Update, June 27, 2016: While this post appeared years ago—the Sony store is long gone—the basics still apply. The Tower of eBabel still looms over e-bookdom even though the ePub standard has helped.  We are resurrecting the post because so many people are requesting it. D.R.


imageWelcome to TeleRead’s newest contributor, John Schember, a member of the team behind the wonderful Calibre program for managing e-book collections. His bio appears at the end. Calibre is much improved, and I myself am in the middle of Calibre-izing my own collection. The screenshot showing titles is from me—don’t blame John for any of the reading choices. – D.R..

imageE-book readers are becoming more and more common. Two of the most popular today are the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader line.

Unfortunately the two different brands don’t read the same kinds of e-books. This mess is like the one in the music world where you might find such formats as WMA, MP3, and AAC. In e-books, the same confusion exists—the Tower of eBabel, as some call it.

image If you are only buying from the store designed for your reader—for example, Amazon’s Kindle Store or Sony’s Reader Store—you don’t need to worry about any of this.

But there are a very good reasons why you should know about the major formats, what you reader supports and how to convert between formats.

Many Web sites offer legal and often free books. Everything from public domain books to well known and less known authors. Also, you can shop for the best prices at a number of small independent e-book stores.

Often you can download these e-books in a variety of formats, but you won’t always find them in the format your e-book reader supports. Here is where conversion comes in. There is a very good chance that you will be able to take an e-book and convert it to a format your reader supports, at least if the book doesn’t use Digital Rights Management, anti-copying technology.

In the rest of this article I will focus on (1) the Kindle which supports the Mobipocket format, aka MOBI, and (2) the Sony Reader line (the PRS machines like the PRS-600), which supports the EPUB format. Conversely, the Kindle does not support the EPUB format, and the Sony line does not support the Mobipocket format. The Nook, the new reader from Barnes and Noble, can read EPUB, the same format as the Sony although there are now some catches with DRMed books.

Why are there different e-book formats?

Just why do so many different formats exist? Advances in technology? In fact, that’s a major reason. Just like the transition from VHS to DVD and now to Blu-Ray, older formats which were created to solve the problems faced at that time are replaced with newer formats that better meet need of today. A great example of this is the old books people read back in the 90’s on their PDAs. Those devices were very limited in what they could display. E-readers today are much more advanced. They can display large images, and handle advanced formatting. These newer devices needed formats that can provide these features.

Another major reason is exclusivity. Many vendors like to have and control their own formats so they are not dependent on outside companies. They also have the benefit of being able to license their format for use by others. This also allows them to lock users into their platform. E-books, being relatively new, are undergoing the same growing pains that Betamax and VHS or HD-DVD and Blu-Ray went though. The EPUB format, from the International Digital Publishing Forum, is an industry standard intended to reduce these problems.

Tools for conversion

Many easy-to-use tools exist for converting e-books. For Kindle users, the Mobipocket Desktop is a good choice. Amazon also provides a conversion service that allow you to email them e-books which they will convert and send directly to your Kindle.

Not to leave Sony users out in the cold, there is a more general tool that can convert between a large number of formats. Calibre supports the Kindle, the Sony PRS line, the Nook and a large number of other devices. It is is a full e-book management application that can organize your e-book library, handle automated news downloads from a number of sources, and convert between a large number of e-book formats. It is a one stop, all in one tool.

In addition to the above tools there are a number of harder to use, specialized programs. I’m not going to touch on those but they do exist.

Conversion basics

The first thing you need to do is find out what formats your e-book reader supports. The Kindle supports AZW, MOBI, PRC, AZW1, TPZ, TXT. The PRS line from Sony supports EPUB, LRF, LRX, RTF, PDF, TXT. Don’t let this scare or confuse you; all of the major e-book readers support multiple formats. Even with this jumble of letters, you only need to worry about the preferred format for the reader. This special format is the one that gives the best formatting. As I mentioned earlier for the Kindle, you really only need to worry about Mobipocket (MOBI), and for the Sony Reader line (PRS) you only need to worry about EPUB (same for the Nook). However, it is a good idea to be aware of all of the supported formats because it wouldn’t make sense to convert an AZW to MOBI for reading on your Kindle because the Kindle can already read AZW books. Conversion is only necessary to fill in the gaps. Meaning you want to read an EPUB file on your Kindle so you convert it to MOBI.

Downloading Calibre

You can download Calibre here with your Firefox, Internet Explorer or other browser. Versions exist for Windows, OS X and Linux. Calibre has an easy-to-use Welcome Wizard to help new comers get up to speed. Just answer the Wizard’s questions.

Using Calibre to convert

imageimageUsing Calibre to convert is very easy. Plug in your e-book reader. Open Calibre and click the “Add books” button on the top left. Select your book. Click open. Select your book in the library list. By now Calibe should have detected your e-book reader. Click “Send to device” in middle of the top toolbar. Calibre is smart enough to know if the book is in a format supported by your reader. If it’s not, it will ask you if you want to auto convert it. Say yes, and it will take care of the conversion and put the book on your reader. That’s all there is to it. Doing it is easier than it sounds because all you need to do is select the book you want on your device and clicking “Send to device.” Calibre worries about the formats and converting for you.

