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What an eBook File Should Contain

Before I get to the topic of the day, I want to briefly address DRM. eBook consumers HATE DRM. It turns honest customers into criminals as we strip the DRM of digital files to make sure that we can read on the digital device of our choice. It increases the cost of digital publishing. It causes consumer confusion. It is, in my opinion, the number one deterrent of widespread ebook adoption. The FTC is holding a hearing on DRM in March. You can make a comment until February 9, 2009. Please go and make your voice heard. This might be a real opportunity to change ebook reading for the better. COMMENT FORM HERE. [Thanks Jane A for direct link].


I know that ebooks are kind of in a nascent stage to print publishers but it’s not so early in the birth of the digital book that I fail to be surprised by the lack of innovation when it comes to digital book content. I’m not talking the enhanced versions (admittedly not a huge fan of these from Harlequin because they take you out of the book itself) or these video enabled epubs (because no device can yet play them, but yeah for experimenting). I’m talking about adding text files that contain something beyond the book proper.

picture-336In reviewing the comments and emails of other readers and applying my own experience, I’ve come up with the following types of content that MUST be included and then a list that I RECOMMEND be included in every digital book file.   

  1. Color Front Cover. It surprises me that Random House and I think, HarperCollins, does not include the color cover copy of a book. While most dedicated ebook readers are grayscale and not color, the iPhone/iTouch and laptops, netbooks, etc. all have color screens. Further, in the future, when there are color dedicated devices, we don’t want to rebuy the ebook just to get a color front cover. These files should be future proofed.
  2. Blurb. Stanza has created a very nice format which allows you to view the cover and blurb of a book before buying it. Calibre, the free software interface for the Sony Reader, Cybook and now the Kindle (in beta), also allows you to browse your library and read the excerpts, if you include that in the metadata. Readers want to be able to have the information available to a paper reader even after the book is purchased.   There are several reasons for this but one of them is because avid romance readers buy several books at one time and use the blurb to determine what to read next.
  3. Color Back Cover. Again, provide the same content
  4. Table of Contents. This is a must and not all publishers include a linked table of contents, particularly smaller epublishers.   It’s vital for a reader to have a TOC because   it makes it easier for the reader to navigate the book.  
  5. Frontpiece excerpt.   Nearly every paper book has an excerpt from the book placed right inside the cover.   This can help to increase a reader’s interest in reading the book and it can help to jog a reader’s memory about whom is in the book.
  6. Allowance of user formatting.    I understand that some of the joy of a printed book comes in the paper and the type (font) that is used but my guess is that digital readers have less of an emotional tie to those items.   Instead, we want to be able to read the book in the font type, size, and manner that best pleases our eyes.   Amazon uses two different DRM schemes: AZW and TPZ.   The TPZ files apparently allow for font embedding.   The problem with this is that it restricts the readers ability to change the font, it doesn’t adequately take into consideration the differing font size that readers employ, and as one reader at MobileRead noted, some publishers choose terrible fonts for the digital device.

    TOPAZ allows embedded fonts, but the font technology seems to be very crude and the problem with embedded fonts is that some publishers choose truly terrible fonts. See the enclosed screenshot for one example, note the general raggedness of the font and the very narrow descender on the y’s.

  7. Illustrations included in the print version.  While a large scale number of illustrations might be unwieldy at this time, most readers can handle larger files.   Almost every dedicated ebook reader will read a 4 GB SD card.   The iPhone and iTouch have increasingly larger harddrives.   Because of that, the size of the ebook file should not be an immediate deterrent from including graphic images such as maps, diagrams, flowcharts, etc.

Whenever readers in paper get something a digital reader does not, we feel punished or inferior as reader consumers.   Coupled with the already harsh limitations (DRM and lack of resale opportunity), this makes us believe that publishers aren’t interested in courting us as readers.   

The following are items which should be included from a publisher standpoint because it allows for free advertising of other books.   The point is that you want to excercise the reader’s already innate desire to buy more books by equipping them with the information to do so.

