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Tuesday
Jul092013

A Progress Report on Reading Electronic Books, Especially Kindle

By Dennis D. McDonald

Reading THE SHIP while sitting in my garden one morning recently. No danger of the sunlight making pages difficult to see! (Click or tap the above image to download a .pdf of this article.)

Back in August 2011 I published Downsizing the Home Media Collection where I discussed giving away a big chunk of our book collection. 

I remember being a bit surprised at how easy it had been to “weed” the collection of hardcover and paperback book we had built up over the years. Now I’m reading a book — a “real book” printed on paper — in amongst the books and various documents I’m also reading via my Kindle devices and software. Reading this physical book is a pleasure so I thought I would put some of my thoughts about the experience in writing. 

The Kindle Fire. I really like how it displays the books and documents in my collection.The Kindle Fire. I really like the way it displays books and the many web pages and documents I’ve emailed to my Kindle account.The book is C.S. Forester’s The Ship. How I ended up reading it is an interesting story. (My own review of the novel is here.)

I was testing out my new Kindle Fire a couple of weeks ago and how well it works with Amazon’s Prime movie service. It’s a great “movie consumption device” that I’ve used with both Amazon Prime movies and Netflix movies.

One day while looking for good history movies to put on my Amazon Prime “watchlist” I noticed that a couple of titles weren’t available via Prime but could be purchased on Amazon. Switching over to the Amazon store app on the Fire — an easy transition — I started reading customer supplied reviews associated with several titles that interested me. I ran across several reader references to C.S. Forester’s novel The Ship.

This 1943 novel is about a British cruiser in the Mediterranean during World War II. I love a good nautical yarn and have read all of the author’s Hornblower novels as well as many of O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels. 

I decided to get the Forester book which is available for six dollars for the Kindle. While that price is attractive, I already have a backlog of Kindle books to read. Switching over to my laptop I went online to the Alexandria Public Library, located the physical book, reserved it, and within a day I received an email saying the book was ready to be picked up, which I did.

Note that multiple media and content delivery channels were involved in this transaction. I commented on a similar set of mixed transactions back in 2007 when I published Using New Media to Sell Old Media. That article describe the chain of events leading up to my purchasing the paperback book that involved a publisher, a video program, a podcast, my iPod, my computer, the Internet, and Amazon, all leading up to delivery of the physical book into my hands by the U.S. Postal Service.

The black and white Kindle. This is a page from Benford & Brin’s THE HEART OF THE COMET.The black and white Kindle. This is a page from Benford & Brin’s THE HEART OF THE COMET. Now Amazon’s Kindle infrastructure is inserted into the scheme. At my house downloaded electronic books can be viewed on a black and white Kindle, on a (color) Kindle Fire, or on Kindle software running on my iPhone 4s or on my wife’s iPad Mini.

If it’s a book I’m reading that’s mostly text but with a few photographs or illustrations I usually prefer the original Kindle with its plain black-and-white display, or the Kindle app on my iPhone. While the display on the Kindle Fire is larger, the Fire is much heavier than the other devices and its actual performance isn’t as smooth as the iOS devices. Also, with the iPhone and its portability I always have a book with me if I’m caught somewhere waiting in line since I’m always carrying my “phone.”

If the book is heavily illustrated with color or complex figures or has many tables and charts, generally the Fire is preferable. This is true also for illustrated magazines such as the BBC History Magazine whose illustrated history stories and extensive book reviews are among my favorites.

Where the Kindle Fire falls down is in transitioning back and forth between books and the World Wide Web. The Fire’s browser is, to be blunt, clunky. While it gets the job done, whenever I use it I immediately prefer the web browsing experience of the iPhone or the iPad Mini. Even the Kindle Fire’s performance as an email platform is very basic. It gets the job done, but just barely. Again, I prefer the iPhone, even with its smaller screen size. It works better and the Retina display is gorgeous.

As long as were talking about books, we need to mention Audible, Amazon’s service for books in audio form. I finally succumbed to Leo Laporte’s constant advertising for Audible and subscribed. I now download and listen to audiobooks via both the Kindle Fire and the iPhones Audible app. Bookmarks sync across devices. I especially like how one device inquires if I want to advance to the last place listened to on the other device.

