The original Kindle and EPUB formats have shortcomings when it comes to dealing with complex layouts and rich media such as video and audio. These more advanced digital publications are often referred to as enhanced ebooks.

Page from fixed layout ebook - Hairy Maclary by Lynley Dodd

Page from a fixed layout ebook with read-aloud audio. Click to enlarge. (From Hairy Maclary by Lynley Dodd, production by Kiwa Media.)

We’ll take a brief look at some of the more important formats being used to produce enhanced ebooks in this changing landscape.

  • Next generation EPUB and Kindle formats
  • PDF (Portable Document Format)
  • Apps
  • Fixed layout ebooks
  • Web apps

We’ll also look at two of the most popular tools for producing enhanced ebooks today.

This is just a small selection of the many options to produce digital publications. Each of these has solid backing and supporters among the publishing community but this is a field where we’re still some way from having a widely-adopted standard.

Tools to produce multimedia ebooks

There is a rapidly-expanding selection of tools available to produce enhanced ebooks. They fall into two major groups:

We cover them in our online course Digital Publishing 101 for Ebooks.

The next generation of EPUB and Kindle

epub & kindleEPUB version 3 (EPUB3) and Amazon’s Kindle Format 8 (KF8) are the first major upgrades to these ebook standards in several years.

Both formats offer the opportunity for richer, more highly designed ebooks. However, before they can do that, ebook readers and apps have to be upgraded to read these new formats. It’s a transition that is taking years rather than months.

The good news is that next-generation e-readers are still be able to read ebooks in the older format (but earlier devices, unless upgraded by their manufacturers, won’t be able to read EPUB3 files.)


PDF (Portable Document Format)

PDF logoLet’s start with a format that’s been around for decades and is still widely used. PDF (Portable Document Format) from Adobe Systems can be read on any PC or Mac and most mobile devices using free the Adobe Reader software found in many applications.

This ubiquity has made it popular as an ebook format and you’ll still see PDF as an option in many ebookstores. Its main feature is that it preserves print layout but, as we saw earlier, these layouts lack the ability to reflow text and don’t work well on newer mobile devices.

PDF continues to serve the needs of many non-fiction and textbook applications where research and reference use is more important than readability on a mobile device.

Interactive PDF

An advanced version called interactive PDF allows you to include videos, forms, questionnaires, documents, buttons, and animations.

But beware of compatibility issues. Many types of software now read PDF files and one of the consequences is that they don’t all support the full set of advanced features. So you’ll find that your interactive PDF ebooks render differently and, in some cases, not at all. Unless you know your potential users well (for instance, internal company use), interactive PDF is not recommended as an ebook format.


App StoreThe term ‘app’ is short for application: it is a small software program written to install automatically on a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet. Apple popularised the term when it opened its App Store in 2008 for the iPhone and later for the iPad.

A book wouldn’t normally be associated with a piece of software. But many publishers have produced books as apps to take advantage of sophisticated features that weren’t available to them with ebook formats.

  • Support for animation, video and audio
  • Interactivity, meaning the reader can make choices and selections that change how the book plays back, or can do things such as colour in pictures or personalise the ebook
  • Ability to access hardware and application features of the device, such as location, email, databases, and e-commerce

While these features are exciting and there have been a few successes with this format, it’s hampered by some disadvantages.

  • Apps must be distributed through special app stores so they don’t offer the visibility of e-bookstores such Kindle or Kobo (‘discoverability’ in publisher jargon)
  • They are usually more expensive to produce and require programming skills most publishers don’t have — though new tools are making app production simpler
  • Each type of device requires its own app. For this reason, they’re often referred to as native apps since they’re programmed to run directly on the host hardware.
  • Apps are software and must be updated regularly to keep up with changes to the devices they run on. Ebook apps are usually sold for a one-time payment so they must rely on continuing new sales to fund these updates.

