ebooks, on ebook readers or not

New gadgets can be fun, but there's a lot you can do with the computer you already own.

While doing some Christmas shopping at Best Buy last Saturday I asked one of their Geek Squad guys at the information desk if they had the Sony ebook reader, because I wanted to see what one looked like up close. This low-end Napoleon Dynamite snorted "They tried ebooks a few years ago, and it was a complete failure". I was tempted to press him on what he meant by "they", but I just smiled, told him "it's a little more complicated than that", and headed for the cash registers.

feedbooks logo

Various specialized ebook reading devices have come out over the years, usually with less success than their makers had hoped, and now Sony and Amazon's Kindle are trying to find out if 2007 is the right timing for such an appliance. Meanwhile, many people have a broader idea of what "ebooks" are, and it's worked out quite well for them. Along with (or instead of) an electronic version of a book to read on a specialized reading device, more and more publishers are making them available for reading on regular, general-purpose PCs.

These might be offered in specialized ebook formats such as epub, or they could be PDF files, or they could be offered in multiple formats and others. The feedbooks site offers many literary classics in epub, Mobipocket/Kindle, Sony Reader, iLiad, and two PDF formats. While I have no intention of reading War and Peace off of a regular computer screen (although it was nice to see that the Ubuntu version of FBReader displayed the epub version of feedbook's "War and Peace" just fine on my Lifebook laptop), commercial publishers are finding people willing to pay for electronic versions of their books to use as reference material. For example, an editor at Manning told me that their ebooks do well among tech consultants who want to bring multiple books along on consulting engagements for reference without straining their backs.

My employer has created PDF versions of backlist books for clients who are now well-positioned to distribute these titles as electronic books like Manning does and to also use them for print-on-demand delivery. (I'm supposed to be careful about throwing clients' names around, so contact me privately if you want to hear more. To summarize, doing this is pretty straightforward if your content is already in XML, and if not, we have plenty of experience converting odd formats to XML.)

For online delivery, though, dedicated ebook formats have one serious advantage over PDF files: PDFs are ultimately designed for printed pages, so that viewing them on a screen is like moving a window around a page that's larger than the window. If you change the size of your window, the page doesn't care. Reading a page with multiple columns means scrolling down and up and down and up and down all to read a single page. Change the size of a dedicated ebook reader program and it re-scrolls the content to accomodate the window instead of making the window work around the page layout. (If you want to play with this, Adobe Digital Editions reader, FBreader, Mobipocket, and dotReader are all free ebook reading programs.)

So while I do like the Geek Squad ties—although I'd wear one with a long sleeve, more cotton-based shirt—I find their consumer electronics perspective on what new technology is going where to be a bit narrow. People are doing more cool things with ebooks all the time, both for free and for money, and I look forward to seeing where it goes in the next few years.