Until this month, I’d never even glanced at an e-book. Now I’ve read three and can’t stop thinking about where this is going.

The Story Thus Far · It was the Samsung Galaxy Tab and Stieg Larsson that pushed me over the edge. I was on a road-trip and too tired one free evening to even think of going out. Also, on my last long airplane leg I’d read the first book in Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, enjoying his agile high-velocity plotsmanship even while my suspension-of-disbelief wavered; who know Sweden had so much bad craziness?

So I decided to read the other Millennium books without visiting a bookstore. Along with those, I’ve used the Tab to read Gene Wolfe’s The Sorcerer’s House and am about to dive into The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher.

My early take is that, on balance, for the purposes of reading, I prefer the glowing pixels to the dead trees. It’s easier both on my wrists and on the temperate rain forests near where I live that they cut down and grind up to make paper.

But, you know, there are two things you do with books: read them and share them. Which presents problems.

Electronic Book Alternatives · I imagine that the book-reading options on the Galaxy Tab are a good sampling of what’s available now and will be in the near term. Without trying hard, I’ve accumulated four different book-reading tools.

Kindle Android App · There’s a lot to like about Kindle; they have a ton of books, and the prices are decent, and you can read anything you buy on anything you own, and the reader is nice and fast.

The selection of books is a lot smaller for Canadians, though; for example, they didn’t have the second and third Larsson books.

Aldiko · This is an ePub reader with a couple of nice user-interface features. Get the details from Ryan Paul’s recent write-up in Ars Technica.

eBook · This is a program that came with the Galaxy Tab, and it sort of looks and feels related to Aldiko, but has a very slick reading UI, with a dramatic and graceful page-turning animation. I have no idea who made it or what it’s all about.

Kobo · The Samsung also came with a “Readers Hub”, including News (“powered by PressDisplay”), Books (“powered by Kobo”), and Magazines (“powered by Zinio”). When I found myself stuck in my hotel room looking to read Larsson, Kobo was the only place that would sell it to me.

I wasn’t particularly impressed; the typography was weak and lost some vital separators that obviously were there in the paper version; scenes and their conversations would shift with no visible indication. Also it was a bit pricier than Amazon.

On the other hand, they claimed that when you buy the book, you get the ePub file, which I liked. Only when I tried to download it I got this little file containing just a URN; when I questioned this via email to the support address, I got a fairly opaque answer saying that this was the key I’d need to unlock the ePub on “Adobe Digital Editions”; say what? I’ll dig some more on that later.

Hardware Choices · I find the Tab pleasing as a book-delivery tool. It’s light, readable, and responsive. I turned the font-size down a couple of notches in all the reader apps. I suspect that the 7-inch form factor may prove a better bet than the current iPad form factor, simply for reasons of weight. I’ve never given a Kindle or Nook a serious try, but I was impressed by Mark Jaquith’s argument that maybe you want both kinds of readers.

The Elephant in the Room · I own many books. A lot of them were bought used or passed on from friends and family. I’ve passed on a lot of books to my friends and family. My wife and enjoy some of the same books and disagree enjoyably about others. Recently, it’s been fun sharing graphic novels with my 11-year-old, for example Bone and Hikaru no Go.

I admire fine typography and good photoprinting and high-resolution data graphics.

If we’re not careful, we could lose all of these things.

Bibliophilia · I’m not terribly worried about the aesthetic aspects. Fine-book publishing has never really enjoyed much in the way of economies of scale, so I don’t see any reason why the likely dramatic decline in mass-market paper book production should really hurt it.

Frankly, fine typography is not essential to enjoying Stieg Larsson, and it’ll still be there for Edward Tufte for as long as he wants it.

Sharing · This is the sticking-point with me. There just absolutely has to be a way to do it. The problem is subtle, because it matters whether people are reading on something like a Kindle that sits on the coffee table and gets passed around the family, or on an intensely personal device like the Galaxy Tab; mine is stuffed with highly-confidential Google stuff, and highly-personal email with friends, enemies, and loved ones. If you want to read on a personal device, there’s not only the emotional objection to the loss of sharing, there are financial issues; at current e-book prices, it’s unattractive to buy three copies in a reading family.