  • Clickable link to author’s website.
  • A link to the author’s newsletter.   (This was a suggestion by a commenter at Drollerie Press).
  • Author Biography
  • Author Extras such as a recipe, author’s note, historical background
  • If it is a connected book, the name of the other books and how they are connected and where to buy them (if in eform, if not, tell us that it is print only).
  • Chapter excerpts from the other connected books.
  • Chapter excerpts for books within the same genre.

Thanks for the readers like Lee, Emmy, Mary, Joy, and others who sent me suggestions.   If readers have other suggestions, please drop them below.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Leah Hultenschmidt
    Feb 01, 2009 @ 12:36:53

    I 100% agree about the back blurb. It drives me nuts not to have it in ebooks. Half the time I read a blurb online, figure it sounds good, buy the book, and then a few months later have no idea what the book is or why I made the purchase.

    A note about the cover art – my guess is that the publisher doesn’t have the rights from the artist to use the image for anything but print editions. And getting it is just one more thing that adds to the cost of producing an ebook.

  2. Jane
    Feb 01, 2009 @ 12:39:47

    @Leah Hultenschmidt: RE: cover art. How interesting Leah. I had never even thought of that.

  3. Wanderer
    Feb 01, 2009 @ 12:40:46

    As a big fan of ebooks I couldn’t agree more. Great suggestions – hopefully the powers that be will listen!

  4. joanne
    Feb 01, 2009 @ 13:04:18

    I want to consolidate my thoughts (clean up, take out the curse words, stop spewing, etc.) before I make my comments there but thank you for that link for the DRM hearing.

    I think you may have put it too nicely to say that ebooks are in a nascent stage rather then that the publishers are using a business approach that is well past it’s halcyon days.

    The lack of cover pic bothers me not at all. But absolutely about the cover blurb and what, if any, other books that author has especially in a series. It’s very frustrating and time consuming to have to search for that info — and impossible if you’re away from a computer. It’s all so annoying and I wish the publishers would hand the whole ebook pub thing over to a few 17 year-old hackers to help bring them up to speed.

  5. Bev Stephans
    Feb 01, 2009 @ 13:40:13

    I filled out the FTC comment form. Hopefully, others will too.

  6. Jamie
    Feb 01, 2009 @ 16:43:14

    Oh I so agree with the DRM, it makes me sad that it is keeping the ebook industry from really taking off, but as an author, I understand it too… I mean… if people can just pass around copies of your book like that, then what’s there to make them buy them?

  7. Jane
    Feb 01, 2009 @ 16:55:41

    @Jamie: DRM does not stop file sharing.

  8. MoJo
    Feb 01, 2009 @ 18:07:50

    1. Color Front Cover.
    2. Blurb.
    4. Table of Contents.
    6. Allowance of user formatting.
    Clickable link to author's website.
    Author Biography
    Author Extras such as a recipe, author's note, historical background


    Now, the following we didn’t put in my book (mostly because we didn’t think of it), but it’s not that difficult for me to add them, but we’re small and very flexible:

    7. Illustrations included in the print version.

    Do you mean illustrations as in actual artwork? Unless you do them yourself, getting illustrations and art may be a lot more expensive and troublesome than it’s worth.

    Or maps and flowcharts and tables only? That’s do-able.

    3. Color Back Cover.

    Where do you see this being put? Just after the front cover?

    5. Frontpiece excerpt.
    * A link to the author's newsletter.
    * If it is a connected book, the name of the other books and how they are connected and where to buy them (if in eform, if not, tell us that it is print only).
    * Chapter excerpts from the other connected books.
    * Chapter excerpts for books within the same genre.

    These are great ideas, so thank you! I have long been frustrated by the lack of a blurb at the front of the e-book so I remember why I downloaded it in the first place.

    Bigger publishers aren’t going to be able to re-do their e-book backlists, but they should definitely make it part of their workflow going forward.

