Are you new to reading ebooks? Want some help in how to go about it and how to decipher some of the terminology? Then read on…
An ebook is a digital form of a book, designed for reading on a PC or laptop, mobile phone or PDA or other portable device, or dedicated ebook reader such as the various Sony eReaders or Amazon Kindle devices.
While the take-up of ebooks is increasing, particularly as electronic reader options increase and improve, issues of multiple format, variable pricing and DRM have muddied the waters and made it difficult for human readers (that’s you) to whole-heartedly embrace the form.
Other disadvantages include the dependency on an electronic device to access the book (and therefore dependency on a power source, internet access, wireless internet access etc), the tiring effect of reading on a screen verses paper (combated by e-ink technology), the need to be very, very careful while reading in the bath, the threat of changing formats and technologies making your digital library unreadable, and the loss of the tactile feel of paper and the attractiveness of a paper book.
Advantages include easy storage and transport of large numbers of books (particularly useful for frequent travellers), potential savings on the cost of books, ability to make electronic notes as you read, greater access to out-of-print and public domain books, avenues to explore new or niche writers not found in mainstream bookstores, arguably saving environmental resources like the paper, water, and energy used to print books, and ability to purchase and privately read whatever you want without nosy people judging your choices.
Also ebooks make books seem cool to the youths who are “with it”, whatever “it” is these days (they changed what “it” was and now what’s “it” seems weird and scary to me), so that encourages reading or something.
Ebooks may be seen as a useful adjunct to other forms of book like the hardback, paperback and audio-book, rather than as a replacement. To quote Ann Kirschner in Reading Dickens in Four Ways:
Tomorrow’s readers will immerse themselves in their favorite books…based on deeper needs. It will be just the sort of seamless decision we make every day when we decide whether we will place a phone call, send an e-mail message or text message or photo or video, handwrite a note, or make a personal visit.
Ebook-reading devices can be divided into two categories: dedicated ebook readers like the Sony e-Reader and the Amazon Kindle, and multi-function devices like the Apple iPhone/iPod Touch or Google Android-powered mobile phones. Have you heard the saying, “The fox knows many things: the hedgehog knows one big thing”?
Dedicated ebook readers
As you would think, dedicated ebook readers only allow you to read and otherwise interact with ebooks and other digital documents. They’re the hedgehog – they only do the one thing, but they do it really well (mostly).
Advantages include long battery life, the use of e-ink on the screen to mimic paper and provide good contrast in bright conditions (for daylight reading on the beach), and plenty of flexibility in underlining, adding notes and so on. It also limits distractions and interruptions for other digital forms of entertainment.
Disadvantages can include expense, weight, proprietary formats and DRM issues – more on these latter two shortly. Also, for those touting the environmental benefits of ebooks, dedicated devices unfortunately blow that little recycled rubber duckie out of the water as the environmental expense of the chemicals and energy that goes into producing these devices and their batteries far outweigh any environmental savings of not having to print the book (a good rule of thumb, by the way, is that if you’re not saving money then you’re not saving energy/the environment).
Despite these disadvantages, dedicated ebook readers are so far the big winners in the digital book revolution: an October 2009 Wall Street Journal article estimated that Kindle has 60 percent of the (still small) market and Sony Readers 35 percent; the B&N Nook will be making inroads. This is probably because it’s dedicated human readers at the forefront of the uptake wave of the new form, and dedicated human readers want dedicated ebook readers.
Multi-function or convergent ebook readers
To the fox – devices whose main purpose is something other than reading ebooks, but who can be turned to that purpose, often through installing an application or program. These are sometimes called convergent devices. One well-known portable example is the iPhone/iPod Touch, using reading applications such as Stanza. This is where my experience lies (see the bottom of this article for more info), but many mobile phones and most PDAs, like the Blackberry, offer similar functionality. And of course, you can read ebooks on your desktop computer or laptop but I am focusing here on the portable devices.
While the Wall Street Journal article implies that these devices are scrambling for the last 5% of the ebook market, this may change quite rapidly if the fabled Apple tablet device makes its appearance.
The advantages are that you’re getting ebook reading functionality in with something you were going to buy anyway, you can carry only one device instead of two and you don’t have to remember to take the extra, dedicated, device with you, they are generally more flexible in handling formats, and they’re often smaller and lighter and just plain prettier than their dedicated cousins.
Disadvantages include shorter battery life, no e-ink screen so it’s harder on the eyes (as is the smaller screen), and poor contrast in bright light – however, these devices are backlit for reading under the covers, whereas some dedicated ereaders have no backlighting to preserve their batteries. This is fine for reading by lamplight, thanks to the e-ink screens, but not for reading in the dark with your partner trying to sleep.
Choosing an ebook reader
Once you have decided between buying a dedicated device or a multi-function device, you need to choose a specific product. I’ve already mentioned the big players, but certainly there are many options. Major differences include how the text is displayed (e-ink vs touch screen, for example – currently you can’t get both, and they make a difference in the clarity of the display) and how files can be downloaded and organised.
Decide what is important to you, and remember to look at things like price, proprietary formats (do they make you buy ebooks in their locked format and if so, how much do those ebooks cost?), battery life, warranty, speed of obsolesce, transfer of data, and so on. There’s lots of info and reviews out there in internet-land, so make sure you know what you want and need, and do your research.
There are some eight or nine formats of ebooks in common use. And you thought the argument between Betamax and VHS was bad. There appears to be some agreement now towards using and supporting the ePub format as a standard, but ebook players remain wary – for example, Barnes and Noble reportedly developed “their own flavor” of ePub for their Nook, which really just means you need to up the count of the number of formats by one.
