Case's blog

Tragedy, Comedy, and eBooks

O

bsessing over eBooks is something that I’ve blogged about before. Time marches on as always, and I think it’s time to discuss the topic again.

Several times a week now I’m finding new people who’ve started using eBooks. Colleagues at work are frequently picking up Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and other devices that facilitate reading eBooks. There are still a lot of vocal hold-outs, but I firmly believe at this point that eBooks will eventually be the end of the majority of dead tree books. I’m reminded of an old picture of Steve Jobs in a new house, no furniture, bare floor. “Nothing is the new something.”

Not everyone is happy about this development. A lot of people are distraught over the loss of local bookstores, the smell of a new book, the color of pages after aging like a fine wine, or even just the weight in their bag increasing their muscle tone while they bike to work.

Emotional feelings and value judgements over whether this is a good thing or not aside, there are many properties of eBooks that new folks to the technology aren’t familiar with, or haven’t been bitten by yet.

The State of eBook Hardware

tl;dr > Purpose-built eBook readers are largely dead. Creating the hardware and software for a good purpose-built eReader is largely too expensive for anyone except well-established companies that can use them as loss leaders with pre-existing records of content sales to make up for it. Tablets and smartphones reign supreme.

I’ve gone through a few different eBook readers. Here’s a short list:

  • iRex DR800SG. For history's sake, Phillips was the first company to make a device with e-Ink. iRex was spun off from that department. They finally went bankrupt in 2010 after trying to sell the iRex DR800SG to the consumer market for $500. Also, the device had a stupid name.
  • Entourage Edge. A dual screen (LCD and e-Ink) Android device that Entourage claimed would change the world. They went bankrupt in 2010 after trying to sell the Edge to the consumer market for $500. Woot sold the remainder of their stock for dirt cheap, and I got one.
  • Nintendo DS with CycloDS. I really enjoyed this configuration. The side by side screens made for a reading experience that was similar to books, and was easy to hold or position.
  • Apple iPhone and iPod Touch. Ever since the iPhone 4 came out with the Retina screen, I've been a happy camper. Finally, the screen's quality matches that of paper. I usually read white or grayish text on a black background.

In addition, I bought my dad the original Nook with e-Ink on top, and LCD on the bottom screen, and my grandma a Kindle Fire. The Nook was great at the time, but at this time I’d recommend the Nook Tablet over the e-Ink just for the open source community support of Android. The one important thing here is that all of these devices support the ePub format. I’ve tried the PDF format, and on every device it was a miserable experience. Reflowable text is the only way to go.

I refuse to buy the original Kindle, because I just can’t see locking myself into a device that doesn’t support any books except those from Amazon. Sure, you can convert ePubs without DRM to Amazon’s format, but honestly, I don’t have infinite time to spend moving my books all around and worrying about whether this or that DRM can be broken. Besides, it’s technically illegal to break the DRM off your books (not to mention a time sink), which means any books you buy from Barnes and Noble or other sources can’t, for the most part, be legally transferred.

The Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet both run on Android. The kind folks doing open Android development have released Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) for the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet already. Naturally, then, the Nook and the Kindle books apps can both be used on the Fire and Nook Tablet. I personally use my iPad and iPhone for this purpose, but either of these devices is a great choice for people not sucked into the Apple ecosystem already.

The Kobo is a nice piece of hardware and reads ePub with DRM, but the specs aren’t quite as good as the similarly prices devices from Amazon or B&N.

I recommend against purchasing an eBook reader that doesn’t have Wi-Fi. We’re all busy people these days, and it’s rare that I have time to plug my devices into the computer to sync new books. Instead, I end up just using my phone instead of my fancy reader, making the reader an expensive paper-weight, with no paper actually around anymore for it to weigh down.

Most smartphones now can double as eReaders with very little work. The Samsung Note is an interesting compromise between a tablet size screen and phone size device.

The State of eBook Apps

On my iPad and iPhone, I use the following apps:

  • Stanza, for any books without DRM. It reads almost all formats. The UI is excellent. Technically Amazon bought Stanza's parent company, Lexcycle, a few years back, but so far the ill effects have been merely a reduction in feature additions. They've still updated it with each new iOS release.
  • The Nook app, from Barnes and Noble
  • The Kindle app, from Amazon. Some books can only be bought from Amazon, or are vastly cheaper there.
  • Overdrive, which provides free books from the local library (KCLS). From what I can tell, the good books are almost always checked out to 6 people already.

