A Literary Impulse


Often due to our busy lives in the real world (and often even in the MetaVerse) we find little time to partake in that most basic of Caledonian/Victorian indulgences…Reading.

However, many have found that reading on mobile devices such as PDAs and phones provide at least part of the answer, making it far more convenient to read in brief snatches as we go about our days.

Though it loses the charm of a physical book and the luxurious feel of the pages turning, digital reading is certainly more portable and oft times more subtle.

As for yours truly, I do my reading by smartphone on a Motorola Q using iSilo software. I have around 500MB of books (each book is about 200k) on my memory card and I am currently in the middle of rereading The Golden Compass, Pearl’s The Poe Shadow, Verne’s Master of the World, Tolkein’s Children of Hurin and reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to my son.

I have taken the liberty of reposting this excellent overview of digital reading from the NYT.

An Entire Bookshelf, in Your Hands

by Peter Wayner

WHEN Paul Biba, a lawyer in Bernardsville, N.J., finds himself stuck waiting, he likes to pull out his Nokia E61i cellphone and read one of the 20 or so books he usually stores on it.

The virtual bookshelf in his pocket currently has science fiction like “Falling Free” by Lois McMaster Bujold, all of the novels of Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens, “Eminent Victorians” by Lytton Strachey and the September issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

“Once you get use to having books with you, you get use to reading in places where it never occurred to you. If I’m waiting in line at the supermarket counter, why not read one of my science fiction magazines?” he said. “Believe it or not, I’ll sit down in my chair at home, pull out my phone and read a book.”

The Sony Reader, a book-shaped electronic device that displays easy-to-read print, is not the only machine well suited for reading electronic books. Many cellphones and personal digital assistants have screens with a resolution fine enough to rival that of the printed page.

The bright virtual pages, along with other advantages like weight, capacity and a built-in reading light, are gradually drawing readers. The International Digital Publishing Forum, a trade group for sellers of electronic books, estimates that retail sales of e-books grew to $8.1 million in the second quarter of 2007, up from $4 million a year earlier.

For ease of use, it is hard to beat the Sony Reader. Sony’s thin nine-ounce tablet comes with a high-resolution black-and-white screen that uses little power, prolonging its battery life. The Sony Reader is intended for moving through a book, offering buttons that let you flip pages with one hand and software that formats the text to fit the screen. (Cellphone readers use a cumbersome number pad, which is made for calling, not browsing.)

The drawback is the $299 investment for the Sony Reader. Cellphones, on the other hand, are a sunk cost: You already bought one for making calls, tracking e-mail and messaging friends.

Mr. Biba loves the flexibility, and even takes his cellphone to bed with him. “If I’m reading in bed and I don’t want to wake up my wife, I can use my phone and read in total darkness,” he said.

Most of the advanced cellphones, as well as laptops and P.D.A.’s with larger screens, can do a good job of displaying words with special “reader” software. Mobipocket (mobipocket.com), a French company owned by Amazon.com, and eReader.com, a division of Motricity, distribute two of the most popular applications.

But there are many options. Fictionwise.com, a bookseller that supports many formats, sells some new novels as multiformat packages that let users choose among 10 readers from companies like Microsoft, Franklin or Adobe. Microsoft’s Reader (www.microsoft.com/reader), for instance, works only with versions of Windows running on PCs or PocketPCs. Adobe distributes a PDF reader for most major platforms, including cellphones, which runs the Symbian OS found most commonly on Nokia phones.

The basic readers are available free, but some companies offer enhanced versions for a price. The “pro” software from eReader.com costs $9.95 and offers a bundled dictionary and more sophisticated features like auto scrolling. There are also open source packages like Plucker (plkr.org) available free. Many people install several readers so they have at least one that matches the format of the book they want to read.

Advanced cellphones with large screens, like the Palm Treo or the Apple iPhone, can usually display e-books formatted in basic standards like the PDF or HTML, but their controls are not optimized for long texts. (The drawback: many cellphones have bright displays that drain batteries faster.)

The iPhone also has a screen that is larger than most other cellphone models, and what is on the screen is displayed more crisply. But it has no custom book reader and no easy way for developers to rewrite their reader package for the phone. The company is deliberately pushing programmers to package their content for Safari, the Mac Web browser bundled with the phone. Users who want to read books on their iPhone need to choose HTML or PDF formats.

It is only a matter of time before users create tools specifically for the iPhone, said Michael Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg, a repository of e-books no longer under copyright protection. “The iPod was only out one week before we had e-book readers running on them, so it will be no surprise if there are multiple sets of programs, readers and formats for the iPhone,” he said.

Indeed, Stephen Pendergrast, the chief technology officer at Fictionwise.com, said his company is trying several formats, including narrow PDF files with margins set to the screen’s width.

Prices for digital books are often lower than those of printed versions, but the difference may not be as great as people assume. “On the e-book side, the author gets a higher percentage,” said Mr. Pendergrast. A bigger cut for the author means less for the publisher, and so the publisher charges more to cover costs. The price of a best seller at Fictionwise is $6.79 with no shipping charge when you download it from the site. Amazon typically charges $7.99 for a paperback best seller and requires an order of $25 to qualify for free shipping.

Sony is promoting its Reader heavily by including 100 classics like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” with the device. Its e-book prices are generally lower than those of hardcovers, but the difference shrinks with the discounting offered by conventional booksellers. For example, “The Quickie,” by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge, the top seller yesterday at Sony’s ebooks.connect.com, sells for $15.99 after discounts, compared with Amazon’s price of $15.39 after its discounts.

Free content can be found on sites that collect older books no longer protected by copyright and newer books released with licenses that encourage open sharing, like those from the Creative Commons. Project Gutenberg’s Web site delivers books like “Ulysses” by James Joyce in formats like plain text, HTML and Plucker.

Manybooks.net offers many of the same books in a wider array of formats. Its Web site will even produce customized versions with your personal choice of margins.

A single flash memory card can carry hundreds if not thousands of books, depending on the length of the text and the complexity of the layout.

As the readers and the devices become more common, e-book publishers are noticing a shift in tastes. The early best-seller lists were dominated by science fiction novels and other titles favored by men, who, not coincidentally, also tend to buy gadgets.

But lately, the lists are led by romance and women’s fiction. The top seller at Fictionwise yesterday was “Lady Beware” by Jo Beverley. The top seller at both Mobipocket and eReader recently was “The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever” by Julia Quinn.

“The public’s attitude is that electronic media is disposable,” said Nick Bogaty, the executive director of the International Digital Publishing Forum. “Mystery and romance are priced lower, and there’s an argument to be made about trade e-books that the consumers want a lot of product, and they want it relatively inexpensively.”

Another advantage of the format, he said, is that “on the subway, you don’t need to be embarrassed by the cover.”


  1. I used to love to read books on my PDA. It really is quite convenient. This article makes me want to start doing it again.

  2. Well, let us Luddites weigh in. I confess to having a PDA known as the Hipster PDA (do google that, should you be unfamiliar), but I do not have the ability to download books to it. Instead, I have to use my auxillery device known as a “trade paperback”. Currently, I’ve downloaded two such attachments to my purse (“The Guns of August” and “Anansi Boys”), and have found them eminently user friendly. They fit nicely in the hand, require no recharging, and data access is instantaneous and easily bookmarked with, well…bookmarks.

    I’m afraid you might have to color me skeptical of the Ebook phenomena.

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