Most ebookstores (but not all) sell most formats, so the upshot for you, the human ebook reader, is only that you need to know what formats your device will support before you make any ebook purchases/uploads. If flexibility in format and in places to buy is important to you, you need to check that the device you are planning on buying does not lock you into one format or source of ebooks.
Personally, I would be very wary of anything that forced me to buy a single non-standard format without the flexibility to read other formats (like the Kindle) and any formats that are not doing well in the marketplace (anything bar the Kindle format and the industry-standard ePub format that the Sony eReaders and the B&N Nook uses, at the moment).
An emerging problem for readers not in the US is in geographic restrictions. Authors lease the right to publish their work by region: for example, an American publisher will buy first American rights, an Australian publisher will buy first Australian rights, and so on. If a publisher has not bought the worldwide electronic rights to a book, they cannot sell worldwide. And as we Australians are learning, if the publisher who does hold the electronic rights doesn’t want to use them (or if no publisher has paid for them), we’re out of luck.
Formats and geographic restrictions are a pain in the arse, but DRM is…a much worse pain in the arse involved with a certain type of getting screwed. DRM is Digital Rights Management, and has been one of the major blockers in wide adoption of ebooks. Its stated aim is to prevent piracy, but it is arguable as to whether it does.
Consider a paper book. Once you’ve bought it, you can do whatever you want with it. You can stick it on your bookshelf, take it anywhere you like, loan it out or give it away, re-sell it second-hand, or burn it if that take your sick little fancy. With DRM-affected ebooks, you have two options: you can keep it (but perhaps not forever), or you can trash it (or sometime the ebook provider can reach into your device and trash it for you). You’re limited in how many devices you can store the ebook on and how you can read it and who else can read it and whether you can print it and so on. Further, and worse, DRM effectively locks you into the single configuration of the device you are using now: change devices, upgrade your software, or have a crash, and you could lose all your DRM books as they disown you and pretend they’ve never met you before.
Since systems have improved so that you should be able to read your newly-purchased book without problems, you won’t know DRM is a problem for you until you change software and hardware and discover your elibrary can’t come with you.
You can also buy a physical book second-hand, borrow it from a library, or grab your friend’s copy as a temporary or permanent loan. There are gradual developments towards loaning out ebooks via the public library system (not in Australia, not yet), and the Nook allows a form of lending, but otherwise, the only option with ebooks is to buy them new.
Which is why pricing is another contentious area.
There is a strong perception that digital forms of entertainment should be cheaper than their physical counterparts. For example, when buying music online, there is a saving associated with the reduced costs of packaging and transport and retail shelf space for a CD. Games too are a little cheaper because of the reduced costs of buying via download verses buying via physical package.
Book publishers, however, have been determined to match the ebook cost to the cost of the printed book. If the ebook is released at the same time as the hardback, the ebook is priced the same as the hardback. Ditto for trade or paperback. Or the ebook is delayed until the paperback comes out. In general, publishers have tried very hard to keep ebook pricing about the same as paperback pricing.
This strikes many (human) readers as a little unfair given that there is no printing, storage or transport cost for an ebook, that they’ve often already invested in a pricey ebook reading device, and that they are paying for something they could really just go off and borrow from a friend or buy second-hand if they were dealing with the physical form. This is especially the case when testing out new authors you’re not sure if you want to buy yet.
After all, the disadvantages of ebooks still outweigh their advantages, and people risk investing money in building a digital collection that could be wiped out far more readily than a physical collection can be, due to the combination of format battles and DRM issues.
Amazon has been instrumental in driving the cost of ebooks down, by its $9.99 pricing policy (it generally takes a loss when it sells the Kindle version for this price) as it tries to keep up demand for its popular Kindle. Major publishers have strongly resisted this, but there are many small and/or ebook publishers who have embraced it and who strive to sell for that price or less.
The upshot for you is that books by major authors and major publishers will probably cost about the same as a paperback would, and you’ll be waiting as long or longer than you would be for the paperback.
However, one of the benefits of ebooks is that you can try out new authors by smaller publishers quite cheaply and readily – since these ebooks are often also DRM-free as well as cheaper, and also are usually unaffected by geographic restrictions.
What should I do now?
One way to ease into ebooks may be to start with pdfs – a format you’re probably familiar with – and read it on an existing portable device – you probably already have a convergent-type device that can read pdfs or at least txt files. It might not be the ideal, but it will give you a taste of its potential (and how hard or easy you find it to work out how to load applications and transfer files etc).
However, don’t dismiss ebooks based on your pdf-reading experience: pdfs were designed for printing. A format like ePub is designed to reflow and be read on small screens. Also don’t dismiss ebooks based on convergent devices; you might find a dedicated ebook reader ideal for your needs. This method is just a taste.
To try it out, there’s plenty of legally free ebooks, usually public domain, out there (just do a search or visit Project Gutenberg), in the ePub or plain text format. I highly recommend some Jane Austen or the swashbuckling Prisoner of Zenda.
To buy a new read, you can visit Smashwords to support independent authors, try Fictionwise if you know which exact book you want, or go to Barnes and Noble or the Amazon Kindle store to browse and read sample chapters.
If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, consider Stanza. Here’s my take on it, and my tips for how best to use it. The Kindle for iPhone is fantastic for accessing sample chapters to preview-before-purchase on a new author or book (something Fictionwise and BooksonBoard via Stanza fall down on); the B&N eReader also allows you to access sample chapters.
And lastly, I should probably point out my books are cheap, easy to buy from many sources and in many formats, without geographic restriction, and DRM-free.