Category Archives: ebooks

Finding a new best Ebook reader

sony ereaderI am, by-and-large, not an early adopter of technology. By which I mean, I am not the sort of person to go after the “Latest And Greatest” just because. Sometimes I’ll be on the leading edge, but it will be for some idea I love, know exactly how I want to use, and intend to stay faithful to it for years. Which doesn’t always pan out the way I envisage. (MiniDisc is a good example – great tech, but the execution was bumbling and the industry moved on before Sony really sorted themselves out. Which some would argue they never really did.)

But it is why I never bought a Kindle years ago. Why I don’t now is a different reason. But I do have a Sony T1, which I find just barely useable. Mostly because it’s just a little bit too slow.

The ebook landscape has erupted in the last few years something amazing. It has also been part of the story of why so many bookstores have vanished, including the collapse of one of Australia’s biggest book chains. Buying on the Internet has helped in both ways. When you know exactly what book you, going to a website is much faster than finding a bookstore that might have it at best, or having one being able to order it in at worst. Buying ebooks this way, where as soon as the purchase is complete, you can download the file then and there, was a red-hot obvious next step.

Despite pressure from basically the rest of the industry, Amazon still will not put ePub support into their Kindle ebook readers. Amazon doesn’t seem to like the rest of the ebook industry existing because they are strongly rumoured to want to be the only place all books, physical or not, are bought and sold. You’ll never hear them say this, of course. But it goes quite a long way to explain the whole Kindle ecosystem they built. Their ebook reader is not a standalone device: it is tightly integrated with the Amazon ebook delivery mechanism. They spent a lot of time and money making it stupidly easy to purchase Kindle-format ebooks from them.

Would that someone else had copied that and figured out how to do it better. Apple could, as they also excel at creating an integrated ecosystem. But they didn’t want to become a publisher. Sony could have, too, but they have a bad habit of dithering around until they can successfully hit their own foot. MiniDisc again. However, it’s obvious they actually know how to do it, because they’ve been pretty successful at it with their Playstation Network.

As it happens, I genuinely prefer a physical book, often referred to as “dead tree” edition. But ebooks aren’t going away and there are just enough that I want to read that my T1 was recently exhumed from the shelf it was gathering dust on and recharged for adding new material to.

But is it the best choice? I often have my Surface Pro with me nowadays. And people have been reading on iPads and Android tablets for years. Should I go looking for a good ebook reader for my Surface Pro? The one in Calibre is not bad, but it is quirky. Or should I go looking for another e-ink device?


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Ebooks and the evil Amazon

The ebook landscape has changed somewhat since I last blogged about it. And yet at the same time not a lot has changed.

I don’t buy many ebooks. In fact, I don’t buy many books, but even so, most of my purchases in the last year have still been physical books. Part of the reason is that I’m still getting used to the experience of reading on a device, rather than reading a physical book. The other thing is that I never bought into Amazon’s ebook kingdom. This is where you read ebooks on an Amazon Kindle, you buy ebooks on Amazon’s web site and you forget all about ebooks outside this walled garden.

Recent events show why this business model has deep flaws for end-users.

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The Price of Books

There is a bit of a kerfuffle at the moment around the way e-books are priced on retail websites. And this is more than readers complaining about prices that don’t make sense; it is about the US Department of Justice about to accuse several big publishers of pricing collusion.

Amazon and Apple and their business practices are at the centre of this. Both companies have the reputation and the ability to create a vision and then implement it. Both companies have the reputation, the ability and the desire to create closed “ecosystems”. Both companies sincerely want to be The Last Word and The Only Place for their technological niche. In Amazon’s case it is books, both on paper and electronic. For Apple, it is personal computing. Including electronic reading.


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The new E-reader!

As I said in a prior post, it’s a Sony PRS-T1. “PRS” stands for Personal Reading System, but I don’t know what the “T1” means. I reckon they should have put a friendly name on top of it. They own (or owned) the name “Bookman” so that is an obvious choice.

But no. Instead we get a model number.


