Laurence Lachapelle-Bégin's picture


Creating Your Own E-Textbook

By Laurence Lachapelle-Bégin. The 2 August 2012


With the increasing use of tablets and smartphones in education and the popularity of online learning activities, digital course material must become scalable and interactive. Electronic textbooks, or e-textbooks, and now, recent development tools put digital publishing within the reach of educators, sometimes at no cost.

What are we be expecting from E-Textbooks?

Under its cover image, an e-textbook should contain a table of contents, text with graphics, multimedia, and hyperlinks. It should at least provide features that let the reader perform basic tasks inherited from the use of paper books, mainly bookmarking, highlighting and annotating. In an educational context, whether it is used as a complement to a paper-basedbased book or as a replacement for teathe e-textbook should allow, the management of bookmarks and notes, or the consultation of a dictionary. It should be on mobile devices (tablets, e-readers, smartphones...)
Peut servir de complément à un manuel papier ou numérisé et également à remplacer les notes de cours du professeur

Reading E-Textbooks

Digital textbooks are available in three main formats :

  • Printable Digital Format (PDF)

For many years, the PDF has been a favourite for digital documents because of its aesthetic and printer-friendly qualities. Annotating and highlighting PDF files without using expensive proprietary software is becoming easier, the main difficulty is now the transferrability to mobile devices.  DOes not scale easily,  unless it is specifically created in a smaller format, it doesn not read well on mobile devices, which have smaller screens. Also, Linking to websites from a PDF is sometimes disabled when the file is transferred to a mobile device.  Search friendly fearures?

  • Online textbook

This format is very popular with textbook publishers and in American universities. For example,

À l’Université d’Indiana
Courseload :
Flat World Knowledge :
Le modèle de Pearson eText :

Considérations pédagogiques pour le manuel numérique en ligne :
The content can be updated at any time,  simultaneously for all users ; everyone has the latest version. Facilitates collaborative work with note-sharing. Allows the teacher to follow the students' progress and manage their learning. However, online textbooks developed by publishers are proprietary formats. Lack of interoperability is a critical issue: Data cannot be transferred from one textbook to another. Online textbooks are generally cannot be used offline, and cannot be exported or imported in another format.

  • ePub

ePub is an international standard developed by... It is currently in its second version: ePub2. A third version of the ePub format (ePub3) is coming out soon, and should contain many features that will greatly improve media integration, interactivity and accessibility, making it an ideal format for e-textbooks, but also magazines and scientific journals.

A few applications allow you to read an ePub2 file on a desktop computer or a laptop. The most popular are Adobe Digital Editions (for files protected by Adobe's digital rights management) and Calibre (pour unprotected files). Plugins can also let you read ePub2 files on certain Web browsers. Unfortunately, ePub reading applications for computers don't always allow annotating, highlighting, searching, or bookmarking, so mobile devices have the advantage.

Most tablets and smartphones are equipped with an ePub reading application. Apple users must install ibooks, (which cannot be used on Mac computers), or another e-reader app such as Bluefire Reader or Stanza. Being an international standard, ePub is the format supported by the largest number of e-readers (devices specifically made to read digital books), with the great exception of Amazon's popular Kindle device, which reads its own formats, TPZ and AZW. Converting an ePub file into a format supported by the Kindle is possible with a proper tool (like Calibre, a free, open source application), but not if the file is protected by a digital rights management (DRM) technology. DRM technologies "lock" digital material; they are employed by many content providers like Apple, Amazon, Sony, etc. to prevent certain uses of their products, and removing them is generally illegal. Apple also has its own format (ibooks), which is derived from ePub, but cannot be read on a non-Apple device.

In an educational context, publishing an e-textbook as an ePub file makes sense. It is recognized internationally as a standard format, can be read on almost all computers, and it is technically simple enough to make creation and conversion easy. Incidentally, various free and open source software can help you create ePub files at no cost.


Before Creating an E-Textbook

Creating an e-textbook requires time, resources, skills and support. If you decide to create an educational resource, start by evaluating if it should be an e-textbook by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What will the resource contain: text, images, animations, videos...?
  • How will the content be used in the learning activities? Will it be read, manipulated, copied and pasted...?
  • What level of interactivity is expected?
  • Will the content be printed out?
  • Will the content be used on mobile devices?
  • Will there be hyperlinks to the Internet? What is the impact on the content if they don't work?
  • Réutilisation des contenus de cours ? Avez-vous toutes les sources de votre cours ? Chacun des éléments graphiques de vos documents Word
    Ils devront être déposés sur le site pour pouvoir les intégrer dans votre manuel numérique
    Accès gratuit pour vos étudiants ?
    Localisation du serveur ?
    Pérennité du cours ?

For example, if the content is mostly text that students will read on their own at home, a PDF file can be sufficient. If the content consists of detailed images with additional notes in bubbles and links to documents on the Web, an online textbook is more interesting. However, if these images are used in classroom activities and there is no Wi-Fi connection available, an ePub file can provide the required interactivity features offline.

Managing Copyrights

Do you own the copyright for all the texts, graphics and multimedia elements that will appear in your e-textbook? If you wish to include content from external sources, you must obtain permission from the authors and document your sources. If it is impossible or too complicated, other solutions are to produce content yourself, or to find equivalent content with an open license. Today, a lot of material is available under Creative Commons (CC) licenses, which facilitates reuse. Open content can be found by browsing repositories (like MERLOT or OER Commons for learning resources), or by using the Creative Commons search page, which helps to find CC licensed content with general search engines like Flickr, Wikipedia, Google Images, etc. When you find an interesting piece of work, verify that it is actually under a CC license by going to its source. Indeed, resources are sometimes added in repositories by people who are not the creators and who have not verified the copyright.

