Ebooks and me

I love books, and I love reading. Not astonishing statements coming from a librarian, but there you go. I never go anywhere without a book, hence always carrying an enormous handbag. I hate having nothing to read so will occasionally carry two books, if there’s a risk that I might finish the first before I get to a place where I can pick up another book.

Given this habit of lugging books around with me everywhere I go, it’s probably not surprising that I have near constant back and shoulder pain. For the good of my spine, if nothing else, I’m starting to think it might be time to invest in an ebook reader. This would give me less to carry, and save me from the occasional horrifying moment when I realise I’ve only got a handful of pages left and still an hour to go on the train. It would also be useful for travelling: I went to Egypt for a fortnight in February, and I packed 17 books. No joke, there were more books than clothes in my suitcase (totally worth it though – I read 15 of them).

So, I’ve decided to get an ebook reader. The only question now is – which one? And where will I get my books? This decision has turned out to be harder than I thought it would be. As I see it, I’ve got 3 options: Kindle, Sony eReader, or iPad. The iPad is out straight away partly because it’s way too expensive, but also because I want a dedicated ereader, not a multi-function device. Part of what I enjoy about reading books is that it allows me to shut the world out and just concentrate on one thing. I’ve tried reading ebooks on my phone, and it’s really distracting to have alerts popping up when I’ve got an email or a Twitter message. There’s also the screen – I spend all day looking at a computer monitor, so my eyes are pretty tired by the time I’m settling down to read a book. Particularly when I’m wearing my contacts, my eyes get really itchy from staring at a backlit screen from too long.

Discounting the iPad, that leaves Sony or Kindle. At first, this seemed like an easy choice – I know that I can borrow ebooks from my local library (part of the London libraries consortium), but I wouldn’t be able to read them on a Kindle. In general I tend not to pay for books I read: unless it’s something I specifically want, and am likely to read more than once, I go to the library or use readitswapit.com. I read a bit too much to be able to afford all the books I want! Being able to borrow ebooks from the library would be the perfect solution for me. I figured that although the Sony is more expensive than a Kindle, it’d be worth it for the money I wouldn’t spend on ebooks.

That was my mind made up – until I thought to have a look and see what ebooks were actually available from my library. I hate to say it, but my word that’s a disappointing selection. I started off by looking at the last few physical books I borrowed from the library, to see if they had the electronic counterparts of any of them. For reference, these were:

C, Tom McCarthy
Finkler question, Howard Jacobson
Room: a novel, Emma Donoghue
Long song, Andrea Levy
Thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell
Parrot and Olivier in America, Peter Carey
In a strange room, Damon Galgut*
The Children’s Book, A.S Byatt
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Philip Pullman
American gods, Neil Gaiman
We are all made of glue, Marina Lewycka

Out of those 11 titles, only 2 were available as ebooks – Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and We are all made of glue. That, to me, seems like a pretty poor showing. Now, I’m not blaming the library for this – I know that there will have been deals made with publishers and I assume that I am simply unfortunate in wanting to read books that, for whatever reason, were not made available for loan. Still, it doesn’t encourage me to use the library to borrow ebooks – what’s the point, if the books I want to read aren’t there?

I started to wonder if maybe my tastes in reading material aren’t very similar to that of the average library user, so perhaps the collection better reflected the kinds of books that are more often borrowed in hard copy. So I looked up the most borrowed books for 2009, to see if any of the top 10 were available as ebooks. These are the titles I searched for:

Sail, James Patterson
No Time for Goodbye, Linwood Barclay
7th Heaven, James Patterson & Maxine Paetro
You’ve Been Warned, James Patterson & Howard Roughan
The Outcast, Sadie Jones
Nothing to Lose, Lee Child
The Front, Patricia Cornwell
Hold Tight, Harlan Coben
The Appeal, John Grisham
Friday Nights, Joanna Trollope

Of those, 3 were available: 7th Heaven, Nothing to Lose, and The Appeal. A slightly better showing than my own list, but not by much.

I am not saying this to slag off libraries – I understand that there are selection systems in place, and that these are not going to be geared towards the specific books I want to read. That being said, I’ve never had a problem getting hold of a book I was after in hard copy from the library. I am genuinely curious as to how the titles included in the Overdrive system are selected – anyone know and care to enlighten me?

