How Publishers Can Make Ebooks More Reader Friendly

I am now around twenty-five thousand words into a book project (details to come), and I’ve already given some thought to the book’s packaging. In today’s world, “packaging” includes ebook formatting as well as print design.

My goal is to format my book, both in print and in ebook, so that it is as reader-friendly as possible. Unfortunately, most other publishers fail miserably at that task. Here I offer my ideas for improving today’s books as published in multiple formats. Continue reading “How Publishers Can Make Ebooks More Reader Friendly”

Amazon Explains Rationale for Cheaper Ebooks

Image: James Duncan Davidson
Image: James Duncan Davidson

Amazon recently explained its rationale for wanting ebook prices set at $9.99 or less, as Jillian D’Onfro writes for Business Insider: “The company says it’s found that e-books priced at $9.99 sell 1.74 [times] more copies than when they’re priced at $14.99.” (Hat tip to Diana Hsieh.) Unfortunately, Amazon also beats up publisher Hachette over the government’s antitrust persecution of that company and others. For why the government’s antitrust action against publishers was immoral, see my post for The Objective Standard.

Why Printed Books Remain So Popular

IMGP4502Ownership of ebook reading devices exploded by five-fold within three years, as I review in a post for The Objective Standard. That’s an extraordinary development. Still, the growth of ebooks has been slower than I once would have predicted. Although 30 percent of the population read an ebook in 2012, 89 percent read a printed book. Given the relatively high costs of printing, shipping, and stocking a printed book, versus the negligible costs of distributing an ebook, why is the ebook market not growing even faster?

Clearly many publishers push to make printed books the continued standard, at least for now. Whereas the retail price of a printed book covers substantial printing, shipping, and stocking costs, such costs are all but irrelevant regarding ebooks. And yet publishers successfully pushed up the price of many ebooks well above the $10 level. Indeed, sometimes at Amazon I find I can buy a paperback for less than the cost of the ebook.

A large part of the issue here is that marginal costs drop off radically with large print runs and shipping orders. Thus, whereas many small-market books appear only in ebook, the economics of a popular book support large print runs. Plus, of course, brick-and-morter retailers can display printed books, increasing “impulse” purchases.

But I think the publishing end of it is only part of the story. I think there are a variety of reasons why many consumers often prefer a printed book.

Obviously printed books offer a distinctive tactile experience, and, as a bibliophile cousin of mine notes, a good old book also has a distinctive smell. But I think there’s something more important going on.

Although I was an early adopter of e-book technology, I have purchased several printed books of late. Why? I use my printed books for book clubs, book reviews, and research. E-books are difficult to cite, as they often don’t offer page numbers matching the printed edition (or the page numbers do not match precisely).

Often I can remember and visualize where certain content is with respect to the printed page and the page number. With an e-book, the material becomes a constant stream, with no stable relationship to the medium.

Another important feature of a printed book is that I can write notes in the text and in the margins. Although many e-book readers accommodate notations, I have found those systems to be clunky and impractical for my needs.

So, given the current technology, I’m likely to continue to buy both printed books and e-books, depending on my needs for the book.

I also predict that ebook producers and sellers will soon (within a few years) figure out how to overcome many or all of the problems mentioned here. Once that happens, printed books will eventually become about as common as music CDs and vinyl disks are now. At least that’s my guess. It will be exciting to see how it actually pans out.

Creative Commons Image: Kristian Bjornard

Nook Advances

I’m a Kindle man. Not only do I have a book about Harry Potter selling for Kindle, but I own a Kindle, and I read books on my iPod Touch with Kindle software.

But I like Barnes and Noble (BN), largely because a local store allowsLiberty In the Books (a group I help run) to meet there. So, every month, I walk through the store and talk to the staff about the latest developments for the Nook. (I’ve caught a bit of ribbing for bringing my Kindle into BN.)

The brilliant thing is that both the Kindle and the Nook now sell for $139 — very reasonable even for lower-income consumers. Virtually all well-known public-domain books are available for free for these devices.

It now seems very likely that BN’s Nook is here to stay, and that it will save the company.

Impressively, the new Nook brings together two important features, so far as I’m aware for the first time: e-ink (and the long battery life that comes with it) and a touchscreen. (Thank goodness the new Nook dropped that idiotic split screen of earlier models, part touch and part e-ink.)

