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Plan Your Book

Open Textbook Formats

You will notice that open textbooks are available in a number of different technical formats, some of which may not be familiar to you. The reason for this is because research into student preferences around textbook formats shows that students want flexibility and options. Some students, prefer physical textbooks, some want their textbook delivered to their favourite eReader device, and others prefer the familiarity of a PDF or a website.[1]

Here is a brief guide to the different types of document formats that open textbooks are most often available in.


EPUB is a standard format for ebooks. Students will need an eReader to use EPUB files. eReaders are available as stand-alone devices (such as a Nook or Kobo reader) and as software packages that students can install on their PC, Mac, tablet, or mobile phone.

There are a number of eReaders available for free, and many have features such as cloud syncing, which allows users to read their book on their tablet, PC, and phone and keep the book in sync. Many also offer annotation and highlighting capabilities.

EPUB is superior to PDF in that the text in EPUB files can shift to fit the size of the device being used to read the book, giving the user a smooth side-to-side reading experience. eReaders also often provide options to resize the text, change the font, or change the colour of the text.

Those who have a Nook, Kobo, or other dedicated eReading device or have downloaded and installed eReader software on their tablet, PC, or mobile device will want to use an EPUB file. Note that Kindle does not support EPUB. Instead Kindle users will want to use the MOBI format (see below).

eReader Software and Devices Compatible with EPUB
Software Supported Platforms eReader Device Available Registration Open Source
Adobe Digital Editions [New Tab] PC, Mac, Android, iOS No No No
Kobo [New Tab] PC, Mac, Android, iOS Yes Yes No
Nook [New Tab] PC, Mac, Android, iOS Yes Yes No
Google Play Books [New Tab] Android No Yes – Google No
iBooks [New Tab] iOS No Yes No
Calibre [New Tab] PC, Mac, Android, iOS No No Yes

These are just a few of the many EPUB readers available. Wikipedia has an extensive comparison list of eReaders [New Tab].


Students should choose the MOBI format if they have an Amazon Kindle or use the Amazon Kindle software, which anyone can download. Kindle apps and software [New Tab] are available for download on Mac, PC, Android, BlackBerry, Windows OS, and iOS.


An HTML website is a good format to use to distribute your textbook to students as it is a universal format that does not require any additional software beyond a web browser. HTML is also a good format to distribute your textbook in if you want others to be able to edit or customize your book. If possible, you can create a zip file of your HTML documents and make those available for other instructors to download, edit and host on their own websites.


PDF is a common file format that requires a PDF reader. Free PDF readers include Adobe Reader [New Tab], Foxit [New Tab], and Nitro [New Tab]. PDF is a good format to make available to students because it is common and most students will know how to work with a PDF document. However, PDFs are difficult to edit, so if you plan to openly license your textbook, you should also make your source files available so other instructors can edit the book.


Some open textbooks are available as Word/OpenOffice documents. These file formats will be have the .docx or .odt file extensions. You will need Microsoft Word [New Tab] or OpenOffice [New Tab] to view these files. Word/OpenOffice documents can be used to distribute a textbook to students as it is a common file format. However, it is more common that you would convert the Word/OpenOffice document to a PDF, EPUB or HTML file for distribution to students and provide Word/OpenOffice as a source file for others who may want to edit or adapt the textbook.


LaTeX is a document format often used when complex scientific or mathematical equations and notations are required. LaTeX [New Tab] requires special software [New Tab] to read and edit. These files are not recommended for students and are primarily provided as source files for instructors who wish to modify or customize a textbook.


Information and much of the text used in this chapter are based on the blog “Open Textbook Formats Explained” by Clint Lalonde and is used under a CC BY 4.0 Licence.

  1. Clint Lalonde, "Open Textbook Formats Explained," BCcampus OpenEd, August 30, 2013, https://open.bccampus.ca/2013/08/30/open-textbook-formats-explained/ (accessed January 24, 2018).


Creative Commons License
Open Textbook Formats by Lauri Aesoph is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.