Whether you include external content in your e-textbook or not, the final work should be protected. Consider making it an open educational resource (OER) by using a CC license. There are six types of CC licenses; a selection tool on the Creative Commons website can help you choose one that fit your needs. If you decide to retain all rights to your work, you should register the copyright with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office. In any case, all permissions you received to use external content must authorize you to apply the desired copyright.

Development Tools

For the time being, if you are not too fussy about the aesthetic of your textbook, publishing an ePub2 file can be done easily with the word processor For the process to be efficient, however, the original document must be structured using styles (Title 1, Title 2, Normal, etc.). It can be written directly in and published as an ePub file using the extension Writer2ePub. You can also create an e-textbook from an existing structured document written with Microsoft Office Word or Google Documents. All you have to so is save it as an OpenDocument file (.odt), open it with, and publish it with Writer2ePub. The extension is not a file converter; it creates a new ePub file on your computer at the same location as the original file.

Another interesting software is the open-source e-book editor Sigil, which lets you convert text and HTML files to ePub format, as well as create an e-textbook from scratch.

Converting PDF documents to ePub format can be done with the file converter Calibre, but results may vary depending on the formatting and layout of the original file. If you are comfortable with command-line tools, you can convert files with Pandoc. If you are familiar with coding,  you can also use DocBook, a semantic language that allows content creation in a neutral form, which makes publication possible in various formats (including ePub), without modifying the source file. 

For iPad and Mac owners, the free application iBooks Author can be used to design e-books, but you cannot directly export from iBooks Author to ePub, nor can you import ePub files back in. Converting an iBook into an ePub file is not so simple: a solution is to save the file in PDF format and then convert it to ePub, but you will lose the Apple-specific design features along the way.

Regardless of which tool you choose, starting small is the key: use a short piece of your work to experiment, and see if the software fits your needs and technical abilities. A search for "how to create an e-book", or "how to convert [Format 1] to [Format 2]" on YouTube will result in dozens of video tutorials; specify the software and format you are interested in in your search for more precise results.

Another way to create e-textbooks is to combine existing digital modules from an educational content repository. A well-known resource for this type of work is CK-12 Foundation, an American organization that produces free, open-source, online textbooks for STEM curricula. The textbooks can be read online, or downloaded as PDFs, ePubs, and a format readable by the Kindle e-reader. To explore e-textbooks that contain interactive multimedia elements, try titles like Velocity and Acceleration in the Physics section, or Coriolis Effect in the Earth Science section. A similar resource is Connexions, an educational content repository and content management system where you can find open textbooks and build course modules to be either viewed online, or downloaded as PDF or ePub files.

Finally, no matter which tool you use to produce your textbook, make sure you read the user licence in detail to avoid any disputes.

The Future of E-Textbooks

There is great potential for e-textbooks, as they allow for mobility, interactivity, variety in content delivery methods (text, audio, video, animation...). and eventually, customization for personalized learning. Also, their capabilities can be combined with those of an interactive whiteboard for use in the classroom. Textbook publishers see the opportunity and have been fiercely competing for years. However, they have not managed to seduce a majority of students: according to a report by the Book Industry Study Group, in 2011, 75% of students still preferred printed textbooks over digital replica e-textbooks. A few reasons explain the students' lack of enthusiasm. The main ones are financial: digital textbooks are not saving students as much money as expected at the time of purchase, and cannot be resold or handed down when the semester is over. Perennity is also a concern : many students would like to keep their textbooks for future use, as well as the annotations they added, which is not possible in many of the actual purchasing or renting programs. Finally, sharing and collaborating features, as well as media-rich experiences, are usually not available in digital replica textbooks, making Web resources more appealing.

Open textbooks seem like a solution to price and digital rights issues. Despite the fact that certain initiatives have caused a stir among major higher education publishers, colleges and universities have been successfully producing free e-books for a long time. Recent efforts involve collaborative work between faculty and students, like University of Minnesota's free e-book Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines at the University of Minnesota in 2012, and Duke University's project Cachalot (an e-textbook created for a Marine Megafauna class). The formula is popular: Cultivating Change... had been downloaded 1,930 times two months after its release in June 2012, while Cachalot  had been downloaded more than 3,000 times a few weeks only after its release in Spring 2012. 

With free, user-friendly development tools available on the Internet, creating e-textbooks is no longer the privilege of publishers. If digital books can enhance the learning experience for students, why not take advantage of the technology that is within our reach and start experimenting?

Sincere thanks to Réjean Payette, Marc-Antoine Parent, and Pierre-Julien Guay, whose expertise and materials, featured in VTÉ's activity "Labo VTÉ : S'approprier le manuel numérique," served as references for this article.

More ideas

More resources

  • Low-cost proprietary software also allows you to create digital books: oXygen (academic version), Scrivener, Atlantis,and Jutoh are all available under 65 $.
  • Educational content repository MERLOT puts over 2,000 open e-textbooks at the disposal of educators and students.
  • The California State University launched an Affordable Learning Solutions Campaign to enable faculty to provide quality educational content that is more affordable for their students, included open textbooks.


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