Kindle Your Fire
Over the years, many brand names have become synonymous with everyday objects. Companies love this because people freely promote their products every time they enter into conversation. A Jacuzzi is actually a spa bath, but another brand cannot be called a Jacuzzi. The correct term is in fact, a ‘spa bath’, or even a ‘Hot Tub’. Sometimes, when a brand name becomes a common term, it’s fairly harmless, and little more than free advertising. On other occasions, it becomes a monopoly that is virtually impossible to break.
We don’t call all cars ‘Ford’. We call automobiles cars, as a car is loosely defined as having a few wheels, some seats, and some form of propulsion. You cannot call a Ford a Fiat, though. Only a Fiat can be called a Fiat, but all automotive brands can be called cars. Some you can even call rubbish, but they are cars nevertheless.
“That book wasn’t very good but again, then it was just a Kindle book!”
I am seeing more and more people speaking of Kindle Books, or books as being Kindles. I want to point out that there is no such thing as a ‘Kindle Book’. A Kindle is an electronic book reader. The Kindle format is what Amazon has forced on anyone that buys a Kindle device. That’s correct, you didn’t misread ‘forced’. While other manufacturers tried — and failed — to secure unique electronic book formats through their e-readers, the world ultimately settled on the ePub format. It is open source, easy to understand if you have working knowledge of web design, and it can and shouldbe read on any device.
Amazon has strong armed and bullied their way into a legal wrangle. You can either build a machine that reads Amazon’s Mobi (Mobipocket) format, or the universal ePub (electronic publication) format. You cannot legally read both on your device. Of course, this ridiculous attempt to dominate didn’t quite work because clever programmers just wrote ‘apps’, and laughed at Amazon.
You can say that you are reading a book on your Kindle, or a book in a Kindle format, but it is impossible to read a ‘Kindle book’. Amazon doesn’t ‘publish’ books, Kindle or otherwise. They ‘sell’ electronic books in a digital Kindle format and a few printed books too. There is a world that exists outside of Amazon, and it is much larger than Kindle buyers imagine. A book is a book, be it a soft cover, leather bound, an ePub or even a Kindle format. The correct term is an electronic book, or an eBook for brevity.
Similarly, you don’t get iBooks either. You can find ‘books’ on your iPad by connecting through the software called ‘iBooks’. We achieve nothing by promoting one brand over another. Let’s promote books, not huge corporations with dubious business ethics. Currently, we may have little choice, so don’t give the big bullies any more ammunition.
Since this article is not merely about bashing any person or company with a large, soggy trout, I’m going to discuss some formats of electronic books. It’s a good idea to learn a bit about the products you use every day. A little knowledge is a wonderful thing, but additional knowledge makes us think for ourselves.
Amazon has chosen to keep the source code of their Mobi/ASW Kindle format a big secret. Could someone please queue the mysterious string quartet? However, they have provided a few tools that we can implement in converting a perfectly normal ePub book into a less than satisfactory Kindle format. So what is an ePub then? It is little more than zip file with a whole lot of web pages tossed inside. That is the simple explanation, and for our purposes, it suffices.
Inside this zip package, which is called dot.ePub, we have HTML files, which hold all the information that is displayed in an eBook. It also has a supplementary document called the ‘Style Sheets’ and they do exactly that: they style what you see. We use it to control font sizes, font types, and where we place all the bits and bobs, amongst other things. It is a template of sorts when applied to the ‘web page’ that is the electronic book.
Naturally, there is additional coding contained that the reader should never see. It comprises a virtual index, called the ‘spine’ of the book, metatags, descriptions or blurbs, categories and keywords, and it may even contain physical objects such as font files or multimedia. All of these things provide you with the full reading experience of a digital book.
So why is the ePub format better than Amazon’s Kindle format? First, it is not crippled to suit Amazon’s lazy needs. It can display nice fonts for example. It also follows simple rules that are easy to learn through web design. When converting to the Kindle format, many things break or look dreadful. It literally becomes a game of design testing until a work-around solution can be found to work with the Kindle. Sadly, iBooks has done something similar, and as a result, has perverted the ePub into behaving like a fixed format that it was never designed to be. Now they are stuck with their own mess. Most other manufacturers of book readers didn’t fiddle with what works, and simply adopted the industry standard. This is how it should be, but unfortunately greed often prevails over common sense.
The last item that needs to be clarified is the PDF format. Make no mistake about this: PDF is not an electronic book format. It is a print format. Yes, that’s right. Adobe developed this particular format to bypass all the endless issues with printing documents on different systems and through various software. There are even some websites who sell PDF ‘books’ but honestly, unless you want to print them out, this is the worst format in which to read electronic books. The only reason to read a PDF book is if a fixed layout is required.
Electronic books need to be flexible whereas a PDF file has been created to be unyielding. When you examine a fixed page on varying screens, it has the effect of viewing through a keyhole. Generally you have two choices: you can either zoom in and out, resulting in too large or too small text and images, or you can ‘reflow’ the document on some systems. As soon as you reflow a document, it generally goes bonkers and images get thrown about randomly. The text then wraps around the remaining elements — you hope. Sentences may receive hard breaks and be broken over two lines or more. You also have the added pleasure of having random page numbers occurring anywhere on a page but seldom at the bottom.
“He kissed her passionately, reaching behind her to unclasp her brassiere, and then … PAGE 69!”
PDF files are great for fixed layouts such as magazines or pamphlets. It is more robust than a proper eBook because it can be ‘fixed’ into place so the design can be more elaborate. A properly created eBook will flow like water poured into different shaped containers. No eBook will ever look the same on any two devices. Even just changing the font size will alter how the book is displayed, and the virtual pagination. By nature, web design is meant to be fluid even though some web designers have forgotten this fact. Fluid layouts are not about forcing the content, but rather making it as compatible as possible, and allowing it to adopt the dimensions and settings of the host machine.
Authors: if you are sending your book out for reviewing purposes, please send it as either a Mobi or an ePub file. A PDF is not a pleasant experience to read on an e-reader. There is free software available to convert your original manuscripts or just download a copy from Amazon’s preview system as they publish your book. Additionally, do not think that you are protecting your content by sending a ‘secured’ PDF file. Nothing is secure once you send it out into the World Wide Web.
Please use eBooks for reading and PDFs for printing or fixed layouts. The world will be most grateful.