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The Once and Future eBook

The Once and Future eBook

by Nalini Haynes

The latest Coode Street podcast discusses electronic books and magazines, contrasting the kindle and iPad experience, eBooks (novels) and magazines.  Jonathan and Gary talk about the book as artifact and the reading experience; Jonathan in particular states that nothing looks good on a kindle.  I’m very engaged with the electronic experience so I have a few points I’d like to add to this discussion.

The first electronic readers came out many years ago, well before Kindles were a twinkle in their inventor/s eyes.  In 2006 I saw an eReader for the first time: it was a Sony, about A4 in size (A4 is 20cm X 30cm or 8 inchex X 12 inches approximately), with a large screen and a leather cover; this reader cost around $800+ and there weren’t many ebooks available at that time.  There were very few websites selling electronic books, including this one, eBooks.  I didn’t purchase an eReader back then – it was too expensive and there were too few books available to read on the Sony.  However, I did start purchasing ebooks and reading them on my PC.

This article includes the following sections:

Maintaining an electronic library

When I undertook my Master degree, a couple of very smart lecturers saved trees by providing readers on CD instead of in paper format.  Since then I’ve been buying electronic books (for about seven years now), as well as creating some ‘manufactured’ electronic copies for disability access.  (In this case, ‘manufactured’ means scanning the book in to read as a PDF relying on the computer to magnify the text.  BEFORE YOU ACCUSE ME OF PIRATING, this is legal for me in Australia as per provisions in copyright legislation.  See part 3.1 starting on page 7 of the linked document.)  The net result is that I have a significant number of electronic books.  This has been a very mixed blessing.

eBooks, my first source of purchased electronic books, sold books primarily in PDF format then branched out.  I stuck with the PDF format because I was using my PC – I wasn’t forced to choose an alternative format – and PDF reader software was familiar.  Unfortunately all my purchases through eBooks were licensed by Adobe, so every individual purchase required hoops to be jumped through on the Adobe website after the purchase on eBooks.  Adobe created a folder, My Digital Editions, on my PC for Adobe purchases.  Once upon a time I thought I’d be really smart and put all my electronic books in this folder regardless of format and source.  Keep it simple, right?  Make it easy to see my entire electronic library in one location?


In 2008 ADOBE REMOVED EVERY ELECTRONIC FILE FROM THAT FOLDER THAT WAS NOT AN ADOBE-RELATED PURCHASE without permission.  I sat at my computer stunned and distressed as I WATCHED IT happen.


Luckily I’m married to an IT geek who had a full back-up, so he restored all my lost files.  After that, I put the non-Adobe books somewhere else on my computer.  I also complained to Adobe, pointing out that it was not lawful for them to arbitrarily delete files I legitimately own.  Adobe failed to respond.  Ever.

The problem hasn’t stopped there, however.  In the beginning I had CD backups of all my electronic books, but when my computer was upgraded, I found DRM management from Adobe to be intrusive: I couldn’t just transfer books from one computer to another and read them.  Even with a minor upgrade to my computer, Adobe blocked my use of legitimately-purchased books on the basis that I was reading them on a different computer.  Every fucking time I upgraded my computer I had to go through this circus performance of contacting Adobe, whose customer service is becoming increasingly elusive, get the old computer cancelled and then download the ENTIRE FUCKING LIBRARY AGAIN.



More on maintaining an electronic library after the advent of the kindle…

Returning to paper

I’m perfectly happy researching on my PC.  I can cruise the web, read manuals including cross-referencing between indices and content.  BUT.  I don’t like reading fiction on my computer.  It feels like work: I’m sitting in my chair, sitting looking at the screen instead of sitting on the couch.  I read books on the laptop for a while as it was my only means of reading unless the print in books was extra large, then I found an optometrist who prescribed me reading glasses.  The laptop was a bit awkward: too heavy to hold like a book, too many problems with reading with it in my lap.  The combination of my increasing loathing of electronic books for leisure reading, the difficulties with using the laptop (weight, ergnomics) and the discovery of a competent optometrist who prescribed me READING GLASSES to suit my disability, sent me back to paper, sighing with relief.

With my new reading glasses I found I could, once again, read books as long as the print was of a certain size and quality.  Generally speaking this means I need trade paperbacks or hardcovers, not mass market paperbacks as the print size for MMPs is smaller.  However this is not always true; increasingly I’m finding text sizes are getting smaller and smaller, regardless of the format of the book.

Text sizes, ink density, font, paper quality, contrast between the text and the page all combine to create the READING EXPERIENCE.  There are times I think I can read something but I quickly tire, putting down the book after only ten minutes.  Other times I think I’ll be pushing it to read a particular item but I manage because the ink density and choice of font is excellent.

