Kindles and readers and EPUB, oh my!

Last week's article about the potential loss of twentieth century literature sparks a healthy discussion.
Written by Denise Amrich, Contributor

Last week, I shared my concerns about the potential loss of twentieth century literature.

See also: Allergies, Kindle, and the death of twentieth century literature

There were a lot of really constructive and interesting comments in the Talkback section. I learned quite a bit more about the issue. Readers shared links and information about about how changes in copyright law in order to benefit a few financial interests have robbed the public of content which should more fairly already be in the public domain.

Reader CFWhitman also posted some great information about how lower paper quality has contributed to the potential loss of a lot of great twentieth century literature.

It was a discussion worth reading, and if you haven't seen how readers weighed in, I'd definitely recommend checking it out.

A lot of people also took issue with my choice of the Kindle format rather than the EPUB standard format, which I consider to be a valid criticism of platform choice, if not of premise.

Reader johnfenjackson posed a really interesting solution to the problem, which I'd like to reprint here because it's creative and deserves some attention:

How about the national libraries of the world make a small scale digitising service available in each region.

  1. They maintain a central database of rescued works (and search for the copyright owner's permission).
  2. Anyone can propose a work be rescued.
  3. Once accepted and classified by the library the proposer agrees to use the digitising service to capture the work.
  4. Anyone who completes the digitisation of a work is entitled to free electronic access to the entire library.

If the libraries cannot afford a suitable cloud-based repository (or Google/Amazon don't come up with a non-profit offer) then the store is implemented as a P2P service with the libraries managing the trackers.

A modern-day recreation of the library at Alexandria.

One of the emails I received was from William Grimm. With his permission, I am sharing our correspondence here, for the benefit of ZDNet Health readers.

William's original letter to me

Good article. I have been saying the same things for years about the Kindle. Backlists, out of print books -- would be nice if they were offered for the Kindle. Maybe the margins would not be great, but there would be cash coming in. Pricing would be critical, I think below $5. IMHO, Kindle pricing at ten dollars was a step in the right direction, but I think the standard price for an ebook should be around five dollars.

At ten dollars a book, I am choosy, and buy fewer than I would if they were cheaper. At two recent Kindle sales, books priced at $3.99 or less, I bought about fifty books. Some I own in paper, but my office's wall to wall books are a sore point with my wife.

Even at eReader's ridiculous prices over the years, starting with my PalmPilot, I bought several hundred books. Greed killed that company, and another good ereader, the RocketBook/REB. What the publishers do not seem to understand is that their greed kills sales. If they try to charge twenty dollars for an ebook, a lot of readers will find it, for free, online, in the vibrant ebook pirate scene, at a place like books4share.net or on IRC. Silly thing is, if these books were reasonably priced, people would buy them. But no one likes to get taken advantage of.

Hopefully, ebooks will bring some rationality to the textbook market as well. Last class I took, the Kieso & Weygandt textbook for accounting I bought cost 215.00!

BTW, I own a Kindle DX, and it is nice, but most of my reading lately has been on my iPad, where I have both the Kindle app and the app from ereader.com for all of those books. And I also have two Sony readers and a RocketBook and two REBs and a Hiebook, so I am familiar with the ebook scene. Wish formats would be standardized!

My first reply

Thanks for the email! I agree about the price-point of ebooks being key. It reminds me of an article Joan Baez wrote in the early days of the Internet, about how music companies should release their back catalogs for super reasonable rates, like a quarter a song or something. I have been trying to find that article, but it was probably actually written before Google started indexing.

This practice would bring in money for the publishers, wouldn't compete with current offerings, and would have the beautiful side effect of preserving cultural history.

Another thing publishers could do is sell bundles. I can see it now, "Fifty bucks for fifty books from the Fifties." That'd be so impossible to pass up!

