Joy Kim

Librarian. Book Reviewer. Coffee Addict.

Adventures in ebooks

When it comes to technological innovation, I am generally in the early adopter or early majority categories. (Which one usually depends on how expensive the innovation in question is, as I am also quite cheap.) After all, I am easily tempted by shiny new things, and I am friends with many early adopters, all of whom are happy to share their latest enthusiasms with me.

That said, I was pretty slow to explore the world of ebooks, even though I started hearing about them ten years ago when I was a work-study intern at Yale University Press. I was just too much a fan of the printed book. So aside from an occasional venture into the archives of Project Gutenberg, I let the ebook revolution pass me by even as I continued to read a ridiculous number of books each year.

Two things finally changed my attitude. First, I became a librarian. Second, I got an iPhone.
As a librarian, I have to be comfortable with electronic collections, even if they aren’t my personal first choice for content delivery. Knowing how to use netLibrary or Overdrive ebooks or eaudio is just part of my professional toolkit. I have no business telling a library user that ebooks are viable alternatives to print copies if I haven’t ever used them myself.

Meanwhile, as an iPhone owner, I finally had a portable device that I could actually imagine reading a novel-length text on. None of my previous phones had been remotely suitable for this.

So, after several months of experimenting with ebooks, I have come to the following conclusions:

(1) The instant gratification factor is wonderful.

When I decide that I’m not in the mood to read any of my current library checkouts, it’s nice to be able to go online and find something that is available pretty much on demand.

(2) It’s still not the most comfortable reading experience.

I prefer to read books in one long sitting, and eyestrain definitely becomes a factor after a certain amount of time on my laptop or on my iPhone. I will probably still rely on printed books to get me through those long plane rides to Korea, especially because of battery charge issues. I may, however, start downloading some ebooks as entertainment backup in case the books I packed don’t last as long as expected.

(3) Cost is an issue.

I have now read many ebooks, but all of them were at no cost to me. This includes library checkouts, public domain works from Project Gutenberg, and various Creative Commons licensed works. I am still very reluctant to pay money for an ebook. The Kindle does not tempt me one bit.

(4) Every once in a while, ebooks can completely one-up their print cousins.

The problem with printed books is that they go out of print. Once a book publisher looks at a title and decides that additional reprints will not recoup costs, the content in question gradually becomes less and less available. Bookstores stop carrying it; library copies are lost or damaged, if they were ever any at all. Copies at used bookstores are few and far between. Good luck finding a copy when you want to read it.

And until recently, there was not much an author could do about this state of affairs, even if they wanted you to be able to read their work. Self-publishing hardly ever made financial sense. But now the internet gives authors more options. They can publish through print-on-demand shops like Lulu. Or they can publish their work as ebooks, free or at some small cost, and take advantage of the electronic distribution network that has sprung up around the various ebook formats.

Case in point: The Element of Fire by Martha Wells.

This is Wells’s first novel, originally published in 1993 to much critical acclaim. But as books will do, it gradually went out of print. When friends first started recommending it to me a few years ago, it was a little hard to find. I never got around to reading it then, and gradually forgot about it.

Fast-forward to 2009. I came across the book again one night while browsing through free ebook downloads for the Stanza application on my iPhone. And since The Element of Fire was free and available at just the click of a button, I clicked, downloaded, and began to read. And read, and read, until way past my bedtime. It was just that entertaining. The Element of Fire is easily the best fantasy novel that I’ve read all year, and I probably wouldn’t have read it anytime soon, perhaps ever, if it hadn’t crossed my radar again because it was an ebook.

(You can find more information about the novel, including links to free downloads, on Martha Wells’s website.)

(5) Fiction and Text > Nonfiction and Audio

So far, most of my ebook experiments have involved popular fiction. I’ve downloaded some nonfiction titles but haven’t been able to get through them. I wonder if I need the promise of light entertainment to get me past the hassles (mostly eyestrain) associated with the format.

I also haven’t had any luck with eaudio, due to DRM and platform issues, but I am not generally a consumer of recorded books anyway. I prefer to listen to music rather than books during my commutes.

What ebooks have you been reading or listening to?

One Comment

  1. I’ve been enjoying Project Gutenberg repackaging (previously in Plucker format for Treo, now .epub, which reader apps on several platforms recognize) for novels I feel obscurely that I should’ve read. Current meanderings when I have nothing else on me are Anthony Trollope’s Ayala’s Angel and James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen. Oddly, though I’ve picked up free electronic versions of several Tor novels, I haven’t begun them–I’m a bit afraid to see whether I converted .pdf to .epub correctly.

    Backlighting versus eInk seems to be the biggest factor shifting a few of my friends towards the Kindle. They happen also to be friends who don’t mind DRM as much as I do….

    I bought the print-on-demand version of Element a couple of years ago. Very good read, yes!