Those in the business of books are unlikely to be losing sleep because I’m whining about sharing, but they’d better be careful. We saw what happened in the music space, and I think authors are way more vulnerable than musicians. First off, no matter how much piracy is going on, a musician can always fall back on live performance. Second, your average novel, compared to music or video, is remarkably small; trivially easy to share once the digital locks are broken, as broken they will be.

How Much? · Consider William Gibson’s Zero History, which I recently purchased and enjoyed in hardcover for around $25. I’d be surprised if Mr. Gibson got more than a dollar or two, and when it comes out in a $12.99 paperback he’ll be getting less.

I’d be totally happy to buy an e-book for more or less what the author gets paid, plus a markup of maybe 100% to cover the costs of marketing and editing, as long as I can share it at a family-and-friends scale. It’d be a no-brainer.

But given the current arrangements, I’m being charged just a little bit less than I pay for paper and getting a whole lot less, and it just doesn’t feel like a good deal. Of course, a setup like I’m proposing would leave the publishing industry as we know it in ruins. Which wouldn’t bother me in the slightest as long as the authors and editors can still get paid.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Raphael Savina (Sep 27 2010, at 03:59)

To help with sharing, Amazon is offering the best legal option.

You could have a family "coffee table" Kindle linked to a family account that would allow each family members to read books on their devices (Kindle, Android, iPhone, computer,...). This is still far from perfect but the best so far.

Timed loans could be an option, from your Amazon account you loan an ebook you have bought to a friend, let say for example for 2 weeks after which it will automatically be back to you to read or loaned to someone else... This model could work for libraries.

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From: Paul Morriss (Sep 27 2010, at 04:10)

I love libraries, as I don't like keeping books, but I love reading. Fortunately library services are still free to me, but I'd pay a subscription if they weren't. I'd be willing to pay a small amount for borrowing an e-book if someone could work out a way to do it. However I think like with the sharing problem you highlight, that's not a problem that anyone's that bothered about solving. This can only be bad.

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From: Ciaran (Sep 27 2010, at 04:14)

I'm midway through my first venture into the world of non-paper books. (Joseph Conrad's Nostromo)

Another option for you, on Android, is FBReader. It's my preferred option because it's the one I get the source code for, plus I can't find anything wrong with it to make me consider something else.

I'm surprised to find that I'm quite liking the experience so far.

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From: JulesLt (Sep 27 2010, at 04:16)

Books are really the point where we have to decide what we want - between an economy that rewards people for creating, or a load of rubbish that basically supports the IT industries demand for 'content' regardless of value.

I'm also surprised that people interested in digital technology still come back to the idea that musicians can make money through live performance.

While true, it's also placing performance before composition and song-writing (and as we know, there are people good at those things who are not great performers - digital technology has liberated many of them).

On the other hand, the mere musician can make easy money by playing the music of Mozart or Pink Floyd, rather than original material.

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From: David Goodger (Sep 27 2010, at 04:17)

You should read Charles Stross' excellent article explaining the current situation and economics of ebooks:

http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/05/cmap-9-ebooks.html

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From: Kjetil (Sep 27 2010, at 04:21)

With regards to Kindle, you can have up to 5(last I checked) registered devices per account. This makes sharing books within a family/household ok, not perfect, but ok.

I got a Kindle2 which I prefer reading on, e-ink to me is easier on the eye. That said, I do use Kindle on my Nexus One when I got moments to spare & don't have the Kindle2 around. Syncing between the devices makes such 'random' reading a breeze.

I too was reluctant to digital reading, now, I can't imagine not having my Kindle.

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From: vk77de (Sep 27 2010, at 04:36)

Does Mr. Gibson really need a publisher?

