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Why Wired Is Wrong About eBooks: Digital Reading is Ready for Primetime

Last Week Wired.com's New York Editor, John C. Abell, offered up five reasons why eBooks aren't "There" yet. The There in question is being ready to replace paper books. Being an eBook reader myself, I was curious what the geek magazine of record would have to say about digital reading and the hardware that drives it. However, I should have known better than to expect something really good from a person who admits up front that he's never owned an eReader because they're single-purpose devices.

In the end, most of Abell's reasons why eBooks aren't "There" are flat out wrong. That's what happens when you let people who don't truly understand eBooks write about them.

What pains me more than a single person's wrongness is the fear that this wrong will get out into the world unchallenged and become "common knowledge". I'll start hearing on NPR or at parties that you can't take notes in eBooks or that they're segregated into separate apps, never browsable as a unified library, and I'll rend my garments in frustration, screaming "It's not true!" and scaring the guests (or the cat).

In order to avoid this awful fate, here are the 5 reasons why John C. Abell is wrong about eBooks:

Abell: An unfinished e-book isn’t a constant reminder to finish reading it.

E-books don’t exist in your peripheral vision. They do not taunt you to finish what you started. They do not serve as constant, embarrassing reminders to your poor reading habits.

At first, I almost agreed with this point until I took 5 seconds to think about it more. It's true that without the physical book in your bag or on your desk or bedside, you might not be reminded that you need to finish it. But this is not a problem with eBooks, it's a problem with books.

I can't think of a book I've let languish on my eReader unfinished that I didn't stop reading because I found it boring and don't intend to come back to it. When I read books, I usually can't wait to get back to them once I've started. I attribute this to my excellent taste in books and that I'm not of the kind of reader that keeps going far beyond the point I've determined that a book is bad or not to my taste. I also don't have to read books for a particular purpose (such as for work), so I don't have to force myself to turn pages.

Still, if you have to be reminded to pick up that eBook and finish it, then the digital nature of said book is not the problem.

Abell: You can’t keep your books all in one place.

...on tablets and smartphones, the shelves are divided by app — you can’t see all the e-books you own from various vendors, all in one place. There is simply no app for that.

It's kind of funny, that last sentence, because there is indeed an app for that. On iOS it's called Stanza; on Android it's called Aldiko. Each of these will read EPUB format eBooks with Adobe's DRM. That means if you buy a book from Barnes & Noble, Kobo/Borders, Sony, Google Books, Weightless Books, and a number of other, smaller stores, you can read them all in one app. Luckily, both Stanza and Aldiko are good eReading apps in general. (As an aside, Barnes & Noble's apps now also have the ability to import non-B&N eBook files, though I haven't investigated if it does DRM books.) If you really, really need to see all your books in one app, it can happen.

It's true that this list doesn't encompass Amazon or iBooks. But if you care about seeing all of your books in one place, then why not choose a store that has a more open policy about where you can read the books you own? Due to the deals that eStores have had to strike with publishers recently, there's probably not going to be much of a difference in price or selection when it comes to new books.

The same can be said for eReaders. Devices made by Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Sony will all read any eBook in EPUB format using Adobe's DRM. The only eReader that traps you to one store is the Kindle, and even that's not completely true. It can read Text, PDF, and .mobi files from other booksellers as long as there's no DRM. But, again, if you want a wider selection and a more open system overall, choose an eReader that doesn't have those restrictions.

Transferring eBooks to these devices isn't as easy as just buying from the store associated with the device/app, but it's not difficult, even for the less tech savvy.

Abell: Notes in the margins help you think.

A careful reader wants to argue with the author, or amplify a point, or jot down an insight inspired by something freshly read. ... Books don’t offer much white space for readers to riff in, but e-books offer none.

I will admit, part of my annoyance at this section of the post is my utter, utter horror that there are actually people in the world who defile perfectly wonderful books by writing in them. I can't imagine. It gives me hives. Not since college have I willingly written in a book. Also, as an avid journaler, I took his disdain of the separate notebook for jotting down thoughts very personally.