Frankly, I’ve taken to reading on my iTouch more than my Kindle. There are several reasons for this. The Touch fits in my pocket, so I can take it pretty much anywhere. I really like navigating a book with the touchscreen. On the Kindle, it’s a real hassle to click down to the link and jump back and forth. While I like the Kindle screen, the Touch looks great, and I haven’t noticed any eye strain. Plus, whether I’m reading a printed book, the Kindle, or a Kindle book on the Touch, I tend to use the Touch to take notes. So, if I’m reading from the Touch, I can read and take notes on the same device. (I wouldn’t dream of trying to take notes on the clunky Kindle.)

The new Nook isn’t small enough to fit in my pocket, but it is touchscreen, which must help a lot. Goodbye, mouse-sized keypad! And, while the Touch is a much more versatile device, it also currently starts at $229.

I predict that, until Kindle adopts touchscreen technology, the Nook will make larger inroads into Amazon’s potential market.

One question is how powerful the Nook is as a pad computer. A BN staffer suggested to me that a variety of applications are coming for the device. Unfortunately, I am unable to find ready information about this. If the Nook can also serve as a word processor, and perhaps even as an email and web device, that will greatly improve its value.

(I have not actually held or even seen the new Nook. If Barnes and Noble would care to lend or gift me one, I would be happy to write up a full review, complete with a disclosure. Given that my wife and I already have four digital reading devices between us, including our Mac, I just can’t justify buying a fifth.)

Even though I’m unlikely personally to buy a Nook, I’m glad it exists. It gives BN a real chance of surviving and perhaps even thriving as a company (or as a division of some other company), and it has noticeably motivated Amazon to keep improving the quality of the Kindle while lowering its price. Hurray, capitalism.


Allen commented May 29, 2011 at 10:33 AM
“I wouldn’t dream of trying to take notes on the clunky Kindle.”

Interesting; I’m the opposite. I read on the iTouch when I’m in a pinch (e.g. standing at the microwave at work warming up lunch). And I prefer to take notes on the Kindle.

Angelina commented May 31, 2011 at 3:28 PM
I can’t wait to try out the new Nook! I currently have the older version (with both e-ink and touch screen) and I really love it. However, it doesn’t mean that there’s not room for improvement. I like the idea of a touch screen. I don’t do much else on my Nook but read, so it doesn’t really have to have a lot of extra features.

Real Page Numbers Coming to Kindle

When I first Tweeted the New York Times piece on how Kindle will incorporate real page numbers matching those in print editions, somebody emailed me wondering if I’d had something to do with that. I said I suspected not, even though I’ve written on the matter. But the language from Amazon’s release does seem to cover the same points I raised.

Here is the Amazon release:

Our customers have told us they want real page numbers that match the page numbers in print books so they can easily reference and cite passages, and read alongside others in a book club or class. Rather than add page numbers that don’t correspond to print books, which is how page numbers have been added to e-books in the past, we’re adding real page numbers that correspond directly to a book’s print edition.

And here’s what I posted on the matter last November:

[A] big problem with digital editions of books these days is that there is no standardized pagination for citations. … One of the comments [posted to the article] suggests another important use for standardized pagination; in reading groups, where people might be reading copies of a book on different devices, it would be very useful if everybody had a common page system.

Whether or not I helped inspire the change, I’m glad the change is coming.

Unfortunately, Amazon does not mention in its release how publishers accomplish adding the pagination, nor could I readily find this information in Amazon’s information on Kindle publishing. If any reader knows about this, please email me or post the information in the comments.

A Plea for Book Publishers to Include Page Numbers in Digital Formats

Besides the major inconvenience of Digital Rights Management (DRM), the other big problem with digital editions of books these days is that there is no standardized pagination for citations.

Thankfully, there is a very simple solution to this problem, if only publishers would adopt it: insert page numbers into digital editions to match the print editions. That is what I’ve done with my own book, Values of Harry Potter. Inserting page numbers in every new book would be a trivially easy thing to do, and it would allow buyers of digital copies to use and reference the same citation schemes as the buyers of the old-technology ink-on-paper copies.

