We get a lot of questions when we are providing our ebook formatting and print book formatting services about the similarities and differences between a book and an ebook with reflowable text:
What is a book? A book is a physical book that has the text, images, etc., printed on paper. The pages are bound together, and the book has either a hardcover or softcover (paperback).
What is an ebook? An ebook is a digital or electronic book that is formatted into a file that can be read on an e-reader device or app.
Many of the conventions of a print book are used in an ebook – for example, cover, title page, copyright page, table of content, chapters, paragraphs, etc.
So…if these are the similarities, what are the differences?
The single most important difference is that print books have static layouts that once printed do not change, whereas ebooks have dynamic layouts. This is because most ebooks are formatted with re-flowable text.
What is re-flowable text? It is “the ability to automatically wrap words in a document to the next line as the user changes the window size and thereby relocates the right margin of the page” (ref: pcmag.com). If you want to see this in action, open your book in Microsoft Word and go to Menu View > Web Layout. You will notice that there aren’t “pages”, per se. Now resize your screen smaller, then larger. You will see the text “wrap” to adjust to the size of the screen.
Because the ebook text “flows” to adjusts to the size of the screen, ebooks do not have pages as in a print book. Since they do not have pages, they do not have page numbers. As they do not have page numbers, one cannot use page numbers as a means of navigating and referencing in a table of contents or index. Instead, one has a table of contents that is hyperlinked to the individual chapters and/or sections of the book. Instead of an index, the reader will use the e-reader’s search function to search for specific words or topics.
As ebooks do not have pages, there are a few other things found in ebooks are different in print books. There aren’t headers or footers in an ebook. Footnotes become endnotes. Also, to ensure the predictability of placement, images must be in line with the text and centered. Most e-readers at this time do not accept charts, tables, and columns, so these must be converted into an image first.
In an ebook, the reader can set the font type and size, as well as the sentence spacing so long as the font has not been embedded during formatting. An ebook is formatted with only a few font sizes for this reason.
Readers also have the use of the e-reader’s search function to navigate throughout the book.
We do not use the following when formatting ebooks:
- tabs (indenting is set via the text style)
- multiple spaces in a row
- excessive paragraph returns
- text boxes
- colored font (colored font can make it difficult to read on some e-reading devices that don’t support color)
This explanation of some of the similarities and difference between print books and ebooks with reflowable text should help you understand the transition from one to the other.
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The following is a quote from the Smashwords Style Guide:
How Ebook Formatting is Different from Print Formatting
Ebooks are different from print books, so do not except your ebook to look like an exact facsimile of print book. Not considering the restrictions of the medium when formatting will result in a poor user experience.
With print books, the layout is fixed. The words appear on the printed page exactly where you want them to appear.
With ebooks, there are no pages in a conventional sense. The e-reader software decides how much text to fit on the screen based on the user settings. By giving up the control of the printed page, you and your readers gain much more in return.
Page numbers, if displayed are also generated on the fly (as page count is variable). Your book may look different on different e-reading devices. Your text will shape shift and reflow. Most e-reading devices and e-reading applications allow your reader to customize the fonts, font sizes, and line spacing. Your customers will modify how your book looks on-screen to suit their personal reading preference and environment.
By transforming your books into digital form, you open up exciting possibilities for how readers can enjoy them.
At Smashwords, their motto is “your book, your way,” and this means a reader should be able to consume your book, however, works best for them, even if that means they like to read 18 point Helvetica with blue fonts, lime background color, and triple spaced lines. Many e-reading devices and e-reading apps support some or all of these strange, different tastes.
For us to prepare your words to be stirred up and reconstituted in this digital soup, it’s important your Smashwords source file is formatted to liberate the words in digital form.
The book’s formatting will be and must be different from its paper-based formatting and layout (for some works like poetry, the formatting is integral to the reading experience, and we can work with that too).
Most readers want your words, not your fancy page layout or exotic type styles. This is especially important for your ebook customers because you want your work to display well on as many digital reading devices as possible so the reader can have their book their way. Some of your buyers may want to read on the Amazon Kindle; others may prefer to read on the iPhone or Sony Reader, or even read on multiple devices. Others may want to just read it on their computer screen using one of the several e-reading applications, such as Adobe Digital Editions or FBReader.”