Infogrid Pacific-The Science of Information


Introduction to Digital Content Formats

A discussion on the role and place of formats in a complete publisher digital content strategy. Updated: 2012-07-28


The Digital Content Formats Wing of APEX@IGP explores the format processing requirements for a range of formats, devices, packages and their cost and relevance for various publisher business strategies.

It also looks at changing, emerging and alternative formats, and particularly at options for developing markets.

As with all Infogrid Pacific resources, it emphasises the need for digital content to be universal, flexible and dynamic for publisher business to survive and grow. 

The real value of these topics is to explain and demonstrate that if the content is digitized correctly in the first instance, it has unlimited use in multiple formats now, and is ready for whatever the future may bring.

The Problem with formats

The problem with formats is that formats become the production/business fixation. It's like only caring about the paper a book is printed on rather than the value of the content engagement experience.  

Digital content gives publishers the opportunity to change everything about the way they think about their content, use their content, plus the current and future value of that content.

But it doesn't happen. The dialogue is all format related.

How are we going to produce ePub fixed layout for Apple? Our contract says books we deliver to Apple have to be delivered to Amazon. How can we do that? What is the impact of Kindle Fire? We can't ignore standard Kindle our main sales line? What about my language in that reader? I need my content in my five year old proprietary LMS system and as ePubs, and for mobile devices. How? Our customers are demanding interactive e-textbooks. What can we do?

There should only ever be one question. What do I need to do to process my digital content for a particular purpose?

Wrong approach

Currently e-book formats are treated as a variation of print production. As a result producing e-books of quality becomes a format by format wrestling match. Service providers like this situation of course and continue working with, and perhaps extolling, the limited abilities of desktop tools, or perhaps their secret skills and tools.

This approach to the format generation problem quite simply consumes time and money that could be better spent on real business development.

Wrong perspective

Formats are a significant red-herring in digital content production and ownership strategies. New formats are going to emerge (Kindle Fire, ePub3, HTML5); and old formats are going to die (OEB, ePub2, Palm, and many more). But the content will last forever.

Even PDF is subject to format ad-hoc changes. You may need a large print version, and with textbooks a lower page-count version for emerging market budgets.

PDF versions can be required for standard printing and Print on Demand (PoD). Every PoD vendor has different setup and paper requirements.  On top of that Google and Blio turn Online PDFs into custom formats with their own specifications for essentially the same thing. 

Correct outcome

In any given market at any give point in space and time, formats are what ultimately sell. Format generation has a number of complexities that must be addressed, but format specific generation or packaging problems should only be solved once. Not as happens now—every time a book is produced.

The Digital Content Formats Wing attempts to isolate the individual format and package differences, to allow the underlying structured content to be always ready for business.

Defining a format

There are many different formats. A format is basically content in a package, assembled for a particular purpose to matched a particular technology presentation system.

A format is a digital content "end-of-the-road".

You should never try and reused format content to generate another format.

A particular format is an "agreed" package of digital content by which a publisher carries on their business of delivering their digital content to service providers, aggregators, e-retailers or consumers.

In this context it is important to realize that PDF is Just Another Format (JAF), which has to go through a print and physical distribution process instead of a download.

The format Babble

Today the e-book retail formats are ePub and Kindle. (Dedicated "Apps" are an aside in the context of this discussion.)

E-book formats are targeted at various devices. In no particular order: Kindle, Kindle Fire, Sony Reader, Kobo, Nook, iPad and an increasing number of Android ePub reader applications around the developed world market, with alternatives emerging in developing world markets.

This is being made more complex with the so-called fixed-layout variants on formats being added to the mix.

This is what most people think of when you talk about "digital content".

However PDF is just as complex. For example a PDF is used for print, but incompatible variants of PDF are used for Google Search Inside, Blio and for conversion to now outdated SWF flip books. There is no one-size fits all.


ePub is meant to be the lingua franca of e-book format digital content but has of course been somewhat bush-wacked by device manufacturers and their various fixed-layout schemes, DRM schemes and reader system customizations and limitations.

Simple linear reading books have not been the victim of the proprietarization of ePub yet, but with certain parties insisting on typographical design being applied to ePubs this will happen during 2012. Each reading device manufacturer will be offering "unique" features.

Digital content production and format generation would be very easy if every reader used the same screen technology, had the same dimensions, supported the same features and were strictly ePub compliant. Regretfully they are all different presumably because device manufacturers try and position themselves differently from the "competition", and address different types of audiences.

Publishers live in hope that ePub will somehow solve all their problems. The bad news is it wont. It will shortly be adding to your problems in a massive way.

Digital content needs to be delivered in any and every way required to carry on the business of publishing. EPub is great, but there is so much content in a wide range of genres, that demands to be delivered in other formats, and through channels other than e-Retailers.

Technology advances

While the focus is on print and reading devices the reality of digital content engagement is more diverse. We live in a digital content publishing world of websites, emerging web applications, ePubs, proprietary variants of all of those... and print. Add to all this the noise and counter noise of Flash and HTML5 and any publisher has the right to throw their hands in the air.

Everything is changing faster than anyone really wants. So many noisy startups and widget sites want to be the next big thing, while the major technology companies want to crush and rule.

Formats are only a part of the real digital content publishing equation. In mathematical terms they are a variable. Content and powerful tagging strategies are constants. When the various variables are mixed in the correct way with the constants, reliable, outputs are generated.

In closing. Every publisher should be looking at selling their content directly, under their control. That's one more format to worry about!

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