The e-ink display is fabulous in most respects. It looks just like paper (which is the idea) and looks best in full sunlight. The only niggle I have is the way it refreshes, which includes a full reversal of the image. There is a technical reason for this, which I don’t understand quite enough to explain, but it slows the page refresh down considerably. I’m hoping that the next generation of e-ink, whenever it appears, will greatly improve this. But the current screens are extremely readable.

The touch interface is less wonderful. There is a significant lag before a touch is registered and responded to. And swiping to turn a page is cute up until it mysteriously decides you haven’t lifted your finger off and starts paging forward like crazy. This is a known bug but it’s unknown whether it’s a software or a hardware issue. For both of these reasons, I have been using the hard page change buttons.

I have read two whole books on it now, plus a magazine. The books were G’day LA by Tony McFadden and Write the Fight Right by Alan Baxter and the magazine was Aurealis #45. It was possible to get lost in the books whilst reading them and that’s a win for the overall ebook reading experience. I had tried reading all of them on my PC and it just wasn’t possible to get into them like that. So that’s a win for the e-reader.

Putting ebooks on it is very easy, too. It presents as mass-storage over USB so copying the file over is easy. And it rescans when you unplug it so it finds new stuff anywhere. But the very latest Calibre has a plug-in to recognise it and update the reader’s internal database, which makes things a lot quicker. I haven’t delved into the Collections mechanism yet, but I suspect that that is just a matter of time.

The home page shows the most recent book you have been reading, which is good, but it also shows the most recent three books you added, which is not so useful. I want to change that to the last three I viewed, but it doesn’t support that. That’s a collision in expectations of how it will be used. Worse: the online Sony Bookstore also doesn’t work for Australia, yet, which is a case of horribly bad timing on Sony’s part. This, of course, makes the WiFi capability thoroughly useless. Amazon has worked very successfully to make the Kindle system coherent and seamless – I am disappointed a large company like Sony cannot do the same, but sadly not surprised. (Sony missed so many chances with MiniDisc and digital music.)

Despite that, I’m glad I bought it. My next step is find a proper cover for it. I’m currently using the packing pouch it came in, but that’s not designed for that and is fast wearing out. This will help be able to hold it more easily. Overall, it’s a good purchase!

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I gave in. I ordered an ebook reader.

Remember when DVDs first came out?

The problem with any new read-only entertainment technology is that there is always a chicken-and-egg situation. How many DVDs did you have before you bought your first DVD player? Or did you buy the player first and looked at it for a week before you bought any titles? I think ebook readers are a bit like this. It’s all very well being excited about a electronic gizmo, but the thing is for reading books and so when do you go on your first ebook buying spree? Before you buy the reader, or shortly after you’ve got it home and charged?

(Admittedly retailers of ebook readers have kind of recognised this problem and tend to ship them with a couple of “free” books. The ereader app on my smartphone came with Jane Eyre, The Art of War, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, A Tale Of Two Cities, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and several others. Something for everyone, or so the theory goes.)

One of the main reasons I haven’t leapt into ebook readers is that it’s difficult or expensive or both to buy some of the older titles I know I will read and re-read and would kinda like to have easily available. Classics like The HitchHiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, just to take a semi-random example that I actually went looking for.

But what I’ve discovered in the last few months is that it is new titles that are driving takeup of ebooks. Publishers are converting backlists, true, but this is a long, slow process. I originally approached ebook readers with a mentality of shifting from physical books to electronic, somewhat akin to the many people who “bought everything again” when shifting from movies on VHS to DVD. However, this is not going to be possible for a long time, perhaps never.

One of the really big advantages to the rise of ebooks is how much easier it is for writers to self-publish and to do giveaways. Ebooks traverse the Internet so much easier and cheaper than a book in the post and since I’ve started becoming involved with writers and writing groups, I’ve suddenly started acquiring ebooks. Sadly, I’m finding ebook readers on PCs are all terribly mediocre. Even some of the open-source ones. The idea of a dedicated ebook reader has therefore become attractive – even moreso since Woolworths started offering Amazon’s Kindle in-store. Someone has clearly realized that there is a substantial portion of the book-reading population that won’t buy one sight-unseen. As a result, Kindles amongst commuters are much more visible in the last month.