My strategy these days is to refrain from buying until I'm actually ready to start reading a given title, but sales do entice me. I also have a lot of free books in my Kindle library. And I have an extensive library of Audible.com titles because I've long held the monthly membership that comes with two new audio books each month, along with a newspaper subscription.

Something I really think Amazon should do is make it easier to organize your Kindle library, see it all on one page, arrange it by genre or your own category structure, stuff like that. The way they have it now is abysmal.

You bring back so many memories! I had many Palm devices and enjoyed reading on them.

I also agree on textbook pricing, it's crazy. And many online textbooks are actually rentals at higher prices than the price at which you could buy a slightly used, semester-old copy.

I also wish formats would be standardized. Many readers didn't like my emphasis on the Kindle format, preferring the EPUB format. I prefer Kindle because of its popularity, the ubiquity of the software on non-Kindle devices, and its ability to easily list, monetize, and distribute on Amazon.com. I feel like it's a pretty entrenched format, and may not go away like some of the others we've so heavily invested in.

Thanks again for the great letter. Can I run it in the blog?

Best regards, Denise

P.S. Any relation to the Brothers Grimm? Their fairy tales are out of copyright now, and every bit as wickedly cool as they ever were!

Bill's follow-up

Feel free to run my letter in your blog. I enjoyed your response, and agree with most if not all of your points. I chose Kindle because of the pricing, although I think the price at $9.99 per book was still too high, they beat all of the other shops, often by 50% or more.

Richard Stallman, founder of GNU and the Free Software Foundation, has been ranting about ebooks lately, and some of his rants have merit. His biggest point is that ebooks deprive us of freedoms, like the freedom to resell them. Which should be an important factor in ebook pricing. I would like to see some sort of ability offered by Amazon that would allow ebook trading, but do not think we will ever see ebook reselling allowed.

When the Sony readers came out, I had high hopes, but they just did not live up to expectations. The claim that the reader would display PDFs was almost false advertising, because it would not display letter or A4 legibly, and it was very difficult to distill anything to PDF that would display properly.

That has been one of my big gripes -- the difficulty of converting between different formats. Over the years, I have bought a lot of software to do this. Iceni Gemini was the best to convert to/from PDF and HTML, but that was $150. Acrobat's conversions were actually dismal, Gemini's were pretty good. And then I tried UNPDF, which is good, and RepliGo, and several others. But format changing is still a trial, and to do it well requires a substantial investment in software.

In terms of textbooks, it will be interesting to see how that market develops. The Chinese seem to be using ereader technology in a big way for textbook distribution, and the Japanese are also giving it a try. I think that our own market will eventually evolve, and offer reasonable pricing, but there seems to be a lot of greed in the whole process. Kind of like the companies that were trying to sell public domain classics for five dollars or more, and ebooks at equal or more than hardcover pricing.

Sincerely, Bill

P.S. Don't know if I am related to the Brothers Grimm, but I sure wish that I had their storytelling abilities!

My follow-up

You make a good point about the inability to resell an ebook. The same goes for lending. I don't like how you can't lend Kindle books for more than two weeks. I have a friend whose family is using only one central Amazon account to purchase all their Kindle content. That way, they all have access to all of each other's books.

I'm not sure that would work for me because no one in my family wants to read the same kinds of books, but it would be a potentially interesting way to get around the two week lending limit.

As for charging for already free content, I have a funny story. The author of one ebook I almost bought was actually kind enough to point to where I could get the information for free online. How often do you encounter something like that?

I don't mind too much when someone charges a little something for a public domain book they've put a lot of time into formatting nicely, enhancing the experience of readability. Formatting quality seems to be all over the map, and some standardization would be nice. I have heard that there are some issues with the EPUB format and special formatting.

Have a nice read

Whatever your favorite reader, favorite type of book, favorite format, or favorite platform, I want to extend my wishes for happy reading to all!

Any more thoughts on the allergy-thwarting, eyesight-saving, content-corralling ebook? Share in the TalkBacks below.

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