Learn about the advantages and disadvantages of ebook publishing and the different ebook formats in this basic ebook publishing guide 

Ebook publishing is the new buzz word. But what is an ebook?

It is a document that has been formatted for easy reading, converted into specific electronic formats, and then made available online. You, the user, download the ebook off the Internet and use software on your computer, or a hand-held device, to view and read the electronic file. 

But why would you want an ebook rather than a printed book? Printed books are surely easier on the eye and far more comfortable to read in bed! In this article we offer a quick guide to ebook publishing and look at the advantages and disadvantages of going this route.

We also look at the different formats available and who sells them so that you can make the right decision when choosing an ebook publishing and distribution option.

Advantages of ebooks

For readers, ebooks have these key benefits over printed books –

  • They’re cheaper to buy
  • They’re quick to download, with delivery in most cases being instantaneous
  • They have a search function, which makes them easy to navigate when looking for particular information
  • They take little computer space to store and are mobile – wherever your mobile device is, there are your ebooks
  • If you like the ebook, you can buy the more expensive printed version
  • Due to the lower cost of ebooks, there’s less financial loss if you buy a book that doesn’t meet your standards

For authors, ebooks have these benefits over printed books –

  • They’re cheaper to publish
  • Sales and marketing are Internet based, which is cheaper
  • They’re easier to distribute
  • International distribution is much easier and more accessible than for printed books
  • You can test the market before investing in an expensive print run
  • Now you can more easily protect the copying and distribution of your ebook with Digital Rights Management (DRM)

Disadvantages of ebooks

For readers, ebooks have these disadvantages over printed books –

  • Ebooks can be disappointing because any author can publish their own ebook cheaply and easily, resulting in poor quality all round
  • Text formatting is often substandard, for the same reason above, making for a compromised reading experience
  • The reflowable nature of most ebook formats makes book formatting difficult and this can impact on the reader experience
  • It’s harder to share ebooks with friends and family due to DRM
  • E-reading devices need power to operate; no power, no reading
  • With reflowable format non-fiction, it’s hard to gain a sense of priority or hierarchy of information
  • Many readers still believe that nothing beats the feel of a “real” book – paper books offer a superior reading experience

For authors, ebooks have these disadvantages over printed books –

  • Layout and formatting options are very limited for standard ebook formats – the most common formats are best-suited to text-only books such as fiction and simple non-fiction
  • Ebooks requiring specific formatting, such as cookbooks and educational books, can be costly to produce and have limited distribution channels
  • Ebooks are still not popular everywhere and certain areas or communities still prefer printed books
  • Purchasing ebooks through global retailers requires an account and a credit card linked with those retailers – not all customers have access to the internet or a credit card for online shopping
  • Ebooks sold through your own website will not have DRM – so customers could easily distribute the ebook via email or copying


There are a number of ebook formats out there, all  of which require different types of software with which to read them. For those of us who go for the vanilla approach to technology, there are five ebook types that are easy enough to use on all kinds of computers and mobile devices. They are available in reflowable format and fixed layout format. We will explain the formats and platforms most applicable to self-publishing.

Reflowable formats

A reflowable ebook is an ebook in which the content of the book reflows to fit the screen size of the device on which it is being read. The user can also increase or decrease the size of the text to suit their needs.

Because the layout is not fixed, books best suited to a reflowable format are those that have a single-column design, consist mostly of text, and require minimal formatting. Fiction, narrative non-fiction, and single-column non-fiction books work well in this format.

This format is the most flexible as it can be read on any device, even a smartphone. Distribution options, with Digital Rights Management included, are also more abundant. Ebook formats that fall into this category include the ePub and Kindle formats.


This is the ebook format sold by all other online retailers other than Amazon. It is accepted by IngramSpark (distributor), Smashwords (distributor and retailer), Kobo (retailer), Apple (retailer), Barnes and Noble (retailer), Google Play (retailer), and others.

ePub supports colour and can be read by a variety of software, including Adobe Digital Editions, Apple’s iBooks app, and Calibre. A simple online search will pull up other suitable software.

