindle ebooks, including many but not all Apple iBooks, rely on the ePub2 and ePub3 formats and do support pop-up footnotes. These formats are far superior to the various Kindle formats but are struggling to compete against Amazon. One reason is that if, for instance, you buy an iBook, the Digital Rights Management (DRM) restricts it to being read on Apple devices. In contrast, any Windows or Mac computer, any Android or iOS device can read Kindle books.

Many ebooks, such as cookery, children's and art books, really need to retain a fixed layout so that text and pictures will appear in exactly the right pages. Amazon has made some attempt to crack this market but, frankly, their attempts have been pretty dreadful. Apple has free software, iBooks Author, which makes the production of such ebooks extremely easy and also allows publishers to incorporate sound, video, animations and interactive elements. However, this program only runs on Macs and produces ebooks which only run on Apple devices.

The best all-round ebook format is ePub3. Like iBooks Author, it supports fixed layout and the inclusion of animation and other files. Unlike iBooks Author, it creates files which will work on many different platforms, including Apple iBooks. It can also be easily converted to Kindle, although it is worth creating a reflowable rather than fixed layout ePub version first – a fixed layout file will not convert properly.

An important advantage of ebooks is that, apart from the initial set-up costs, they have no production, storage or delivery costs. Unfortunately, the last-named advantage has been undermined by the European Union which has introduced absurd new VAT rules on electronic downloads. The result is that most small businesses selling to the EU will find it simpler to sell ebooks through Amazon. Apple and other large ebook vendors. Nonetheless, the economic advantages of selling ebooks rather than printed books are substantial, especially since ebook vendors take a smaller cut (usually 30%) than the traditional book trade.

A final advantage of ebooks is that they present the consumer with an instant purchase, something which is convemient to both parties in the transaction