≡ Menu

What Every Author Needs to Know About eBooks


[dropcap style=”default, circle, box, book”]Y[/dropcap]ou’re an author. Maybe you’ve been published by a traditional publisher. Maybe you’re an idie author who’s used print-on-demand services. Or, maybe you’re a new author who wants to go straight to ebooks because of the simplicity.

EBooks are different than tree books in ways that you need to consider as an author. We’ll take a look at

  • Tree books are about layout, eBooks are about content
  • A brief look at the history of eBooks
  • Keep it simple
  • Marketing

Tree books are about layout – eBooks are about content

[dropcap style=”default, circle, box, book”]I[/dropcap]f you were published before, you learned about fonts, typeface, layout on the page, sizes of text, putting images in the text, etc. You want to forget all of that. If you’re new, you don’t need to learn.

Why? Because tree books (print books) are something real you can hold in your hand. They are physical ink printed on physical paper. What you see is what you get. Tree books are about layout and design plus control by the author.

EBooks are not real. They are a bunch of 1s and 0s in a computer file, and those 1s and 0s suggest to your eReader what to display on the screen. Ereaders, however, are just like people. Sometimes they do what they’re told to do, and sometimes they don’t. The easiest way to avoid problems is to keep the eBook simple. Ebooks are about content plus control by the reader.

Because of this difference, ebooks:

  • Have no pages
  • Probably won’t display the typeface you wanted
  • Can do numbered lists (such as this one) but don’t do charts well.
  • Won’t display images properly except as what are called “inline images.”

A history of eBooks

[dropcap style=”default, circle, box, book”]L[/dropcap]et’s take a brief look at the history of eBooks, and you’ll see why things are as they are.

Back in the 1960s, computer engineers at our leading universities, Stanford, MIT, Georgia Tech and others, along with the U.S. Government sought to have their large, mainframe computers communicate with each other. At the time, computers often had unique operating systems so that everything about them was different. Many did not have a display – they only communicated with humans by printing on a tape or a long roll of paper.

One of the first things the engineers had to do was come up with a common set of characters that all computers would recognize. They established the American Standard Code for Information Interchange – luckily for us the acronym ASCII (pronounced ass-key) is used. Here’s what it looked like. (You can click on any of the images in this article to enlarge them.)



You’ll notice what they thought was important – scientific symbols, math symbols, numerals, capital letters and lower case letters. There were no italics, bold, Times New Roman, Helvetica or any other font face. The engineers, in those days of slow computers and slow connections, were only interested in information – not in pretty.

By the early 1970s, they had the system working pretty well. I remember a friend who was an EE major at Georgia Tech taking me to the computer lab in 1971. He needed a document that was on a computer at Stanford. He had programmed the Georgia Tech computer to locate and print out the document. It was an amazing thing to see back then. The computer printed out a document on a roll of paper. My friend rolled it up like a scroll.

By 1971, the system was working well enough for Michael S. Hart to envision free books on computers. He began Project Gutenberg. Volunteers typed old, no longer copyrighted works in ASCII code and made them available on computers around the country. If you want a date for the beginning of eBooks – 1971 is probably it. Project Gutenberg was so successful, it lives on today as a website, gutenberg.org, and you can download books in many electronic formats.

Those early eBooks were not pretty – they were just blocks of text, but the information was all there.


For about 20-years, engineers worked on improving computers, getting them into homes and offices, and increasing communication speed. The next big development in eBooks came along in 1992, when Tim Berners-Lee invented the web browser. The web browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera, etc.) is a program on your computer that interprets and displays another of Berners-Lee’s inventions – HyperText Markup Language, or HTML.

HTML uses the ASCII characters and adds commands that tell the web browser how to display the text. Here’s how an early website looked:

You’ll notice there is more formatting in the early web pages than in plain ASCII text. The above example has three font sizes as well as bold text. Italics were also available.

Web browsers could also display images, and by 1996, people were taking advantage of this feature. Here’s a website that’s still online that looks exactly as it did in 1996.

Also in 1996, there was another important development in the history of eBooks. The Palm Pilot, as it was know then, was released. It was a small, hand-held device that used apps much like today’s smart phones. One of the apps used HTML and ASCII to display documents, and people began to use the Palms for reading.


In 2000, a European company called Mobipocket developed software that would take advantage of the Palm’s app and display a book on the device. Many books were converted to display on the Palm, and reading books became one of the most popular uses of the Palm. But Mobipocket went farther. They also released software, called Mobipocket Creator. Authors could download the software free, and if they had enough patience, they could convert their own books to ebooks that would display on the Palm. Mobipocket also set up a website where authors and publishers could upload and sell their books, and readers could buy them. Thousands of books were available. The modern eBook was born.


In 2005, Amazon took notice and bought Mobipocket – software, website, books and all. In 2007, Amazon released the first Kindle, which read the Palm books, and put on sale the thousands of books they bought from Mobipocket.