The iPhone’s AUDIBLE app showing the first novel in the Game of Thrones series.The Audible app on my iPhone 4s. This is the first Game of Thrones novel. The production is fantastic. I’m finding the book depressing however whether I listen to it or read it. That said, I prefer the iPhone’s Audible app to the Audible app on the Kindle Fire. The two are similar but the iPhone’s app has a noticeable edge in overall smoothness and ease-of-use. Plus, the Fire is substantially heavier than the iPhone given its screen size but this does nothing to influence the performance of “talking books” given the lack of visual features on Audible books.

Overall it’s difficult to single out one of these devices as “best” for my own book reading.

As I read my paper copy of The Ship I enjoy the appearance of the text on the paper and the feel of turning the pages of the book. This provides a more solid feeling of progress than just seeing an electronic bookmark list.

One downside of the paper copy is my reluctance to mark up segments and text for later reference, something which I’ve never really done even when reading my own paper books. Highlighting text when reading via the Kindle is easy, even when using the basic black and white model. Such notes do make it easier to review the books when finished, something which I frequently do.

On the other hand, Kindle books are not easy to share with friends the way physical books can be shared. My wife and I share Amazon accounts and can read each other’s books. I can’t say the same thing about sharing with my friends. As many times as I have tried to use our local public library’s “lending” program for e-books and audiobooks online, I’ve been stymied by the variety of formats and reading interfaces that have to be navigated. In addition to the lower selection of electronic titles offered by the library, it almost seems as if publishers have deliberately crippled libraries’ ability to lend electronic books as easily as they lend books in paper form. I’m sure there’s a sales motive behind such restrictions but I’m also a firm believer that people that read more tend to buy more to read even when they can easily borrow paper or electronic books.

Such issues are constantly in the background as I navigate the various forms books can take these days. I like them all. I love the portability and ease-of-use of the iPhone’s Kindle app and the basic black and white weighs-practically-nothing Kindle. But I do wish I would see the following happen:

  1. I’d like to see Kindle edition edition prices come down. I know something about editorial and production costs in the publishing industry given my consulting. I’m always surprised at how expensive some of the newer books are in Kindle form. It’s difficult to have a rational discussion of this topic given how secretive publishers are about costs, but for me the bottom line is quite simple: if Kindle edition prices were lower I would probably buy more newer books. (As it is I frequently buy used editions of older paperbacks via Amazon from independent booksellers.)
  2. I would love to see reasonably priced electronic editions that synchronize progress, notes, and bookmarks between electronic text and audio recordings of books. Sometimes I like to switch back and forth. I’ve been trying to read the first Game of Thrones book but keeping the location in such a sprawling work has proven to be quite a challenge.
  3. It should be easier to temporarily “borrow” electronic books. The public library seems a logical place for that. The mix of collections and programs available from my library is confusing and seems designed to discourage, not encourage reading. (I have also been experimenting with the Amazon Kindle’s limited “lending library” program.)
  4. As I learned from my own experience of downsizing my own book collections I don’t have the same need to collect physical books as I once did. Yes, I treasure my first editions of works by authors like Maugham, George Orwell, and Arthur C. Clarke. What I’ve also found is that most of the books that pass through my hands or in front of my eyeballs don’t need to go into my permanent collection. Perhaps e-book pricing should reflect this distinction.

When all is said and done, I still believe that books will survive, despite constant changes in technology and in the economics of publishing. While I enjoy the actual reading of electronic books, I just wish that books in electronic form were generally cheaper, easier to access, and easier to share.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Dennis is a Washington DC area consultant specializing in project management, digital strategy, and technology adoption. His clients have included the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the US Environmental Protection Agency, Jive Software, the National Library of Medicine, the National Academy of Engineering, Social Media Today and Oracle, and the World Bank Group. Contact Dennis via email at ddmcd@yahoo.com or by phone at 703-402-7382.

 

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