    Another thing we are going to do is add snippets and vignettes (outtakes) that didn’t make it into the book. We’re compiling them as we go along and when we get enough, we’ll do a batch. Otherwise, they can be found at the title’s website.

  9. LinM
    Feb 01, 2009 @ 18:56:12

    I’m undecided about some of the features you’ve listed. I read and re-read books long past the initial release date. So, author and newsletter links are often stale; books that seemed related at publication are probably not related in retrospect. These are features that are of interest to readers who keep up with publication schedules. On my part, I would delete them from my ebook files if possible.

    I want most of the metadata fields that you listed: cover, blurb, TOC. In addition, I want both author (first-name surname) and “file-as” (surname, first-name).
    I usually view my library in 2 ways: unread OR genre,author. So the file-as metatdata is very important to me.

    Publishers fall into several camps:
    – the publishers who leave the file-as field blank – totally clueless.
    – the publishers who think that “Kate Smith” should be filed as “Kate Smith” – grow-up
    – the publishers who think that “Kate Smith” should be filed as “SMITH, KATE” – mainframes without lower-case are dinosaurs.

    The recent Fictionwise-Overdrive divorce forced me to catalog my ebooks. The process categorized a number of publishers in my mind:
    – the publisher who includes all of the meta-data flawlessly – Samhain – they’ve joined Baen & O’Reilly on my A list.
    – the publisher who randomly gets author, file-as and publisher wrong. Penguin is stuck in the last century – it amuses me that they often cannot complete the publisher field properly.
    – the publisher who produced ebooks in 2009 without a table of contents. RandomHouse – this is not the way to survive a recession.

  10. Amy R.
    Feb 01, 2009 @ 19:17:28

    The missing back blurb is a pain sometimes, I agree. And I filled out the FTC comment form. Hopefully they come to a good resolution. Maybe DRM is soon a thing of the past…

  11. Heather Massey
    Feb 01, 2009 @ 19:30:44

    Nice bit o’ brainstorming here. Thanks–this is a good resource for consumers.

  12. Julia
    Feb 01, 2009 @ 20:01:18

    I’ve bought many HarperCollins ebooks and they all have included a color front cover.

  13. Keishon
    Feb 01, 2009 @ 21:13:48

    I've bought many HarperCollins ebooks and they all have included a color front cover


    Yeah, well, Random House does not to the bane of many. I wish they would get their act together and get the cover rights (if they don’t own them) because the generic covers annoy me. To no end. You want to attract consumers, not detract them with nonsense like this.

  14. SonomaLass
    Feb 02, 2009 @ 03:04:05

    I’m still reading e-books in Adobe on my laptop, so I’m not exactly an “e-reader” per se. But I do agree with a lot of these ideas.

    Most of my e-books have cover art, and I’d be extremely disappointed if they didn’t. I’d love to have blurbs, because when I download a book on whim, I often don’t remember why later on. A blurb would help, because often the author or title don’t jog my aging memory.

    I have tons of memory, so the size of the files doesn’t bother me, but I know with some devices, that could be an issue. I sure would love to see (being idealistic) a choice of versions — with and without “extras” — so that readers could choose based on their storage capacity and preferences. I have little idea of the technological demands or expense involved here, but with e-documents it seems flexibility should be possible.

    I agree about links and/or excerpts. Sure, sometimes those get dated, but that’s true with print books too. I often read older titles in an author’s backlist, and often there are chapters in the back of MMPs for other releases from that publisher. I’ve found several excellent books that way, even when they were no longer “new.”

    I also really like the idea that e-books can be used for content that wouldn’t be worth creating in print form. One example is Julia Quinn’s “second epilogue” series for the Bridgerton novels. I’m not always a huge fan of epilogues, but I have to admit that it was a lot of fun to be able to download extra chapters about some of my sentimental favorites from that series, years after the first time I read the books, and after I had re-read them all a couple of times each.

    Thanks, Jane, for putting these good ideas together and inviting our input. And thanks for the link to the DRM commentary — I’m off to register those strong feelings right now!