At about the same time, Adobe and other software companies, began work on their own eBooks using a format that has become the epub format. You can think of the two formats, .mobi for Kindle and .epub for everyone else as something like Macs and PCs. They are two different machines that use different software, but in the end, you wind up with the same thing – a readable book.

Keep it simple

[dropcap style=”default, circle, box, book”]W[/dropcap]ith a tree book, being about layout, you can get fancy.  With an eBook, being about content, it’s best to keep things simple.  One reason, and this surprises people who are new to eBooks,  is that eBooks do not have pages.

EReaders allow the person reading the book to select the font size that’s easiest for that person to read.
Here’s a Kindle Fire set to Font Size 1 – and a screen of text at that size.

Font1Panel FontSmall

Here’s the Kindle set to Font Size 11, followed by a look at the screen with that size font. You can see the extreme difference in the number words displayed on a given screen. The text flows from screen to screen, and the author has no control what appears where on the screen. Remember, an eBook is about content – not control by the author.


Font11You can see the tremendous difference in the number of words visible at one time.  As author, you have no control over this, so save yourself some trouble and don’t worry about it.  It’s important to think of an eReader as displaying a “screeen” instead of a “page.” You might also think of the entire eBook as a scroll instead of a stack of pages. Remember that long scroll of paper the Georgia Tech computer printed out?

Additionally, different eReaders have different fonts built in, and will generally display only those fonts. (There is a way to make them display other fonts, but it’s usually not worth the effort.) It would be too simple for different makes of eReaders to display the same fonts. Even within Amazon’s line of Kindles, the built in fonts vary from model to model. Realize that most people using an eReader pick a favorite font and set up their device to display all books in that font. Again, the reader has control of the appearance of the book – not the author.

Then there’s the Mac issue. Both the Mac and the iPad can display an ebook as a two-page spread. That gives yet another look that the author needs to remember, but can’t control.


Ebooks use HTML code and ASCII characters. Here’s a little bit of code.



You can see the “Chapter One” and the book’s text. They are surrounded by words in angle brackets <…>. The words in brackets are commands that tell the eReader how to display the text. And here’s how it looks – from the Amber Adams book “Above The Fold.”


Unfortunately, eReaders are much like people. You tell them what to do, through the HTML commands, and sometimes they do what you expect, and sometimes they don’t.

For that reason, it’s probably better to keep things simple. Remember that the reader has probably already picked out a font and will read the entire book in that font. You’d be best to limit your type to

  • Regular text
  • Bold text
  • Italic text
  • Bold italic text

If you limit your typefaces to this list, you can be sure it will display as you intend.

Numbered lists (or bullet lists ) are built into the eBook standard, so they are easy to include. In “Bottom Line: Manners Matter” author Laura Mathewson understood that readers have shorter attention spans now, so she used numbered and bulleted lists to make an effective presentation.


Also, consider that color does not cost extra, as it does in tree books. In The Infrared Dead, author Michael R. Warren chose to make his chapter titles Red.

Charts, however, have to be made into graphics. You have to be careful with these, because the eReader screen is rather small. You have to be sure a chart (graphic) can be read on the small screen

In tree books, images can be set anywhere on the page. But, as we’ve seen, in eBooks, a page is fluid, so an image may not display where you want. The way to avoid a problem is to place the image “inline.” That means you have a block of text, then an image as a separate “paragraph” then continue with text, if any.
The above image is set “inline” and would work as well in an eBook as it does on this page.

Relax and let me proof your book

In children’s chapter books, images can be used in the same way. Include the images as inline images, and they display with no problem. Children’s picture books are more complex. You can click here for my article on children’s books.

With poetry, the layout is frequently a significant part of the poem – such as this poem about a cat.


That kind of layout simply can’t be reproduced reliably by an ebook. You can, however, set text to the left margin, or to the right margin, or center the text.


[dropcap style=”default, circle, box, book”]A[/dropcap]nother thing to consider is marketing. Even if you’re published by a traditional publisher, you will need to market your book yourself. The way you organize the content of your ebook can help with that. Consider Arliss Ryan’s “Sanctuary.” Here’s the Amazon sale page.
Note that, at the top of the image of the cover, it says “Click to Look Inside.” Amazon allows a potential reader to look at approximately 10% of your book. That’s a great marketing opportunity for you, the author, and you should take maximum advantage of it.


How? By making sure all of the free look space contains stuff that will make the potential buyer into a buyer. In a tree book, the Table of Contents and the Copyright pages are near the front. Will these pages help you sell your book? Probably not, so move them to the back of the book. If you are writing some kind of technical book, or travel book, perhaps the Table of Contents will give the potential buyer important information. In that case, leave the TOC in front.

Arliss had written other books before “Sanctuary” so we put some of the blurbs at the front of her new book.


Many times, though, it’s best to just start with the first chapter and let the potential buyer by drawn in by your writing.

Check the section on this site called “Publishing and Promotion” for more marketing ideas.

That wraps it up. Ebooks are different than tree books, but by changing your expectations, you can successfully publish in this new way. Good luck.