December 1 Update: I’m amazed by how much confusion this seemingly simple idea has generated. Therefore, I’m adding two images to illustrate what I’m talking about. I took a screen shot of my own book, Values of Harry Potter, as displayed by Kindle for Mac. For the Kindle edition, the text “[33]” was inserted where page 33 starts in the print edition. This has to be done by the publisher. Because the Kindle uses free-flowing text, obviously the added text might appear anywhere on the screen. The point of this is to inform the reader, “This is where page 33 begins in the printed edition.”


And here are pages 32 and 33 of my book as scanned from the printed edition.


One of the comments suggests another important use for standardized pagination; in reading groups, where people might be reading copies of a book on different devices, it would be very useful if everybody had a common page system. (The original post now resumes; this ends the update.)

The only drawback to inserting the page numbers is that they are a minor distraction when reading. But this is a trivial inconvenience, as the reader can easily ignore the page numbers, while the benefits of standardized citations are substantial.

I briefly considered the alternative of simply dropping page numbers altogether, in digital and print editions, and going with something like numbered paragraphs. But then I decided that was a bad idea. I’ve tried to read a printed book that did not number each page, and the experience was frustrating. I like to get a sense of where I am in a book, and the page numbers help provide that. While lengths of paragraphs vary widely, the amount of text on a standard printed page is roughly comparable across books, though of course it tends to vary by type of book. (Academic books tend to use smaller font sizes relative to popular books.)

There is another reason to include page numbers, besides the fact that some readers will continue to prefer printed copies into the indefinite future. On some devices, pdf documents work better than the free-flowing text of other digital formats. And, with fixed pages, the designer has more control over the look of the text and the overall book. So pages are here to stay. The thing to do, then, is to simply mark the same page numbers in the digital editions. This offers another benefit to readers of free-flowing editions, besides the ease of citing material: they can more easily track their progress through a book. (By contrast, the Kindle tracking system tends to leave the reader feeling lost in an indeterminate void.)

A related problem is that of notes. In print editions, I very much prefer notes at the bottom of individual pages, for ease of reference. But of course that doesn’t work for digital editions with free-flowing text. Moreover, I severely dislike the strategy of numbering endnotes by chapters, because the result is that you end up with a “Note 1” for each chapter, which can be confusing. (“Oh, you meant that the profound mysteries of the universe are answered in the OTHER Note 8!”)

My proposed solution is to clearly tie each note to its page number. For example, let’s say Page 25 of our book contains four notes. Rather than number them, we’ll letter them “a” through “d.” Then we end up with Note 25a, Note 25b, etc. (If there is only one note on a page, that can be marked with an asterisk, and then we’ll just have “Note 25.”) Under this scheme, it really doesn’t matter whether the note is printed on the relevant page in a print edition or included at the end of a digital edition; the citation scheme will remain the same.

I already own an iPod Touch, and my wife and I just ordered a Kindle. While some publishers foolishly decline to make new books available in digital editions, more and more the standard is to release books in multiple formats simultaneously. The year 2010 will have marked the major transition to digital publishing. As this transition continues and accelerates, publishers can do us all a favor by simply making pagination standard across editions.



Anonymous November 30, 2010 at 5:04 AM
There is great confusion over ‘e-books’. I don’t think this is altered by referring to ‘digital editions’, and there are assumptions about the relationships between print and electronic file books.

As you mention, the pdf – and there are other ‘print design’ files that mimic the print book – do contain all these features if required. Even taking those out of the issue of page numbering there are a host of file types. Of these html, and its relations, which can mimic the print book, and text, which can’t, are fairly universal.

Outside txt, the main area of the problem you specify, Ari, is in the dedicated file types for reading devices, and the moderately adaptable ePub. And then it really applies mostly to text books, and well researched non-fiction.

Publishers are already struggling with the multiple difficulties of conversion from print files – where those files do already exist. And I imagine the thought of yet another complication will send hearts sinking right through the boots!

Yet your case is good; or at least shows a puzzling challenge to e-books. I doubt if it can be achieved with extant works.

But with modern thoughts on how the files are prepared, which has been made understandable through css2 and xhtml, perhaps the future looks much brighter for you idea. There are already many print books that do group by chapter or page.

One well worth pushing, I would say.

Joseph Harris in the UK

Joe November 30, 2010 at 8:21 AM
Care to post a screenshot illustrating this?