Anyway, after those searches I gave up on the idea of using my ereader to read library books on a regular basis. I was still leaning towards the Sony. I thought I could use it to read free ebooks via Project Gutenberg and the like, plus the occasional library book that took my fancy, and just keep an eye out for cheapish ebooks from the Waterstones and WH Smith ebook stores (yes, I know that there are other places that I could buy ebooks, but those are the two stores that Sony are advertising for use with their ereaders. I’m also not convinced that smaller stores would have as wide a selection of titles). Then I checked the prices on said stores, and compared them with the Amazon store.

Oh dear.

That is what finally made up my mind. Now, don’t get me started on the ridiculously arbitrary price setting on ebooks. That’s been covered, in a more eloquent way than I could manage. I’m just cross that I feel like my mind’s been made up for me when it comes to which ereader to buy, based on simple economics. Having used (briefly) both of them, I actually think the Sony is a better ereader. However, it doesn’t make sense to buy something that will cost me more initially, and mean that I either can’t read the books I want, or have to pay over the odds for them. Kindle ebooks appear to be consistently cheaper than those available through Waterstones or WH Smiths. And it’s not a small difference: to take an example, Tony Blair’s A Journey (not something I particularly want to read, but it’s a fairly recent, fairly popular title that’ll do as an example) is currently available for the Kindle at £6.99. At WH Smiths it’s £10.22, and at Waterstone’s it’s a whopping £17.88. If I was shopping around for a hard copy, there’d be no contest – obviously, I’d go with Amazon.

After all that, I think I am going to buy a Kindle. It’s not as slick a product as the Sony, but it’s good enough. And really, most people will settle for “good enough” if it’s cheaper both initially and in the long term. I didn’t really want a product that would lock me in to a single format from a single supplier, but it actually makes the most sense for me at the moment. So that’s my mind made up – unless anyone cares to convince me otherwise?


Having read back over this post, I thought I’d add this note before I published it. Some of the above may come across as library-bashing. It’s really not meant that way. I should also make clear that i am speaking not as a librarian here, or even really as a library user, but simply as a book lover. I’m frustrated that if I want to start using ebooks, I can’t use my library the way I want to. I would like to know more about how libraries select their ebooks, so if anyone has information on this, please do let me know in the comments.


25 comments on “Ebooks and me

  1. Laura, I think you are right to go with the Kindle until the prices are more consistent. Ebook readers have definitely gained in popularity, hence the amount of people I see with them on the train, which is likely to increase in January! The main advantage for me would be access to the books that are freely available or released early for free for review. When reading I often like to go back a few pages to re-read something or have another look at the blurb and I would interest how easy this would be on the Kindle. The main mental block I have is that I just wouldn’t enjoy reading from a device, as much as I do from a book. I suspect this is the root of most people’s concerns. Although, I think we are at the tipping point and the issues you identified will start to be resolved as the format gains popularity. I would be interested to read how you get on.

    • There are certainly still issues with reading on a device v reading a book, and I would completely agree with you about the ease of flipping between pages etc. That’s one reason I don’t think ebooks will replace paper books in the near future – I think there will be room for both for a long time. For me, ebooks are about convenience more than anything else. I don’t think I’ll stop buying paper books completely, I like having them!

  2. Very interesting to see the thoughts of someone entering the world of e-readers.

    I’ve had a Sony Reader for just over a year and am hoping to upgrade to a Kindle for my birthday/Christmas. My reasoning for this is very similar to what you’ve presented above. Plus it’s the value-added features that the Kindle brings: internet access, newspapers/magazines, wireless downloading, and (most importantly) the ability to type annotations/notes.

    Let us know how you get on with your ebook odyssey!

  3. Hello Laura. I tried both the Sony and the Kindle before deciding to buy the Kindle. It may not be touch, but I think it IS the better device. It is a clearer screen, and it is far more responsive generally – page ‘turns’ certainly quicker.

    Also, you’re not locked into a single format by the kindle (although are by the Amazon Store). Just download Calibre to your computer http://calibre-ebook.com/ With this can change formats easily [although suspect library versions wont allow you to do this]. Have several ePub format things converted painlessly to Kindle’s format on mine.

