Saturday, June 30, 2012

E-Books

How I Made A Start

As someone who has loved reading since childhood and having the good fortune to have been around at the start of the commercial Internet and so had the presence of mind to register a domain like literature.org I've nevertheless always felt a little uneasy about electronic books. Having a bundle of pages in your hand, being able to read pretty much anywhere without the need for anything but light and also that warm glow that comes from having shelves upon shelves of book on display at home makes me feel good. Now, instead we are all being pushed into accepting the new world order where the same work costs me more and the publisher less - and with the exception of some well known names and lucky new break-through ones I am certain the authors are not doing much better financially - seemed a recipe for madness. Even having established literature.org based on the public domain texts being published by Project Gutenberg and others I found it hard to read more than a few pages or a chapter on a screen at one sitting - a PC screen wasn't it for me.

This all changed because of a recent combination of circumstances. I bought myself a nice shiny-in-a-brushed-steel-way Asus Transformer Prime tablet earlier this year and I also began a two month long journey to the Far East for work spanning May and June. As I write this I am less than 24 hours from getting on the plane to start the journey home - but that story is for another post. Normally when I go on holiday or a shorter business trip I'll tend to pack a paperback or three and maybe look forward to seeing if there are any good titles to pick up either at the airport or my destination; On my last real holiday to Bali the resort had quite a good selection of left-behind books in an ad-hoc library in their restaurant area, which seemed a great idea. I left a couple of the more trashy books I had bought with me behind to add to the pile.

However, back to e-books and me; I wasn't sure how it would work at first so during April I downloaded a few free and very cheap titles from Amazon's Kindle store, Google Books (now Google Play Books) and some free titles from Project Gutenberg and others to see if I could now get past the electronic part and just see books. Below is some of what happened next including the how and why with some tips that you might find helpful.

DRM and why it is bad

First of all, like anything else a methodical nerd would do, I went ahead and started testing the various file formats, reader software to support them and other miscellaneous parts of the e-book eco-system. One of the constraints I set myself was to try to avoid DRM wherever I could. DRM (Digital Rights Management) is copy protection by a different name and it works solely for the benefit of the publisher, neither the author (regardless of how it's presented) and most certainly never the consumer - that's you and me, the people with the hard earned money paying for it all. Why now? Well, if I enjoy a book and I want to recommend it by lending it to friends or if I don't want to keep it on the shelf I can always sell it on and someone else can potentially enjoy it. If I have a collectable copy then in itself it has value which I could possibly cash in on in the future. All of these options are taken away from you by DRM. While it's presented as a way of protecting the authors and their estates from copying and rampant piracy, or so we are told, in reality all it does is make life difficult for consumers, reduces our rights without much recourse and has slowed the adoption of digital media across all types of content, not just books. As the old anti-drugs campaign slogan said: Just say no.

Luckily there are a number of authors and publishers who realise these negatives and have chosen to sell, and in many cases give away, their work. By doing this they are trusting us to be sensible and to realise that unless we respect their rights to be paid for their hard work then there will be no motivation for authors in the future to put so much creative energy and effort into their books and we will all be the poorer for it. More about the options later.

Got the hardware, now choosing the software

I tried a number of commercial and free readers and library managers such as the Amazon Kindle App for Android, Google Play Books, Kobo, Aldiko and the bundled Asus "MyLibrary" - which just seems to be an older version of Aidiko - and they all had more cons than pros, but the conclusion I have come to so far is that the best reading app, even with it's deficiencies, is the Amazon Kindle one. Recently, while I was travelling, Amazon updated their app to better support tablets like my TF201 and this has made the experience somewhat better but it's still got a way to go. In second place I use the freeware Orion Viewer for those texts that are best read in PDF format such as O'Reilly publications - it's lighter weight than the Adobe PDF Reader, has more features and is Open Source too.

What's still missing in Kindle app? Well, the lack of text re-flow and user selected layout (such as full justification on badly formatted text) are annoying and a lack of font selection doesn't help, but the biggest negative for me is the complete lack of a library organiser; the software cannot categorise or order or group my books in any useful way. The best I can do is archive those I have already read which just deletes them from the device but leaves them on the Amazon database for later reloading. They need to address this especially as people start to grow their personal libraries and don't necessarily want to mix work, technical, fiction, biographical and other traditional categories.

Sourcing the content

I started by "buying" a number of free books from Amazon along with a few discounted or cheap volume including classics such as H2G2. I think the most expensive volumes I've purchased include Dawkin's The Selfish Gene (then 99p on a special offer) and James Gleik's The Information (£4.99, but I like his writing). I very quickly started resenting the DRM on all Amazon Kindle store content. What if I wanted to lend a book to a friend once I'd finished it? Easy with paper, hard to impossible with Amazon. But the deal breaker, for me, is that for almost every Amazon e-book is either more expensive that any paper edition or if not that then there are always other sellers offering editions for a discount which is of course not available in a closed and anti-competitive marketplace such as the one Amazon seeks to control using DRM.

