Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Summer notes on ebooks  §

So it’s been about two years since I read my first eBook (Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not) on my Palm using Mobipocket reader, and about a year since I got ahold of my first-generation Kindle and started filling it with books.

Last week sometime, it became clear to me that the time had come to actually organize the several hundred books I have on Kindle. I’ve read a good three dozen or so and my reading list is, at this point, quite long. As a result, the “home screen” (book index) of my Kindle was getting a bit out of control, for several reasons that I’ll describe presently.

Two years on, here’s what I think of the current state of ebooks and ebook readers.

The Good

– Reading experience better than reading paper books

– Less cumbersome

– Consistently, evenly printed

– Never heavy, no matter how long the book

– Automatic bookmarks and notes

– Lots of room for lots of books

– Get new books instantly just with a few button presses

– All books are now searchable

The Bad

– Dedicated reader devices are still quite slow

– The screens are a little too small

– The resolution is still a little too low

– Battery life needs to be improved

– Lots of books aren’t yet available as ebooks

– Many books may never be available as ebooks

The Ugly

– Publishers treat ebooks like second-class citizens

– Lots of absolutely shitty formatting and attention to detail

– Variable use of metadata makes book and author lists a mess

– Absolutely no technical documentation of devices, formats

– Inconsistent implementation of file format standards across devices

– DRM-protected books for which you can’t even fix metadata

– A total nightmare for openness

– That makes for a total nightmare in quality control

– That is also and as a result completely unfixable by end-users

– No folders or other organizational tools

– Total lack of user control over the experience

I couldn’t be more in love with the idea of ebooks and ebook readers. The technology is absolutely fabulous and could make books entirely obsolete tomorrow. The execution, however, is half-assed and piss-poor, and all for non-technical reasons. The lack of openness, complete lack of attention to detail and lack of quality control, and lack of respect for users turn a fabulous product into a love-hate product, half salvation, half nightmare.

I have 550 books or so on the Kindle right now. About 60 of them are Amazon-purchased, about 55 of them were able to be De-DRM’ed and have their metadata fixed. The rest are from Gutenberg. It took days to fix the metadata for them all (except the still DRM’ed Topaz format books, which can’t be fixed). Before this latest round of metadata-fixing, the device had become unusable; the alphabetization features were useless (the Kindle claimed to alphabetize, but in fact displayed authors and titles in completely random order) and there were 40+ pages of books in the main index. Now it’s mostly fixed, but there are still the problems of crap attention to detail (rushed ebooks with absolutely piss-poor formatting, missing sections, line breaks everywhere, four or five blank lines between paragraphs, etc.), lack of organizational tools (folders, categories, anything), and lack of documentation (you have to be very tech savvy to find out that the Kindle, for example, supports Palm books, Mobi format books, that AZW is really Mobi with a Kindle-specific PID, that AZW1 is actually Topaz format also known under TPZ, etc.)

This is a long post and I don’t usually make technical posts, but I’m excited enough about ebooks and worried enough about ebooks that I want this on the record. These are great, amazing devices with great, amazing potential. I have at my fingertips a searchable library of nearly all English language classics that can fit in a handbag and can download any text in the world over a network—in theory. It’s hobbled by the same old fucking corporate control and capitalist nonsense that turns all great ideas that could improve human life into shite.

So let’s hope ebooks aren’t killed or permanently hobbled by corporate attitude problems. And let’s hope someone comes up with a nice, open ebook reader that shares the spirit of the Linux operating system on which nearly all current ebook readers are based.