More robust conversion

image Auto conversion is the easiest way to go and in most cases will be all you need to do. However, there are a few options that allow control over conversion process. Before starting the conversion process, it is a good idea to verify and correct the metadata for the book. The metadata is information about the book such as title, author, series and what not. After adding a book click the “Edit meta information” button. Fill in the title and author or the ISBN (it is better to use the ISBN for the paper or hard back version than the e-book’s ISBN). Then click “Fetch metadata from server”. This will pull in all kinds of information about the book. If there is no convert image next to the metadata entry or if it is a generic image it is a good idea to click “Download cover”.

image Now that the metadata is all correct, click the “Convert E-books” button. This screen looks very complicated but realize that the majority of options here are best left alone. Most of the options only need to be changed on a are per book and in special cases basis. There is one option that is very important and may need to be changed. At the top right there is a drop down for “Output format.” This control what format the conversion will result in. Kindle owners will want to select MOBI and Sony and Nook owners will want to use EPUB.

imageimage In the conversion dialog there are a few things to check before clicking “OK” which begins the conversion. The first thing you need to do is double check the metadata and make changes if necessary. Click on “Look & Feel” on the left and side. The “Remove spacing between paragraphs” option is a popular option. It will cause paragraphs to be formatted with a indent at the beginning instead of separating them with a blank line. Basically it makes the result look more like a printed book than the default which looks more like a web page.

image Next click “Page Setup” which is the first item under “Look & Feel”. When you installed Calibre if you didn’t select your device in the welcome wizard you should select it here. The input and output profiles provide specialized turning for the specified device. Be aware that not all formats are affected by the profile.

image That’s it for the basic conversion options. Every option in the conversion dialog has a description of what it does when you put the mouse over it. Look though the options and play with them to produce output that suits your taste.

Click “OK”, the dialog will close and the conversion will begin. Look at the bottom right of the screen at the “Jobs” indicator. When it spins that means Calibre is working. Clicking it will show what is being worked on.

When the conversion is finished the jobs count will drop to zero and the indicator will stop spinning (unless there are more jobs pending). Once the conversion is finished click the downward facing arrow to the right of the “Send to device” button. Select the one of the “Send specific format” options (main memory is usually the best choice). A dialog will appear asking you which format you want to send. Select the format you just converted the book to.

Limitations of conversion

Converting between e-book formats does have some limitations. One limitation using a tool like Calibre is the inability to edit the book before conversion. Calibre simply moves the content and formatting from one format to another. It is not a editing tool. If there are typos in the text, you will need to use a dedicated editing tool such as Sigil or Book Designer.

Another issue to that often arises is missing formatting. Not all e-book formats support the same formatting. It can be lost when converting to a format that supports limited or no formatting. Basics like bold and italics will be preserved in most cases but complex page layout may not be. MOBI and EPUB both support complex formatting so you won’t have to worry about this when using these formats.

Finally converting will only shift what the input provides into another format. It will not add anything that was not already in the input to the output. So if the input is poorly formatted, the output will be too.

PDBs they are not all created equal

This is of particular importance to Barnes and Noble Nook owners. Barnes and Noble sells books in the PDB format (along with EPUB) and as you might expect it is supported by the Nook.

PDB is not really an e-book format. It is a container for e-book formats. Think of it like a zip file. You put other files into a zip file so you only have to worry about having one file instead of many. That is what PDB essentially does for e-books. There are 28 e-book formats that can be put into the PDB container that I know of.

An e-book reader like the Nook which supports PDB does not support all the possible formats that can be within a PDB file. The two most common formats found in PDB files are PalmDoc (also known as textread and Aportis) and eReader. PalmDoc does not support any formatting or images. eReader supports basic formatting and 8-bit images. The PDB files sold by Barnes and Noble are in the eReader format.

DRM the bane of conversion

DRM, as noted, stands for Digital Rights Management.

Let’s think about physical books for a moment. With a physical book, you can lend, and sell that book. But when you do either, you have to go without the book. With e-books, that is not the case. E-books are just files on the computer and they can be copied any number of times and given away any number of times. DRM is designed and was created to prevent unlimited copying of an electronic file (although some e-book users would also note that it is a handy way for companies to try to lock them into specific brands).

DRM affords different books various rights as determined by the publisher and seller. Some can be read on more than one device. Some will allow for partial copying and printing. Simply put, DRM restricts what you can do with an e-book.

Any e-book with DRM cannot be converted to a different format. This is because conversion itself would require the removal of the DRM. Not all e-book formats support DRM and different e-book formats support different sets of privileges granted by the DRM. There is no way to move the DRM with the content when converting; thus DRM prevents conversion.

You might be tempted to look for some way to remove DRM from e-books in order to facilitate conversion. A word of warning about doing this: In the USA there is a law known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). This law makes it illegal to circumvent a copy protection system (DRM). It also makes it illegal to produce tools, distribute tools, and aid in circumvention. Not everyone lives in the USA, but many countries have similar laws. Check your local laws and realize that even though you my may only want to read an EPUB book you’ve legally purchased on your Kindle, it may not be legal to do so. If you’re don’t like this silliness—and I don’t—then speak up to whoever in your country makes the relevant laws.

John’s bio: “I have a bachelors in Sociology with a minor in Anthropology from Arizona State University. I contribute to the Calibre e-book application and maintain a number of input and output formats. I also actively work on the device infrastructure and anything else that catches my interest. I have a few e-book readers but prefer the Cybook Gen 3. I mostly read fantasy and some science fiction. But I do enjoy the classics.”