Note: This article was originally published in Full Circle Magazine Issue #48, April, 2011.
When you are looking for E-books, there are a number of factors you should take into account: reader device, formats, DRM, and price are some that I intend to cover in this article.
The first decision you need to make is what device you intend to read your E-books on. The three large online booksellers in the United States, Amazon (Kindle), Barnes and Noble (Nook), and Borders (Kobo), each offer a dedicated device for reading E-books. And consumer electronics companies like Sony (Reader) are beginning to offer devices. The advantages of these devices include that they offer a form factor closer to that of a real printed book, that with e-ink they are often easier to read, and that with e-ink they offer really long battery life (as much as two weeks between charges). The disadvantages are that they are one more device to carry around, they cost between $100 and $200 each, and they are limited in the formats they can handle.
The next option that is becoming more popular is to use an ereader application running on a tablet device, such as iPad or the many Android tablets coming out now. All three of the above booksellers (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Borders) offer free applications for tablet computers. These allow you to search for and purchase books from your tablet and have them downloaded to your device.
The last option, and the one I use, is to use software on my Android phone. I covered the application Aldiko in my previous article, which has both free and inexpensive paid versions. I also have the three bookseller applications installed. I personally find this the best option for one simple reason: I always have my phone with me. So any time I have a few minutes to kill, I can pull out my phone and do a little reading.
Sadly, there is no uniformity on formats for E-books. Some of the formats have been around for a while, like the PDB format used by the Palm Pilot. Others a proprietary, such as Amazon’s AZW format. In my previous article I showed you how to convert books between most unprotected formats using Calibre. Since my primary ereader software (Aldiko) prefers Epub, I look for books in that format, or books that are unprotected that I can convert to that format. You need to see which formats can be read in deciding on a device or on ereader software.
We seem to be going through a great deal of difficulty with publishers of all media over digital restrictions. It started with the music industry, which now seems to be wising up to how to keep their customers by providing music in convenient files that are not locked down. Between E-music and Amazon I purchase all of the music I want in plain, unprotected MP3 files. Unfortunately, book publishers are still competing to see who can be most annoying to their customers. While there are various illegal methods for finding books, I do not intend to explain how to do that. I will point out that these “alternatives” tend to be low-quality and not very satisfactory. And I have found I can obtain high-quality books quite legally that are DRM-free.
If you go to an online bookseller like Amazon and look around, you will see that most books being published these days are being offered in electronic formats at the same time as the dead-tree versions come out. The negative is that they tend to be offered at prices that are as high, if not higher, as the hard cover editions. But there are exceptions, some of which are quite nice. And there are places where you can get books for free, quite legally.
If you know your history, you may recognize the name Gutenberg as the person who is credited with developing (in the West, I know) the printing press. This online project ( http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page ) took his name for creating a library of free books which are in the public domain. Public domain books are no longer subject to copyright , and there are a lot of good books, including many of the classics, that fall into this category. Here are just a few of the books you can find, which were selected by Wired magazine (October 2010) as the best free E-books you can find here:
• A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain
• A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs
• Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
• Gulliver’s Travels, b y Jonathan Swift
• The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle
• Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
Project Gutenberg has 33,000 books available, so you won’t lack for good books to read. Of course, these books are older, so you won’t find the latest best-sellers here, but that is the trade-off you make when you come to this site.
Baen Books ( http://www.baen.com/ ) is doing something really good here, and I hope it works well for them. They have created something called the Baen Free Library, in which they offer high-quality, absolutely free and non-DRMed books for download. If you are a fan of Science Fiction and Fantasy (and I’d guess most of the folks reading this article are), this is a great way to start building your library. They offer a variety of the most popular formats as well.
Now you might wonder what the business model is. And the answer is that the Free Library is just a selection from their much larger line of books. For example, you can download the first book of David Weber’s popular Honor Harrington series, On Basilisk Station, for free. If you like it, they have at least 9 more, and they are available for only $6 each, in high-quality non-DRMed files. I have downloaded a bunch of the free books, but I have also purchased a half-dozen books from them, and it is a site I check periodically to see what is new. Their site is also worth visiting for other free content, and author interviews.
This ( http://www.webscription.net/ ) is an offshoot of Baen’s ebook site, but it offers books from a variety of other publishers as well. Ace Trade, Del Rey, and Tor are among the larger publishers getting on board, as well as some of the smaller specialty publishers like Subterranean Press and Nightshade Books. As you might expect from the Baen connection, the selections all appear to be Science Fiction or Fantasy
This site draws a lot of its content from Project Gutenberg, but also adds some things that are not Public Domain, but which have been made available. I have found books there that are current (e.g. Accelerando, by Charles Stross), so it is worth checking out.
Fictionwise ( http://www.fictionwise.com/ebooks/multiformat.htm ) offers books (and some magazines) at very reasonable prices, and without DRM. The selection is heavy on Science Fiction and Fantasy, but does go beyond. They seem to have a lot of Romance, if that is your thing. I’d rate this higher except it looks like they have their own proprietary format and require you to use their reader. The reader is free to download, but they don’t have an Android version so I have not tried them out. Still, the rest of the deal looks pretty good, so check it out if you are interested.
Cory Doctorow ( http://craphound.com/?cat=5 ) deserves a mention all by himself because of his stance on freedom. He insists that his books be available without DRM, and is opposed to DRM in all forms. He has made free e-book versions of his works available on his web site, and despite this his sales keep going up. His view is that the two are related: the more people are exposed to his work, the more likely they are to buy his books when they get the chance. Right now you can download quality versions without DRM free of charge from his site, and he won’t even let you put money in a tip jar. He says that if you want to support him, buy a paper copy and give it to a library. Pretty good advice, I think.
This is just a snapshot of the market as it is right now (I am writing this in early 2011). I’d bet things would be better in a year. Many of the authors realize that expensive DRMed e-books are not doing them any favors, and just restricting their market. Just as musicians discovered, building a fan base is much better in the long run. So I think we will start to see publishers try out offering books more conveniently.
But until that day comes we do have some options. I’d like to point out, as well, that sites like Project Gutenberg and ManyBooks ask for donations. If you are using them to get free e-books, give them a donation to help expand the offerings they can provide. It is just the right thing to do.