Ari November 30, 2010 at 8:29 AM
Joe, Do you mean a screenshot of my book, with the added page numbers? Really all I did was add in the page numbers in brackets; it is the easiest fix imaginable. For example, My page 32 ends with “Though Lupin poses,” and my page 33 continues the sentence, “no threat to others…” In digital editions with flowing text, that becomes, “Though Lupin poses [33] no threat to others…” Then it’s perfectly clear where page 33 begins in the print and pdf editions.

Sam November 30, 2010 at 2:41 PM
Unless a publisher takes great care, pagination may vary between editions (e.g., paperback, hardback, PDF). In your eBook page number scheme, do you mention which edition is the source of the page numbers? Is it important to do so?

Ari November 30, 2010 at 3:23 PM
Seriously, Sam; how hard is it to enter in page numbers? I’ve done it, and it’s a trivially easy and fast process. It doesn’t take “great care” to enter in the numbers correctly; it merely takes a quick double-check. Even for a lengthy book, the process could be completed within a matter of hours. There’s only one edition of my book (with multiple formats), so the pagination is the same for everything. However, if a book undergoes changes with a new edition, clearly that would be useful information to include in the digital formats. (But why a publisher would offer different editions of the same book at the same time is beyond me.)

Anonymous November 30, 2010 at 8:13 PM
The problem with numbering pages in an ebook is that the user has the opportunity to change the font size so both the total number of pages and the page number will alter depending on the font size selected. A great thing to offer but obviously makes it harder then to match numbers to a physical book with fixed shape and size.

Ari November 30, 2010 at 9:00 PM
Dear Anonymous, You are missing the entire point of the suggestion. It is precisely because the text of some digital formats flows freely that publishers should insert pagination to match the printed edition. Obviously, because the text does flow freely, meaning the amount of text on a device’s screen varies with the size of the screen and the size of the font, the inserted page numbers will NOT appear at the top of the screen. Rather, they will appear wherever the page break happens to be in the printed edition, which could be anywhere on the screen of an ereader.

Sam December 1, 2010 at 10:10 AM
Gee, Ari, in my comment I didn’t even HINT that I was in any way opposed to including page numbers in eBooks. I was merely suggesting that a reader may wish to know from which edition the numbering was taken. I recall that in a recent Atlas Shrugged discussion group, two paperback printings of that book had different pagination resulting in some difficulty in referring to passages in the different editions.

Ari December 1, 2010 at 10:14 AM
Sam, I agree with you, and I was not suggesting you were opposed to including page numbers.

Clive December 1, 2010 at 5:32 PM
It’s horrible. We (I run a small press and I typeset amongst other functions) deliberately omit page numbers from EBooks precisely because the browser will sprinkle them all over the text when the font size or page size is changed by the user.
EBooks are actually a bloody awful, pathetic example of technology. Can’t even support a drop cap. Can’t flow text around images. Primitive. Next we’ll be going back to clay tablets …

Clive December 1, 2010 at 5:35 PM
Besides which, pagination is not necessary: the file publisher can include dynamic links from contents and/or index to any text item…

Ari December 1, 2010 at 10:38 PM
Clive, Obviously ebooks have some huge advantages over printed books (less cost, less space, ease of purchase), which is why that market has been growing rapidly and will continue to do so.

You didn’t actually respond to any of my reasons for including page numbers, so there’s really not much for me to say in response. However, it’s a little silly to say that adding page numbers “sprinkle[s] them all over the text;” it inserts them at precise intervals to match the printed edition, which is the entire point.

Look, publishers can either offer books that are useful to readers, or they can lose money. Take your pick.

My ePub Odyssey

Like Odysseus, I have a very simple goal in mind. Like Odysseus, I seem to be taking forever to get there. My goal is to create an ePub version of my book, Values of Harry Potter. Hopefully in describing my difficulties in doing that I can help point others in the right direction, and perhaps encourage some software developers to help with the transition.

The good news is that I have already made a Kindle version of the book available, as I’ve noted. I also have great HTML version of the book finished (and this was the basis for the Kindle version), as well as a pdf with fully functional internal links. With direct sales of the ebook, I want to include all three versions — HTML, pdf, and ePub — so that last format is what’s hanging me up. (In general I think all publishers should offer multiple, DRM-free ebook versions, to provide maximum flexibility to customers.)

