How to tame e-books

I haven’t exactly been rushing out to buy an e-reader, for at least a couple of reasons. The practical reason is that I’m afraid of being locked in to a single vendor. Amazon is the market leader and the most likely to still be around for the long term, but they’re the worst about locking you in. The other vendors offer slightly better interoperability–supporting the same file format and, optionally, the same DRM–but the non-Amazon market leaders are Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Sony, all of which are scary. Borders is being liquidated; B&N isn’t losing money–yet–but its profit margins have shrunk each of the last two years; and Sony’s recent problems are well known to the security community. I’m not too anxious to climb into bed with any of them. Google is entering the market as well, but the first Google-backed e-reader doesn’t support highlighting or note-taking.

The Luddite reason is that I’m old enough to have an attachment to books. Physical books, printed on paper. Maybe this isn’t true for any generation beyond mine (I’m a GenXer), but for my generation and previous generations, having books on your shelf is a sign of being educated. And there are certain books–or types of books, depending on your field–that you’re expected to have on your shelf.

To a certain extent, the latter reason can be negated by playing the e-reader card. Of course I have the complete works of Shakespeare on my e-reader, so those Shakespeare books from college just became clutter…

(From here on out, I’m going to refer to “books” and “readers” unless it isn’t clear from context whether I’m referring to electronic or physical, as I find all this “e-” stuff to be tiring.)

I’m not going to talk about hardware, because all of the vendors refresh their reader hardware at least once a year to stay current. And I’m reluctant to talk about specific bookstores too. I investigated the major bookstores, and what I found was that any of them can supply you with current and recent New York Times bestsellers. I also found that none of them appear to have as many books for sale as they claim. All claim millions, and if you can even verify how many they actually deliver, the number of books they actually have for sale is more along the lines of 500-900 thousand.

But I’m actually not all that interested in those stores, because generally speaking, if you buy a book from Barnes & Noble, you can’t read it on a Kobo reader.

Some people get around the issue entirely by getting an iPad, loading the Kindle, Nook, and Kobo apps on them, and not worrying about who they buy books from. But that’s really a kludge. It means having to look four different places–iBooks, Kindle, Nook, and Kobo–to find a book, or remember where you bought the book from. Some people are willing to live with that. Others aren’t. Count me in that group. And what if you want an e-ink reader? Then the iPad isn’t an option. The whole reason e-ink exists is because some people don’t like reading books on an LCD screen–you can put me in that group too–and if you happen to be one of those, you won’t be all that happy with any solution that involves an iPad or Android tablet.

What to do?

If you want a reasonable degree of vendor independence (at least among non-Amazon vendors), buy books in ePub format without DRM if possible, or if you can’t get the book in unencumbered format, get one with Adobe DRM, since it’s the one standard most readers support.

The Calibre reader software is invaluable for this, allowing you to search for titles from all of the bookstores, including some you probably haven’t heard of. Calibre can even convert e-books for you, if you can’t find the book in exactly the format your reader needs (if DRM allows). Calibre runs on desktop PCs–Windows, OS X, and Linux–so it’s not quite as convenient as just firing up a reader and buying a book from its preferred vendor wirelessly, but avoiding vendor lock-in is rarely convenient. In Calibre’s defense, it can load books to your reader. So while you may not be able to buy books literally everywhere you have a cellular or wi-fi connection, at least you can still buy and load books in one step.

Of course that also means it’s not really worth paying extra to get a device with wi-fi or cellular connectivity since you’ll probably be making most of your purchases with a computer.

The other upside to Calibre is that it knows where to look to find free, public domain books and, if need be, it can convert them. The downside I’ve seen to the public domain books is that they are sometimes crudely converted to ePub format, so you may end up wanting or needing to do some cleanup if you find yourself using the book a lot. But the good news is that you’re well within your rights to do that. And if the book is available from multiple sources, you can try different copies of it in hopes of finding a cleaner one. One reason Project Gutenberg has a few thousand titles available instead of millions is because it takes greater care to clean them up.

Whether the free books matter to you really depends on what you’re interested in, but if any of your interests extend to how things were done prior to 1924, some of them will prove helpful. I’ve found things in Google’s archives that I didn’t even know I was interested in until I stumbled onto it. The nice thing about it was that it was there, in most cases, long before I had any idea I was interested.

And what if you can’t get the book in a compatible format? You can break the DRM and convert it. I won’t tell you how, but a Google search will give you the info you need. The DMCA forbids this, but it also forbids ripping DVDs and converting them to watch on a tablet or laptop and people still do it. Ethically, I think it’s OK to do as long as you don’t hand out copies of the file–the author, publisher still got paid, and so did the distributor who sold you the file–but the law hasn’t caught up with human decency yet.

I would think digital publishing should open up some good questions about interoperability and DRM and length of copyright. It saddens me that more people aren’t asking these questions. It seems that large numbers of people are perfectly content maintaining several libraries, and it never occurs to them to ask the question whether they should have to. So I’ll ask it. Should they have to?

I think not.

There’s still time for more people to ask the other questions.

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