To KF8 or MOBI, that is the question…

I’ve been working my way through Amazon’s new KF8 format specs a little bit, and while it is a great format, taking the Kindle eBook format to where EPUB has been for some time, I have to say there are a few things that stick out like a sore thumb.

One of the issues that truly and really disturb me is the lack of support on anything but the Kindle Fire. Although Amazon had initially announced that the current generation Kindles and software readers would be KF8 capable, that statement was simply not true. It has since been revised that these devices will support KF8 some time in the future. In the real world that is a big difference.

It means that if you’re using KF8, you are currently limiting yourself to the Kindle Fire platform. While it is clearly a successful platform, it is nonetheless a niche.

The other thing that sorely disturbed me is the fact that Amazon is in no real way accommodating MOBI alongside KF8. By this I mean that Amazon is not willing to allow you to upload a KF8 version of a book and a MOBI version of the same book in order to enable proper support for all their Kindles. This problem extends not only into the publishing platform but actually starts at the root, the authoring of eBook.

Although with the new tools, Amazon has set up media queries, using an HTML @-rule, which allows you to define different styles for the KF8 and MOBI builds generated from your submission file, it is sadly a rather mediocre solution. It does help, however, in some cases. If you want text to flow around an image, a feature the KF8 format finally supports, you can tell it to use a different style setting for the MOBI version, in which you could center the image and then force a line-break and start the text on the next line. In theory, this would work. The problem seems to be that the old Kindles do not understand the display: block property that would be necessary to enforce the line break. Unless I find some way to tell the old Kindle that it needs to perform a line break after an image, this media-query fix is useless in this case.

The same is true with tables. Old Kindles have no table support. It’s been a major problem in the past, as it makes tabulating information impossible. If you display a KF8 table on an old Kindle it will be flattened, which means every table column will appear in a separate line. From a technical standpoint it makes sense because it is the easiest way to parse a table without actually implementing support. In practice it defeats its purpose, because it completely mangles and intermingles data that should, by rights, be separated — hence the use of a table.

Sadly the newfangled media queries won’t help in this case either, because the only real substitutes for tables on old Kindles are either completely restructured data, which requires different structural code and cannot be managed using a style, or you could replace the table with an image, which also requires code and cannot be achieved via a style setting. Ergo, the media query once again misses the mark.

Nonetheless, the media queries are great and will help on occasion to allow a certain degree of “correction” between versions. At least it’s a try…

In my opinion, however, Amazon should allow publishers to upload separate KF8 and MOBI versions in the future. It would be the only way to make sure that both versions can be authored to the best of the respective format’s capabilities and look as best as they can. Trying to automate the process – even with a media query hint has never been a good idea. The Smashwords Meat Grinder is the living proof that this Least Common Denominator approach is getting you nowhere but in trouble, and therefore I sincerely hope that Amazon will rethink their strategy in that respect, and while they’re at it, maybe they should look at their documentation also and rework the CSS selector listing they have in there, because as it stand, it would lead you to believe that old Kindles can’t handle any CSS, as every single selector is marked off as “unsupported.”

I wonder if they have actually corrected some of the issues I raised a while ago in the new platforms, such as incorrect em calculation, the right margin and padding issues, the missing borders, and so forth. Maybe some of you reader can enlighten me on that, since I have no Kindle Fire and none of the latest Kindles at my disposal.


9 Replies to “To KF8 or MOBI, that is the question…”

  1. Paul Salvette

    Thanks, Guido. Tremendous insight, as always. On the bright side, at least they included a media query function instead of having to rely on hacks ala Internet Explorer. I’m definitely sticking with turning tables into GIF images. Yes, it stinks, but it’s better than nothing. For the image issue, I usually wrap imgaes alone in paragraph tags to make it a block element along with a margin-bottom CSS declaration. This helps force the line break.

  2. Kaz Augustin

    Thank you, Paul! That’s what I do with my images as well. Whew, it’s nice to have one’s private opinions validated. 🙂

    Guido, having the ability to upload two separate files (KF8 or MOBI) is, of course, the logical conclusion but think about it. If Amazon doesn’t do anything then the problems of one ebook not being rendered properly on either the Kindle or the K-Fire is not Amazon’s problem because the vast majority of readers will blame the author/publisher for it. Amazon comes out of it looking pretty clean because, really, the only people interested in the intricacies of KF8 vs MOBI are people like you, Paul, the lurkers and I.

    As with all things technological, the average person just doesn’t care. They just want it to “work” and, since their ereader seems to start and operate just fine, any issues must be the content provider’s fault.

    Lazy Amazon, but well played too!

  3. Guido

    You’re absolutely right, Kaz. Amazon can afford to take the easy way out and push responsibility onto publishers because readers simply don’t know that it could be different.

  4. Charles

    I’m not so sure on the backwards compatibility thing anymore. Someone pointed out an e-book on Amazon to me the other day that displays a different font than that of my Kindle-3’s default font. It’s similar, but he mentioned to me how the capital A had one leg that was severly slanted unlike Kindle’s font. I discovered he was right after downloading the book sample.

    I don’t understand how this was possible to do unless perhaps my Kindle might have automatically downloaded some kind of firmware upgrade during the last time I had the wirless turned on or something. Either that or perhaps SOME of the KF8 features pertaining to font actually are backwards compatible.

  5. Daniel R. Marvello

    Thanks for your insights. I’ve gotten good at formatting for MobiPocket, and I had planned to stick with that format until the vast majority of devices are KF8-capable. Good to get some validation on that decision. As mentioned by others, readers blame the publisher or the author when the formatting goes wonky. Fortunately, most of the works I’ve published had minimal formatting requirements, so sticking with MobiPocket isn’t really that restrictive.

  6. Phyllis Zimbler Miller

    This is a great discussion for all of you who are working on creating ebooks.

    But what about us self-published ebook authors who have to make decisions as to what format to have our ebooks created in?

    I have 2 fiction titles on Kindle, Nook and Smashwords already.

    I am now about to launch a nonfiction 3-ebook series, and I’m considering what formats these ebooks need to be in.

    It’s so irritating because I want the nonfiction ebooks — which have some tricky Word formatting — to look very professional.

    • Guido

      I think you would have to study this on a case by case basis. There is a lot that can be done with the good old MOBI and EPUB formats. Is it worth going for the new KF8 features and potentially degrading the MOBI experience as a result? You need to balance what you want to do with how it can be managed in both MOBI and KF8 formats. Don’t forget it is not an either/or situation. The real crux is that Amazon will always create a MOBI version from your KF8 eBook, and the question becomes what will that look like?

  7. Will

    I would never buy an ebook in MOBI, KF8 or any other proprietary format. I would not buy an E-Reader that restricts my format options and I would only publish in open formats. Real books are an open format. Stop catering to Amazon!

    • Guido

      Neither MOBI nor KF8 are proprietary formats, they are fully documented and lots of third-party tools are available to work, build and dissect them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.