I nearly bought a Kindle myself, in fact. But I always knew it was going to be my second choice, because I much prefered the touch-interface on Sony’s ebook readers. I also don’t really like embracing Amazon’s platform, for much the same reason I won’t buy any Apple iDevices. However, the WiFi-only version is in short supply (it’s cheaper, you see). And Sony are between models, with the older ones impossible to find.

And then Sony quietly announced pre-orders for it’s next model, the PRS-T1. So I ordered one. It’s due to arrive on or before the 16th of October.

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I’m not buying an e-reader, after all.

Okay, I’ve changed my mind. I’m not going to go and buy an ebook reader. Not for some time. It just doesn’t suit my reading habits.

I came to this realization yesterday when I had a good fiddle with a Sony Pocket E-Reader in a local Myer store. This is the 5″ e-ink reader that is nowhere near as popular as their 6″ reader. As it happened, it had a pretty decent sample book on it, Pride and Prejudice, which is a lot more readable than (say) the reader’s instruction manual, or something from Ancient Greece. More, I’m familiar with it.

The Sony reader’s have one big thing going for them over other readers: that clever touch interface. Flipping the page and navigating menus are both intuitive. Unfortunately, it’s not fast. Faster than the older Kindles, I grant you, but not on par with an LCD based reader (of which there are quite a few). And I’m not convinced the e-ink refresh has all that much to do with it. I flip pages much faster than that on a real book.

One alternative is an iPad or one of those new Android tablets. Both have two major disadvantages: they start at twice the price of the Sony reader, and I really don’t need Yet Another Portable Computer, though I’m sure I’d find other things to waste time on it with. Plus the iPad comes with buying into the Apple Ecosystem, which I have a philisophical problem with*. True, the Android devices have a similar problem, but it’s considerably lessened. Basically, these are way too powerful and much too expensive just for reading ebooks. When I accepted this, I also had to accept that the reason I was interested in an ebook reader in the first place was because it was new technology.

But the other reason I’m not going to buy an ebook reader is because I’m just not buying ebooks. Buying ebooks from authors in the traditional publishing system is generally more expensive than buying paperbacks, as I discovered recently. And it’s more annoying because the publishers haven’t been watching the music industry and are putting DRM on the files. This is annoying because the DRM clients do not have Linux versions**. Yes, there are lots of new authors who are self-publishing ebooks without DRM, which I will investigate once I find some copious free time. Which may be a while.

Meanwhile, I must have easily a thousand real books in my bookshelves. I had cause to estimate this because I moved some of those said shelves so decided to sort them. And quite a few of which are still on the floor, still unsorted. What was obvious to me is most of them I haven’t read in years and could easily re-read. And I’m still buying new ones.

Ebooks are an exciting new technology. The market is maturing rapidly, to be sure, and e-ink readers are doing a lot to help.

However, I’ve had to face up to the fact that the shift from a physical object to an electronic object is actually an astonishingly big step for me. I’ve bought software over the ‘net for years and still do. But I’ve very rarely bought music like that. The reasons are complex. I’ve never gotten used to using my computer to play music, for a start. Dislike of iTunes is another. Ebooks seem to be in the same category. Admittedly, I have at least acknowledged the attraction of a single purpose device for that.

So, for now, the few ebooks I buy will be read on a PC. And I’ll continue to buy real books.

* Curiously, I loved the first tablet device that Apple had success with into the mass market: the Newton MessagePad. And then Steve Jobs came back. :-/

** Yes, WINE is a solution. But it’s not a good solution. Besides, the support forums are filled with people having authorization issues. This suggests the DRM is getting in the way more than it should be. And that’s a Fail.

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Publishers don’t like ebooks.

I’m right on the edge of shifting to ebooks. Well, that’s misleading. I should say adding ebooks to my reading. I have no intention of abandoning my hundreds, if not thousands, of paper books in my posession. But ebooks are becoming respectable. There are authors now making a living selling almost entirely ebooks. New authors mostly, a fact which will become important later. There are reports Amazon is selling more ebooks to Kindles than sending real books in the post. Even up against Amazon’s Kindle, I see Sony having trouble keeping it’s flagship ereader in stock and, due to the open formats, many small players have surfaced. No doubt about it, readers are embracing ebooks.

