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On Amazon’s Inconsistent Support for the Kindle Format

8091234505_d5b21310c7_kAs the theory goes, a proprietary ebook format is better because you know that it will just work.

With only one vendor controlling the Kindle format we are assured that certain features will work and thus enjoy a better "quality of the reading experience", right?

Wrong. While that may be true in theory, it breaks down in practice.

Take, for example, the Kindle fixed layout format.

This format is used for both digital comics and children’s picture books. It was developed by Amazon’s Kindle team and only works on the Kindle platform, but it doesn’t work equally well on all Kindle devices.

Author and ebook maker R Scot Johns has been documenting how well the Kindle’s fixed layout format is supported across the various Kindle apps, Kindle ereaders, and Fire tablets. He’s been posting the results of his tests online in a chart, and earlier this week he updated that chart in response to the recent Kindle firmware.

The short version is that many of the features aren’t supported consistently across the Kindle platform, and some aren’t even supported consistently  on a single device. Letterboxes, for example, behave in two different ways on the Kindle Android app. Depending on whether the ebook is a kid’s book or a digital comic, the letterbox is either black or white.

If you’re interested in arcane technical detail, you can find the chart here. It’s a fascinating and frustrating read (the footnotes are longer than the chart itself).

The same goes for Johns' testing methodology. He’s single-handedly built a suite of test ebooks similar to the ones used to track iBooks, Kobo, etc support of Epub3 for the EpubTest website.

These tests involve loading a minimum of nine different Kindle test files (more if some new variable needs testing) – each of which contain over a dozen pages that have been created specifically for this purpose – onto the seven different Kindle apps and devices I currently own. This creates a series of 72 iterations of a Kindle fixed layout file on a Kindle reading system, requiring a total of 1044 page loads (if each page is only viewed once on each system), and countless orientation changes of each device (which for the Paperwhite is a pain, to say the least), each page of which must be run through a battery of tests to determine what is working and what is not, pursuant to the ten items listed on the chart (only 8 of which I now test), and carefully noting any anomalies that occur. This tends to get somewhat confusing if one is not quite awake, and thus requires a lot of coffee (donations gratefully accepted).

You can find more details on his blog, The Adventure of an Independent Author.


When you get into the nitty gritty technical details, it turns out that the supposed benefits of a proprietary  Kindle format are no more real than the opposing view that you can make one Epub file which will work on all Epub platforms.

Both claims are more marketing than engineering, and should be taken with a grain of salt.

image by tribehut


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Rob Siders August 26, 2015 um 8:37 am

I’m not convinced Amazon’s testing is very robust for the various development use cases on the Kindle spec. If I had to guess, the development and QA focus is on the WYSIWYG creator tools and the Word-to-mobi intake at KDP. That’s great in the big picture, but for the #eprdctn community … aaaaaaaarrrrrrggggghhhh!

R. Scot Johns August 26, 2015 um 2:04 pm

I’m not convinced they’re even testing for those, if the functionality of KCC and KKBC are the best they can come up with. To me it just shows that Amazon is a retailer at its core, not a software designer. The ideas are there, the implementation is not.

Kelly August 26, 2015 um 2:35 pm

Johns in an incredible resource. I’ve personally hired him to help me make sense of Amazon’s formats, and I am always impressed with the lengths he goes to, and how up-do-date his tests are. Amazon should hire him to help authors prepare their books. If you think you might someday need real answers to this complicated format, I enthusiastically urge you to jot down this guy’s e-mail and blog.

Nate Hoffelder August 28, 2015 um 9:56 pm

He is, yes.

Rob Siders August 26, 2015 um 3:45 pm

Don’t get me wrong… I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked if their KDP software development group did zero testing. I come from a software development background—mostly in QA analysis and documentation—so I’m probably more inclined to give other development shops the benefit of the doubt absent any first-hand knowledge. At the same time, I’ve been witness to too many political struggles inside software companies to be completely naive about what happens to QA when engineering wins the battles and wars for resources.

Stupid proprietary tricks: Bookerly font update for Kindle for PC—without modernizing the formatting | TeleRead August 30, 2015 um 9:04 am

[…] Over at The Digital Reader, Nate smartly begins his post on the above: “Amazon just reminded us that a proprietary ebook format isn’t all it is cracked up to be.” […]

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