Ebooks and why we still need to cut down trees…

I haven’t done much in the way of geek things over the past week, and I’ve been meaning to have this rant, so here we go.

I like gadgets. I have a lot of them, some may say too many, but I say not enough! I’ve even had an e-reader, and am quite impressed with e-ink technology. What I don’t like is the actual e-books, or rather how they are sold.

Nothing can compare to an actual physical dead tree version of a book. Its great to have a book in your hands, its just a much more pleasant experience. E-books however are handy. They’re great for taking on holidays, much easier having a device with hundreds of books on than carrying around a stack of heavy paperbacks. Also, a lot of documentation comes as downloadable PDF files which is so much easier to read on e-ink device than an LCD screen.

A lot of my issues surround DRM and price.  I’ve got issues with DRM on any format or media, but on e-books it is especially bad, compounded by the fact that e-books are generally only a little cheaper than their physical counterpart.

With a real book, you can

  • Lend it to a friend
  • Give it to a friend
  • Take it to a second hand shop, and swap it
  • Keep it forever

All these points have one thing in common. Ownership. You never actually own an e-book, you’ve just got it on long term loan from the seller. You aren’t allowed to resell the book at all, and even lending it to someone is hard enough. Woe betide if you want to try a different e-reader, you’re left with having to either illegally strip the DRM from the book, or buy it again.

If the seller goes out of business, you will more than likely lose access to your books. Don’t think this will happen because of the size of the company? Well in 2007, Virgin’s downloadable music store decided it wasn’t making enough money, so withdrew from the business. Suddenly all the music you bought through that service was unusable. Or maybe the seller decides that they sold the book by accident, as Amazon did with 1984. They removed access to the book to stop you reading it.

The last point above is not just about DRM or ownership as such, its down to the fact that the digital world moves so fast. The current e-book formats may not be around in five or ten years, but I have books on my shelves that I remember buying whilst still at primary school, nearly thirty years ago. I also have books that are older than me, that were picked up from second hand bookshops. These are out of print and unavailable from any e-book retailer. In another thirty years, will I still have a functioning e-reader that will read the current formats? Projects to read digital media that is less than twenty years old are a big undertaking these days, but I’ll still have books on shelves that I can simply pick up and read.

Of course, to compound all this, e-books are sold at a ridiculous price. As I’ve already mentioned, you are simply renting these books and never really own them, but the price difference doesn’t reflect this. Some e-books are still being sold at hardback prices, when the actual cost of manufacture is a moot point. A lot of my previous issues could be overlooked if they would simply charge a reasonable amount for the books. If a book was under a pound to purchase (rent), then I would think nothing of paying for it, and I may even take more of a risk on an unknown author. I find myself being put off buying a book these days, even a physical one, because the prices are so high. The pricing model has worked for smartphone apps, so why can’t it work with books?

I love reading, I love books, and I love gadgets. Unfortunately there is no way currently for me to legally use e-books. If I want an MP3, I buy the CD and rip it. If I want to store my DVDs on my network, I can rip them too if they don’t already come with a digital version. This can’t be done with books unless you go to the trouble of buying or building a book scanner. I could use the kindle app and then strip the DRM out of the file, but I don’t want to do this as I shouldn’t have to, and I’m not going to give Amazon any of my money whilst they still insist on running this monopoly. I do need to say, it is not just Amazon. All other e-book sellers work in the same way, and this could be due to the publishers, but it is still wrong.

Right, rant over. I’m going to go to bed and read a good, dead tree, book.


Little Brother

First and foremost, Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is fantastic story about a young adult growing up in a post 9/11 world full of paranoia, who gets caught up by Homeland Security after a terrorist attack on San Francisco. It paints a bleak view of how much power the authorities could gain if people let them, to monitor all activities and take people with no reason or apologies.

The reluctant hero of the story, Marcus, has a choice after caught wether to lie back and accept the new world order, or fight back. This leads to a fantastic story of someone growing up rather quickly and fighting back against the authorities that wrongly imprisoned him.