    • That’s a good point, I’d forgotten about Calibre. I think you’re right that you probably wouldn’t be able to do this with a library ebook though.

      My main concern about being locked to a single format is really that if I do buy books from the Kindle store (which I probably would), what happens if a few years down the line I decide to buy a new ebook reader that isn’t compatible with Kindle ebooks? I don’t like the idea of losing everything I’ve bought just because I’ve gone for a different device. Am I worrying over nothing, or have I misunderstood how all this works?

      • No, a valid concern and one I have too. Calibre will convert Amazon’s .azw format into ePub (fast becoming the industry standard outside of Amazon) format too though (DRM allowing) although even with DRM you can – hello google search – quite easily crack the drm (not that I would advocate that of course) and then convert unencrypted version to other format.

  4. I debated over which to buy too and I settled on the Sony. I think that if more people buy readers than can download ePubs then eventually then Amazon may also offer eBooks in ePub format and everybody wins. However it looks like most people will just be won over by the cheap prices of Amazon although it locks them in to one supplier 😦 I would like to buy some books from Amazon and some from Waterstones and some from places like Books on Board AND borrow library eBooks too, but that doesn’t seem possible at the moment. I have a feeling that Amazon will win out for convenience and price which is unfortunate. I guess we have just got very used to cheap books from Amazon and the same will apply to eBooks.

    At the moment I am very happy with my eReader, and think in the future there will be more choice in library eBooks but obviously not as many people use library eBooks and therefore the budget isn’t as big to buy new releases with. I was pleased that Liverpool libraries have got Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, but other than that the choice is quite old. They do have the Tony Blair autobiography though! I guess libraries with bigger budgets will have better eBook selection. Also one article in the bookseller noted that a lot of the content available through OverDrive is American-centric as they are an American company, so maybe that is why the booker prize shortlist isn’t really available.

    • Here is a link to that article, it is looking at Tower Hamlets OverDrive service so may be of interest to you.


      • Ah, just read that article – Tower Hamlets is also part of the LLC, so the Overdrive system described is exactly the same as the one I was looking at. That article does shed a bit more light on the subject, thanks!

    • Cheers for the link, will have a read.

      I would have thought that libraries with larger budgets would have a better selection of ebooks too, which is why I was so surprised that the London Libraries Consortium, which covers 12 London boroughs, has such a poor selection! Someone on Twitter has suggested that I get in touch with them to find out how they actually select their ebook titles, which I am going to do. Will post any reply I get here.

      I agree with your point that if more people demand ePub books then Amazon will have to start supplying them, but I can’t really afford to vote with my wallet in that way! That’s why I feel a bit crappy about deciding on a Kindle, feels like I’m just giving in to Amazon’s business model. I would also really like to be able to buy ebooks from any store I wanted *and* use library ebooks, but apart from using Calibre (as Scott suggested above, and which probably won’t work with library ebooks), that isn’t really an option.

      If it is true that Overdrive offers mainly American titles, being an American company, then I actually find that quite shocking: what happened to libraries selecting their book stock based on what their patrons actually wanted to read? I guess I was holding on to the naive assumption that I’d be able to get the same sort of ebooks from the library as I could in hard copy. I reserved all 6 Booker shortlisted titles (in hard copy) from my library the day the shortlist was announced. I had the first the next day, the next two the day after that, and the rest by the following week. I was seriously impressed by that, which is maybe why I was so disappointed at the lack of choice and availability of ebooks.

      • I think the American-centric point is overblown tbh. Overdrive supply to Waterstones and WHSmiths (as well as my library authority) and I have noticed no such bias towards the American market.

  5. You might be interested in the post I wrote about how I decided on a Kindle,including the link to the limited time promotional freebies. Sure some are real duds but I’ve gotten some good ones too I check it about once a week.


    • Cheers for the link Bobbi. I did read your post back in August, that was actually one of the posts that started me seriously considering an ebook reader. I can’t see anything like the limited time offers on the UK Kindle store, but they do offer a fair amount of free titles (looks like a mix between out-of-copyright classics and self-published books), so that’s certainly an option. I’m a little wary of self-published books in general, as I’ve read some shockingly awful ones, but I guess if they’re free there isn’t really a problem!

