eBook formats – a crash course

Following on from my post about book pricing in the UK and the related news item on RegisterHardware, I thought I’d outline where things stand with regard to the different types of eBook available in the UK, as it’s fairly important information if you’re thinking of investing in a reader.

The most important thing to remember is that not all books can be read on every reading device, and material for some can only be bought from certain places. In other words, it’s much more restrictive than the world of paper books where buying one book from Waterstones doesn’t, for instance, mean that you can’t buy anything from Amazon in future.

Three way split

For the sake of  simplicity (and because it covers most of the market) it’s simplest to say that there are three main eBook ‘ecosystems,’ each made up of reading devices, a format for the books, and one or more stores that sell books in that format. There is some overlap, which I’ll explain later. But the main thing to remember is that there are three different solutions. First, is what I’ll call ‘Amazon/Kindle’, then there’s ‘ePub/ADEPT’ and then there’s ‘ePub/iPad.’

Also, note that here I’m concerned only with paid for books that have protection; things are different if we’re talking about those you’ve created yourself, for instance. And I’m not going to touch on ‘converting’ books from one format to another, or older formats like Mobipocket.

The Amazon way

Kindle is the name everyone’s heard of when it comes to eBooks, and it’s an Amazon product. The Kindle reader understands books bought in its own format, which is sometimes referred to as ‘azw.’ As with most bought books, these are copy protected, so they can’t be distributed freely, and if you want to buy books for Kindle, then you have to go to the Amazon store.

ePub and ADEPT

Not everyone wants to have to buy books from one place, and there’s a common format called ePub, which is designed for eBooks. Lots of people make readers that can work with this, like the Sony Reader series, the Cool-er, and quite a few others. To provide security and stop books being copied, most of the people who sell books in ePub format use a protection system from Adobe, called ADEPT; you’ll also hear it referred to as Adobe Digital Editions, which is the PC and Mac software you use to download books you’ve bought. As well as allowing books to be bought, there are libraries that allow you to borrow books in the ePub/ADEPT format; after a set time, the book ‘expires’ so you can’t read it any more.

ePub and iPad

When Apple launched their iPad and announced that it would have a built in book reader and shop system, called iBooks, they made a big fuss about how it used the ePub format. What they made less fuss about is that – unlike almost every other reader and store that works with ePub – they aren’t using ADEPT. Instead, they’re using their own protection system, which means that if you want to buy a book and read it in the iPad’s own application, then you have to buy it from Apple’s store, just like you have to go to Amazon to buy books in the Kindle format.

Confused? Already?

That’s the basic information. What does it mean to you? Well, on the face of it, that means that if you buy a book from Apple’s store on the iPad, even though it’s in ePub format, you won’t be able to read it on a Sony Reader, because it uses Apple’s protection system, rather than ADEPT.

And if you have a collection of eBooks that you have bought from, say, the Waterstones online store, they’ll all be in the ePub/ADEPT format, so you can’t read them on the Kindle, nor can you read them on the iPad.

And, if you’ve bought a book from Amazon for your Kindle then, no, you can’t read it on your Sony Reader.

So far so good. Now – and I shall attempt to do this without resorting to a Venn Diagram – things become a little murkier, because it’s not quite as cut and dried as all that.

All aboard

Amazon really wants to sell you things. Lots of things, and not just books, though that’s what they’re famous for. They sell eBooks very cheaply but while the Kindle is the thing you’ll have heard of, it’s not the only way to read them. There’s also a Kindle app for the iPhone, iPad, as well as Windows and Mac PCs, Blackberry and Android phones. So, you can buy books from Amazon and read them on all these devices. Amazon’s system even remembers where you were in a book on one device, so if you pick up the same book on another, you’ll go to the right place.

And yes – iPad is included as one of those devices, so if you have one, there’s a choice of two places to buy your books now – Amazon or Apple’s own store. You’ll have to use a different application, depending on which books you read, though – the iBooks app won’t read the Kindle books, and the Kindle app won’t read the book s from Apple’s store.

It’s also been reported that Waterstones is planning to produce an app for the iPad, which will allow you to read books you’ve bought from their shop on Apple’s tablet. Until it comes out, it’s impossible to say if it will let you read any ePub/ADEPT book, but I would imagine that’s going to be the case.

So, though you may need different applications for books from different stores, it does look as it, when it comes to portable devices, the iPad will cover all the bases. Just a shame, then, that in my view it’s too heavy and too expensive and with the wrong sort of screen to be bought  purely as a dedicated reading device.

Left out?

What about dedicated readers, such as the Sony models and the Kindle? Well, because of the way they’re designed, you can’t load extra software on to them, the way you can add the Kindle app to the iPad. So, whether it’s a Sony Reader, or a Kindle, you’re stuck with the books that are compatible, and you can’t read anything else.

On the positive side, there are a lot of bookstores you can use if you have a reader that supports ePub/ADEPT, as well as public libraries. A shame about the book prices, though.

Also worth a mention is Kobo Books, who sell books in the ePub/ADEPT format, and have applications that allows you to read them on a range of smartphones too.

Note: Some links on this page include my Amazon associates ID.

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