Tag Archives: e-books

Lost in a book

Imagine reading a print book. Most of your attention will be on the content itself, but you’ll be aware of the book itself at some level. Your hand regularly flips a page. You can see how much of the book lies ahead of you, while the pages you’ve read pile up in your wake. With an e-reader, you regularly touch it to advance to the next screen. And while you won’t see the bulk of the pages moving from one half of the book to the other, if you had my old Kindle Keyboard, a progress bar along the bottom of the screen would slowly advance, and it would show you what percentage of the book you’d read.

Last month, I got a Kindle Paperwhite. Most of the new features are definite improvements, but they don’t really change what using an e-reader feels like. Not surprisingly, the Paperwhite has more options for showing you where you are in your e-book. In addition to the standard location or page numbers, you can get an estimate of how much time it will take you to read the rest of the chapter or the rest of the book. There’s no progress bar, but the Paperwhite still shows you what percentage of the book you’ve read. But unlike other e-readers I’ve used, this one lets you turn off that entire part of the display.

Kindle Paperwhite, showing progress indicators.

The Kindle Keyboard’s progress bar was a distraction. Every time I reached the bottom of the screen, there it was, informing me that I was X% of the way through the book. The bar itself millimetered its way across the screen and I ended up studying it rather than staying in what I was reading. How far had it moved since I’d started reading this time? If it was just a smidgen away from the next chapter marker, how far was that in reading time? So I wasn’t sad to realize it had been removed from the Paperwhite, and besides, its replacements were cool in their own right. Page numbers and location numbers are crucial for navigation, but the “Time left in chapter/book” option was fascinating. It’s meant to help you decide if you have enough time to start a new chapter or finish your current one before you have to go do something else, and I’ve found it useful for that. (Can I finish this chapter before we get to my bus stop?) But then I got sidetracked again. How fast was I reading? Had I lost reading speed because I’d gone back to reread a section? Why did it still say I had three minutes left in the chapter when it felt like I’d been reading for five minutes since the last time I looked? So I turned the whole thing off.

That’s the point at which reading got slightly eerie.

With the progress indicators turned off, I can’t tell where I am in the book. Much of the time this isn’t an issue because I’m caught up in the story itself. It’s a sign of a bad reading experience if you’re constantly checking to see how much longer the book is going to last (“Are we there yet?”). But I do come up for air every now and then, and each time, it’s disconcerting to realize that I don’t know where I am, story-wise.

Many of the how-to-write books I’ve read lately talk about the three-act structure. People swear that this is a natural structure for story and that readers expect it at some level, so much so that a story that diverges wildly from it will rub most people the wrong way. Well, the Paperwhite or any other e-reader with optional progress indicators may be a good test of this theory. With practice, will I be able to tell from the events in the story where I am in the book overall? Or will I be surprised when the story suddenly ends or wonder why it hasn’t ended yet? Can you tell?

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Canada: Read an E-Book Month

My fun fact for the evening: March is officially Read an E-Book Month in Canada. I don’t know as e-books need an official sanction—they seem to be taking off quite well on their own—but it’s a pretty innocuous declaration compared to what national governments are capable of coming up with, and I’m not complaining. (Grinning, yes. Complaining, no.) I’m not planning on going out and spreading the word of e-book joy, though, except maybe through the happy expression on my face as I read a good one—and that would be due to the qualities of the book more than its format.

It is not Read an E-Book Month in the United States, but I have been accidentally celebrating anyway. That is, my local public library has added several e-books to its collection that I want to read, and I’ve been taking advantage of their new acquisitions. On top of that, either the initial rush to see what e-book checkout is like has died down, or the library has added so many new titles that everyone can usually find something to read. Whatever the reason, I’m able to check out e-books fairly regularly nowadays. This is really helping relieve my withdrawal symptoms from being cut off from the neighboring library’s e-book collection. Now if only the publishers would relax about letting libraries have access to e-books in the first place…

The days of loans and options

When I got my Kindle, one of the major frustrations was that I couldn’t check out library e-books. This alone almost stopped me from buying the Kindle; it wasn’t until Amazon announced that it was working on a system for library loans that I finally committed myself to the purchase. And when I finally could borrow e-books, I flung myself into reacquainting myself with light fiction. You know these books: you enjoy reading them, you really do, but you’ll never read any of them a second time, and even buying them used seems like a waste of money. I put together a sizable wish list on the library’s website and began working my way through one e-book after another. I’d forgotten I could get through books that fast. When I love non-fiction, I slow down to ponder the ideas; with fiction, I speed up to see what happens next.

It’s been sweet. It’s been fun. It ends tonight.

See, the public library e-book resources around here aren’t distributed evenly. The neighboring library system has a collection roughly ten times larger than my library’s (they have a bigger budget and they started building their collection earlier). Not that this really mattered up until now because we could all borrow from all the local libraries, regardless of which city or suburb we actually lived in. So if an e-book was available through my library, that was great, but usually I ended up looking through the other library’s collection.

