Changing Ereader Landscapes: What Can It Mean?

I don’t usually post unless I have reached a conclusion of some sort–even if it is wrong (I trust my readers to set me straight). Now I’m just puzzled. This started when I was trying to figure out yet another bug in my Kindle Keyboard. For those who don’t know, that’s the older Kindle model with the tiny keyboard on the casing. Sturdy, reliable, GREAT battery life, and here recently, full of bugs. This time it affects bold face type. Sometimes it displays, sometimes it doesn’t. And I found an instance where it partially displays.

That same day Jon Westcot sent me an email about Nook ereaders. I couldn’t suss out what was going on, though was able, as usual, to come up with some wild-ass conspiracy theories. Here is what Jon sent:

Here’s an interesting situation (meant in the truest Chinese curse way):

With most of your journal postings, you talk about formatting issues, and most of the conflicts come from the support of the “standard” that the various device developers produce and maintain.

But I have found yet another layer to this mess that I wanted to tell you about. I am currently working towards freeing my Nook Tablet from the restrictive yoke of Barnes and Noble’s operating system and replacing it with a basically fully implemented version of the Android OS. (It’s a long, geeky process, but it’s been informative, frustrating… and even fun. And yes, I know I have a “unique” idea of fun.) As part of that process, I’m trying out various ePub readers.

Oh my freaking God!

What a mess! I first downloaded the Nook for Android application. It can’t even find my library of books because I choose to keep them on the secondary memory card. I can’t even contact B&N support because what I’m doing with my Nook violates its warranty, even though the question has to do with their non-device software.

So, I turned to the Google Apps Store to look for ePub readers. The first one I grabbed, while having a huge number of downloads and a nearly 5-star rating, decided to display everything with a Chinese font!

The next one was okay — at least, it showed readable text! But the formatting was all wrong. It took a lot of wrangling to finally find the setting that lets the user accept the publisher’s formatting defaults! Preposterous!

So, I’m still looking for a good e-reader. Until then, I won’t fully migrate my Nook Tablet to the Android OS. But this whole process really surprised — and disheartened — me. It just never occurred to me that the independently-developed e-readers would be so… crappy. I would have expected just the opposite.

I guess this means that we have more things to worry about than “just” the way device developers create e-book reading software — now we have to worry about the software developers, too.

To which my mind leapt to one truly dark scenario and one big conspiracy theory.

I’ve suspected all along that much of what goes into programming and creating platforms for ereaders is created by people who have little concern–or perhaps little awareness–of end users. Is there any other industry that works this way? Maybe high fashion dress designers.

The industry WANTS us all to move happily into the land of tablets. Tablets are cool, but for reading, the dedicated ereaders are far superior. From the industry point of view, all the ereaders can do is, you know, books. Tablets offer chance after chance after chance to sell the user something.

So no, I don’t honestly think dedicated ereader device makers give a shit about the quality of the books that end up on them. In fact, the crappier the ebooks look, the higher the chance that users will turn to tablets. Case in point, I spent time this morning trying to figure out bugs in the eink Kindles. These are bugs that showed up in the latest update. Now for the longest time my Kindle was perfectly stable. Ever since the Fire came out, every update–and there seem to be a lot lately–makes the eink readers work worse and worse. There is no good reason for that. None.

On a side note, I think the Nook is dead. It might be a great device, but B&N has given up on it. The new ‘owners’ (Google? Microsoft?) don’t care because content is king and they aren’t making money off the content going onto a Nook. The only way they can cash in is to lure Nook users into buying tablets. A really nasty sneaky way to do that is to ensure that cross-device apps DO NOT WORK. I think B&N is going to collapse, too. When it goes, that is basically going to leave Amazon and Apple.

I love my eink, but I suspect the bugs are going to get worse while the Fire gets better. Kobo might have a few years while it worms its way into the international market, but in the end the only dedicated readers are going to be shoved into the obsolete closet and there they will stay.

What a state of affairs, eh?

To which Jon replied:

The fact that B&N doesn’t want people using the NC or NT for anything other than what they intend. But these devices are hackable, no matter how hard B&N tries to lock them down. And they do try; every new release of the OS has blocked previous exploits. But those who hack these devices are brilliant. They figure out ways to get around everything, it seems. And that is a good thing! These are OUR devices that we bought and paid for, and we should be able to use them as we see fit.

What shocked me was… well, it was really two things. First, I was surprised at the number of ePub reader applications I found. Most of them are free, which leads into my second shock — just how bad these applications are! I guess one really does get what one pays for. I don’t think I could write an ePub reader (but it might be fun to try), so I can’t imagine why someone would so do and not charge for it, even a paltry $0.99.

It saddens me to think that the Nook may be going away. I really like mine, but I must admit I have thought about saving up for a tablet, though I would really hate to give up my Nook. I really like the new, larger device B&N released, but I haven’t seen anything about its hackability. I looked at it in-store when it first came out and really liked most of the improvements they made to the OS. I asked the rep at the store if the OS would be upgraded for the older devices and he looked at me like I’d just shot a flaming porcupine from my butt. “That’s old tech,” he muttered in defence. More like in ignorance; there was no reason these devices couldn’t run at least 99% of the new OS’s features. I could have argued it with him, but there wouldn’t have been much point to it.

