Digital book formats

The digital book exists in different formats. Here is an overview of the different formats as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each.

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The digital book exists in different formats. Here is an overview of the different formats as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each.


Formats generated by word processing

Word processing is a widely used tool in making a basic digital book. For example, I write this text in an online word processor called Google drive. Before web tools, software like Microsoft Word dominated the word processing industry. Regardless of the tool used, it allows you to write a text and make the layout. Once editing is complete, you can export the document and make it available to anyone who also has a word processor. Most word processors offer different export formats. Here are the most popular formats and how to read them.

Plain text (.txt) contains only text, without any special images or layouts. It is believed to have been developed in the late 1950s. It is the lightest format in terms of bytes. It makes a very small document that all computers can read. To read plain text, no special software is needed since all computers have a built-in text reader. What good can writing in plain text be used for? It allows information to be communicated without formatting, such as a password consisting of easily confused characters (such as 0 and O). A plain text document is lightweight and can be read by all of your employees, no matter what device they are using.

The OpenDocument (.odt) format arrived in 1999. The idea behind this concept is opening up and creating an industry standard, an open format that works with all office suites. At the time, this idea rallied big players in the industry like Oracle, IBM, Adobe and Google. In 2005, the OpenDocument format was officially launched and in 2006 it received ISO certification (ISO 26300). Several free software such as LibreOffice and OpenOffice use it and it is possible to read it in the Microsoft suite.

The Microsoft Word format (.docx) is very well known and it has evolved from the version of Word 95. The extension is a diminutive for document and it was even used at the time of the WordPerfect suite. Since the Office 2007 release, the .doc format has changed to .docx, and owners of older versions need a compatibility module to be able to read a document created with the new software. The advantage of this format is that it is widely used and that the majority of other word processors can read it.

The formats of Apple's iWork suite are also to be considered. In 1984, Apple developed an office suite called AppleWorks. This suite has evolved and left its place to iWork in 2005. Since the fall of 2013, this new suite is available free of charge on all of the company's computers and mobile devices. If you use the Pages application to create a document, it will be in pages format. It is also possible to export it in other formats (Word, PDF, EPUB). A disadvantage of this format is related to the opening of a document pages in another word processor. Apple's suite allows other formats to be read well, but the reverse is not always true. The ideal is to export the document in the desired format.

All of these word processing formats are interesting and widely used. They are ideal for use on devices that support software that allows them to be created and viewed. On the other hand, these formats are not necessarily always ideal for mobile devices. With the arrival of the Office 365 suite of Microsoft on iPad and online suites like Google Drive this reality will slowly change, but there are other more interesting formats for new devices.


The cross-platform document format (PDF)

The cross-platform document format or PDF (Portable Document Format) is widely used and it has its own ISO certification (ISO 19005-1). This format was created by Adobe Systems and its primary purpose was to preserve the author's layout. Once the document is created, the layout cannot be changed without special software. It is therefore possible to view and print a document without altering the original layout. To read a PDF document, you only need the software Adobe reader. However, this format is not suitable for mobile devices. Reading a PDF document on a smartphone is not an extremely unpleasant experience, but the text will not adapt to the size of the screen. You can magnify the text with your fingers, but this hides the entire page. You must therefore move the page to read the text. This format is still widely used in education since many teachers want to make their course notes available in digital format. They therefore take their course notes on a word processor and transform them into PDFs. The student can read them and annotate them with certain applications.


HTML language

As we have seen, PDF format is the logical continuation of word processing. However, we are moving towards a format which does not necessarily require more work, but which is much more flexible when it comes to reading on a portable device, the EPUB. On the other hand, just before, let's talk a little about computer language.

HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) is a language that allows the creation of web pages. This language is made up of tags (codes) which make it possible to link together pages and multimedia content. This language was created at the time of the invention of the Web in the late 1980s. At first, authors had to write in this language and know its codes. Today, software or content managers like WordPress take care of the technical aspect. We therefore work on the Web in an interface that resembles that of a word processor. Simple buttons that allow you to add media and create hypertext links. The integration of images and hypertext links is also possible in modern word processing software since they add, in the background, the famous HTML tags. This language is therefore no longer only linked to the Web. HTML has evolved tremendously since its inception, and the HTML5 version is now a collection of web technologies (HTML5, CSS3 and Javascript) that make it possible to create animations, for example, that cannot be done in a word processor. We are therefore seeing the arrival of increasingly dynamic Web pages, without the heaviness of the Flash images of a few years ago. Thanks to Web Consortium (WC3), HTML5 is fast becoming the world standard.

Today, no one needs to learn this language anymore, except to become a web developer. On the other hand, we use it indirectly as soon as we connect a document to the Web, by a hypertext link in a word processor or the integration of a YouTube video in a Google Drive presentation, in particular. The integration of links towards the Web is a very interesting practice to enrich a document.