If you have a retailer-specific device, for example an iPhone or iPad (Apple), Nook Reader (Barnes and Noble), Kobo Reader (Kobo), the ebooks are automatically delivered to your device when purchased, and they have DRM-protection built in. To make it easier for customers, many of these retailers also offer alternative ways of reading ebooks sold by them, such as the Adobe Digital Editions (ADE) app. ADE supports DRM-protection.

Other retailers have created apps that you can install on your computers and mobile devices that do the same, such as Takealot.com. When you purchase an ebook from Takealot, you need to download their app to your device, and the ebook will be delivered to your device when you open the app.


Kindle is a name that describes Amazon’s proprietary ebook brand. It includes Amazon’s proprietary e-reading devices and apps. The apps can be downloaded onto any computer or mobile device, whether Mac or PC, iOS or Android. This means that Mac-owning book buyers can still enjoy reading ebooks purchased on Amazon. 

The “Kindle” format actually encompasses three file formats: mobi, azw, and KF8. The KF8 format offers both reflowable and fixed layout support, much like the ePub.

Fixed layout formats

A fixed-layout ebook is one in which the layout remains fixed. In other words, the ebook will look just like its printed counterpart. Books best suited to a fixed layout format are books that have specific layout requirements, such as cookbooks, coffee table books, children’s books, academic or educational books, and so on.

Fixed layout ebooks are more costly to produce and are sold by fewer retailers. Fortunately, three of the main retailers include Apple, Kobo, and Amazon. Fixed layout ebooks are best read on larger devices such as tablets, laptops and desktop computers.

Ebook formats that fall into this category are: Fixed Layout ePub3, Fixed Layout KF8, and PDF. The KF8 is Amazon’s proprietary format, while Fixed Layout ePub3 and PDF are the formats sold by other retailers.

Let’s start with PDF as it’s the most familiar format.


PDF format preserves the layout of your document and is recommended for books in which layout, formatting and design features are important. Interactive links can be added. PDF format is supported on all computers, tablet devices, and certain e-readers such as the Kindle Fire and Kobo eReader. 

Retail support for DRM-protected PDFs is minimal, with Kobo being one of the few self-publishing-friendly retailers who sells them.

PDF is the most affordable format to create. Your files for printing can easily be adapted into a PDF ebook at minimal cost. This format can be read using Adobe Reader and Adobe Digital Editions (ADE), both of which are free software developed and supported by Adobe.

Fixed Layout ePub3

This format offers fewer sales platforms. Retailers who accept fixed layout ePubs include Apple’s iBookstore and Kobo. One can either sell directly through them, or use a distributor like IngramSpark. These are the only two retailers currently supported by IngramSpark in terms of fixed layout ePub distribution.

Fixed Layout Kindle (KF8)

This format is Amazon’s proprietary format that offers fixed layout support and interactivity. Only Amazon sells Fixed Layout KF8. 

DRM protection – what is it?

DRM refers to Digital Rights Management. DRM-protection is a way of preventing book buyers from indiscriminately forwarding the ebook file to those who have not purchased it.

DRM is applied at the distribution level. Because DRM-protection is very expensive, it is not available through every outlet or retailer. Amazon, Apple and Kobo apply DRM to all books they sell, but Smashwords and Publisher.co.za, for instance, do not. The issue of DRM-protection is a somewhat contentious one. Doing an internet search will pull up some of the pros and cons of DRM.

The diagram below shows how ebook distribution works. It also shows the application and unlocking of DRM when a consumer purchases a book.

The consumer purchases the ebook and receives what they think is an ebook, but isn’t. Instead, it’s a coded “voucher” of sorts. When the consumer opens their e-reader and the newly purchased “ebook” is added or synced to their library, the e-reader forwards this “voucher” to the distributor, who then push-delivers the actual book back to the e-reader. This process is usually seamless and happens within a few seconds. The explanation and original concept diagram, which has been redrawn here, was created by Arthur Attwell. With many thanks. 


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