Rejoice though, as not all is lost to corporate greed and poorly disguised excuses about contractual agreements there are plenty of alternatives and Amazon do actually help their customers to get these books onto their Kindle hardware or software. Amazon themselves even offer free Personal Documents storage for up to 5GB of content. Below I'll show you how to make use of this and other tools to try to let you build a library and to try to protect it against potential future problems.

After searching for other people's experiences and reading around I have settled on two primary sources of DRM-free e-books: O'Reilly for technology and Smash Words for fiction. O'Reilly do a really good deal for it's traditional book customers. If you register your paper library on their site then you can buy those editions that are available as e-books for $4.99 or you can get discounted e-books for those where only newer editions are available. Smash Words is a great self-publishing site where there is a fine selection of works from a variety of authors across a wide spectrum of genres, fiction and non-fiction. They also - if you plan to publish works - handle distribution to other e-book sellers for you.

E-Book formats

Once you have started to collect or buy your library, and I am going to assume you agree with me and have wisely chosen the DRM-free route, then you have to choose the format of the book to download. All the ebook sites offer a variety of file formats aimed at different reading hardware and software. Picking the right one for your reader would be simple, right? No, it's not quite that easy. For the Amazon Kindle and reader apps you will almost always want the .mobi files which Amazon will convert into their Kindle specific format and send to you next time you sync your reader. However from my experiments they may not always be the most complete or appropriately formatted versions. I tried the .mobi files for technical books from O'Reilly but the additional complexity of tables, screen-shots and code examples were poorly rendered on the Kindle reader app. For those I concluded the PDF versions the best laid-out and while the Kindle reader will present PDF files on my tablet they are not the easiest to read or navigate. That's why I chose Orion as it allows the user the crop pages to remove large margins and navigation is simple - but it doesn't support contents page links and there is no easy way to jump around a long text without going through menus.

There are other common formats including epub and others but I couldn't find better reader software for them.

In summary: I have settled on is to download the .mobi format for Kindle reading and the .pdf files from O'Reilly. Now I have the files, how do I get them onto the tablet and how do I manage them with a mind to securing them for the future as well as the now?

Managing my library

Well, being the slightly paranoid nerd that I am I want to make sure that these books I am buying have more longevity than the lifetime of the tablet I am loading them onto or even the PC I am downloading them to on the start of their journey to my eyeballs. The non-secret here is backups folks, backups. The backup process I have initially settled on is to use my Google Drive account, which gives me 5GB free storage, just like the Amazon personal document store - are you seeing a connection yet? - and then either accessing them directly as PDFs for reading in Orion or sending them to Amazon for conversion and download to the Kindle software. This is easy on a normal PC and the general workflow is as follows:

For PDFs

  1. Download PDF straight to the virtual Google Drive on my PC, creating a directory hierarchy that matches where I expect to find the book ("Technology", "Manuals" etc.)
  2. Check that the file syncs (the little red X on the file screams "error!") as sometimes the Google Drive software fails - then restart it - and once that's done sync the tablet's Google Drive
  3. Select the PDF directly and let Orion present it once it's downloaded - for those books or manuals that I expect to need when I am offline I simply mark it as "available offline" in the Google Drive app on my tablet.

For .mobi

For books destined for the Kindle app it's slightly more convoluted, but there is method to the madness:
  1. Download the .mobi file to Google Drive again arranging it somewhere I can find again. I tend not to rename files even if the file-name is not representative of the title and author for reasons that will become clear
  2. Check the file syncs as above
  3. Go to the web interface for Google Drive
  4. Select the file - and only one file at a time at the time of writing - that I want to read
  5. Select More → Share → Share as attachement and mail to my Kindle Personal Document address - I edited mine to have a custom, easy to remember one
  6. After a short while go to the Kindle app and Check and Sync - voila!
The reason I don't e-mail direct from my PC's Google Drive is that while travelling I am at the end of what appears to be a wet piece of string and downloading then uploading then downloading then uploading and then finally downloading the file seems a little pointless. Also, given I use gmail the Google Drive web interface can send files directly in the background.

Now, for my .mobi files I have an "original" copy on Google and a converted copy on Amazon both stored for free and I am hoping that this offers some level of resilience against accidental, malicious or corporate damage in the future.

Conclusions

Since I have started using this process I have read a dozen or so titles and have another couple of dozen waiting in the background. A few of the changes I would like to see in the future - and this can never be a comprehensive list - include:
  1. Amazon loses the DRM just like Apple has been forced to on music in their iTunes marketplace or even just add features that allow me to pass titles to other people of my chosen at no cost and/or establish a market for "second hand" e-books
  2. Amazon's Kindle app for Android needs more book management features and more reading options
  3. Orion needs better navigation and Android integration as well as auto-cropping for margins - the latter exists in some other free PDF reader apps but I traded that for the other features of Orion
This is my first blog post and I've never been a very good writer, so your feedback and comments are appreciated.

2 comments:

  1. Lots of info and well thought out piece. Nice post. If you have a safari books subscription you earn credits you can use towards pdfs or epub editions but these will be personalised with prepared for your name and a unique id on every page but no DRM.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You may want to look into using Calibre for both library management and format conversion. I have my calibre library sitting on Dropbox which makes it easy to get to via iPad, PC or Sony Reader.

    ReplyDelete