But you may have noticed that the economy is a bit shaky. Public libraries are funded by tax dollars, and those have been drying up for years now. Both libraries have had their funding cut; each has had to come up with a way to stretch the remaining money as far as possible. My library cut 34 hours, scattered through the 11 libraries in the system, with everyone hoping that no one branch suffers too badly. The library next door took a different approach. No cuts to hours, no staff cuts, but they limited how much stuff patrons could borrow and who could do the borrowing. One of the new restrictions is that only their county’s residents can borrow their e-books effective January 1.

Of course I’m frustrated. Who’d want to be limited to a tiny selection of e-books after having access to a much bigger one? But I’m also worried about a larger implication. What kind of precedent is this setting? Will other libraries in the area begin limiting their services to their own residents? One strength of libraries has been their ability to get materials for their patrons that they themselves don’t own. Sure, I can still get print materials from the library next door, and I’m likely to do so, but what happens if the budget goes downhill again? Between this, and publisher uncertainty about how to manage e-book deals with libraries, I end up glumly worrying about the future of libraries overall.

Musings of an ungrateful wretch

On September 21, Amazon delivered on its promise to enable Kindles to borrow library e-books and a few days after that, my local public library was able to lend theirs out. Skimming through the collection today, I’d say the public response was enthusiastic because almost every nonfiction e-book has been checked out and many of them have holds on them. My library says it has 373 nonfiction e-book titles and only 61 of them are available as I write this, which suggests that 312 of them (84%) are checked out. Fiction? 669 e-book titles in the system, 84 available at the moment: 585 (87%) of them are checked out. I have no idea what this library’s statistics are for print book circulation, but if 84% to 87% of that collection was out on loan, I think I’d notice the empty shelves when I walked through the stacks. Yay! The e-books are popular and they’re generating statistics the library can brandish as it seeks funding.

So why am I an ungrateful wretch? Because even though this is so much more than I had a week ago, mostly what I’m doing is finding fault with the system. For instance, just getting an e-book sounds like it’s going to be a challenge. Oh, not the downloading part (haven’t even attempted that yet); I’m talking finding an e-book to check out. Unlike popular print titles, no e-book title I saw had more than one “copy.” If an e-book I’m interested in has eight people waiting for it and they each keep it for the maximum time allowed of three weeks, it’s going to be almost six months before I get a crack at it. And that’s assuming I find something I want to read. My library’s entire collection of e-books appears to total 1,042.* That’s small compared to other public libraries in the area, much less compared to the millions of titles available from Amazon.com itself.** Nor does it help that I’m being done in by my penchant for titles from the long tail.

I’m not coming up with a simple solution. I’m sure my library can’t afford a larger e-book subscription (either more titles, or more “copies” of the titles they’ve got already) without cutting funds from some other part of its budget. It’s not like I want them to lay staff off, close a branch, or stop buying print books. Even if the price of e-book readers is dropping, there are many out there who can’t afford them even now, and many who simply aren’t interested. The economy continues to suck, so I’m not expecting my library’s budget to be increased any time soon.

So what am I doing? Well, I’ve submitted a form to a neighboring library to become eligible to check out their e-books. I should gain access in another week or so. Meanwhile, I’ve just bought another e-book to read until that access comes through. The irony is not lost on me that even though I bought my Kindle contingent on its being able to utilize library e-books, I’m likely to end up buying most of the titles I want to read anyway.

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*I could very well have an incorrect count; I’m working from numbers in the catalog, not official library statistics.

**Hennepin County Library, which had over 10,000 titles available when I mentioned them in July, now may have over 19,000 titles if I read the numbers right.

Resolution

The long-awaited announcement has been made: Kindle owners can now borrow library e-books. My ecstasy is tempered by the realization that I’d better finish the 569-page e-book I’m currently reading before I even contemplate borrowing one from the library.

Quality control: it’s a good thing

Overall, this whole e-book/e-reader experience has been a positive one to date. But as I read more and more e-books, one characteristic is leaping out, and it’s not so positive: the quality control of many e-books is wretched.

I must say, the errors have a great deal of variety to them. Common spelling errors are actually not that frequent in e-books. When they occur, often it’s because they were misspelled in the original print edition. Unwanted hyphenation, however, is a major problem. The Kindle doesn’t hyphenate words itself. Lines are fully justified whenever possible, even if that leaves large spaces between the words. But often the original print editions do have hyphenated words and when they’re scanned, the hyphenation carries over. I suppose the publishers can’t easily edit the hyphens out with a search-and-replace command, since it would also eliminate the legitimate hyphens in words like “self-published,” but it’s still annoying.

Some e-books don’t so much have typos in them as glitches. I just finished reading one in which the first two words on the first page after the start of each new chapter were run together as one word. If I changed the font size, which shifted new words into that position, then those new words would be run together instead. Occasionally, the scanning (or however the text is converted to e-format) creates bizarre characters on its own. In the sample of one book I was considering buying, every “Th” had been replaced by an Æ. While the problem in the sample has since been fixed—and it’s great to see that if you report a formatting problem, someone will read your message, at least at that publisher—I still haven’t bought the book.

