Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Most Popular Ebook Formats Revealed

Which ebook formats are the most popular?

Once year ago, we tackled this question in my post, Why Multi-Format Ebooks Matter, by analyzing about 50,000 Smashwords downloads.

In preparation for my Ebook Revolution presentation with Dan Poynter this Saturday at the The San Francisco Writer's Conference, I decided to do an update on the survey, this time analyzing a Smashwords sample of approximately 100,000 full ebook downloads from January 1 - 31, 2010.

For last year's survey, we were pleasantly surprised how handily EPUB beat out PDF.

The results this year surprised me again. I incorrectly assumed PDF would drop further from its #2 spot in last year's survey. Instead, PDF was #1 as the preferred format for 35 percent of downloads.

Of course, that also means 65 percent of readers prefer a format other than PDF.

I've been preaching for a couple years how I think PDF is a horrible, inflexible (can I say "suffocating"?) format for reading straight form narrative, since it lacks reflowability and therefore doesn't allow the reader to customize the font size, font style or line spacing. Oh, I should note that an author with 30 years publishing experience recently lectured me about how PDFs offer customized font selection. "It's call the zoom button!" he told me. Okay, whatever. If that feature satisfies him, so be it.

I believe in giving readers what they want, and our survey indicates PDF is a preferred format for one third of them. Why? I can posit of a few reasons:
  1. PDF is the one of the best formats for books where layout is critical to the readability and enjoyment of the book.
  2. PDF is universally supported on most PCs and many ebook reading devices. While the reading experience may suffer from the aforementioned limitations, at least you know it'll work.
  3. PDF is a familiar format. Some percentage of readers still believe that "PDF = Ebook," end of story.

We crunched some other interesting data for the panel as well.

  • Interested to know how much customers will pay on the honor system if offered our "Pay what you want" option? How many of them will pay?
  • At what prices will an ebook earn the author or publisher the greatest total sales (price * units sold)?
I'll reveal one of them tomorrow, and will save the other as an exclusive treat for attendees at the San Francisco Writer's Conference.


Vicki said...


Thanks, Mark.

Richard Sanders said...

Most of us won't be in SF this Saturday, so can you give us the answer to #2? Otherwise, excellent post!

Tracy Falbe said...

Your survey agrees with my internal records pretty well with the formats I sold through my websites. PDF remains a strong format choice. The epub is rising. I actually sell more .pdb than it looks like you do. All of my formats sell a little, so I haven't dropped any choices.

Scott Marlowe said...

For me, Kindle format is best since I own a Kindle, but PDF is my next best choice since it's one of the easier ones to convert to AZW (Kindle) format.

Mark Coker said...

@Richard, yes, definitely. I'll blog it here too, probably Saturday, Sunday or Monday. The interesting initial finding... there's more than one magic price point. Very curious. Definitely deserves further study on our end in the months ahead.

eoinpurcell said...


It strikes me that something else might be happening with PDF.

New ebook entrants don't know epub and dislike txt and sure as hell don't know mobi.

Thus by default they trust and like pdf, a reading format they see in their work lives and home lives.

Of course these folks mostly read on pcs and laptops. They probably lack a dedicated device that would enable the fancy functions of some other formats.

Once they move to devices they may well shift more towards epub and other formats. But this is just a guess!

On a personal note I like the lack of reflow on pdf, feels more book-like to me, I can't reflow a page in a paperback can I!

All the best,
PS Great to meet you in person @ DBW

Mark Coker said...

Interesting perspective, Eoin. Leave it to someone with a professional publishing background to appreciate the integrity of a printed page. :) I admit, my perspective is somewhat skewed because the novel my wife and I wrote was born digital and has yet to grace a printed book page (I'm working on it, though print formatting is so much more difficult than ebook formatting!).

Great to finally meet you at DGW!

Ed Gray said...

Another advantage of no-reflow PDF is a functioning index. Until someone automates that in one or more of the reflowable formats, too many Ebooks will continue to simply reflow the print edition index with all those useless print page numbers and no working hyperlinks. Could be part of the result here.

Christy Pinheiro, EA ABA said...

I totally agree with Steve Jobs on this one-- Adobe is LAZY. Not just about flash, but about Adobe Acrobat, too.

I bought the full version last year and honestly I haven't een able to do anything fun with it-- I only use it to convert Word files and add page numbers in weird situations.

PFFFT! Kind of a waste of money.

JedDiamond said...


Very interesting. I've been in the world of books most of my life--like to read in the bathtub, so haven't tried an e-reader.

With my new book coming out soon, Mr. Mean: Rescuing Your Relationship from the Irritable Male Syndrome, I'm looking forward to learning more and getting it up on Smashwords.

Maria said...

