Should Publishers Invest in E-book Development?


Many years after the first e-books appeared, a large number of publishers are still in the dark over the numerous factors that they must consider before investing in digital book (or e-book) development. This paper attempts to shed some light on some of these factors.

Let us start by listing what makes an e-book different from printed books. This exercise is important because it not only points to a change in the way that publishers should think about, and manufacture, e-books, but also because it points to a change in the way in which books are read.

This article is for publishers who wish to make, or confirm, decisions on e-book development and distribution. The goal of the document is to highlight the important factors that determine investments in e-book development.


  1. Are read primarily on computer and mobile screens
  2. Are stored on digital devices. This renders them rather intangible. Just as storage of printed books involves investments in space, storage of e-books involves investment in ‘digital space’
  3. Like printed books, e-books too are susceptible to pilferage and spoilage
  4. Once prepared, e-books cost nothing to ‘copy’. This fact has several ramifications:
    1. Consequently, customers feel that e-books should cost lesser than printed books
    2. Illegal copying (and distributing) of e-books is an inexpensive exercise.

From the above points, it is easy to see that digital book development needs an approach different from that used for printed book development.

Devices and Formats:

E-books are ‘read’ on devices. These devices include e-readers, which are used only for reading e-books, or tablets or smartphones, which , while used for other purposes also, facilitate reading of ‘ebooks’ through computer applications, called apps. Examples of e-readers include the Kindle™, the Kobo™, and the Nook™. Examples of apps that facilitate e-book reading are many. In some cases, e-reader manufacturing companies have developed apps, like the Kindle app for smartphones and tablets.

Many devices allow users to purchase e-books using the device itself. This device is then the only device on which these e-books can be read (see the section on DRM for further explanation of this point).

It is important to note that while the content of the e-book may the same, they are developed in different ways, called formats. Many devices (and apps) are structured to allow only certain formats to be read. For example, the Amazon Kindle™ will only read the .azw format, while the Kobo™ will only ‘support’ the .epub format. When publishers have limited resources to invest in digital books, the challenge before them is to decide which format they should invest in.

The major file formats currently in use are:

Format Pros Cons Can be read on:
  • Can include fonts, videos, audio clips, etc.
  • Can be tagged with file specific information (metadata)
  • Can be read on most devices
  • Has weak security built around it, making it easy to copy and share
  • Not particularly good for small screen reading
  • Not recognized as an e-book format by many vendors.
Almost every device including personal computers, most readers, tablets and smartphones
  • Uses technology similar to that used for websites, making them easy to develop
  • New technologies allow inclusion of video and audio clips
These files are “rendered” differently by different readers and apps making their appearance inconsistent across devices Almost all readers and apps except the Amazon Kindle. Some common readers include the Nook and the Kobo.
  • Amazon’s own (proprietary) format. Hence files developed in this format will render without error on the Amazon Kindle
Other readers do not support this format. The Amazon Kindle and the Kindle app, and on others like the Apple Ipad. The Kindle is used more than any other reader globally.
Note: Files developed in the MOBI format are converted into the AZW format by the Kindle before they are read. Hence these two formats are discussed together.

There are other formats also used, which are not discussed here. Any format, including a text file, that allows a book to be read electronically is an e-book file format. However, every format has its limitations. For example, one cannot use multiple fonts or display images in a text file. Hence it is important to choose a file format with the end goal in mind.

When contacted by vendors, publishers will hear a lot about the XML format for e-books. While not used in itself as an e-book, developing a book in the XML format allows special software to then “reflow” this book into other formats, including a print-ready PDF file. XML (which stands for eXtensible Markup Language) can define, via what are called schemas, how the text and images should be stored for easy retrieval and flow into other formats. For this reason, many publishers prefer to develop e-books in XML format, that can be then re-configured for other purposes.

A casual study of the book market suggests that a large percentage of e-books are developed in the .mobi format. This is primarily because Amazon provides self-publishing services to a large number of customers, and, as part of these services, develops e-books in their own .mobi format alone. However, by choosing to develop in just one format because it is popular, a publisher runs the risk of excluding all other readers who prefer other formats. On the flip side, developing costs increase with every new format that the publisher chooses to develop in.

Often during discussions with vendors, publishers will hear of the “fixed-layout format”. This format is recommended for books where images have to be placed in a specific position relative to the text, as in a children’s picture book, or a cookbook. The “fixed-layout format” is not a separate format by itself, rather a subset of other formats.

Support for Indian Languages:

The absence of “unicode fonts” (rather, “unicode-compliant fonts”, which ensure consistency in the way characters and symbols appear across various devices) for many Indian languages has hindered the development of e-books that are truly cross-platform (i.e. those that can be viewed in the same manner on all devices). Indian language publishers must therefore ensure that the e-books they develop are developed in fonts that can be viewed in the same manner across most, if not all devices.

The absence of Unicode fonts has also prompted some device manufacturers to refuse support for certain Indian languages, like Kannada. This means that, while readers may or may not be able to read Kannada texts on such devices, the Amazon Kindle in this case, the device manufacturers will bear no responsibility for texts that cannot be accurately read.


Metadata is the data that publishers record to catalogue their books and ensure that they can be found by readers searching for them. Meta Data will not only include the title, author and ISBN for the book, but will also include other information, like important keywords within the book, names of important characters in the book, and other such information.

