Ebooks are a hot topic among readers. publishers and authors and a topic I’ve been following closely for the last couple of years. As technically challenged as I am, I’ve been able to pump information from those better equipped to understand and make recommendations.

Which ebook reader should you choose?  The hand-sized readers are really slick and offer numerous and well-publicized advantages over paper books and each other. They’re also expensive, from about $200 to $500 or more. That makes choosing one a major commitment.
Not so well publicized are the free, yes FREE, ebook reader programs you can download from Amazon (Kindle), Barnes and Noble (Nook) and Adobe (epub for Sony and numerous others.) So, if you don’t mind the “bulk” of a netbook, you can invest once, around $300, and have access to the libraries and bookstores of all the different formats. If you just want to try out the process of reading a book on-screen, and don’t require portability at the moment, you can download one or all of these readers to your PC (Sorry, availability for MAC isn’t quite so universal), and read away. So far, all of those I’ve tried allow you to select the font size on the fly, so on-screen reading is great for eyes that need a bit of extra help. Be aware that your computer screen is back-lit and the reader screens generally are not, so the experience isn’t quite the same.
FREE reading materials are also available from these same outlets. All offer free samples of their best-selling books. Amazon offers free choices in their “classics” section. I’ve downloaded The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from Amazon for free, and my students assure me that most of the readings they’re assigned, like Shakespearean plays, are free downloads. Numerous websites offer free ePub books to try. Barnes and Noble’s Nook offers the advantage of a “lending library” and books that can be shared from one reader to another. I haven’t tried those features yet, so can’t attest to how they work. Amazon offers the feature of “keeping your place” when you’re reading the same book on multiple devices.

What resources are available to the author or publisher?: Amazon allows the author or publisher to upload books directly, and offers a user-friendly enough utility to make it practical to do so. Barnes and Noble does not yet offer direct-upload (as of July 2010) but is advertising that it will soon. Numerous other web services will make your book available as an ebook, in varying formats and for varying prices.
To make your book available on Amazon, you open an account through seller central, then proceed to register and upload your files. The files must either be .html, or absolutely clean MSWord files in the “compatible” format. That means if you’re using Word 2003, you simply save as a .doc; but if you’re using Word 2007, you save it “back” as a .doc file instead of .docx.

Judith Geary
Getting an MSWord file clean enough to flow correctly in the Kindle format is both simple and complex. Saving the file as plain text (carefully avoiding the option of inserting line breaks) is the first step, and can be the last one if you’re satisfied with the result. Once you’ve opened and saved the file again in MS Word, you can upload to Amazon and use the review function to view your results. You’ll find that a generic font has been substituted for whatever you had chosen, and that any photos or illustrations are missing. This may be fine.  Kindle will accept black and white illustrations, and the results may be satisfactory. Simple drawings work best, and they tend to dominate the screen more than on a book page, so be aware of that in selecting images to include or leave out. Extra white space, whether at the end of a chapter, under a chapter heading, or framing a scene, “expands” visually, and can be distracting, so take out every extra line space. If you really want your chapter headings in that cursive font, you can set them in as .jpg images and they’ll work. The same holds true for other elements, such as a table of contents, but remember that page numbers become irrelevant in an ebook.
EPub format is used by the Nook, the Sony Reader and numerous less well know bits of hardware. Some books I’ve downloaded in this format offer the ability to jump from one chapter to another from a menu and nicely formatted chapter headings and unique type faces for both chapters and text. Others are simple text with no noticeable formatting.

Getorix, the Eagle and the Bull by Judith Geary
Smashwords offers a user-friendly service for both readers and authors/publishers that accepts a precisely formatted MSWord document (Read the style guide carefully!), and converts it to a number of formats readable on both hand-held devices and regular computers. They allow the author to set the price and pass on 70-85% of the selling price to the author. The only concern I have is that the files are “drm free” meaning there’s no technical reason they can’t be freely copied and shared. The Smashwords site makes it clear, repeatedly, that the content is copy-right protected and is not intended to be shared (although the purchaser is encouraged to try content on numerous devices and may print copies if they wish.) They also offer generous “free samples” which they encourage readers to share with others.  By following all the rules carefully, Smashwords claims you can make your book available in the iPad Store, Barnes and Noble and numerous other outlets. I haven’t gotten that far yet, but I’ll wager someone who reads this can offer their experience.
Ebooks are not going away. We can no more ignore them or deny their legitimacy than we can insist on reading from a hand-written scroll or a clay tablet. So, let’s share our experience and continue the dialogue.

Judith Geary edits for Ingalls Publishing Group, teaches at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, and is a scenario evaluator on the international level for Future Problem Solving International. She struggles to keep up with current technology in all areas. She writes historical fiction set in ancient Rome and the first of her Getorix series, The Eagle and the Bull, is recommended for classroom use in sixteen states.  The next in the series, Games of the Underworld will be released from IPG Books in 2011.  Visit her website at http://www.judithgeary.com