  6. A very interesting discussion. For me, the latest version of the Kindle at £109 is right on the cusp of my purchase range.
    Although I accept you are not having a go at public libraries, I think they have been slow to see this new technology coming. As a previous fan of talking books on cassette tape, they were equally slow to switch to CD-ROM technology and later to MP3.
    From your reading lists, you are obviously a fan of new literature. However, if you want to revisit some of the classics then don’t forget that The British Library have made 65,000 books available for free (only via the Kindle).

    • Cheers Neil – I didn’t know about that British Library project, will check it out. I must admit I don’t read many “classics”, I tend to prefer modern and contemporary literature, but there’s certainly some books there that have been on my “must read someday” list for a long time!

  7. Hi! As you know, I did tweet you some responses but thought I should add them here!

    First off, before I start, I should just say that I hate Kindles. I hate the fact that they use a proprietary format. I hate the fact that they have had numerous titles ‘removed’ from them (one of the disadvantages of an internet enabled reader). And I hate the design. So there we go, I hate the Kindle.

    Personally, I have an early Sony Reader (PRS-505) and I love it. It supports EPUB (which is the publisher standard) without the need to convert and, consequently, can be used to download library ebooks. I have to say, that the quality of selection does rather depend on the library authority. In my authority a librarian chooses the stock and we are blessed with a good selection of new titles, including: autobiographies by Blair, Bush and Mandelson (if you are into that sort of thing), Franzen’s Freedom, The Finkler Question, The Fry Chronicles etc etc So quite a good up to date range….all in EPUB and all able to work on my Sony Reader.

    If the stock available in your library authority is not up to scratch, I strongly advise writing to them and commenting on it. My authority is actively encouraging comments at the moment to help improve the service, so it is well worth dropping them a line.

    My authority has loaned out around 4,000 ebooks since the service launched four months ago so they are clearly popular. The rise of the Kindle will, I’m afraid to say, be the death of ebooks in libraries. They are already looking to allow Kindle owners to ‘loan’ each other their books. That is part of the reason why I think it is essential to support EPUB.

    As for my Reader….I still wouldn’t swap it for the world. It is extremely well designed (better than later Sony Readers) and although there are some high prices for ebooks around, you can shop around and get them for quite good offers (WHSmiths nearly always has 50% off offers).

    Meantime, I will continue to browbeat people into not buying Kindles (we work in libraries and they aren’t good for libraries!!)…although I fear I’m fighting a losing battle 😦

    • Ian, I sympathise totally, and part of me hated myself for buying the Kindle (although having tried all the sony models, the illiad, and the nook, i’m also personally in no doubt the current K is the best dedicated ereader currently available) . BUT, the thing to remember it is the ipod of the eReader world. Apple created Itunes to increase sales of ipods, Amazon done same with Kindle store. Added to that it already had the reputation for selling books …

      As you say, Amazon cares about selling books, so it couldn’t care less about if you’re interested to use the device to read library books, and why should it?

      However if authors and publishers care, it should be them pressuring Amazon to supply libraries with kindle format copies of their books to ensure it is not just ePub enabled readers that can engage with. No reason why libraries shouldn’t offer a choice of eBook format. Authors and publishers should just make it condition of licencing their books to sale to Amazon that it provides ‘library’ copies.

      More generally with formats, as Apple eventually capitulated with MP3 format, I think Amazon may also do so (eventually) with ePub.

  8. I’m holding out against an ebook reader for many of the reasons you’ve struggled with but mostly because I’ve not yet got my sticky paws on one to test and want to do that before I cough up the monies. (well, that and my constant ‘do I really need another piece of expensive electronic kit in my handbag’ mutterings but then my back goes ‘uh, I’d like it cos the many books are kind of painful!’)

    You’ll have to update us on how you find it!

  9. I’m in almost the same position as you, although I still can’t make up my mind which to buy. My local library service is on the cusp of introducing ebooks, so I’m not sure what the selection will be like, but for that reason, and the fact that I already own tons of ebooks in epub format, I was leaning towards the Sony. But then if you factor in a case (which I will need, because I’m clumsy), the price is pretty high especially since, as you say, ebooks outside Amazon are more expensive anyway. I think I’m likely to go with the Kindle in the end, purely because of the price, but it’s a really tough choice. Just curious – would you opt for the Wifi or 3G model? I’m the same as you in wanting a single-function device and wonder if 3G would be distracting (and might lead to buying too many books on the fly!)

