The Temptation of eBook Readers

Amazon’s announcement last night’s of the latest and greatest version of the Kindle brings back a bunch of conflicting feelings in me. Part of me is tempted by the promises of a limitless catalog and the ability to carry thousands of books with me, while a larger part of me is perfectly content to hang onto my dead trees.

The Amazon Kindle has become increasingly attractive over the years as it continues to both shrink in size and in price tag. Owners of the eReader device rave about the convenience of being able to carry so much text around with them in such a portable package. Marco Arment makes an excellent case for why the iPad doesn’t endanger it and why it’s going to be around for a long time:

Reading on the iPad is a bit of a kludge. You can read on it, and it’s a lot better than reading on a computer, but it’s still too reflective, heavy, bright, and power-hungry compared to the Kindle.

People often assume that the iPad’s backlit LCD screen is an advantage over the Kindle because it doesn’t need a separate light to be read at night. But the Kindle’s e-ink screen is actually more versatile for different lighting: not only does it work in bright sunlight just as well as paper, but I find it easier to read a Kindle at night with a small lamp on than with an iPad in the dark, even using dark mode and low brightness. And I often can’t use those same nightstand or headboard-clip lamps with the iPad to light the area less harshly because the iPad’s screen is too reflective. The iPad is also too heavy to comfortably hold in most ways for long periods, and its wide range of software capabilities can be distracting. When you’re holding a Kindle, all you can do is read. When I read on an iPad, I always want to go check my email. And my feeds. And Tumblr. And Twitter. Just for a minute.

The idea of a device dedicated and designed exclusively to the task of reading is extremely appealing to me. I have a tough time staying focused for more than a few minutes when working or reading on my laptop, so the Kindle would help in that regard. But as tempting as the new $139 price tag is, I’ve still got some big issues with eBooks in general, and the Kindle in particular.

First, I’m a big believer in the ideas of ownership and fair use. Buy a paper copy of a book, and you have the right to do whatever the hell you want with it – resell it, lend it to someone else, or give it away when you’re done with it. But when you “buy” a Kindle book from Amazon, you can do none of those. Cory Doctorow:

When Amazon “sells” you a Kindle ebook, they don’t really sell it to you. If you read the fine-print, you’ll see that they’re waving their hands furiously and declaring that you aren’t “buying” the book, but rather “taking a license to a limited set of uses” for the book. Whereas a book that you buy comes with all kinds of rights, such as the right to sell or give the book away a book that you license from Amazon comes with a very small subset of those rights, as defined by a lengthy and difficult-to-grasp “license agreement.”

And while Kindle eBooks were sold at a discount by Amazon for a couple of years, recent price negotiations with publishers mean that you no longer even get a cheaper product in exchange for giving away your rights. Dan Gillmor put it well on Twitter earlier this week:

Publishers charge same price for ebook and paperback. I can sell or give away only the paperback. Publishers have lost touch with reality.

Second, both Casey and I are pretty heavy users of our local library. I even have my handy LibraryLookup bookmarklet ready at a moment’s notice to see if the book I’m looking at in my browser is available to borrow locally. But so far, there has been no word on a library lending feature for the Kindle. The Barnes and Noble Nook is supposed to give you the ability to borrow eBooks from libraries, but searches on the topic bring up little information, and I’m certain the Grand Forks Public Library does not offer this option right now.

Third, I have a dozens – if not hundreds – of PDF documents and eBooks on my computer that I would love to be able to read on a more convenient device. Recent versions of the Kindle software does support PDF files, but from what I’ve read and heard, it’s a painful viewing experience on the Kindle’s e-ink screen. And the built-in PDF reader on the Kindle 3 is supposed to be “improved”, but I’ll leave that to the Kindle veterans to determine. I know an iPad would do this job well, but I cannot justify a minimum $500 expense for a portable PDF reader.

Fourth, I’ve accumulated a bookcase of nonfiction books over the last five years or so that I still have yet to read, and there’s no way I’m going to pay a second time just for the privilege to have them in electronic form. But if Amazon had a feature where I could “upgrade” books I purchased from them in the past for a dollar or two after verifying ownership via a webcam barcode scan – I’d be all over that.

On the other hand…

On the other hand, while the Kindle and other e-ink based eBook readers have their share of technical and legal/political limitations, there’s still a lot there to make me want one.

First, while the Kindle store is by far the easiest way to buy new books for the device, there are other options. Besides the DRM-restricted Kindle file format, it also natively supports text files and Mobipocket files. You can also send a number of document and image formats to your email address to have Amazon automatically convert them to a native file type.

And then there are tools such as Calibre that let you:

  • Manage your (non-Kindle store) eBook library on your desktop
  • Perform eBook conversions to and from a huge number of formats
  • Gather news from websites and publish it in an eBook format for your device
  • Sync content to your Kindle or other eBook reader
  • Server content to your device(s) via a built-in web server

Merlin Mann swears by it, so I know it’s good.

I also save and read a lot of long-form web content using the InstaPaper web service, and it’d be great to have a first-class reading experience with it. InstaPaper offers the ability to deliver bundles of saved articles to your Kindle, and it seems to be done very well.

So as you can see, I’m conflicted. I love knowing that the books I own are, in fact, mine, and that I’m free to use them as I please. I’m skeptical that the Kindle can successfully display many of the PDF documents I have. And I hate the fact that you can’t borrow eBooks from the library or “lend” one to a friend (Nook aside). But the Kindle is now cheap enough and open enough that it could make a good reader for news, articles, and books. If Calibre could convert my library of technical documents and PDF eBooks with a minimal amount of formatting issues, I’d instantly have years of content to read without ever buying a book from the Kindle store.

I think I now know what I want for my next birthday…

One reply on “The Temptation of eBook Readers”

get a kindle and download calibre convert your ebooks and pdf to kindle mobi format and you’ll be good to go.  i love my kindle and agree with you about the ipad heaviness when reading.

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