The 8 factors behind successful ebooks

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Why did today’s ebooks succeed where other attempts failed? And what does this tell us about how to make successful digital publications? A lot of the ebook market’s explosive growth today comes from two things: their availability in widely accepted formats, and the big improvements made in the e-reading experience. So let’s take a closer look at the features that deliver this success — and a couple of challenges we’ll face as we move to more advanced ebooks.

Checklist: The factors that will help your ebook’s success

When considering your digital strategy, a good starting point is to look at the factors that have driven the exponential growth of ebooks in the last few years. Here are some key factors behind that growth.

#1 Designed for mobile reading

People have read ebooks on computer screens for years but, to move into the mainstream, people needed the same portability and comfort in a digital book that they enjoyed in a printed edition. While PCs are still popular for reading some types of ebooks, you’ll dramtically increase your potential audience if you think mobile.

#2 Reflowable text

Related to the mobile trend, today’s ebooks are designed to produce readable text on a wide range of screen sizes, especially smaller portable devices. They do this by keeping the type size the same and by reflowing the text so that it fits all screen sizes. People are also able to choose bigger or smaller type sizes to suit their eyesight.

With earlier formats, such as Adobe’s widely-used PDF format, when an ebook is viewed on a smaller screen, everything shrinks to accommodate the page.

#3 Online and offline reading

Web pages share many characteristics with ebooks. But unlike a web page, an ebook can be read whether the user is connected to the internet or not.

Like most things driven by technology, this is changing too: Some ebooks can reside on the web, enjoying some advantages over traditional ebooks as a result. And the new web standard called HTML5 allows some web pages to be  read offline. But for now, offline reading remains a big ebook advantage.

#4 Compact size

Ebooks (at the moment) are small files that are easily and inexpensively distributed and can be stored and read on devices with modest specifications. This reduces the cost and makes ebooks accessible to a wider audience. Some ebooks and digital magazines have very large files to accommodate high design and multimedia content, but this remains a barrier to wide readership.

#5 A single package

A related benefit of the ebook format is that it gives us a standard way to package the many separate files that make up an ebook, such as images, chapters, navigation elements, and ‘metadata’, which includes bibliographic information. This keeps everything together so that it can be distributed and stored easily.

#6 Standard, open technologies

Today’s ebooks follow a format that was devised more than a decade ago by a publishing industry group. One important decision the group made was to adopt where available standards and technologies that were widely used and open to anyone to use.

The most important is HTML (HyperText Markup language): this also forms the basis of web pages. When you look ‘under the hood’ of an ebook, it looks very much like a web page.  This means that most of the tools and skills to create, distribute and read ebooks are common in the wider internet world.

But as we’ve seen, some additional capabilities distinguish ebooks from websites: ebooks can still be read when you’re not connected to the internet, and their many files can be wrapped in a container for easy storage and distribution.

#7 Inexpensive production

One of the things that has fueled a massive increase in ebook sales is their relatively low cost of production. Most of today’s ebooks are converted from print editions or from manuscripts. The cost of conversion ranges from free, using automated services, to a few hundred dollars for converting a printed edition.

However, costs won’t always be this low as ebooks become more sophisticated in their design and content. But, right now, you can get into the game for a very modest cost.

#8 Widespread distribution

All of these factors create the conditions for big, global ebook retailers to come on the scene, offering wide selection and an easy purchase and reading experience. Their reach and extensive marketing efforts are now key drivers of market growth.

Benchmark your choices against this list

Not all digital publishing solutions share these characteristics. If your chosen approach delivers all or most of them, there’s a good chance it will succeed.

If it’s missing some of these elements, you should consider the implications carefully. It will often mean that your potential readership or distribution is reduced. 

Two challenges facing ebooks

Although the popularity of today’s ebooks is rapidly expanding, the industry still faces challenges. Two big challenges currently restrict the types of works that can be produced and how and where they can be sold.

Mountain Climber1. Rendering complex layouts

The reflowable text that’s at the heart of ebooks’ success also creates problems for designers. They lose control over layout because ebooks can appear differently on different screen sizes.

Images and captions can appear in odd places, and multiple columns – a staple of magazines, textbooks, and illustrated books – are difficult to manage. And without a standard page size and page numbers, things such as citations, footnotes, and indexes don’t work.

So most ebooks today are narrative works with simple layouts and few images, locking a lot of the book market out.

Best of both worlds

A new development borrowed from the web, called responsive design, promises to provide benefits of both approaches — reflowing text to maintain its readablility on different screen sizes, while preserving complex layout elements. It does this by detecting the display size, then dynamically generating a different layout optimized for each screen type, instead of simply reflowing or shrinking a single layout.  We’ll look at this development later when we consider ebook design issues.

2. Compatibility

There is still not a single standard format: an ebook’s text cannot be read by every brand of ebook-reader. There are two widely used formats but there is a plethora of emerging formats that aim to improve on these – not to mention a whole bunch of failed ‘legacy’ formats from the past, several still floating around.

And there are two other compatibility problems:

  • Device incompatibilities. Even the same format will appear differently on different brands of e-reader because of differences in the way they render the underlying code.
  • DRM (Digital Rights Management) — used to prevent illegal copying — multiplies compatibility problems further

We will briefly look at some of the newly emerging alternatives that aim to tackle shortcomings of ebooks, especially in regard to the important but poorly-served magazine, textbook and illustrated book markets.


Find out more about this topic on our Digital Publishing 101 useful resources site.


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