More frustrating, because it affects the usability of the e-book itself, are the problems with hyperlinks. With one book, the links in the table of contents to the chapters always dropped me off about two pages ahead of the beginning of the chapter. (Doubly frustrating: this was a new e-book, written this year, so the publisher could create the e-book from the original files and not have to convert text files.) In another book, a scholarly work with gobs of footnotes and references, the publisher chose not to link to the footnotes at all. To look up a footnote, you have to either figure out the right keywords to search for it, or jump to the list of references and page your way through it.

From my perspective as a reader, the easiest solution is for publishers to do a better job of quality control. This doesn’t seem to be happening, however, else I wouldn’t have blogged about this. Sure, as I noted with the e-book with the Æ problem, you can report the problems that you find. But having paid for the book, I don’t then want to be put in the role of proofreader, nor should the publishers be relying on crowdsourcing to do their jobs for them. It stings to be asked to pay good money for an e-book—sometimes more than the paperback edition is going for—and be given an unfinished product. But I don’t know what could pressure publishers to upgrade the quality of their e-books. Refusing to buy them just leaves me with fewer e-books to read and if I wanted to buy all those books in print, I wouldn’t have bought the e-reader in the first place. So I’m still looking for better leverage—and bracing myself for the next weird e-glitch in my reading.

September 5, 2011: Quality control is not impossible. I’m reading The Soul’s Religion by Thomas Moore. I’ve found maybe three hyphenation errors and that’s it. The Soul’s Religion was originally published in 2002, so it had to have been converted to e-format later, and yet most of the potential typos were nipped in the bud. So it can be done, which makes the massive quantity of errors in other e-books even less forgivable.

E-books: the sf/f panel

This past weekend, I attended CONvergence 2011, one of our local science fiction/fantasy conventions, and the largest. What they say about e-readers being well-suited for travel is right: it was so much easier to load a couple of books onto the Kindle and slip it into my bag rather than haul the equivalent in print volumes along with me. Between the books I was bringing along to release for BookCrossing and the books I was bringing to have autographed and to refer to for a book discussion, my luggage was taking on the qualities of a small ship’s anchor. Paper in any quantity isn’t light.

It is probably not surprising that a science fiction/fantasy convention would have a panel on e-books. It should not be surprising that I would attend such a panel, especially as I am still caught up in the newness of the Kindle and the whole e-book phenomenon. The panelists were mostly writers who now publish their works in the e-book format, but there was also a librarian from Hennepin County Library who was getting a lot of experience helping patrons manage e-books.

I continue to be fascinated by how unsettled this whole field is. I’m sure there have been periods like this in the past (competing VCR formats come to mind, as does the Blu-ray/HD DVD format war). Perhaps these other periods were filled with energetic debate and I just missed out because I wasn’t paying attention. Or is it that the discussion of e-books vs. print editions is especially charged because print books have been a fundamental part of our culture for centuries?

It was clear that as a reader, I don’t always share the writerly perspective. Piracy? I don’t commit it myself, so I completely space that it would be of vital interest to someone trying to earn a living through works that can be so easily pirated now that they’re in a digital format. Even so, the level of concern varied from one writer to the next. Some writers in the audience were worried even about the legitimate distribution of their works. At the other extreme, one of the panelists talked about how she’d abandoned her efforts to stop piracy of her works because it took too much time away from her writing. Another difference in perspectives: the writers were basically in agreement that Google Books uses too much of their works in its previews. Really? It never seems like these previews show me enough!

After the writers on the panel had talked for a while, the discussion shifted over to the librarian. I was astonished to learn that even some of these published writers weren’t aware that e-books can be checked out from libraries. The whole controversy about HarperCollins’ 26-checkouts limit that is rocking so much of the library world may be essentially unknown outside of it (and incidentally, HCL figures that they get 35 checkouts of a hardcover book before it wears out). Impressive factoid: in July 2010, HCL had about 700 e-book titles available for checkout. Now they have over 10,000 titles. Wow. (Those of us with Kindles are still waiting to be able to access this bounty.)

Naturally, there was speculation about the future. Someone suggested that while hardcovers would continue for those who preferred print editions, e-books would replace paperback editions. (What about those books that never come out in hardcover?) One audience member stated that he thought that people who read books could be divided into two types: readers and book-lovers. He figured that the former would readily shift over to e-books while the latter would be the market for collectible print editions. I don’t think it’s quite that clear-cut. I’ve become fond of e-books, mostly for the reasons I already talked about here, but I also appreciate the tactile sensations of a physical book. Is there some economically sensible way I can have dual editions of much of my library?

There was a second panel at CONvergence on e-books, although this was a bit inadvertent, since the panel was supposed to be about the future of bookstores. Everyone ended up talking about e-books anyway, which says something about how fascinating this crowd finds them. Of course, bookstores were endangered well before e-books became an issue—just ask any independent bookseller who went out of business after the large chains became dominant. And while those large chains are really having problems now that e-books are hot, those problems began as a bricks-and-mortar vs. online stores issue. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come that no one in this panel was able to articulate a way that bookstores could survive beyond a general we like them and they’ve always been around. And is there still a Borders anywhere near you?