In spite of these challenges, apps still show promise for some types of books, such as illustrated children’s books and graphic novels, and publishers continue to experiment with them. They’re also finding favour with some magazines where a special feature of app stores, called in-app purchasing, allows the latest edition of a periodical to be purchased from within the app. Apple has helped this further with a special store called Newsstand to sell single issues and subscriptions.

Here are a couple of videos showing the potential for ebooks as apps.

Click to view a video of an ebook app

This video (2:49) shows the app that publisher HarperCollins produced from its illustrated book The Art of the Adventures of TinTin.

Click to view a video of a how a children's ebook app works

This video from specialist children’s book app producer Kiwa Media shows the sorts of things that apps can do.

Fixed Layout Ebooks

Epub logoSeveral ebooksellers have introduced extensions to the EPUB and Kindle reflowable formats – to stop them from reflowing. This might seem like an odd thing to do, but the point is to make them work with illustrated layouts, such as children’s books, cookbooks, graphic novels and comics, or magazines, where you need to preserve the exact layout.

This is similar to what a PDF does but fixed-layout ebooks work within the standard EPUB and Kindle formats, meaning that ‘under the hood’ they use open web standards such as HTML which can be easily reformatted and re-purposed for other uses.

Ebooksellers who support fixed-layout ebooks include Apple, Barnes and Noble’s Nook, Amazon, and Kobo. Fixed layout ebooks are more complex and more expensive to produce than standard ebooks and there are several incompatible formats.

Fixed layout options are part of the new Kindle and EPUB formats, providing further impetus to this approach:

  • Amazon has provided an advanced fixed layout option for its KF8 format, but it’s not supported by all Kindle devices
  • The EPUB3 format now has a standard for producing fixed layout ebooks

Further innovations in fixed layout ebooks are aimed at supporting specific types of books. Examples are the ability to expand text blocks as they are read to make comics, graphic novels and children’s books more readable. And synchronised audio and word highlighting allow read-along in children’s ebooks. Along with the prevalence of colour screens on tablets, these ebook categories are seeing strong sales growth.

This book trailer shows an example of a fixed layout ebook produced for Apple’s iBookstore.

Web apps

HTML5 logoAn emerging technology is called web apps. These apps offer many of the advantages of the native apps while also removing some of the disadvantages, especially the need to produce multiple versions for each platform and having to sell through a particular vendor’s app store.

Instead of being written using the complex, usually proprietary, programming languages associated with “native” apps, these apps are written using HTML (especially the latest version HTML5) and other web technologies (notably CSS3 and Javascript), essentially the same technologies that underpin ebooks.

The idea is that web apps is that:

  • They can offer the same rich, interactive environment as native apps
  • They can be installed easily from a website, including the publisher’s own site
  • They can be read on any device with a web browser, even when there is no internet connection present

This broadens access to the apps and simplifies the number of editions publishers must produce and maintain. It also gives publishers more control over distribution.

Web apps hold a great deal of promise for some applications such as children’s books, travel guides, cookbooks, textbooks, and training manuals. And their ability to easily deliver updated content makes them attractive to magazine and newspaper publishers.

But at the moment, they still don’t match the performance and sophistication of native apps.

With the development of ebooks as web apps, it will be a short step for ebooks themselves to “live in the cloud” — rather than downloading files, you’ll read your ebooks and access your ebook library over the internet, a trend we’ll see unfolding over the next few years.

Two of the most advanced examples of web apps currently are:


Tools to produce multimedia ebooks

Finally, here is a brief look at two of the most popular applications for producing multimedia ebooks: Adobe InDesign, which is widely-used by publishing professionals; and Apple iBooks Author which is aimed at general users (requires a Mac).

Apple iBooks Author

Adobe InDesign with Adobe Digital Publishing Suite

So, which format is the right format?

Unfortunately, there’s still no ‘right’ answer to this question, making it challenging for publishers who want to move beyond simple narrative ebooks.

While standards are still evolving — including the publishing industry’s open standard EPUB3 — the best approach is to start with the target readers and the distribution channels you can use to reach them. This will narrow down the format choices while also ensuring that your enhanced ebook is as widely available to your target readers as possible.

Making design format decisions

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