Cost of electronic books

It seems to me that in the past seven years as electronic readers have taken off, publishers have decided they’re entitled to greater profit margins: the savings they make on electronic books are increasingly withheld from the consumer to bolster profits, while the quality of the printed article deteriorates to save on paper, ink, binding, shipping and storage costs.  Mass market paperbacks in the US may only cost $5 to $10, but over here in Australia we’re increasingly looking at a cost of $15 and above for the ELECTRONIC version.

Ones and zeros, people, ones and zeroes.

Many publishers expect people to pay for both paper and electronic copies if they want both for whatever reason, however some publishers and authors bundle the paper and electronic copies together.  You can guess which I prefer.

Kindling a new relationship

Books are becoming increasingly difficult to read, I don’t like reading for leisure on the PC and the laptop is a juggling act so in 2011 I purchased a Kindle DX.  (I had to wait for the DX (the BIG kindle) to come out then come down in price.)

Kindle DX


Jonathan said nothing looks good on a kindle.  I beg to differ.  A well-formatted book can look very similar on the kindle and in paper; the kindle DX presents greyscale drawings well as evidenced by the screensaver images. It all depends on the publisher providing images of sufficient quality and resolution to suit the format.  The bar across the bottom of the screen displays the percentage of the book read, so the reader can know where a viewed page is in the book.  The non-reflective screen is awesome: being very light-sensitive, reflections cause problems for me whether they’re on a computer screen or on my glasses; the kindle screen is pretty good although obviously is shinier than a paper page.  When I’m sitting on the couch I have to angle the kindle so I don’t see the window reflected as a blob of bright colour on the screen.

The kindle has some serious negatives, some of which are generic and some are far more personal.  You can’t flip through a book on the kindle, instead you’re stuck – click – wait for responding page turn – click – wait for responding page turn – click….  If you’ve lost your page somehow this can be infuriating.  I have no idea how to use the kindle for research, consulting the index then referring to the page.  The buttons below the bottom of the screen have microscopically small letters; instead of properly learning how to use the kindle, I’ve memorised a few basic functions, like how to stop the bloody thing switching from landscape to portrait every time I  breathe and how to choose text size.  I loathe and detest the contents list on the kindle: although they advertise the ‘you beaut’ choice of text sizes, they conveniently forget to mention that text for the contents is fixed.  Every time I try to find a new book in the contents list, it’s a fucking saga.  >:(

When I write reviews for books I’ve read on the kindle my stress levels go through the roof.  I can’t flick through a few pages to find THAT character’s name nor to double-check a fact, event, plot-hole or author self-contradiction.  As a result it feels like a kindle book is only half real, partially obscured by an impenetrable barrier, its lack of tangibility.

If I had a tablet some of this frustration could be avoided, simply because tablets’ functionality is closer to a PC with the versatility of an eReader BUT tablets tend to have one fixed battery with a limited life expectancy.  This is useless for going out for a day and reading in transit and while waiting around BECAUSE THE BATTERY DIES and cannot be switched out for a replacement battery.  At least the kindle has a decent battery life.

Maintaining an electronic library in MULTIPLE FORMATS

Ten years after starting an electronic library originating with university readers, seven years after starting to purchase electronic books, I have a library of hundreds of books across CDs, my PC and kindle.  I have accidentally purchased the same book twice before simply because I couldn’t find it or access it in my library.

Thanks to my PC being replaced, I know from experience that Adobe will have revoked access to ebooks I purchased years ago; to access these books requires going through an arduous process.  I dread the day my kindle dies or is stolen, leaving me without my kindle library.  Theoretically I will need to replace my kindle and go through Amazon in much the same process I’ve experienced before with Adobe in order to access books I’ve legitimately purchased.

And people don’t understand why I won’t buy music from iTunes… I figure purchasing music would be more of the same, dealing with draconian registration processes, struggling through a boggy maze every time my computer is upgraded or replaced.


Will next year’s software be backwards compatible?


Will next DECADE’S software be backwards compatible, allowing me to continue reading books I purchased seven years ago?

Maybe not, or maybe there will be increased difficulty.  Running a DOS emulator to play Descent in the 2000s was not as smooth and enjoyable a gaming experience as playing Descent directly in DOS in the 1990s, or so hubby assured me.

In contrast my main concern with paper books is: HAVE THEY BEEN PRINTED ON ACID FREE PAPER?  Sadly, not enough books have been printed on acid free paper, which is why they start going yellow on the edges within a couple of years.  Some of my old books are in better condition than books only a couple of decades old for this reason.  Not impressed.  But paper books are there, VISIBLE, able to be organised in whatever structure the owner’s little heart desires, decorating the interior of one’s home…  The biggest risk to paper books is that fatal request from a friend, ‘Can I borrow…’  I’d have several hundred more books if only I’d learnt to say NO years earlier.

