Demystifying eReaders and eBook File Formats

by Shanna Goodman

I eRead. You eRead. We all eRead.

Maybe you don’t eRead yet, but opportunities to do so abound. So much so in fact that it can be confusing to know how to work it all. Even if you already own an eReader, there are quite a few things to get a handle on in order to fully be able to get the most optimal use out of it.

You don’t even have to own an eReader, though, to be able to read eBooks. Many authors sell eBooks on their websites as PDFs- emailed to you or downloadable immediately after purchase. With simple and free PDF reading software, you can read these documents on your computer. You can also send it to your eReader, if you wish.

There are tons of eReaders on the market (plus tablets like the iPad that have eReading apps, but that will have to be another post). The two that are leading the pack currently are the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes and Noble Nook Color. Read a face-off comparison between these two eReaders here. Wikipedia also takes on this challenge of comparisons  here and addresses the myriad of eReader file formats and which eReaders use which formats. Speaking of which, let’s talk about that.

eReaders and File Formats
The biggest beef that eReader users have is the seemingly closed-off access to books and the lack of a universal eBook format. They all utilize various and differing file formats. For instance, Kindle utilizes Amazon’s proprietary and DRM protected format AZW , but will also support TXT, PDF, MOBI, and PRC.

On the other hand, Nook utilizes PDB, EPUB and PDF. While both devices support PDFs, most retailers don’t offer eBooks for sale as PDFs because of limitations of the format.

If you want to read more about the plethora of file formats, find that info here. I say plethora with italics because there are a lot of them. But, what all of this alphabet soup boils down to is that you can’t buy an Ebook on Amazon and expect to download it to your Nook easily.

While navigating these waters can be a frustration for many, especially those that are new to eReaders or otherwise not well-versed in file formats, you need to know that there are ways around this.

File Format Conversion
You can convert file formats with a free file conversion software called Calibre.  You can upload any of the following formats and convert to any of the other formats listed here: EPUB, FB2, LIT, LRF, MOBI, PDB, PDF, PMLZ,  RB, RTF, SNB, TCR, TXT, TXTZ, ZIP. (There may be other ebook file conversion software, but this is the only one I’m aware of at this time. By the way, I was not paid or otherwise compensated by Calibre for this post).

Calibre allows you to convert eBooks bought from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google Books or elsewhere into the files you need to be able to operate on your eReader. You can download Calibre here. It’s very simple to use- add books to your Calibre library and hit the convert button at the top of screen. Both formats of the eBook will remain in your library.

Getting Your eBooks to your eReader
Now that you’ve converted the file format, you’ll need to be able to get your books to your eReader. You can do this two ways- USB cable or email.

I’ll speak about the Kindle here just to simplify. Plug the USB cable that came with your device into your computer and it will show as a removable device. Drag your eBook to it and make sure it goes into the “documents” folder. When you turn on your Kindle, the eBook will show up on your Home screen.

You can also email the file to your Kindle email address, which is the registered device user’s name To doublecheck the email address, access it by going to your account at, then to the Manage Your Kindle section and then to Manage Your Device. The email address will be listed there. To prevent spam, you can only receive emails to your Kindle email address from pre-approved email addresses that you assign, so you’ll need to do that first.

Additionally, you can send an email to Amazon with “convert” in the subject line and they’ll  convert a PDF eBook to AZW which will allow you to enable features not available in PDF, such as Text-to-Speech. This is somewhat helpful, mostly if you’re just interested in enabling the features as your Kindle will already support PDF. This email process is described in detail in the Kindle User’s Guide, 2nd Edition, so take a look at that for specifics. (You will receive this Guide automatically when you purchase a Kindle).

Happy reading now that you know how to break down the barriers of eBook file formats!

© 2011 Shanna Goodman