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My Experience with eBooks

The Reader Ecosystem and Digital Rights Management

The current crop of digital reader devices share a common set of attributes: most employ a special black-and-white display that offers paper-like readability even in bright light, allow you to read digitally formatted books of various types, and (invariably) have an associated "marketplace". These online bookstores usually offer a catalog of popular books that are laden with digital rights management (DRM) schemes, which tie the digital book to a specific device or to an appropriately "authenticated" computer-based software package. Some vendors sell DRM-free books, but that freedom usually comes with a higher price tag (often higher than the print edition).

Digital readers come with a USB cable and desktop software, which allows bookworms to transfer books checked out from the library (e.g. eNYPL) or purchased from an online store or another independent sales outlet. The desktop software is, in essence, the gatekeeper that allows (or restricts) access to any DRMed book. Some devices like Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook allow you to purchase books directly from the device via wireless network connections.

In most cases, the book can be read on the desktop or on the portable device, but it cannot be copied onto another device (e.g., an unauthenticated reading device or computer). The eNYPL works much the same way: I check out a book and download it, but I can only read it on devices or computers that have been authenticated to my New York Public Library account via some desktop "middleware" (in my case, either Sony's "Reader" software or Adobe's "Digital Editions").

Adobe's Digital Editions acts solely as a "bookshelf" (file manager) and DRM manager; the Sony software also offers these functions and adds a bookstore. Both systems are somewhat clunky, and their features are inconsistent. For example, the Sony software does not allow me to return a library book early, but Adobe's Digital Editions will. In either case, once a book expires it becomes inaccessible--in essence the book is automatically returned to the library so that another patron may check it out.

Not all eBook content need come directly from the library or a vendor. Another software package called Calibre (which the Chronicle of Higher Education reviewed recently) has pre-installed "recipes" that will convert the content of popular Web sites (e.g. magazines and newspapers) into a formatted electronic document, which it transfers directly to the device each time it is plugged in. Additionally, vast troves of free, "classic" eBooks are available for the taking (via Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive, Google Books, and other sources). Documents in a variety of formats can be transferred via USB, memory card, or via a customizable email address specific to the device (for a small fee and only with certain vendors).

My Choice and the Trade-offs I've Encountered

I have been reading eBooks and articles on a number of digital devices (computers, tablets, and pdas/smartphones) for years. Because back-lit screens are known to exacerbate eye strain, I recently picked up an E-ink-based reader, which purports to be easier on the retinas. The device, a Sony Reader PRS-600, eschews wireless connections and apps for a distraction-free reading experience with a decent display and excellent battery life. I chose this particular model because it was cheap (on Craigslist for under $100) and because it is one of few readers that allows me to check out books from the New York Public Library's eNYPL system. (To help determine which eReader is right for you, see this article).

I enjoy the convenience of carrying sixty books in a 10oz. slab that runs for two weeks between charges (the device only taxes its battery during page transitions). When I select a word on the touchscreen I have instant access to the device's built-in dictionary, and I needn't fumble for a pen when I want to write a note or highlight a phrase on the page. Note-taking on an eReader is not as easy as jotting marginalia on paper, but once you suffer through the interface, all annotations are collected in a table-of-contents-like list, which allows for efficient searching and browsing in the future. Some devices even allow users to instantly "quote" passages from books they are reading to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter (ushering in a new era of commonplace books?).

All of these eBook devices offer variable font sizes, which readers (like me) with less-than-perfect eyesight appreciate, but both E-ink and backlit LCD technologies suffer from poor visibility in dark or bright extremes. A colleague with arthritic hands recently pointed out to me that newly-released hardcovers subject him to a certain amount of physical pain while holding the book open. Though he prefers the aesthetic experience of reading a recent bestseller in its two-pound hardcover format, he sometimes purchases the Kindle edition, which he reads on his iPhone. (However, there is a trade-off here too: since the pagination is inconsistent, it's a challenge to switch back and forth between digital and paper formats).

EBook readers make it difficult or impossible to loan or borrow books from friends and colleagues. If I were to loan my eReader to a friend, all of my other books go with it. After I'm done reading a book may I pass it on? Is it even in a format that my colleague's eReader supports? Can I authenticate my mom's eReader in Detroit to my software so that she can access a DRMed book that I "bought"? Arcane formats and DRM schemes make sharing books troublesome or impossible--certainly more difficult than sharing paperbacks.

Similar to traditional print volumes, libraries must buy multiple digital "copies" of popular eBook titles if they wish to avoid long lines--though a copy of the eBook always exists in the library system, only one patron at a time may access the content due to DRM. I recently found myself on a three-year waiting list at eNYPL for a popular World War II history tome. I ended up buying for $10 from Sony's online store.

Finally, it is hard to beat the "interface" of traditional print: its resolution and contrast are top notch, and the "battery life" of a book is nearly eternal.

A New Book Model?

Many book lovers bemoan the publishing industry's recent dire economic straights, but the current format wars strike me as a boon for publishers. As the consumer, I'm now given the opportunity to buy a book in print and in multiple digital formats for any number of devices (without needing to visit a physical bookstore). It's true that many distributors offer apps, which can allow access to content on multiple devices (e.g. the aforementioned Kindle app for the iPhone) and some devices (like the Nook and Kindle) promise lending schemes, but caveats abound. In any case, I don't anticipate that any of these vendors will rush to open up a "used eBook market" anytime soon. In fact, when you "buy" an eBook you're actually just acquiring a "license" to use the content--the end-user license agreement that accompanies eBooks restricts your use of that content in ways that print books could not legally be restricted. Therefore, I'm not going to invest too heavily in eBook licenses. If I lose or sell my Sony Reader, it's not clear what would happen to my library (legally and technically) if I were to replace the device.

The music industry has been grappling with DRM and content freedom for years. Producers of some vinyl LPs have come up with an elegant solution, which offers an apt analogy to the print book vs. eBook conundrum that consumers face. Though I realize that I'm not a "typical" consumer, I try to buy all of my new music on LP. In the sleeve of each album there is a single-use code and URL that I can use to download DRM-free MP3s from the publisher's site. Admittedly I do pay a bit of a premium for vinyl, but this scheme offers me the best of both worlds: I get the content I want in the two formats that simultaneously offer me digital convenience and an analog aesthetic. (I wrote about this on my personal blog back in August). Booksellers may adopt a similar scheme--e.g. a shrink wrapped book, which houses a bookmark with a download code for a digital version.

Until publishers work out system like this, consumers will be bound to their device's associated marketplace. And, though they'll likely have convenient, inexpensive access to more books than they need, they may eventually sour on the service and return to channels that allow them to buy, swap, gift, transfer, and archive new or used titles as we've become accustomed to doing since Gutenberg's time.