Amazon bricking kindles & DRM

Mario Aguilar of Gizmodo reports on Amazon deleting an account and kindle data without explanation:

Amazon’s terms of service grants it basically god-like authority over its domain, but we all buy in because we believe that the company will be benevolent with its power. That’s not always the case. Here’s the story of a user whose account was deleted and her Kindle wiped with no explanation whatsoever… The email ended with recitation of Amazon’s rights:

Per our Conditions of Use which state in part: Amazon.co.uk and its affiliates reserve the right to refuse service, terminate accounts, remove or edit content, or cancel orders at their sole discretion.

Get that?  Amazon is saying that regardless of how much money you’ve spent, they can take away your legitimately purchased goodies at any time without cause or justification.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation explains DRM succinctly:

Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies attempt to control what you can and can’t do with the media and hardware you’ve purchased.

  • Bought an ebook from Amazon but can’t read it on your ebook reader of choice? That’s DRM.
  • Bought a DVD or Blu-Ray but can’t copy the video onto your portable media player? That’s DRM.
  • Bought a video-game but can’t play it today because the manufacturer’s “authentication servers” are off-line? That’s DRM.
  • Bought a smart-phone but can’t use the applications or the service provider you want on it? That’s DRM.

EFF says more, but that’s the skinny.

DJ Pangburn of Death & Taxes talks about Amazon’s DRM account delete policy:

…Amazon employee, Michael Murphy, refuses to identify a blocked account that Bekkelund’s friend is said to be “linked to.” He refuses to say what policy was supposedly violated. And he refuses to tell his customer why the account is even linked to the blocked account in the first place.

That such a bureaucratic mess could occur is not particularly surprising. Indeed, it’s not even the most troubling issue here, as I see it. What should be of prime concern for everyone is that we stupidly entrust our purchased property in the form of ethereal, non-physical content to corporations in the first place. That we’ve given such power to the seller when it comes to the media we’d like to own.

Brian Sheinberg from CRN says returning product to Amazon could brick your kindle:

…he received an e-mail from Amazon informing him that he was banned from the online store and his Amazon account was canceled. The vague e-mail implied the reason was for too many returns, but didn’t go into detail. The user adamantly denied abusing the company’s return policy (although he admitted to three high-priced returns) and was stunned by the contents of the e-mail.

A quick search on the topic showed that many people over the last few years have been banned from Amazon, receiving the same e-mail almost verbatim… he was also a Kindle owner.

As you may already know, Amazon’s electronic reader, the Kindle (and newer Kindle 2) is linked to the owner’s Amazon account where the inventory of purchased books is managed… When this user’s Amazon account was closed, he also lost access to all the books he had purchased, as well as the ability to shop for new material.

This situation brings the bigger picture of Digital Rights Management (DRM) to the forefront. When you purchase any form of media from a company, do they have the right to deny you access in the future (presuming it was not purchased on a subscription basis)? The above mentioned user ended up with a $360 device that was totally worthless to him. He couldn’t even access books he had already paid for.

Losing access to the kindle is one thing, but losing access to an entire library of books is another.

I’m also concerned because some people send me electronic books to review via the email service for the kindle.  I’m very cautious about using this service as I don’t want unsolicited books filling up my kindle and I don’t like the fact that Amazon has a record of and access to every document sent to me via this method.  I much prefer to receive emails myself then upload from my PC to the kindle, but some publishers prefer to email the kindle directly.


Unsurprisingly I am very invested in electronic media as a means to solve my difficulties.  Perhaps surprisingly, though, I’m VERY attached to paper books as books were my solace, my comfort and my escape while growing up.  Electronic media are all well and good for research and practical purposes, but BOOKS ARE MY FRIENDS. I’d like to see more authors like Brandon Sanderson, who has made a DRM-free version of Legion freely available to people who purchased the paper copy.  This serves as a functional, practical counterpoint to the temporary, ephemeral glamour of electronic toys that have subverted the tangible ownership of books.

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


  1. I have a couple of Amazon purchases & feebies but mainly to dip my toe in the water of e-books. Most of my library is paper for this very reason. Unfortunately it also means I have precious little storage space left for more books.

    I am yet to see an electronic store/service/cloud that hasn’t falled over and cause major grief with the provider merely pointing at the fine print. Another example Major League Baseball turned of a license server because money, so all those older games people thought they bought, they still had but were encrypted and could no longer watch. Also see Zune.

    The problem will get worse before it gets better.


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