  15. Stuart
    Feb 02, 2009 @ 03:37:10

    Honestly, I’m not fussed about the extras. I rarely (if ever) use a linked TOC, and while a cover would be nice, I’m buying the ebook for the story, so… What _does_ irritate me is when publishers skip out all the extras that come with the print edition, and then charge the same amount (or more) for the e-version. I mean, if we’re not getting the cover image, then why should we pay for it?

  16. Emma Wayne Porter
    Feb 02, 2009 @ 07:29:48

    If you buy from Fictionwise, please be aware that the company does their own file conversions, and limit publishers — to an extent — in what additional content can be added. So the files you buy from Fictionwise may contain fewer bells and whistles than what you would get directly from the digital publisher’s own etail outlet. (No, I am most definitely NOT saying you shouldn’t buy from Fictionwise. I’m saying only that sometime’s we’re better off trimming content to ensure our files aren’t rejected by their system.)

    Also, digital publishers are aware that some platforms just plain support fewer bells and whistles than others, and vary content to suit the file type.

    PDF for PC display is probably the only file type in which a publisher can indulge in WYSIWYG formatting. That file format will usually be loaded to the hilt with toys, though mobile .pdf formats suitable for older Palms, etc, tend to render those files in a truly…wonky matter, being better suited to reflowable text.

    Oddly enough, LPI has been working closely with someone um…outside the publishing world. He’s not seventeen, but knows his xml and will be instrumental in optimizing us for .epub, among other things.

    And yes, the inability to split author names properly drives me insane. We’re looking into Dublin core metas for alternatives, but until conversion programs offer us separate meta fields for an author’s first and last name, we’ll remain stuck in John Smith land.

    Production is always an adventure. Posts like this really do help us figure out what readers want, so please keep them coming. We’re listening.

  17. Azure
    Feb 02, 2009 @ 07:29:49

    @Julia: Harpercollins doesn’t always do it. I could understand if the book is a backlist title, but the cover wasn’t included with SEP’s newest book.

    And may I add my support for the idea of having the back cover blurb included? I was recently reading Julianne MacLean’s When a Stranger Loves Me, in which the hero has amnesia at the beginning of the story. Because of this, he doesn’t know his name, and without the story blurb, I didn’t have a clue who he was, either. I suppose I could’ve looked it up online, but that seems like a bit of a hassle for something that could be easily remedied.

  18. Alain Pierrot
    Feb 02, 2009 @ 08:07:07

    eBooks, at least the copy-protected ones -‘ as DRM merges licence (Digital Rights Expression) and Technical Means of Protection -‘ should have an identified section where the rights and conditions offered to the buyer are explicited, given the present variety of licences.

  19. Julia
    Feb 02, 2009 @ 08:51:05

    @Azure: Interesting. I got a Kindle for my birthday so I bought the latest SEP for the Kindle (and I just checked and the cover on there is not the real cover, and it’s really ugly), but all the previous HarperCollins books I’ve purchased (including several by SEP) have had the real cover in full color. Maybe this is a new problem they are running into?

  20. Azure
    Feb 02, 2009 @ 09:44:16

    @Julia: Maybe it’s different for the Kindle. Because I have an eBookwise-1150, I buy just about all my ebooks in MS Lit format and convert it to RTF.

  21. Julia
    Feb 02, 2009 @ 11:01:05

    @Azure: This was the first HarperCollins book I bought on the Kindle. (Well, second. I also bought the new release of Glitter Baby which also doesn’t have a cover.) Everything previous to that I’ve purchased to read on my laptop, and they’ve all been Adobe.

  22. MaryK
    Feb 02, 2009 @ 13:05:34

    I wonder how many Sony and Kindle buyers understand the potential ramifications of DRM. I expect people who are active online to know but that surely doesn’t include all buyers.

    There’s a Sony 505 for sale on Mobile Read, and the seller says it comes with $50 worth of books (including a Gaiman which is bound to be DRM’d) and 100 classics. Now, I’m thinking that won’t work. Unless s/he didn’t have to register the 505 to get the books, the new owner is going to lose them when s/he registers, right?

