E-Book vs Paperback Formatting: The Major Differences

E-readers and e-books, without a doubt, are a game changer. Not only did it open up new opportunities for aspiring authors, but it opened up new opportunities for readers as well. People can purchase an e-book online and it is in their hands instantly on their Kindle, Nook, iPad, or any other device that can serve as an e-reader. People have the opportunity to read more because it’s quicker, easier and there are so many authors to choose from now.

When readers were polled in 2013 via Maria Force, 77 percent of readers preferred e-books over the 52 percent who preferred paperbacks. Therefore, a majority of sales are e-books and people are excepting professionally formatted e-books. They don’t want something that takes thought to read, they just want to read it naturally.  The best formatting job, is one that isn’t noticed. You will get bad reviews if your formatting is not up to their standards, because even in this short time, readers have developed higher standards. And they should have because reading a book is about enjoying the story, not struggling to find where the next line starts.

E-books vs. Paperbacks

The following include the major differences between formatting for paperback books versus formatting for e-books:

Size of the Book

  • Paperbacks have a set size. For example, let’s say the book you are holding is 5″x8″. Well, the margins on each page are always going to stay the same, so roughly the same amount of words are going to fit on a page. You can manipulate sentences to do what you want and you have ultimate control on how the finished product is going to look. You know, that if you put this image beside this paragraph, it will print like that in every single book. Once the book is 200 pages long, it will stay 200 pages long.
  • E-books on the other hand, do not have pages. You may think they have pages, because if you are reading on your e-reader, you have to hit the next button to go to the next ‘page’ right? Yes, but the e-reader does not see it as a page. It is reading one long document that only has commands to tell it when to start a new “page” for special areas like chapters, however there are no actual pages. In HTML formatting, it’s just one long document.
  • E-books can go on multiple devices so there is no set size. For example, when I format for the .EPUB format, this .EPUB file needs to be able to work on any device that supports the .EPUB format. This includes the Nooks, Kobos, iPads, iPhones, Google Play, and many others. Pretty much anything except Amazon’s Kindles.
    So this .EPUB has to work on the 6 inch screen of a Nook GlowLight, but also work on 9.7 inch iPad Air. It is not going to look exactly the same on both because one is 3.7 inches bigger. Therefore, e-books have to be flexible, which is why I refer to them “free-flowing”. They adjust to how much is going to fit on the screen based on the size of the screen.
    Font and font size are two more things to consider. Most e-readers allow the user to choose their font and font size. So one reader could be using Georgia font size 14, and another could be using Times New Roman font size 12. The book is going to flow differently for these two preferences even if it’s on the exact same device.

Headers/Footers

  • Paperbacks, have these lovely things called headers and footers. Headers, are at the top of the page above the actual text of the book, and footers are at the bottom of the page. Typically the page numbers are in either the header or footer along with the book title and author name.
  • E-books, do not have headers and footers unless the device adds them. As for the formatter, we have no control over what happens in the headers and footers, because on our end, we are just formatting one long document (remember, there are no pages). E-books also do not have page numbers unless the device calculates it themselves.
    I know that Kindles add a header, typically the book title, and Nooks add headers (chapter numbers I believe) and on iBooks the Table of Contents section will automatically add in the page numbers.

Table of Contents

  • Traditionally paperbacks have a Table of Contents at the front of the book, just before the story starts. This is a great reference point for readers because they can easily flip back to the Table of Contents if they are curious about something or lost their place.
  • E-readers have been fitted with a special menu button that usually takes you directly to the Table of Contents or you press a simple button that takes you to a separate menu from which you have direct access to the Table of Contents. You can access this from any point in the book and you won’t lose your reading position, unless you select a new position within the TOC.
    The TOC Menu is also called an NCX TOC and it is embedded in the meta-data where the e-reader can find it for us and display it. It is very handy and efficient. And although there is no true reason to keep a visible TOC at the front of the eBook, except for some nonfiction books, Amazon requires that there is a linked, visible TOC at the front of your eBook. If you put the TOC at the back, they will eventually send you an email telling you to move it to the front. 

Photographs

  • Photos in a paperback book can be placed anywhere. You can have them between paragraphs or in line with the paragraphs where there’s a photo on the left and then the text wraps around it. You can pretty much do anything you want because you have ultimate control.
  • Photos in e-books have a lot more restrictions and a lot less control. You can put a photo where you hope it will go and it may or may not show up with that particular block of text depending on how the e-reader flows the book.
    You can choose to format it with a fixed layout, but that comes with some downfalls as well. Since fixed layouts are designed for a very specific aspect ratio and only devices with the same aspect ratio will display your page correctly, then that means you have to build a number of different versions to accommodate all of the different devices on the market. It may sound easy enough but it is very time consuming and has a lot more things that you need to worry about that I won’t get into.

All in all, e-book formatting is treated completely different than paperback formatting. Welcome to the digital revolution!

Updated Jan. 2017

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