Metadata is usually recorded and shared using MS Excel sheets or in the ONIX format, which records this data at a granular level to meet the needs of buyers, readers, distributors, retailers and other such stakeholders in the book chain.

For more information on metadata, follow this link.

The importance of metadata cannot be emphasized enough and publishers must pay as much attention to it as to the development of digital books.

Digital Asset Management Systems (DAMS):

Digital Asset Management Systems (DAMS) is software you can buy from a vendor or develop yourself that will allow you to manage your digital book collection and provide meta data in the ONIX format. Note that these systems are expensive to develop, so feel free to choose or develop one with enough functionality to meet your needs.

Digital Rights Management (DRM):

Simply put, DRM, allows publishers to control who can read and access their digital books. In other words, it prevents unauthorized viewing, or piracy.

DRM costs money to implement and adds to the cost of the book, and while many publishers have invested the money and implemented DRM to protect their books, many others have taken a different approach and made their books DRM-free.

The way DRM is implemented varies widely. There is “social DRM”, where unauthorized viewing is not prevented, rather the origins of the file are recorded. This is done by registering the buyer, for example, through the use of a watermark, or some similar tracking mechanism. In case of illegal sharing, this information is then used to track the origin of the file.

As opposed to social DRM, “Hard DRM” prevents the viewing of an e-book altogether, if the copy in question is deemed illegal. This has prompted a backlash from genuine buyers, when they, for instance, would like to share a book they have purchased legally with family or friends, or would like to view the book on a device different from the one used to purchase the book. The jury is out on the use of DRM and publishers should consider all issues before implementing DRM for their digital books.

Royalties and Contracts:

Author contracts these days specifically mention the royalty rates for e-book sales. While the actual royalty rate is left to the publishers and the author to discuss and decide, the general agreement is that authors should receive at least half of the net proceeds from sale of e-books.

Many contracts also state the retail price for the e-book, or its price in relation to the printed book. Publishers must consult the websites where they intend to retail their books, for guidelines on how these e-books will be priced (as these prices often depend on the price of the printed versions).

While deciding to develop e-books, the publisher has to decide whether to develop going forward, or whether backlists will be converted into e-books also. The contracts have to be revisited in the latter case, to ensure that there is no ambiguity and that the authors have agreed to such conversion. The publisher also needs to take a pragmatic view on which books from among the backlist are converted to digital books. Conversion is an expensive process, so the publisher may decide to a) convert only selected books, or b)convert all books into e-books in the PDF format, which is a relatively cheaper format to convert to.

Make or Buy:

The main goal of this paper is to educate publishers in the process of digital book development so that they can decide whether to develop these books in house or outsource them to 3rd party developers. In the case of the latter, the publisher must specify the formats in which the books must be developed, and ensure that metadata is properly recorded for each book. Developing the books in house implies creating an IT team, if one does not already exist, or developing the competencies required for digital book development in an existing IT team.

Whether you choose to develop your books in house or have development outsourced, it is important for publishers to know exactly what they want, communicate their needs, and ensure that the books are delivered according to specifications.

While publishers will track sales based on already established practices, it might be a good idea to track the sales of each format of a title, and thus establish if a particular format is profitable or not.

At the beginning of every decision-making process, find and discuss the international standards that must be adhered to. These could relate to metadata standards, file formats, XML schemas, catalogue distribution formats, prices, DRM decisions, and so forth. If publishers do not follow generally accepted standards, they run the risk of locking themselves out of future opportunities to integrate with new sales channels.

Publishers are advised to consider developing their e-books in the epub and/or azw(or mobi) formats if they wish to take advantage of complex e-book retail systems, and in fact invest in e-book development. Paying vendors money to develop PDF versions of your printed list is both a waste of time and fetches little returns.


Ideally, a different ISBN must be assigned for each e-book format i.e. the ISBN for the PDF version must be different from that for the epub version of the same title. It has been observed that a few publishers assign the same ISBN to different e-book formats of the same title. This practice defeats the objectives of an unique ISBN number.

The print and e-book workflow is basically the same as explained in the diagram below.

The PDF mentioned in the above diagram refers to the print-ready PDF and not to the PDF digital book format.


A quick search on the Internet for “e-book aggregators” or “e-book sales platforms” will provide you a list with companies that allow you to sell your e-books on their platforms. Many publishers have also developed their own websites, that facilitate the sale of their e-books.

Some of these aggregators offer to convert publishers’ lists into e-books and sell them on their own, proprietary, platforms. Often these are exclusive arrangements i.e. while they will bear the cost of conversion, the e-book will be available for purchase on their platform alone. Often, the publishers are not given copies of the e-book file in such a case. Selling on another platform is either prohibited or involves incurring the cost of development.

Some of the well known e-book aggregators / online retailers are:

We also allow the sale of different e-book formats on our own online platform:

Global Trend

A quick Google search indicates that there is a stagnation in e-book sales globally. Nonetheless, many publishers are investing in e-book development, at least for a few titles. The decision to invest in e-books is purely a business consideration, and must take into account the genre of books, the readership for a particular title and the price at which the e-books are sold. A cookie-cutter approach will not work in the case of e-book development.

In Conclusion:

In this article we have attempted to enumerate for publishers the various factors that impact e-book development. We hope this article will be of use to them while they consider investing in developing digital content for their establishments.