  23. ReacherFan
    Feb 03, 2009 @ 15:38:42

    Thank-you! The lack of the back cover blurb drives me nuts! PLEASE – ebook publishers include that back cover and inside page with a hint of what the book is about!

    I only started buying ebooks last year, but being an inveterate reader I’ve already acquired almost a hundred books. So far I’ve given all the ebook readers a pass and stuck with my laptop. I get better buys on ebooks on various publisher sites than through Amazon, plus I can buy one of several formats that way. I stay with pdf – not the prettiest or most booklike, but I can move the files easily enough. Buying yet another dedicated electronic device has very limited appeal to me. Maybe if I choose more ebooks over print I will invest, but frankly, my favorite authors – the long term ‘keepers’ – I’ll buy them in print. I can certainly see the benefits, especially for frequent travelers, but I still like the feel of a book in my hands. Besides, I can easily loan or give away my real books so others can enjoy them, no device needed.

  24. kaigou
    Feb 18, 2009 @ 22:05:30

    Some of the ebooks I’ve bought have TOC — I think, hrm, Torquere and maybe Samhain do it regularly? can’t recall exactly — and that’s not an issue but GAH is it annoying when you’re reading and you’re in that mindset and then suddenly there’s a larger-than-usual, blue, underlined, BOLD, “back to top” link in the file… and sometimes it’s even badly coded such that it’s a half-line below the previous, instead of jumping a few spaces.

    It’s one of those times I wish the epubs would talk to we web-design folk about usability and the importance of making such links available for those who want them, but unobtrusive for those who don’t. Smaller font, forced to be black (instead of blue) and you don’t even really need underline — and I’d push it over the far-right, so it’s out of the direct reading line as I move from end of chapter to the next. Perhaps simply, “click here for table of contents” — that’s enough that if I’m looking for it, then I can find it; if I don’t need it, I can ignore it.

    For that matter, I’d just do a small squarish button in b/w that says “TOC” — and again, over to the right. OR, if chapters have numbers, make those numbers the links back to the TOC. Include an alt (you can do that in PDF) so when my mouse hovers over it, it tells me it goes to the TOC — that’s what I mean by hiding things. Those who’d use such, will read the TOC (or the FAQ) and learn the routine; those of us who don’t care, won’t get jolted by this sudden very-electronic-memento when we’re neck-deep in the written word (non-internet) mindset.

    (Although more to the point, I fail to see why you’d want a link to the TOC when you’re reading the story. Wouldn’t you want the TOC to send you to a spot in the story, but the getting back be of less import? Or is there something in ereaders that lets you mark your place on the TOC such that if you stop somewhere, you need to get back to the TOC to set something? I have no idea; I use Adobe & read on my laptop or desktop.)

    As for DRM, so far I remain in the corner that’s hoping more folks pick up on iTunes’ planned “friendly DRM” where the purchaser’s email & name is encoded somewhere in the PDF. I am a book-giver, and I can name at least six authors who now have hardcore fans because I handed over a book and they liked it enough to buy more from the author. (Plus, sometimes I like to read it myself before I give the birthday gift. Ahem.)

    With friendly-style like iTunes’ idea, I could do that — BUT authors need to have someone they can point to, or else when their work is truly abused, they’re left with no recourse. If an epub finds a book on filesharing, they could apply their algorithm and reveal the original purchaser — and have an identifiable culprit/responsible party for the damages. Because copyright violation *does* have damages, and rightly so, but the current DRM makes me jump flaming hoops just to transfer the file to a new desktop, let alone ever loan out or even give away.

    When I think of it from authorial pov, I’m disinclined to make life so hard for Auntie Marge that she and her romance-reading circle can’t trade books every month — but I do want to be able to nail Cousin Bethie to the wall when she puts up a book on mediafire and tells four thousand of her closest friends about how to download it for free.

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