But I think publishers are seriously struggling to grasp this change in the marketplace.

How much do you normally pay for a paperback in your local bookstore? This will vary across the world, but I’ve watched the prices rise considerably over the decades here in Australia. A typical mass-market fantasy paperback now retails north of AU$20, sometimes as high as AU$35.

So, go for an ebook version instead, you say? Ebooks are supposed to be cheaper, you say? According to whom, pray?

I recently purchased “Rides a Dread Legion” by Raymond E Feist. He’s a good example for this because Feist is an established fantasy author who has been around for several decades. This particular title is barely two years old and there are two sequels already on the shelves. I paid AU$20.99 for a small paperback version in a chain bookstore. Although I usually like Feist’s writing, I think he’s been off his game in some recent works and I may find this to be another. I haven’t bought a book like that for months because I don’t like that risk at that price. But I have the earlier ones in that series. So.

I don’t have an ereader quite yet, so buying it as an ebook would mostly be just an intellectual exercise. But I was curious as to what it would cost as an ebook. So I went looking.

Angus & Robertson have it on their website for AU$30.95. Yes, that was the ebook version, complete with odious DRM. The very same website has four paperback versions, three of which were less than that (the fourth is bizarrely $71.95 – I joked on Twitter that it must be handwritten on parchment). The cheapest was $15.95. That’s right: half the ebook version.

Why? Ebooks do not have printing costs, nor delivery costs.

There are clues. The same book on Barnes & Noble is US$3.99 — but B&N proclaim an 85% discount right in the listing. Yes, the official publisher’s list price is US$27.99. That’s suspiciously close to actual Australian pricing.

A series of very interesting posts by Dean Wesley Smith about self-publishing (Think Like a Publisher and Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing) gives us a lot of other clues. It turns out that there are lot of funny numbers in setting book prices at the retailer. Publishers rarely expect to sell their books to the distributor or retailer at the list price. Instead, they give huge discounts for almost any reason, including returning unsolds. This means retailers can sell “below list price” which is about all the consumer really sees but doesn’t realize they never know why. I’m simplifying hugely, though it gives you a way to see why B&N can “discount” at 85% and still make money. Go read Dean’s writings: he is a successful self-published author and he used to run a publishing house so he definitely knows what he’s talking about.

Another clue is the fracas that blew up with Apple and ebook publishers and then with Amazon and pretty much the same publishers. It is difficult to follow the numbers the whys and wherefores, but there was an awful lot of percentages being thrown around and about who was getting what and for why. The details aren’t important for this discussion: what is becoming clear that publishing houses have been for a very very long time pocketing the majority of the price of a book. Even with all those byzantine discounts. People in that sort of position will charge as much as they think they can get away with (do I really need to list examples?). Clearly, they want to keep doing that for a title published as an ebook.

Truth be told, the actual printing and delivery is quite a small percentage. CreateSpace can print you one book (depending on the length) for $6.50 – and that’s a Print-On-Demand price. Imagine how cheap a 25,000 run could be at a more conventinal printhouse — I say imagine because these kinds of quotes are really quite difficult to get. This shows that ebooks probably should be priced only slightly less than paper.

What has been seen is publishers setting ebook prices between the hardback and the trade paperback version. That not only removes mass-market paperbacks from the picture, but also all the discounting that goes on. Clearly they are fighting to protect their income. And are using ebooks to do it. And I haven’t even mentioned author percentages yet. Or tilted contracts.

I titled this piece “Publishers don’t like ebooks” but now I’m suspect it’s more like “Publishers don’t like paperbacks”.

As readers, we have to do two three things:

  1. Don’t purchase ebooks at exorbitant prices. And I chose “exorbitant” deliberately. 
  2. Complain directly to publishers — not to bookstores! — that ebook prices are too high. Sooner or later one publisher will buck the system and make a motza on volume instead of markup.
  3. Buy from new authors who are bypassing this system. The ebook prices are cheaper and the authors make more. 

When I finally do get an ereader, my book choice is going to be driven by the above three points. I’m still going to be buying paper so long as authors I want to read are still publishing in the old system.


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