The EPUB format

This last format is very interesting for education. All others are too, but this one brings a major benefit for reading on mobile devices. The EPUB format, for electronic publication, was designed specifically for digital books. It allows the text to adapt to the size of the device on which it is read. The most recent (third) version of this format is based on HTML5, which is the new web standard as we have seen previously. The EPUB can be read in virtually any digital device except the Amazon Kindle. You can even play an EPUB on a computer with software like Digital Editions Home from Adobe, Mobipocket or applications like EPUReader for Firefox, Readium for Chrome and Book Bazaar Reader for Window 8.

In the third part of this file, I will explain which software to use to produce your documents in EPUB. To learn more about this format, I invite you to read this digital book on the EPUB.


Proprietary formats for e-readers

Here is some information on e-readers. These devices are less used in the classroom than tablets, but could be an interesting solution for a school wanting to provide reading devices for rent from the library. An e-reader is a small device created specifically for reading. These devices use electronic paper technologies without backlighting. This allows reading in direct sunlight without glare on the device. In addition, the sensation to the eye is comparable to conventional paper, resulting in less eye strain. The market offers a few choices of devices like the Kobo, the Kindle, the Nook and the Reader, to name only the most popular.

Many people hesitate between buying an iPad-style tablet or an e-reader. It is certain that the tablet allows a wider range of possibilities. On the other hand, it is much more expensive to buy compared to a basic Kobo tablet at around 80 $. The e-reader is probably best for someone who reads a lot and wants to reduce eye strain. The ideal is to target your needs to choose the best device. In addition, the majority of e-readers also offer reading apps for tablets, which means that the owner of a Kobo e-reader, for example, can also read their e-books on their iPad via thekobo app. These systems have the advantage of synchronizing playback through an account on the Internet. It is therefore possible to start a book on your e-reader and continue it on your tablet. However, the reverse is also true: no connection, no synchronization.

It is also important to understand that digital books are generally protected by digital rights management (GND) (or DRM in English, to digital rights management). These devices are applied by the vendor directly to the document and this can restrict the number of users and even the type of device that can read it. This system is used to control the work, but also to protect the copyright of the person who wrote the book. It is therefore very important to find out about the copyright in education. For example, if you buy a book from the virtual bookstore Amazon, maker of the Kindle e-reader, you will only be able to read it on the Kindle device or applications that are attached to your account. Amazon sells its books in the proprietary MOBI DRM format, which restricts what you can do with the book. These restrictions make it difficult to buy a book and share it with all your students. Each student will have to buy the book according to their device.

The advantage of digital books is that they are often cheaper than their paper equivalent. It is even possible to find a variety of free books. The Project Gutenberg offers free books in HTML, EPUB and Kindle formats. You can therefore read the book online (HTML format) or download it to the device of your choice.


How to choose the right format

To end the chapter on formats, I will try to give you some possible solutions to make the right choice. Most teachers are very familiar with classic word processing. This is perfect in a context where content is produced which is then printed and distributed to students. It's always a good choice, but offering only word processing might not be the best solution if your students have laptops or mobile devices. It all depends on the intention as well. Do you want the student to have access to complete course notes, or to be able to edit and enhance them as needed? In the context where the student must improve your grades, the classic word processor works well. However, the document must be sent in a format compatible with your students' devices. This can cause some hang-ups if your lecture notes are in Microsoft Word format and your students are on iPads, for example. It is therefore important to do tests, especially if you want the student to be able to modify your document. See among others compatibility between Word format and Apple Pages format.

We often see teachers producing course notes on word processing and exporting them in PDF format. They then ask the student to complete the grades in a PDF annotation application. On tablet, applications like iAnnotate (iPad, Android), Notability (iPad), PDF Expert (iPad) and PDF Annotator (Windows 8) allow you to receive the PDF and write over it. This is interesting, but it is never ideal since the student is limited to the document constructed by the teacher at the start. It can only add information. He cannot start from the document and build his own lecture notes. In this sense, a simple basic word processor would allow the student to modify the document and improve it. Once again, it all depends on the intention.

If the goal is to produce a reference textbook and make it available to students, the EPUB format is amazingly interesting and easier to read on a mobile device. It will be possible for the students to read it regardless of the device. In addition, they will be able to open it in the reading application of their choice (iBooks, Play Books, Kobo, etc.) and read it like a book.


File plan:


- What is a digital book?
A little history
The birth of digital

Digital book formats
Formats generated by word processing
The cross-platform document format (PDF)
HTML language
The EPUB format
Proprietary formats for e-readers
How to choose the right format

- Create your digital book
Word processing
Specialized publishers

- Some examples of digital books in schools
References and useful resources


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About the Author

Sébastien Wart
Sebastien wart
Director of teaching and educational innovation at Saint-Paul College. A specialist in technological integration, Sébastien was an IT and Web optimization consultant at the FÉEP as well as an educational consultant in technology integration and a teacher at the Collège de Montréal.

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