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From: Janne (Sep 27 2010, at 05:20)

The problem with pricing ebooks like pocketbooks is that you get less. Since you can't resell the used book - or give it away to a friend, or receive from a friend in turn - the value for us is lower, and that needs to be reflected in the price. Whether ebooks are as expensive to produce as paper books or not is beside the point for buyers.

Oh and the weight of the device is hugely important. I played with an iPad for a while recently and was holding it in one hand for about ten minutes (playing Plants vs. Zombies if you must know). At the end of those ten minutes my shoulder and upper arm was going stiff and hurting from the strain of holding it. I couldn't use a device with the weight of an iPad for a book reader if I can't hold it during my commute.

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From: John Cowan (Sep 27 2010, at 05:48)

I've been reading ebooks in a small way for quite a while now. I get them from webscription.net with no DRM, and I can download them in a variety of formats. I choose to download them in .rtf format and read them with OpenOffice.org, because when I see a typo in the book, I fix it and hit Save, and then I *never* have to see that typo again, ever.

Granted, the choice isn't large, and most of my books still come from Amazon or ABEbooks.

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From: Bill Seitz (Sep 27 2010, at 06:02)

I think the future of the ebook is the website, and the future ebook reader is the browser.

http://webseitz.fluxent.com/wiki/BookServer

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From: anakin78z (Sep 27 2010, at 06:45)

The nook app allows for limited sharing of books (there seems to be a limit on how many times you can share certain books).

Also, if it's mainly family you share with, you could simply share the account. That's how my wife and I share the books we read. She has the actual nook, while I read on my Android.

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From: stephen o'grady (Sep 27 2010, at 07:20)

The big question for me is: what happens in future? I'm not familiar with the other readers, but at least with the Kindle I have significant questions about the long term viability of the format for me as a reader.

Not the service: by all accounts, Kindle has been a success story for Amazon and looks to have a long and profitable life ahead of it.

But the format; what if I don't like the devices they produce in future? What if, for example, I get an HP slate but they decline to make a webOS Kindle client? What if a competing service launches that I like better? What then of my Kindle texts?

At the present time, there are no good answers to these questions for users of the Kindle. At least as far as I'm aware. The money I've invested, therefore, may or may not be future proof as is a regular dead tree book.

So while, like you, I enjoy the experience of reading digitally, besides one or two books bought in desperation at times when I had no other option, my Kindle library consists of nothing more than books that have passed into the public domain. I just can't persuade myself to invest in a platform that might not be an option for me within a few years time.

To each their own, though, of course.

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From: Tony Fisk (Sep 27 2010, at 07:23)

The coffee book share option sounds like the best option. Except, do all participants *have* to own the same brand of hardware?

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From: Christoph Luehr (Sep 27 2010, at 12:09)

A fine essay by Richard Stallman of FSF fame on the topic of DRM books, "The right to read":

http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/right-to-read.html

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From: Edward Jones (Sep 27 2010, at 14:05)

With both the new Gibson & le Carre's sitting in hardcopy and a stack of library books the main attraction for me at the moment for something like a Kindle is being able to keep ontop of the work reading - a blackberry with a bigger screen. Until the sharing (and second hand?) becomes a bit more real then for even the trashiest of airport reads then the local library wins.

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From: Robert Cameron (Sep 27 2010, at 15:10)

While I prefer Aldiko on my Android devices, B&N's nook app allows for sideloaded content as well. (Place the files in /sdcard/Nook/MyDocuments/ on your Android device, then in the nook app go to "Menu > Filter > MyDocuments".)

For those inquiring about loaned/rented content, this is already possible. B&N's nook allows a 2 week lending period for selected books where it is removed from your device and appears on someone else's device for the allotted 2 weeks. Also, some libraries allow eBook check-outs using OverDrive and Adobe DRM. (I'm not sure how to get OverDrive DRM content onto a tablet, but I know it works with Adobe Digital Editions and a B&N nook ... perhaps it will work similarly with tablets.)