I like the idea of the ePub format, developed by Adobe. It is open, so anybody can use it. At least theoretically, any author or publisher can create an ePub, and anybody can create a reader for the format; several readers now exist. ePub already reads on a variety of devices — including my iPod Touch — and I hear several more compatible readers are entering the market. Unlike an HTML ebook, ePub organizes many files, including text and images, into a single package. Unlike pdf ebooks, ePub reflows text to fit your screen and reading preferences.

The problem is that it is a royal bitch to create a complicated ePub book.

I finalized my book in inDesign, Adobe’s design software. From that finished text, I created a text-only file and hand-coded the HTML version, adding hundreds of internal links. Then I modified this file for Kindle. For the pdf, I went back to inDesign and added all the internal links, which inDesign anchors to specific pages.

I didn’t want to create the ePub straight from inDesign, because I doubted the internal links would work well. (With the HTML version, I anchor particular words and paragraphs rather than pages.) Anyway, even though inDesign supposedly has a built-in ePub converter, this didn’t work for me. It merely told me — repeatedly — that the conversion had failed. Thanks a lot, Adobe. Perhaps with Creative Suite 5, inDesign’s ePub converter will actually, you know, work, and perhaps Dreamweaver will also offer a functional converter for use with HTML.

So I decided to go back to the HTML for the ePub conversion. Dreamweaver automatically converts HTML to XHTML 1.1, so I made that conversion. (I think ePub requires XHTML, but I’m not sure about the details.) Those without the software will have to code by hand. (In the future, I’ll just code straight XHTML to save myself the hassle.)

One page lists a variety of ePub conversion programs. I tried Calibre, which created an ePub with tons of junk characters that eventually crashed my readers.* I also tried eCub, which created a file that immediately crashed my readers.

Jedisaber provides the single best source on ePubs that I’ve yet found. Indeed, creating an ePub from his “sample” file is at least as easy as trying to use one of the software converters. (It has the added bonus of actually working.) After modifying the “sample” files with my content and information, I immediately created an ePub that opened on Adobe’s Digital Editions.

Unfortunately, after making a minor tweak to the file, it no longer opened. After a lot of exasperating trial and error, I figured out that the problem was that the files were not listed in the correct order in the .zip folder (which, renamed, becomes the ePub). Finally I downloaded YemuZip, dropped in the files in the correct order, and created another working ePub.

I should say “partly working ePub.” Digital Editions would recognize only a few of my internal links. It took me quite a lot more trial and error to figure out the problem. In HTML, I had used the “a name” tag, such as (a name=”1note”), which Dreamweaver converted to (a name=”1note” id=”1note”). I learned my HTML back in 1998, so I wasn’t aware of the new (apparently nonsensical) regulations. Anyway, I quickly learned, “the id attribute’s value must be an XML name and cannot start with digit or have spaces in it.”

I used “search and replace” in Dreamweaver to change all the offending digits to text. The resulting ePub opens in Digital Editions and functions perfectly. All the internal links work great. Unfortunately, the ePub crashes the BN reader and works improperly in Stanza, which doesn’t display any of the internal links.

My hypothesis is that the “a name” tags are causing problems in those other readers. I learned, “In XHTML, the id attribute has essentially replaced the use of the name attribute. The value of the id must start with an alphabetic letter or an underscore. The rest of the value can contain any alpha/numeric [character].”

Unfortunately, it is not immediately obvious to me how to convert all the “a name” tags to “id.” In order to prevent hard line breaks (with an extra return), I used breaks with space indentations rather than paragraph markers. So for long stretches of text there’s nothing to attach the “id” marker to. (Perhaps the way to do this is obvious to somebody who actually knows all the XHMTL codes; if so please leave a comment.) I think it is possible to correct this problem by using the style sheets to read paragraph breaks as soft returns, but I don’t know how to do this off hand. (Plus, I’m not even sure this is what is causing the problem with other ereaders.)

The upshot is that I still do not have a fully functional ePub. I have one that works great on Digital Editions but poorly on every other reader I’ve tried. I guess my next step is to convert all the “a name” tags to “id,” then try to compensate with the style sheets for the soft returns. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how to do this, and I’m not sure it will even solve the problem.

