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

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eReader Comparison by edvvc on Flickr - HTC Desire , Kindle 3 and iPad displaying the same book.

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

Add a comment
  • Smithb75 Says:

    Very nice! dabdekeggf

  • D. L. Hoyman Says:

    I've had my Sony PRS700 touch screen e-ink book reader for three years. I own many hundreds of hardback hard copy books and never thought I'd change to an e-reader. My wife convinced me to try one. I love it. I have been able to find every book I've wanted to purchase in a format that the Sony can read, and Calibre even lets me buy Amazon books and convert them. Yes, there will always be specialty books that need to be hard copy. That's great. I don't want to look at an art book on an e-reader. I read mostly for pleasure, I travel a lot and used to haul hard back and sometimes soft cover books with me. What a pain that is. I now take hundreds of books with me wherever I go and combined they still only weigh 10 ounces. I read two to three hours per day and recharge every two and a half to three weeks. Big deal. I find that after I get the low battery warning I can still read for hours before shutdown, so I can always wait until bed time to plug in my reader to charge. I was never one to lend books anyway because I either didn't get them back or got them back in less than perfect condition. So to sum up, book readers are great but there's no reason one can't have an e-reader and still at times purchase hard books. I do and no one has come to arrest me for this perverse behavior.

  • K. T. Bradford Says:

    You're welcome :)

  • Dave Says:

    I can not thank you enough for pointing out all the "wrongs" of the Abell article.

  • George Says:

    It's likely that Wired simply had a bunch of column inches that needed filling and the original piece critiquing ereaders was meant to provoke a little ire. Opinion pieces are cheap and ire is much more desirable than being ignored.

    That said, there has been a lot of ire-provocation being focused on ereaders. It could be that the publishing industry is trolling hard. Alternatively, it could be that consumers are so spoiled that "must have it now" now extends to products that don't yet exist. (Of course, both options may be in play).

    The worst part of the Wired article is the rather cowardly way the author conflates "book" with "dead trees". It would be nice to distinguish the ideas and images within the book (i.e. the good stuff) from the media in which the ideas and images are conveyed. We could use the phrase "tree mangles" for the physical media and "book" to refer the the content conveyed. The appropriate comparison would then be between tree mangles and ereaders, since both are equally books. The term tree mangle may be too pejorative, but it is not inaccurate. Full disclosure - I own many tree mangles and have enjoyed their book aspects tremendously. However, if a digital edition is available then I won't be buying the mangles.

    The latest, touch-based ereaders are very good. The interfaces are simple and intuitive, page turns are as fast as the page turns of a tree mangle, great contrast, adjustable font, easy note taking. Next generation readers will marry the tablet idea to the reflective interface and that will be a great product. Other than special-purpose situations, tree mangles appear to be doomed.

  • RightIdea Says:

    Just one word for this article: AMEN!!

  • John Says:

    As a Kindle owner for some time now, I must say that the screen is so much better than iPad for real reading.

    It appears that Barnes & Noble's new nook has a similar screen that is more like physical book instead of a backlight screen. I hope they have the new nook in the physical stores for me to check out as Barnes & Noble actually has a large selection of ebooks.

  • Tim Holm Says:

    I should say also - and this may be just an ego/vanity issue - that although I do have many ebooks and I have read quite a few of them, I have never truly felt like I 'owned' them. Since they are not really 'objects' in a physical way, it's hard to have 'possession' over them, in some strange way.

  • Tim Holm Says:

    A few comments: 1. You don't have to recharge a real book. 2. There's no such thing as a rare ebook, and I doubt there ever will be such a thing (even if there is, it can easily be copied so there are no limitations on how many copies you could conceivably make for very little if any cost, assuming we don't all have to 'give up' our ebooks at some point if Amazon, et al went out of business or decided to change their digital formats/apps/etc.). Also, relating to this last point, there will surely be some books out there that will never be converted to digital format, and some that simply CANNOT be, such as big art books or books made with special kinds of paper or handdrawn illustrations. You just can never replicate the same experience as feeling and seeing those works as they were originally made and intended to be.
    The limitations on re-selling of the ebooks and donations to literacy programs and charities which are also important for people who cannot afford an ereader are also important factors which must not be overlooked.
    All that's not to say that I'm against ebooks, though. In fact, I see them as partly a good thing if they encourage reading and they should, indeed, help the rare book market in the long term as they are mutually exclusive in a way.

  • TinkerTenor Says:

    Dear lord. Is it really that hard to switch between apps?! Come on, people.

    I'd like to add that spending *all that time* looking for an app takes less time and certainly less "effort" than looking for a physical book. And neither activity will render you too exhausted to read. Perhaps people would like an app to actually do the reading for them too? Oh wait...

    Bottom line, reading in either format is pretty damned easy. To echo your sentiment, KT, if people are really spending their time worrying about these things then they probably need some better books to read.

  • Brad Linder Says:

    My biggest issue is probably the many stores/many apps problem. Yes, there are a handful of apps that can handle books purchased from many different locations, but it can be a bit of a hassle to organize your books and send them to the appropriate apps.

    Calibre really does help, but you know what's still a lot easier? Picking up a paperback book and reading it. All I have to remember next time I want to read it is where I put it down, not which app I was using to read it in the first place.

    That said, I really do prefer reading eBooks to physical books most of the time. I can fit my iPod touch in my pocket, which means if I have 90 seconds to wait for a bus, I'm much more likely to grab it and read a few pages than I would be to pull a book out of my bag and then stuff it back in there. I can also read in bed at night without turning on the light and upsetting my spouse. I want to want en E Ink display, but the truth is I read in bed much more than I would ever read outdoors, so an iPod touch or similar mobile device really the best possible device for me right now.

  • Kyoodle Says:

    For the second point there's a free eBook management program called Calibre that converts all your eBooks to the format your reader uses. Definitely worth a look!

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