Anyway, the idea that there is no "space" to jot notes in the margins of eBooks is ridiculous. It's a digital file, you don't need space. You can make digital notes. Have as many long arguments with the author as you like. Every creditable eReader and most eReader apps do indeed have a Notes function. Once you make a note, there's a little indication on the page that said note exists. And you can usually browse by notes as well.

What terrible app is this guy using? Oh... iBooks *shudder*

Beyond that, for those who really, really need paper-like notes in their own handwriting, there are choices. The Entourage Edge (if you can find it) and Sony Readers all offer notes/scribbles on the page (with margins, even). And the eReader app on the HTC Flyer is even better.

As for this: "And what about the serendipity of sharing your thoughts, and being informed by the thoughts of others, from the messages in shared books?"

Have you not heard of the Nook, Mr. Abell? You might want to check out my latest review in which I talk about the social sharing functions on this new device, the same sharing that's available for the Nook Color and is very similar to the sharing options offered on something called the Amazon Kindle, which even lets you know how many other Kindle users have highlighted certain passages.

Plus, there's Nook Friends, which allows groups of people to see what their friends are reading and what notes and highlights they've made. Kobo has Reading Life, Copia is an entire system built around sharing notes with people reading the same eBook as you, and there are multiple online communities where both physical and electronic book readers share their progress, notes, and reviews with each other.

The Internet has this covered, sir.

Abell: E-books are positioned as disposable, but aren’t priced that way.

...until e-books truly add new value, the way Hollywood did with DVD extras, it’s just annoying to plunk down $13 for what amounts to a rental.

I almost agreed with this one, except I reread the header and thought "Who is positioning eBooks as 'disposable'?" Certainly not the people who write them. In fact, many authors are working hard to make readers understand that eBooks aren't disposable.

Also, this: "E-books cost virtually nothing to produce" is also false. Someone had to write that book, someone had to edit it, someone had to design it -- even if it is just for digital reading -- someone had to create the file, multiple someones had to market it, and someone had to get the coffee. While I agree that $13 is a lot for an eBook, I do not agree that they're worth nothing and cost almost nothing to make. That kind of attitude is part of why authors get upset about the attitudes of consumers about eBooks and I wish people would stop saying things like that.

It's true that that eBooks can't be re-sold or donated, and that will result in some shifting around of the third party book market and other fallout. So what? Cultures shift, as do businesses. We find new ways to adapt to new technologies and carry on.

Abell: E-books can’t be used for interior design.

It may be all about vanity, but books -- how we arrange them, the ones we display in our public rooms, the ones we don’t keep -- say a lot about what we want the world to think about us.

Now this last point is a good one. And I won't say a word against the shallowness because I don't think it is shallow. As an avid reader and lover of books, I enjoy looking through the bookshelves of friends and new acquaintances to get a glimpse of their personalities. Nook Friends does allow you to look through the library of those in your circle, but it's not the same.

I think this problem is easily solved, and I throw it out to the eBooksellers of the world to create the solution: Book Covers as Slideshows and Screensavers.

If you own an eReader, chances are high that you own a computer at least, and probably an HD TV, or a tablet , or one of those digital frames that were all the rage a while back. What if the eBook software on your computer or the eBook app on your tablet had a function allowing you to show off your current library covers? TVs these days have apps, too, plus some are capable of having slideshows transmitted to them wirelessly. Digital frames can do this too by hooking up to a service somewhere that pulls down pictures.

For touchscreen devices like tablets and all-in-one PCs, give the option to flip through the covers with plenty of eye-candy in the UI, then return to the slideshow once people leave it alone and start playing Pictionary (or whatever people do at parties).

Bottom Line

Given all this, I think it's fair to say that eBooks are more "There" than Mr. Abell thinks. Perhaps because he hasn't spent enough quality time with good eBook apps (seriously, put iBooks down, it's not good for you) or given himself over to a good eReader. I've got a few lying around if he wants to try them out. Knowledge and experience are both good for the digital soul.

Image Credit: eReader Comparison by edvvc on Flickr