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From: Miles Bader (Sep 27 2010, at 18:13)

I like the _concept_ of ebooks (book-pile reduction!), but I hate (1) the attempts by the publishing industry to establish the norms on their terms (which are predictably Not Very Nice for the reader or the author), and (2) the form-factor/aesthetics/"UI", which still seem remarkably primitive.

You seem to be comparing your galaxy-s to hardbacks, and I guess it doesn't fare too badly in such a comparison -- but compared to more pedestrian formats it's still heavy, bloated, and fragile ... and way too expensive. My personal benchmark is the "hip-pocket book": small, flexible, and cheap enough to carry around in your hip-pocket, and yet still provide a good reading experience (which current phones, for instance, do not). [Japanese A6 paperbacks (bunko) are one of the best examples of this, as they're smaller, thinner, more flexible, far higher quality, and cheaper than U.S. paperbacks.]

Of the current ebook/tablet purveyors, only Amazon really seems to understand this, and to give them credit, their progress with the kindle shows they're clearly trying as hard as they can to reach such an ideal -- but they've got a ways to go yet (and predictably they're much less progressive about the actual ebooks than the hardware).

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From: Phil (Sep 27 2010, at 22:13)

My solution for the sharing problem is that ebooks are for public domain works only. If I can't share it, I won't spend money on it. Luckily feedbooks.com keeps me plenty busy.

You're even more fortunate to live in a country with reasonable copyright limits. Mark my words; in ten years Canada's largest export is going to be its public domain.

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From: Dave Pawson (Sep 28 2010, at 01:52)

Have you considered a PC based reader Tim? I'm sure you carry one with you.

So far, Calibre is my tool of choice, I'm sure there are more.

HTH DaveP

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From: tom watana (Sep 28 2010, at 05:41)

Tim,

I'm more than a little intrigued. You email with your enemies? You have enemies?? How odd!

Tom

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From: Chris (Sep 28 2010, at 08:41)

I've been reading e-books for almost two decades! First on an old Pentium 75 PC and the occasional CD full of "classic" books, later on the various readers available on the old palmOS such as eReader and mobi-pocket. As a side note mobi was bought by Amazon and the mobi format is the basis for the Kindle format. Almost any non-drm .mobi files for the Kindle (like those created by Instapaper) can be renamed to .prc and read on mobi-pocket on palmOS today.

There are many resources for public domain and creative commons licensed e-books ranging from plain text from project gutenburg (gutenberg.org) to pre-formatted for various readers from manybooks.net.

re: Libraries: Many public libraries offer time limited e-books via overdrive using the Adobe Digital Editions DRM on top of the e-pub format and many e-book readers (except notably the Kindle) can make use of this resource.

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From: Hub (Oct 01 2010, at 22:23)

Adobe Digital Editions = DRM. One more time the content industry and the distribution industry has decided to cripple itself with a third-party. When said third-party decide to go out of business (one way or the other) the content will be screwed.

While I personally love using an eBook reader to read electronic documents like books, I really hate the idea to see the book I purchase tied to the good willingness of a software vendor. Worse. being in Canada that mean the content is restricted to whoever they want to authorize to "re-sell". I don't have that problem with dead trees. I can order wherever I want.

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From: Blu (Oct 03 2010, at 21:28)

You might try a sci-fi website publisher called "Baen Books" if you happen to read this kind of stuff. Once you've bought their book (very reasonably priced - less than Kindle or Kobo) you can download it as many times as you like to as many devices as you like.

Unfortunately I haven't found anything else quite so generous.

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From: Mike (Oct 04 2010, at 03:55)

You don't mean "sharing." You mean financially subsidizing someone else's reading, to the detriment of the author's income.

You can "share" by praising a book and recommending it. Then the sharee can purchase it if he's motivated to do so.

The advantage of this sort of sharing is that the sharee can safely ignore your suggestion and doesn't have to avoid you for fear that you'll ask if he's read the book.

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