Demystifying ebook formats: what every self-publisher needs to understand

Publishing your own work these days is ridiculously easy compared with the 'olden days' (aka the twentieth century). Pretty much anyone can compile an ebook and have it for sale, or giveaway, within hours. However, if you have something you think would be worth publishing – an ebook, an e-brochure, a collection of blog posts – you will quickly find that navigating the e-publishing world can be like swimming in soup.

One of the most confusing aspects of e-publishing is the variety of file formats available. Do you publish your ebook or other e-work as a PDF file, an EPUB file or in 'Kindle' format? Or all three? Or something else?

It's important to understand that there is no right answer to this question. The format(s) you choose will depend on what you are publishing and how you want it to be received by your readers. For most of my book ghostwriting clients, for instance, we produce EPUB and Kindle files, whereas copywriting clients working on a brochure may choose a PDF.

Here's a quick overview of the three main ebook formats:


The PDF format is familiar to most people. It has been very common since the internet became widespread in the mid-1990s. Developed by Adobe as 'Portable Document Format', a PDF file is essentially a digital 'snapshot' of a document – what you see is the same thing you would see on the page if you were to print the document onto paper.

The main advantage of the PDF format is that the 'receiver' sees exactly what you intended them to see: the same page layout with the same colours and fonts, etc. PDF files are easy to create on Mac OS X and Windows and they can be password and print protected. With services such as it is straightforward to make PDF files freely available on the web.

The main disadvantage of PDFs is their fixed size, which can make them harder to read on smaller screens (such as on a smartphone).


The EPUB format was designed specifically for screen-based reading, the idea being that text 'reflows' to fit the screen being used. With an EPUB file, each 'page' on a phone has only a small number of words compared with a page of the same document on an iPad or other tablet, or on a computer screen.

The big advantage of the EPUB format is that it provides a much better reading experience on portable devices. The format allows the reader to change the font and, importantly, the font size on the page to suit their personal preference. This is obviously an enormous plus for those of us who no longer have 20/20 vision. EPUB documents can be read on numerous reading apps on iOS and Android devices.

The EPUB format works best for documents consisting predominantly of text. Images can be displayed but only 'inline', i.e. with text above and below but not wrapped around. This obviously means you have a lot less control of the 'look and feel' of your document. Another drawback of EPUB is that creating the files in the first place is not as straightforward as it should be.


The Kindle format for ebooks is the proprietary format of and is used on their Kindle ebook readers and the matching apps for iPads, tablets and other devices. In practice Kindle ebooks behave very similarly to EPUB ebooks, with content reflowing to match the screen size and the ability to change the font and font size. It also displays images inline, in much the same way as EPUB.

Why produce both EPUB and Kindle versions of your book then? Simply because if you want to make your book available to the very large audience who use Kindles, and particularly if you want to sell your ebook via the Amazon store, you need to produce a Kindle version of your book. For that reason, publishing for EPUB and Kindle usually go hand-in-hand.

Other formats

There are other formats for ebooks including Apple's iBook format (which allows the inclusion of interactive elements and video, but can only be 'read' on Apple computers and devices) and other proprietary formats. But for the most part you can ignore these, particularly when producing your first ebook or other e-document.

There is much more to this topic than can be covered here. Hopefully this has provided an overview and enough information to get you started. If you need further advice or help producing your ebook, feel free to contact me or ask a question in the comments section under this post.

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