In talking to a customer two weeks ago, here's another possible reason PDF is popular--she has an offbrand ereader and it comes with a program that converts--PDF files so that she can read them on her e-reader! Maybe because PDF is a known and "popular?" format, conversion tools support it?

Note also that the Kindle DX had support for PDF and support for PDF was recently added to Kindle by popular demand. The sheer numbers of PDF files could be a factor since people are familiar with PDF--they request and still use it because they haven't moved to anything else despite what some might call "better features."



brianhere said...

I really think you are making a definite mistake in presuming the epub format is a better one for ebooks going forward than pdf. Look at it from the point of view of a previous publisher of paper books:

pros of pdf
1. Whatever software you are used to using will be convertible to pdf and you will be very familiar with the quirks etc of pdf creation because that is the publishing standard. The online converter to epub, or indeed the one you can use as a desktop programme, dosen't seem as quick or as exact as the mature pdf converting technology.

2. It can handle all the various elaborate formatting that you put into your book, whereas epub seems to be less exact and loses a lot of formatting.

3. As has been pointed out you get to keep page numbers, which are good things! It makes the table of contents useful and gives you an index, which is pretty essential for areas like history and a proper index is definitely better than what you can get by doing a search of an epub. Page numbers can also be used in your book internally too to refer to different parts of your book, inpossible then in epub.

4. You get to use downloadable softfonts i.e. fonts encoded in the pdf. I suspect that this is a major issue for international users, even Irish users because I had to strip out of my smashword books the old Irish script that I think looks very well in the paper book.

Cons for pdf
If formatted to a given page size, say the portrait size for the iphone, then it will not scroll properly when viewed in landscape size on that phone.

Pros for epub
The only advantage that it has over pdf, as far as I know, is that scrollable capacity that is unavailble in pdf.

On every other front its defeated hands down by pdf? That problem could be solved too by just formatting, and making available for sale, two pdfs for each purchaser of the book on the iphone or ipad platform, one formatted for portrait view and the other for landscape view and the purchaser can use whichever one he likes. Of course he cannot change the orientation of the phone while viewing the book but I dont think most readers like to anyway, it gets annoying when you are engrossed in a book and the screen suddenly changes on you, I think most serious readers turn that facility off anyhow.

I have converted 4 books for epub, which previously were well formatted in pdf, - maybe its just me! - but I thought it was quite time consuming and the finished work is unlikely to look as good as the pdf? Whereas formatting to a pdf for various sizes of book, including formatting for the small size of some readers, is very easy and quick. I really suspect that you will find that international users, and publishers of non fiction books with elaborate formatting, will thank you a lot if you push the pdf standard more?

Particularly, if you allow them to create a pdf seperately, without going through the stripped down formatting that is necessary for the other formats, and just ask people to make seperate pdfs with different sizes corresponding to the dimensions of the various devices, and, as pointed out, supplying a portrait and a landscape pdf for those devices that allow you to change the orientation. That might seem like a lot of work for publishers but I would definitely bet that most of them would be able to do that far quicker than stripping the formatting to get an epub file.

Just a thought anyways and keep up the good work!
Brian Nugent

lmarcos said...

I would like to see Hanlin fb2 format. Together with the lrf is the most used here.

Ideaguy said...

Not sure why this is such a big surprise - PDF has been THE standard for ebooks since they were first being sold online many years ago...interesting to see how mobi is picking up though.

BillSmithBooks said...


I also think that PDF is dominant because most PCs comes equipped with a PDF reader and it is a familiar format.

I don't think *casual* book readers feel they have a compelling reason (at this point) to add an Epub reader to their system and very few PCs ship with Epub readers at this time.

But a quick question: Why doesn't Smashwords offer HTML ebooks?

(Or HTML in a zip folder if more than one chapter or if including graphics.)

I would think that HTML, if offered, would be the dominant format by far since it is even more accessible than PDF -- EVERY PC and most smart phones ship with a browser -- it is a format EVERYONE is familiar with and understands.

Bill Smith

Jaime D Buckley said...

I am new to Smashwords and I'm reading the formatting guide and came to this post. I have worked with PDF for years, and in fact its the only format I am familiar with, being the format I used for my eComics.

However Mark, I have to say that I am excited to KNOW there are more than PDF formats to choose from. I don't care what they are. I simply love options, with the ability to capture that stray 1/2% that might like something unique.

Thank you for the information. I'm looking forward to getting my book completed and into every format possible!

-Jaime Buckley

Spaghetti western said...

hey, i was hoping you could give me a hand. i need to design an eBook with 2d animated (maybe interactive) illustrations. which platform is the most suitable?
thank you for your help.

CRHG said...

Diane: PDF will get the job done, but you'll need Acrobat Pro or similar. Regrettably, I have no experience of other formats.