I do think the dedicated ereader makers (at least Amazon and B&N) do care about how ebooks look on their devices. If they look like crap, that reflects badly on their devices. In my opinion. ;)

To which I replied:

You’d think Amazon and B&N would be more concerned, but the evidence says otherwise. Apple is fanatical about quality control, but I suspect it has more to do with protecting the integrity of their devices. Making attractive ebooks is a side effect.

The rest seem happy to let the producers and consumers duke it out. Meaning, it’s up to the producers to play catch up (if they can) and for consumers to keep buying newer, better, fancier devices. It’s weird to me, but I’m not a business person and don’t pretend to be one.

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So that’s it. Something is going on in the land of ereaders and ebooks, but hell if I have a real clue about what it all might mean. My suspicions are two-fold: One) B&N is circling the drain (my bets are on them showing up in bankruptcy court before the year has ended); Two) Dedicated ereader devices are going the way of the 8-track tape player.

I don’t know for a fact what any of this means for me and thee. I probably wouldn’t even know something was up if I didn’t have three models of Kindles so I could watch as one wildly improves (the Kindle Fire) while the others (eink Paperwhite and Keyboard) slowly degrade with every update. Jon’s experience leads me to suspect that nobody cares enough about the Nook to invest in apps and other support for its users.

Make of this what you will.

Are Ebooks Getting Too Complicated For DIY?

I’m a tad out of sorts this morning. Irked, annoyed, disgruntled… Pick one.

Partly it is because of anxiety. I used Paul Salvette’s guide to create my very first complete ebook (one that doesn’t have to go through a third-party conversion process). Now the author is waiting for it to be published on Amazon. I hate the waiting…

Partly it’s because my son gave me a Kindle Fire for my birthday. Oh, wow, is that thing cool. It’s not something I’d have bought for myself. I’m not a gadget person and it takes me forever to warm up to anything new. But wow, the Fire is very cool. The first thing I did was load the book I just finished onto the Fire to see how it looked. It looks gorgeous. It also looks a lot different than on Larry the Kindle.

I looked at other ebooks in my library. I have books put out by big publishers and indie books, and books that were professionally formatted and books that were DIY. Quality is all over the board. Some of the books that look just fine on Larry look amateurish and not-quite-right on the Fire. It’s because many of the books were produced before the Fire existed. The older formatting platform doesn’t translate so well. The standards are different.

The ebooks are readable. I’m not going to pitch a bitch just because a book I purchased last year won’t let me adjust fonts on the Fire. Nor am I going to ping DIY publishers who’ve formatted a Word file according to Amazon’s guidelines and ended up with an amateurish looking ebook.

I’m irked and annoyed at the devices and the platforms and distributors. Quite frankly, this shit has gotten way too complicated.

It doesn’t help that I read Baldur Bjarnason’s latest post at Futurebook. This part worsened my mood:

However, as I’ve written about before, a large proportion of ebooks published are rubbish. Not in terms of the content (although that’s probably also the case) but in terms of the quality of the file. Ereader platform vendors cannot support the full range of CSS that EPUB2 and EPUB3 require because a substantial number of their catalogue would become unreadable.

Platform vendors are in a position where they couldn’t support standards completely even if they wanted to.

No kidding. For instance, while I was building my most recent project, this is what I had to do. Build the file. Launch the file in my web browser. See how it looks. Figure out why something doesn’t look the way I wanted it to look (All the while knowing that what appears in my browser is only an approximation of what will appear on the ereader). Fix and fiddle, then validate the file to make sure it meets EPUB standards. Check how it looks in Calibre (I don’t have a device that reads EPUB). Again, I know that what I see on my computer screen is not necessarily what a reader will see on a Nook or iPad or whatever. Then, I convert the file into MOBI format and load it onto my Kindle. Do more tweaking. Tweaking and fiddling means having to go through validation again. It means more converting and loading and inspecting. And I haven’t even gone through the Kindle Previewer yet. I want to know how my ebook looks on as many devices as possible. I change font sizes and line spacing and the size of the reading window. It’s time-consuming, it’s frustrating, but the worst part is that even though I’m checking and double-checking with everything I have on hand, it’s still not enough. There is no guarantee that an ebook that renders perfectly on Larry the Kindle (and now the Fire) is going to render properly on other Kindle styles or versions, the Nook, the iPad, the iPhone, an Android, a Sony, a whatever.

As the cat sez:

This is, in a nutshell, a disservice to readers. READERS. Do you hear me Amazon? Barnes & Noble? Kobo? Smashwords? Apple? While you guys indulge in device wars and competing formats while creating compatibility issues, are you thinking about readers at all? You know, the people paying the bills? It’s all well and good to roll out the welcome mat to publishers big and small, traditional and indie, and invite all comers to list their ebooks with you. You get your percentage of sales. When your guidelines and standards are such that it is very, very easy for anybody to make a crappy looking ebook, naturally people are going to follow your guidelines to the letter and end up with crappy looking ebooks.

That’s not right. It’s not fair to readers.

It’s difficult making an ebook that renders properly across all devices. For the self-publisher who has neither the time nor the inclination to learn all ins and outs of formatting to meet different standards, it’s damned near impossible.

That’s unfair to the do-it-yourselfer. It’s unfair to their readers.

What’s the solution? I do not know. I’m not a programmer or a tech-type. I have no idea what goes into creating these devices or how they work. I just want ebooks that respect the material and are a pleasure to read. That is not too much to ask. All this screwing around with fancier devices and increasingly complicated and narrow platforms is making it too damned hard.