eBooks Explained: A guide to the different formats and features

Digital reading content, or eBooks, is emerging in varied and sometimes difficult to navigate formats, each one suited to unique uses in classrooms and curricula, and in some cases not suited at all. The goal of this newsletter is to provide a primer on the different formats for delivering eTextbooks onto a personal device, and guide teachers and administrators to identify which are available and how each format can integrate into his or her classroom. Also we will seek to explain what kind of technical support is required within the classroom.

Consistent with our role as a one-source supplier of traditional printed books, Adams is working to provide the books you’re looking for in a digital format. If you’d like to integrate eBooks into your classroom, please reach out to us with a list of titles you’re interested in, and we’ll work with our partners at the publishers to make them available.

The following identifies popular downloadable formats for school adoption. It is admittedly quite long so as to provide a full and in-depth picture of the evolving eBook landscape.

Please note that the formats discussed below exclude eBook textbooks which are accessed by students via login and password to a publisher’s website. Some of our customers who have ventured into eBooks in past years will be most familiar with that method of delivery. The below seeks to explain downloadable formats which a user can view and read through a device—whether it be a personal computer or a mobile reader—and without a web connection.


The most basic and accessible format of an eBook is the PDF (file extension .pdf). Initially it was created by Adobe Systems as a standard format for containing a set of images of pages. PDFs are compatible with most internet-connected devices, but the downside to the format is that traditionally the text is static and cannot be “re-flowed” to fit the screen width, size, or resolution of devices varying in size. A PDF document conforms to standard printing sizes and proportions of a 9.5 by 11-inch page. The lack of device-tailoring can make the reading experience less than ideal. The memory required to store large collections of images, can also slow down the reading experience and requires a good internet connection, discouraging one from offline reading.

Responding to some concerns, Adobe has adapted their technology to allow for reflowing, but many of the documents are still not offered in this modified version and it often requires additional effort (and conversion software) on the part of the reader to update to the newer format.

In the Classroom: PDF-formatted eBooks are adequate for reading and displaying data such as charts and graphs, however the limitations on interactivity restrict collaboration and connectivity to external resources, such as a dictionary or supporting multimedia. Additionally, the file sizes and formatting often make textbook reading more cumbersome, a potential discouragement for already reluctant readers. Ultimately the advantage a PDF textbook has over the same traditional print textbook is portability, which is not to be underrated. Adams has been distributing PDF-formatted texts for a couple of years now, and looks forward to continuing to support distribution.


EPUB (file extension .epub) is a growing open-standard eBook format created with the intention of building a universal and free standard for publishers to create eBooks and for devices to access them. Thus it is widely supported across different reading devices and tablets, including Kobo eReader and the Blackberry Playbook and by various reading applications installable on additional devices including the Barnes and Noble Nook, Sony Reader, Apple’s line of portable devices, and personal computers.

Aside from its accessibility, the benefit of publishing and reading in ePub is that it is designed for reflowable content, meaning that the display is optimized both for the device and for the reader’s tastes: the reader may choose to adjust the size of the print and the direction of the text to fit on the page comfortably.

Most popular literature is available in ePub format with the number of works quickly growing. However, few textbooks are offered in ePub. This is largely because the reflowing of text—while a benefit when reading literature—doesn’t allow for the structured layout of images, charts, graphs, equations, and problem sets that textbooks are used to incorporating. In other words, there is no guarantee that an image will show up next to the block of text that a publisher wants it to appear with. Additionally, ePub doesn’t offer the amount of robustness that an application (described below) offers in terms of providing interactivity, which in many cases is the motivation to integrate tablet devices into learning.

Last fall, the IDPF released specifications for Version 3 of ePub, designed to address many of the educational needs that the earlier version wasn’t meeting. This version supports greater integration of multimedia and a more fixed layout. However, at the time of this newsletter, ePub3 is largely unsupported by devices and reading applications. IDPF has released a beta version of an EPUB3 reader application which is slowly rolling out and is anticipated to be finalized mid-2012. By summer 2013, we expect to see publishers making more titles available and look forward to distributing them.