The second aspect of this book is the fact that it is open source. Published under a creative commons license the book is available as a free download as well as the more traditional dead tree version. Even better, the downloads page has the story in just about any format you could want, including the standard format for the Sony PRS-505. The author has written up his reasons for offering the book for free, along with suggesting ideas for donations if you enjoy the story.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story and have since bought it to pass onto friends and urge others to do the same!

Sony E-Book Reader + Linux

Guess what, I’ve got another gadget! I decided to take the splash and get one of the new Sony ebook readers, the PRS-505. I’d heard a lot about the e-ink displays, but never seen one in real life.

Well, so far I’m impressed. The resolution is fantastic, very readable in just about any light, infact it is pretty much just like reading a real book. Even better, it plays very well with Linux due to the fact that the reader itself, along with any memory cards inserted, act as a simple usb mass storage device. Plugging the reader into my laptop simply opens up the drives in seperate windows meaning I can just drag and drop any supported document. Of course, some formats work better than others. TXT and RTF files are the simplest format and work well, tho there are no chapters or any other fancy information. PDFs are more or less usable, tho they usually need to be zoomed in which ruins the layout. The best format that I’ve found so far is LRF which is Sony’s binary format for the PRS-500 and PRS-505.


This is all well and good, but there is a better way to move the files over, and also convert different formats. Calibre is a free python program which acts as conversion software, ebook library, and will also copy the files to your reader. Installation under Ubuntu is extremely straight forward, just run the following:

 sudo apt-get install  python-setuptools python-imaging  libqt4-core libqt4-gui \
                      python-qt4 python-mechanize imagemagick \
                      xdg-utils python-dbus python-lxml python-beautifulsoup \
sudo easy_install -U calibre
sudo calibre_postinstall

Instructions for installing on other systems (including Windows and OS X) can be found on the Calibre download page.

The library functionality lets you add any ebooks that you have and search for cover images, the ISBN, publisher and sometimes a brief synopsis. The conversion software will allow you to convert any type of supported file into either EPUB or LFS, even automatically detecting chapters in TXT and RTF files. Finally, once you’ve added your books and converted them to your prefered format, simply plug your reader in and click the copy button. Once the files have been copied over you can unmount the filesystems and read the books on the reader!

Conversion settings that I recommend are to convert all files to LFS format with 8pt fonts and 2pt spacing which is fine for me, but can be zoomed in if you want bigger print. Also, I like to insert a blank line between each paragraph to make the text more presentable. Lastly, I make sure that the chapter detection inserts any chapters found into the table of contents. So far I’ve found that these settings work with just about all my files. I’ve still to mess around properly with PDF files to find the best results for these.

Before converting any files, make sure that you have filled in as much of the information as possible for the book as some of this information will be included in the converted output making organisation a lot easier on the reader, especially if you fill in the series information to group books together.

All in all I’m glad I bought the reader. I think it will come in very useful, tho’ there are a few things that I hope will be improved on in future versions. One of which is a larger screen. The reader is about the same size as a standard paperback, which is fine, but the screen doesn’t fill the whole device. Sony could easily do away with the big round buttons on the bottom edge and make the screen a fair bit bigger which would improve the reading of PDF files no end. I’d also like to see slightly better contrast on the screen to make it more book like. As it is the background is grey and the black isn’t exactly a deep black so it can look a little washed out. I may be nit picking, but isn’t that what the net is for?! Of course the benefits definitely outweigh these couple of problems. Battery life so far seems phenominal, with the battery meter not moving off full charge yet! Supposedly I should be able to do about 6800 page turnsper charge, seeing as the e-ink technology only uses power when actually changing the screen. So far I’ve read a couple of books on it and not really noticed that I was reading a screen rather than a standard book, only noticing when my hand slipped and the cover closed without losing my place!

Well, hopefully I’ll get PDF files playing happily soon and then it will be pretty much perfect. In the meantime, it came with 100 free books, and I’ve been scowering project Gutenberg to find some books to read. Should be enough to keep me going!