Monday Ebooks: New Toys Edition


Welcome to Monday Ebooks, in which the Editrix indulges her most harmless delight in ebooks.

There is an air of excitement at the new, much more fabulous and considerably more high-tech AustenBlog World Headquarters, because we are awaiting a new toy. The Editrix likes her electronic gadgets, you see, and we have watched the news about the release of several new electronic reading devices in a new, smaller form factor. Last week we preordered an Astak EZReader Pocket Pro (we got the blue one). There’s nothing wrong with our current reader (the Cybook Gen3), but this little guy is smaller, more portable, and, since technology is jumping ahead in leaps and bounds, better specced–and costs half what we paid for the current device.

Why did we choose the EZReader Pocket Pro? Because it has the widest selection of ebook formats that we could find, and we liked the smaller form factor. Also we like the blue!

Prices on ebook reading devices are dropping steadily. The Kindle 2 recently dropped in price to $299, and Sony has announced two new models, including a smaller, entry-level device that will cost $199. Bookeen recently introduced a smaller device called the Opus, and BeBook has announced the upcoming BeBook Mini, which is basically the same machine as the EZReader Pocket Pro but without the pretty colors, possibly by the end of this month.

Ebook prices are dropping as well. Amazon created a bigger monster than it expected by pricing Kindle editions of NYT bestsellers at $9.99. Other ebook retailers have reported they will offer similar price points on NYT bestsellers, and publishers seem to be finally getting the message that readers want cheaper ebooks. Now if they would only get rid of DRM…

Barnes & Noble has entered the world of ebooks with quite a splash, offering a free ebook reading program for PCs and Macs, iPhone, and BlackBerry, and more platforms promised soon (the Palm Pre plzthx!). The program comes with six free ebooks, including two by Jane Austen (actually it comes with two books, including Sense and Sensibility, and if/when you set up an account, you get four more free downloads, including Pride and Prejudice).

At first we thought, “Big whoop, you can get downloads of P&P and S&S free all over the Internets,” but we were pleased to see that the books are actually electronic versions of the Barnes & Noble Classics that they sell in their stores. In other words, they have notes, an introduction, a (very short) biography of Jane Austen, and other supplemental material. (Other books in the series are available to purchase for $4.99.) It’s definitely geared towards newer readers and young students, perhaps high school or introductory college level, and is not heavily academic, but there is some added value to the supplemental material. We were not thrilled with the formatting of the book itself; an ebook does not need to have a double return after each paragraph. One return and an indent works better.

The software, we are fairly certain, is a rebranded version of the eReader software (B&N purchased eReader a few months ago), which is terrific. Readers can search the book, add notes, and easily navigate throughout the book. However, we’ve been able to use dictionary lookup on eReader on our Palm devices, but despite a dictionary being included in the freebies, we couldn’t get lookup to work on the new software. We could be doing something wrong.

B&N has partnered with Google Books to provide the public domain books in its collection (reportedly 500,000 of them!) as free downloads for this application. In theory this is a fabulous idea. Some readers, however, might be put off at having to provide a credit card number in order to get the “free” book. (According to the website, we were charged one cent, which is refunded, in order to “buy” the “free” book, but we’re not sure if that actually happened.) We downloaded a free Google Books copy of the Brabourne edition of the letters to try it out.

Unfortunately, as we noticed when we first started investigating Google Books’ scans, the books are scanned and then put through Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to turn the scans into actual text. Anyone who has ever done that knows that OCR is not at the foolproof stage or anywhere close to it, especially when working with antique font faces. Unfortunately the Google Books have not been proofread, with results like the screen capture below:

Google Books JA Letters Example

The books may be free, but they are not as useful as they could be. That being said, B&N has put out a pretty nice piece of kit as an initial offering. The great thing about it is that they are being device-agnostic and want to get their software on every device available. For those who would like to try ebooks but don’t want to spend money on a dedicated device, if you have a PDA or smartphone already, or even a laptop computer or netbook, you can give this software a try and enjoy the portability and ease of use of ebooks. They are even offering free wifi in their stores (perhaps for a limited time only, but at least until January) to allow customers to download books while they shop in their stores. (And if they really want to get people buying, they should let them use their B&N discount cards to purchase ebooks!) Laurel Ann has also reviewed the new B&N ebook software from the point of view of an ebook neophyte and also a B&N bookseller.

For those who simply want reading copies of Jane Austen’s novels and other public domain texts, very nice free editions are available; we particularly like Girlebooks‘ offerings, as they are hand-formatted and have lovely covers and are available in a variety of the most popular ebook formats.

This autumn and early next year, we expect to see the introduction of devices with bigger screens, and the introduction of technology other than the eInk screen that is ubiquitous on the most popular dedicated reading devices. We also expect prices to drop considerably on at least the devices, and perhaps some experimentation with new pricing paradigms on the part of publishers. All of these will contribute to wider usage of ebooks by the general public. There are some very interesting things going on in the world of ebooks right now!