  10. I’ve been vaguely contemplating getting an ereader for a while now, so will be very interested to hear how you get on with yours! It’s such a shame about the public library provision (or lack or it) that you’ve identified, though I can appreciate there are many reasons why this might be the case. A big factor in my decision will be that I’ve recently rediscovered the joy of public libraries and would hate to have to give up on them again, which will be a real issue if their ebook provision is as small as your research suggests (I’m also a member of the London consortium, though do use Westminster libraries as well so will have to check them out for ebooks).

  11. […] surrounded by 15 million books here at the British Library, and unlike WoodsieGirl, I don’t get nearly as much time to read as I would […]

  12. A friend recently got the Kindle for her birthday – the 3G version, so she can get books any time she feels the need! She really loves it – it’s incredibly pleasant to sit reading. I felt it was a bit ‘magic’ how the screen looks – it’s like someone stuck a piece of paper on the front, but it’s actually the text of an ebook!

    She hasn’t had it long enough to truly get a feel for it, but so far she’s extremely pleased both with the reader and the selection of books available – and I’m now extremely jealous of it!

  13. Having played with the Kindle and the Sony Reader, I know I simply could not use the Kindle. It is not intuitive for me at all and after 5 minutes I wanted to throw it at the wall whereas the Sony works . Also there is very little difference in price so I am definitely leaning towards the Sony. I hadn’t even considered the availability of of library books (I’ll go see what my libraries do) but to be honest any free books are better than none!

    Keep us posted on how your Kindling goes though…

  14. Hi Laura, Penny pointed me towards your blog after I posted on Twitter about getting an eReader… The Nook has recently been only £30 so wondering whether to get that so whilst your article is Sony v Kindle, it has been interesting – and learning about these different formats of ebooks.
    I’ve found my library authority has not signed up to the LLC so they don’t offer any ebooks! As I get most of my books from the library, I don’t want to have to resort to paying each time (although I don’t read as much as you) and think it is pretty bad that they have a poor offering. I’m going to quiz them about it on Saturday when I go return my books and also see what City of London libraries have to offer too.
    So any regrets since this post in 2010 on your choice? Is your Kindle still going? (read lots of stories about them dying after about a year…!)

  15. Hi Anneli,

    Sorry for the delay in replying – been somewhat neglecting my blog lately! Pleased to report my Kindle is still going strong after almost three years. The battery runs out a little faster than it used to (but still lasts a decent amount of time – it’ll last for about 2-3 weeks of regular reading now, where it used to do about 3-4 weeks), but other than that it’s in tip-top shape!

    I still like it a lot, but reading back over this now I think my attitude has changed somewhat. I no longer consider price the most important factor when buying books (that might be reflective of the fact that I was a recently-graduated student when I wrote this, and I have a bit more disposable income now!). Instead, I put more thought into what I actually want to do with the book. I’d rather spend a bit more and buy a hard copy (and I only buy hard copies from bookshops now – again costing me more, but I don’t like giving too much money to Amazon!), or a DRM-free ebook, than buy a Kindle ebook that I don’t really own and won’t be able to keep hold of forever.

    I only actually buy Kindle ebooks now if they’re in the “daily deal” for 99p or thereabouts! Other than that, I go for free sources like Project Gutenburg, or buy direct from DRM-free sources (e.g. sci fi publisher Tor offers their ebooks in multiple formats and DRM-free – they cost more than the Kindle versions, but I think that’s well worth it). And of course, I still read plenty of paper books – which I either buy new from bookshops, or second hand from charity shops or the like, or of course I get from the library!

    I do still use my Kindle regularly, and it’s a godsend when travelling. If I were buying a new ebook reader now I’m not sure what choice I’d go for, to be honest – and if and when my current Kindle gives up the ghost (I’m sure it will eventually, although it’s been surprisingly robust so far!) I really don’t know if I’ll get another or go for something different. Cross that bridge when I get to it, I suppose…

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