So. As regular readers will know I gifted myself an eReader for Xmas. I did this for a number of reasons. Firstly, I read. A lot. I read for my day job, for my writing, as a reviewer and for pleasure, so I wanted to see if an eReader could make my work stream more efficient. Secondly, as a writer I want to understand what the eReader experience is like for readers and assess if eReaders really are the coming thing. Lastly, I like shiny gadgets and wanted a new one that would be constructive, rather than a time waster.
Choosing an eReader
For those who don’t know, an eReader is a a specialised device for reading text. It is distinguished from other devices like smart-phones by its non-luminescent screen and very long battery life. The eReader market is becoming crowded, with many near identical products and my first task was to pick which device I wanted. There are many reviews available but most of them are by technology reviewers, who all seem to to be scornful of eReaders because they can’t surf the interwebs, play games or load ‘apps’. It was actually very difficult to find information from real readers, using the devices to actually read on. But after some serious research I arrived at two real contenders – the Amazon Kindle or the Sony Pocket. For my money these are the only two eReaders currently worth considering, and they do two very different jobs. The Kindle is targeted as a content delivery device. It allows you to purchase books via 3G data connection, at any time or in any place. On the flip side, the device is DRM laden. Conversely the Sony Pocket is much more open, but far less simple to purchase content for. Although I wanted the open platform, I might still have chosen the Kindle. However, as a UK user I would be charged far more per book than an American user and I found that simply unacceptable. So, with some reservations I eventually bought the Sony Pocket.
I can say without reservation that the Sony Pocket is an excellent piece of hardware. The construction is excellent, it feels solid but lightweight and it has a simple but perfectly functional design. Some real thought has gone into making the Pocket feel like a book. The rounded left hand edge is like a spine, and the tapered right edge is just enough to make you feel like you are holding a crafted object. Many readers are craft object fetishists, so this is an important factor. The buttons and navigation system work excellently. With around eighty books loaded onto the device, I can start reading any one in a few clicks. The screen is excellent and has a genuine impact on the reading process. (more on this later) Most fantasticaly, the Pocket really is pocket sized. It fits into a jacket or even jeans pocket comfortably which I love. Also good is that at £139, whilst damaging it would be annoying it wouldn’t be a disaster, and it feels tough enough to take some punishment so I’m quite happy slinging it in a bag without any kind of case, something I would never even consider doing with my Macbook.
In contrast to the hardware, the software is bleeping useless. Sorry Sony, but as a multi billion dollar multinational corporation you really should be able to do better than this abysmal software disaster (or perhaps Sony’s behemothic proportions are the problem?). Firstly, as a tech savvy user I’ve been unable to link the software to your own eBook store. I would happily buy eBooks from you, but you have frustrated my every attempt! The software on the device will not install. The downloaded software will not connect. Even if it did, it would still be useless. Sony’s software offers limited options for managing eBooks, and no facility for converting them to different formats. This makes it functionally useless, and very nearly led to me returning the entire eReader.
Fortunately, and as often happens, the open source community have come to the rescue. Calibre is to eBook library management as iTunes is to music and media management. But better, because it isn’t riddled with idiosyncratic limitations like Apple’s software. Want to convert PDF to EPUB format? Calibre can do it. Want to change the author name on an eBook? Calibre can do it. (No…the Sony software can not even perform that simple but essential act) Calibre makes the eReader a tremendously useful device because it allows me to take any document, quickly convert it and put it on my eReader. What Calibre does not do however is link me to any marketplace for eBooks (if any Calibre developers are reading, I think there might be a fortune available to you in adding this functionality)
Before buying the Sony Pocket, I had been using my iPhone (and before that iPod Touch) as an eReader. It was functional but in the final measure, just not good enough to read from for any length of time. I have however developed quite a library of eBooks, so with the help of Calibre I’ve been able to transfer all of these onto the Sony Pocket. What I have not done as yet is purchase any new eBooks, and when I do it will not be from the Sony, Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith eBook stores. Bottom line: eBooks from these stores are FAR TOO EXPENSIVE. At £7 – £10, paperback prices in the UK are already over inflated, just as CD prices were for years. Attempting to charge the same price for eBooks is frankly absurd. My upper limit for eBooks is £5. On the whole, I want them for less than £4. If publishers and retailers can’t hit that price, they won’t have my custom, and my gut feeling is they won’t have many other peoples either. (More on why this is essential below)
Having had the Sony for the best part of a week, the biggest surprise for me is how it has effected my reading patterns. Having all of my reading materials on one device makes the reading experience much more fluid. I can read a novel, then peruse some short stories, look at material for review, and even read through work related documents. I could do all of this on my laptop or even my iPhone, but the eReader succeeds at being MUCH better for the actual task of reading than any multifunction device. The screen is a pleasure to read, and has none of the eyestrain or headache issues of a luminescent screen, and the lack of email and internet or other distractions allows me to focus my attention fully on absorbing information. That is a very important issue in an age where so many things fragment our attention. I was surprised to find that the Sony Pocket is perfectly adapted for speed reading. I taught myself speed reading skills about two years ago, and the screen width and variable font size of the eReader make effective speed reading much easier. And my normal reading speed also seems to be higher. That might not be the case for all users, but for ‘power readers’ that could be an essential reason to use a device of this kind.
Conclusion and Implications
My instinct is that the eReader (either the Sony Pocket or equally capable devices) will appeal to two types of readers at this point, but miss a third. The first two are ‘power readers’ and ‘passionate readers’. For power readers – students, academics, writers or anyone else who reads large amounts for multiple purposes, an eReader is now a solid investment as a labour saving device. For passionate readers, an eReader will be a pleasure to own and open up new areas of reading (I’ve already read two short story collections I never would have tried without it). But for casual readers I.E. the vast majority of the reading public who read only a dozen or so books a year or maybe less, the eReader is unlikely to serve much purpose. The eReader has not yet reached the iPod moment where it becomes an essential consumer purchase. BUT…I think we are at most two or three years from that point, as I write in the last days of 2009.
What will it take for eReaders and eBooks to really reach the mainstream? I think the one word answer to that question is: Marketplace. At this time there is no really cohesive marketplace where publishers can sell eBooks and readers can buy them. The online stores (Amazon Kindle included) are overpriced, too heavily DRMed, too complex and most damning of all do not have a wide or deep enough catalogue. Until a marketplace as complete as Apple’s iTunes store appears for eBooks, they will not achieve mainstream acceptance.
But until then, eBooks still mean revolutionary changes for publishers, retailers and writers. For publishers and retailers, those changes might well be very, very bad. I have saved the issue of piracy until the end of this piece because it is the elephant in the room in the eBook discussion. Anyone equipped with a decent eReader and Google now has access to almost any book they might otherwise buy in a book shop. Unless publishers and retailers provide a high quality purchasing experience akin to the iTunes stores very quickly, they are going to be absolutely decimated by piracy. And even if this marketplace does come about, the much smaller scale of publishing relative to music or film might simply make the economics of either publishing or book retailing impossible.
But for writers themselves the prospects are, in my opinion, much brighter. Writers who embrace eReaders and eBooks stand to find themselves considerably better off than they would have been in the traditional publishing model, as selling your product directly to your readership now becomes an absolutely viable prospect. Even factoring in piracy, authors who can produce high quality books and put them in the marketplace effectively will only benefit from the eReading revolution.
And in other eBook news…
My short story Momentum is now available in eBook format from from Feedbooks.