If you have a simple, straight-text book you want to convert to ePub, using Jedisaber’s directions should be a piece of cake. But God help you if you want to take advantage of the digital format with many internal links, something that becomes even more complicated if you try to link across chapters in separate files. (I just put the main text of my book in a single file.)

So consider this a status report. The ebook version of Values of Harry Potter is coming. Soon. If I can just get past the cyclops.

* Update: After reading Jason Fleming’s comment, I decided to give Calibre another try, using the XHTML with the corrected link tags. I got very similar results that I got doing it by hand: an ePub book that works beautifully on Digital Editions, crashes the BN reader, and works with Stanza sans links. If you just have a cover image and straight-text book in a single file, this software probably works great. However, it doesn’t (obviously) allow the flexibility of splitting up files; for instance, in my hand version I broke off the title information into a separate file.

Update May 1: After recoding my entire xhtml document to eliminate the “a name” tags (in favor of “id” tags tied to the paragraph markers), I created a new ePub with Calibre that works exactly as before. It works beautifully in Digital Editions, crashes BN, and works in Stanza but without any active links. So that was a complete waste of time. I wonder whether BN or Stanza are even set up to handle internal links. If anybody happens to know, please comment.



D. Jason FlemingApril 30, 2010 at 1:53 PM

The guy who runs Calibre seems to be very dedicated to making the .epub standard as clean and accessible as possible. I’m not sure how specific your problem was, but if you filed a bug report (, it’s a good bet that he’d treat it seriously.

D. Jason Fleming May 4, 2010 at 5:52 PM

I’m sorry for the waste of time. What I intended to say was: “based on what he has said on epub messageboards, the guy who runs Calibre seems…”, and that you should report what happened as a bug, you might get either a) results, or b) an explanation of why it behaves the way it does at the moment. I didn’t mean to make you go through the frustrating process again just on my say-so. Many apologizings.

Ari May 4, 2010 at 6:07 PM

I didn’t try the “id” conversion because of Fleming’s comment; I tried it because I thought it might work. It didn’t. That’s the way it goes sometimes.

Becca May 28, 2010 at 9:19 AM

Any luck yet?

We do conversions to epub and have no trouble with internal linking, except in the Stanza, which just doesn’t seem set up to handle the links or the design elements. Have you used the google epub validator?
That, or the Threepress validator, should be able to give you a good idea of what’s causing the errors.

Reading Kindle On the iPod Touch

Earlier this year I purchased an iPod Touch, primarily for use as an ereader.

Since then, I have purchased one Kindle book for the machine (Jesus, Interrupted, by Bart Ehrman, which I highly recommend), and I’m thrilled with the way Kindle reads on my Touch. (By contrast, while FileMagnet works fine for pdfs, it does not allow fond adjustments with html. That is, you can make the type bigger, but the lines don’t wrap. I resorted to inserting an html font command into an html file, which is a clumsy way to address the problem.)

I got an unexpected benefit with the Touch: I can take notes with the Notes application as I read. All I have to do is toggle between the Kindle app and the Notes app. Then I record the Kindle locator and some brief notes. Once I find a hot spot, I can cut and past the contents of a Note into email (I use my wife’s hotmail account because it’s easy to access), then send myself the notes.

In fact, this works so well that I might start taking notes on my Touch even when I read paper-and-ink books. True, the keypad is irritatingly small, and I struggle to peck out a message. But the alternative is either to take notes by hand, which I would then need to digitize to make them fully functional, or try to use a full-size keyboard, which is impractical when reading a book. So, as much as I didn’t expect it, the Touch wins out as a note-taker while reading.

The Perfect Ereader

I’ve been trying to keep tabs on the epublishing revolution. While I continue to believe that 2010 will be a breakthrough year for the industry, I also continue to be dismayed by the sorts of crappy ereaders I’ve been reading about. Following are the features I’d like to purchase (and refrain from purchasing) in an ereader, all nicely summarized (just in case an ereader manufacturer ever sees this). I imagine there are lots of consumers out there with similar preferences. Will 2010 be the year when the perfect ereader (for me) will become available on the market?

* I want a USB jack, and nothing more. I don’t want wi-fi or wireless. Just the cable, please. And the low price that goes with it.

* I want a small screen. I want portability, not the ability to view a large-scale map of Colorado all at once. (Obviously I’m talking about the eye-friendly, low-power screen such as the one on the Kindle.)