I buy technical eBooks from O'Reilly. They have an excellent selection, don’t use DRM, and provide a vast array of choices of formats. In addition, if you’ve bought paper books from O'Reilly, you can get the eBook versions for only $5 per book. You’ll want to watch for their sales, it’s an excellent way to pick up several great books at a time. I’ve actually recently joined their blogger review program, and will be providing a review of Machine Learning for Hackers soon.

On Android, Aldiko is a great choice. From what I’ve seen it is feature comparable to Stanza. Nook, Kindle, and Overdrive apps are also available.

Format Wars

I think ePub has largely won the format war. Apple entered the fray with iBooks, and also elected to use ePub, albeit with their own proprietary DRM, which is why I don’t buy books from Apple. Amazon is the lone hold-out with their own format, and I think they are feeling the pressure, and I suspect that’s the reason they’ve made the Kindle app available on so many different platforms and readers. There are a number of different pieces of software available for creating ePubs. I personally like to write in the Markdown format, and then convert to various formats (including ePub) with Pandoc. Alternatively, Sigil is good. I would steer clear of Apple’s iAuthor app, because, while shiny, it only outputs books that can be read on Apple devices.

DRM Wars

Nobody, and particularly not the customer, is winning this war. Adobe DRM still has a fairly strong grip on major ePub distributors, but Apple is doing their own thing. Amazon is doing their own thing. The customer has no clue what’s going on, because they are mostly still on their first reading device, and haven’t felt the need yet to migrate their books to a new device or do anything important with their book collection.

The one ray of sunshine in this mess is that Pottermore has finally released all the Harry Potter books, and they released them without DRM. Of course, this rings rather hollow to me given that she waited until after all the books were released and had their hay day as paper books, but I won’t look a gift horse in the mouth too hard. It does set a good example for other writers, and I wonder if she just read Neil Gaiman’s treatise on the topic.

The truth is that eBook sellers are ripping users off. eBooks aren’t the panacea of literature we were promised, they aren’t the Alexandria of modern times. The price of an eBook is often more expensive than that of the paperback, and you also lose most of the rights you had if you bought it in paper form. The lending policy for Amazon and Nook let you lend the book one time to one person for two weeks max, and only if the publisher allows it. What? I can do whatever I want with my paperback. We’re paying more and getting less for it.

Libraries

This is where the real tragedy is occurring. If you bought a book in the past that you only read once, you could always donate it to Goodwill, the library, or take it to your local used bookstore for a second chance at being loved. You don’t have that right with eBooks. There is no transferral mechanism between users. In fact, it’s impossible to buy an eBook for your library, read it, and then donate it. It is extraordinarily difficult to purchase and donate an eBook to a library using Overdrive. I’ve had email conversations with librarians on this topic, and have become distraught over the state of eBook ownership.

It’s not that this is a technical problem. Transferring DRM ownership to a new user is not at all difficult from a software perspective. The problem is that the people who pay into the systems that create DRM have a vested interest in not allowing second-hand digital media markets. Why sell only once what you can sell twice?

Not Even Close

Ebook reading has become more pervasive, but I don’t think it’s actually improved much, at least with regards to my prior complaints. It’s possible to make notes on your books with the Nook app, Kindle app, and Stanza, but none of the notes are available for your general use. You can’t export them, or do anything useful with them. Scholarly work using eBooks is no easier than it was several years ago, though there is massive potential for awesome.

Research-style paging is still a pain with ebooks. Using a touch screen to accurately reach a page is very difficult, and nobody has innovated the problem away yet. This makes using eBooks for research and reference difficult if you don’t have a quote to search for, or if book search is not available for whatever reason. And of course, with most eBooks, printing is not allowed by the license, so organizing research with paperclips and scissors is difficult or impossible.

Apple has picked up on the fact that reference eBooks and fiction eBooks have very different use cases. But nobody else has, and none of the reading software except Apple’s takes this into account.

Not everything is sunshine and daisies in the eBook world, but I still love eBooks. The ease of reading any book anywhere has me hooked. I have high hopes though for a future eBook utopia, and I hope you do too. Until then, keep reading!

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