In the Classroom: The big advantage is that EPUB is a standard across platforms and hardware-agnostic, enabling educators to choose the device that is right for a given student body. Students can access the given book both through a device in the classroom and by the student at home on his or her personal computer. While EPUB’s free and open-format makes it an ideal fit for reading literature, until EPUB3 format is more widely supported, the EPUB textbooks on the market are limited both in their number and functionality. Adams is providing distribution for the EPUB2 standard format this coming summer and looks forward to EPUB3 distribution in 2013 when we expect titles to begin emerging on the market.


eBooks that require more robust functionality are made available as an application, more commonly known as an “app”. These are generally web-based pieces of software that encourage interactivity. The evolving capabilities of tablet and mobile devices have provided an enticing opportunity for publishers to create content, and there is a noticeably emerging appetite among students. Given the level of interaction made possible, apps represent a change in how content publishers are viewing “books” as a text and information-based interaction. They blur the definition of reading. Some graceful examples of book apps suited to educational purposes include a line of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionaries, Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Scientific American’s virtual exploration of the solar system in Journey to the Exoplanets, Touch Press’ The Elements: A Visual Exploration which invites learners to explore the periodic table, and several titles provided as part of Pearson’s eText application.

The downside of book apps is that while they offer the robust interactivity and information desirable in a classroom, they are expensive for content publishers to create. As a result, many of the textbook-like apps included are more like in depth explorations of a single topic or companion exercises to printed textbooks. Likely this will evolve with time and appetite, but at the time of this newsletter, that appears to represent the bulk of what’s at market. Book applications are different than reader applications, which are essentially programs designed to serve as digital libraries on a device. Apple (iBooks), Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook, Google, Kobo, Sony, as well as several publishers have reader apps and link to their bookstores. Library eBooks are opened using readers like Bluefire and Overdrive. Many of these reader applications, including Pearson’s eText, are portals through which to access book applications.

Occasionally Book Apps are also referred to as “enhanced books” though this term is also loosely applied to eBooks with “enhanced features” which may be as simple as additional notes rather than deep interactivity.

Another consideration is that not all eReaders can support app functionality; many are geared solely towards reading and won’t support internet-functionality. Similarly, an app must be custom built for each platform, so don’t assume that just because your device or PC has internet-functionality that the app you want is available for its operating system.

In the Classroom: Book and other educational applications offer exciting opportunities for an educator to create an engaging reading experience in the classroom, integrating multiple media and interactivity.

Additional Popular Formats

Several of the big hardware providers in the market have developed their own proprietary formats for the marketplace. All eBooks purchased through Apple’s iBookstore are in iBooks format (.iba) and all those purchased through Amazon’s Kindle store come in Kindle format (.azw). Both are very similar to EPUB in both form and function, with the exception that they’re not an open format. Kindle or iBooks titles must be read in the supplier’s proprietary reader and can’t be transferred to other devices, unless it’s another of the hardware supplier’s devices or through a proprietary web-based reader (which often requires internet connectivity).

The benefit of these formats are that, particularly in the case of iBooks, the technology and support available is more evolved than what’s currently at market, on par with that of EPUB3. Apple’s January release of iBooks2 included the release of several textbook titles as discussed in our January version of The Word. However, as discussed in that newsletter, the number of textbooks is currently limited (15). Texts presently available appear to be based to core state standards.

In the Classroom: The interactivity of the iBooks platform makes it an irresistible option for a classroom if the text fits the curriculum AND if the budget can accommodate the purchase of an iPad. The down side in adopting the iPad platform is that the basic iPad ($500.00) does not have the memory to download more than a limited number of these texts, so schools will likely have to upgrade to a more expensive model with more memory in order to accommodate the breadth of courses to which a given student is enrolled.  Since Apple and Kindle are sole distributors of their formatted titles, this not only limits the device, but fragments the book-shopping experience, separating traditional from electronic.

Taking a step back (and one which we haven’t yet taken in this newsletter), it is worth considering what the concentration of technology to a single platform means to commerce and society. The U.S. Justice Department is presently investigating the pricing of electronic books, to probe whether there was improper collusion by Apple Inc. and trade publishers to prevent discounting.

Adams looks forward to supporting distribution of PDF and EPUB formats for the 2012-2013 school year and implementing new technologies and distribution methods as the technology evolves. Both of these formats are open and hardware-agnostic, enabling students to read across different devices, moving their opportunities for learning between the classroom and home. This gives the school the benefit of choosing devices that meet their price-point. In most cases, the novels you’ll want are going to be offered in ePub and the electronic textbooks (until the emergence of EPUB3) are going to be available in PDF, if they’re available at all.

We’re presently working on updating our current sites to include eBook title listings and provide a uniform distribution method across titles. As stated above, we’d like to hear your requests for titles that you would like to see available, and are looking forward to the coming weeks in which we’ll be sharing a catalog of debut digital titles with you.

If there are any questions concerning eBooks please feel free to reach out to your sales representative or Cori Schattner at coris (at) adamsbook (dot) com.

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