* Don’t give me an expensive and power-hungry touch screen. Just give me three or four simple buttons with an intuitive interface. I don’t want to touch the words, just read them.

* For God’s sake don’t give me a mouse-scale keypad. All a keypad does is cause the device to be larger and more expensive, and irritate me whenever I have to look at it due to the fact that it’s so completely worthless.

* The battery must be removable! Without specialized tools! When the battery dies — as it inevitably will — I just want to pop it out and replace it. Why anybody makes a device with locked-in batteries is utterly beyond me. Stupid, stupid design. (My criticism excludes very-small and inexpensive devices that aren’t big enough for good battery-release mechanisms.)

* Don’t give it locked-in internal memory. Just give it a slot for a standard flash card. That’s it.

* Don’t give it speakers! If I want to listen to something, I’ll put it on my iPod. I’m not looking for the Swiss Army Knife of ereaders.

* The device should be able to easily read at least the following formats: plain text, pdf, html, and epub. Ideally, Amazon would license its format for use on other ereaders, too, but that would be far too easy, and it would make Amazon far too much money, to actually take place. That does, of course, create a dilemma for me. Amazon has the most ebooks at the most reasonable prices. Many epub formatted books are insanely expensive. I sincerely hope that somebody like Apple steps into the epublishing business to make widely-recognized formats competitively priced. Book publishers are mostly hurting themselves by not making epub or pdf ebooks available at reasonable prices.

* A selling price of $150 or less would be great. If Amazon can sell its hopped-up Kindle for $259, surely a usefully stripped-down device such as I describe could profitably sell for considerably less than that. (Indeed, I wish Amazon would come out with a stripped-down version of the Kindle.)

I don’t know why ereader producers think that consumers want the fanciest, most expensive reader possible. Keep it simple and affordable. Build it, and I will read.

Skiff Promises "Multiple Formats" for Ebooks

In my quest to keep tabs on the eublishing industry, today I glanced at articles about Apple’s forthcoming Tablet (which will be much more than an ereader) and Skiff, a company that promises to produce an innovative ereader and sell digital content.

As cool as the Tablet looks, it also promises to be fairly expensive — more costly than low-end notebooks — and I’m not convinced that sort of screen can function well as an ereader, which should allow for hours of comfortable reading without undue eye strain.

Judging from the pictures and descriptions, the Skiff screen looks like it will be a good reader — and apparently you can even bend the device without ill effect. I’m a bit put off by the large size of the machine: 9 by 11 inches. I want an ereader that I can carry around more easily.

I sent Skiff some questions, and a representative sent me some answers, though they weren’t very specific. I asked:

Will Skiff sell works with multiple publishing options, including HTML, pdf, and Digital Editions, or will Skiff, like Amazon, sell only works converted to a proprietary format?

In other words, will purchasers of Skiff content need to download a Skiff reader (for non-Skiff devices), or will that content read on existing and popular software?

Also, will Skiff release a smaller version of its reader for those of us who would prefer something easier to carry around?

This should be an exciting year in the epublishing industry, and I look forward to seeing how Skiff competes.

Here’s the email I got back:


Thanks for your interest in Skiff. I’ll answer as much as I can at this point in time.

The Skiff service will support multiple formats. More details to come.

One of the unique benefits of Skiff’s platform is the ability for content publishers to submit their curated content (i.e., branded newspapers, magazines, etc.) into the Skiff Platform, where it is then tailored to match the unique characteristics of different devices that utilize a variety of different screen technologies – from smartphones to eReaders.

The Skiff digital storefront will allow consumers to easily access and download a wide assortment of newspapers, magazines, books, blogs and other content from multiple publishers for use on dedicated Skiff e-reading devices, other e-readers and innovative devices, as well as multi-purpose devices such as smartphones, netbooks, tablets, notebooks and PCs – as well as via the Web. Items purchased from the Skiff storefront will be delivered to these devices via 3G, WiFi and other forms of connectivity.

We look forward to your following Skiff as we make additional announcements during 2010 in the lead up to our formal launch.


Chaim Haas
Senior Vice President, Technology & Emerging Media

Of course, whether Skiff lives up to the company’s own hype remains to be seen.

January 6 Update: Popular Mechanics has an update. One detail is that “while the screen is flexible, the device itself is not.”