iTunes for ebooks

<originally a Webwereld column – in Dutch>

In 1996 I got my first MP3s. Storage was expensive, so I burned files onto CD-ROMs. There were 10 to 12 audio CDs on a CD-ROM. Conversion of an audio CD to a series of MP3s lasted hours using an encoder from the command line. They could only be played on a PC (or a very expensive laptop) so I had no good answer to the frequent question from family and friends: “why do you bother?”.  Except that I was confident that bigger hard drives and smaller, cheaper laptops would evolve. I first had an audio PDA in 2000 – with a 256Mb memory card that could hold a few albums. I’ve forgotten what all that has cost, but probably quite a lot.

A year later, Apple came out with iTunes to make it easy to manage digital music collections. The first iPods with graphical software came along soon after, and MP3s were accessible to a wider audience. The result is that virtually all music can be downloaded from somewhere. It is up to the individual whether to pay for it, because downloading is not illegal in many countries and even where it is, there has been little noticeable effect on people’s behavior.

E-books and e-readers
In 2003 I bought a Zaurus PDA on which I could read books. I had those books first as a plain ASCII file on a memory card and there was no real reading app. It worked technically, but not realistically. The iRex e-reader that I bought in 2007 was the first proper device for reading books, although the ease of use and battery life left much to be desired. That first iRex was the equivalent of the first iPod – an expensive gadget with severe limitations. But what was really missing was an iTunes equivalent. A user-friendly piece of software with which non-technical book lovers could manage their collections. There are now many affordable e-readers and also a lot of people read on tablets and smartphones. I read on my own Android phone, which now has replaced my iPod.

Open-source iTunes
But the game-changer is the availability of an iTunes equivalent for e-books: Calibre (pronounced Kali-ber). Calibre is a desktop app on Windows, MacOSX and Linux, and brings the management of large collections of e-books within reach of most computer users. As with iTunes books can be sought directly from Calibre, bought at online bookstores, or downloaded from other sources. As a European who travels a lot, I am constantly frustrated by the fragmentation of the market for digital books (‘this e-book is only available in the U.S. and Canada for copyright reasons’). So I order it as a hardcover for the bookshelf and I download the digital version to fit with my 21st century lifestyle.

Calibre  is very different from iTunes, in that it is completely open source and designed to serve the interests of the end-user. With Calibre it is therefore easy to convert the DRM e-books to other formats so that they can be read on devices other than those the the seller stipulates. Calibre also has several tools to help share e-books. It is possible to mail books directly from Calibre, which you can programme to individual addresses making the required format conversion. This is useful for friends, fathers and loved ones with a different brand of e-reader from you. It is also possible to export (parts of) your collection in the neutral ePub format or to share your library over a LAN via an integrated Web service.

Real change
The scene is set for a repeat of the rise-of-the-mp3-and-fall-of-the-music industry drama: cheap  handy readers, software management and conversion, and a global infrastructure to share content. A widespread embrace of e-books will be much faster than MP3s because people have become accustomed to sharing and downloading, and because books are much smaller than music or video files (a novel is about 0.2-1 MB). On a 10 euro USB stick you can fit more books than most people will ever read in their lives. The last year has seen the diversity of books and quality of shared online collections increase dramatically. Just search the name of your favorite author with .torrent and bingo. You can also search for "epub" or "Kindle" and find wonderful collections and discover new authors.

When discussing books over the next 2-3 years we can expect a rehash of all the tired old arguments from the last decade about the digital distribution of music. The outcome of this discussion will probably be the same: ‘industry’ argues vociferously that it is not fair and that nothing more will be written without tough DRM enforcement. The public shrugs and downloads book collections anyway as more writers than ever write more books than ever and make more money than ever.

Discussion and reading
Calibre software, e-readers for less than $100 and The Pirate Bay will probably do more for the availability of books than the 2 Euros per capita the central government is willing to spend. I hope you all enjoy your reading!

For those who wish to pursue discussions on the legal and/or ethical aspects of downloading, I suggest you have a read of my earlier columns on copyright, to avoid repetition of arguments.