eReader Rage

The Networked NonprofitOh sweet mother of dog, can anyone help me work out how to download and open a goddamn PDF book on my iPad Mini? I bought the book. The default reader is Overdrive, but Overdrive doesn’t support PDFs and won’t download the file. I cannae work out how to download and open the book via another reader. (Adobe PDF Reader for iPad, Kindle, iBooks, etc.) Gah, ebook format wars and incompatibility make Fi very angry.

If the above Facebook post slash cry for help hasn’t already alerted you to this fact, I should probably spell it out for you: This blog post has been typed in anger.

I held off buying an ereader for this precise reason until just a few weeks ago. I wanted the format wars to be over and for the dust from them to be settled. I wanted to be able to purchase and read a book with just a couple of clicks and plenty of ease, with the biggest decision I had to make being which book to purchase. I didn’t want to spend hours researching and troubleshooting downloads and formats and getting increasingly exasperated and incensed.

This is not how I should be spending my Sunday afternoon.

The ultimate irony is that the book I’m trying to download—Beth Kanter and Allison H Fine’s The Networked Nonprofit—isn’t even a book I want to read for fun. I mean no offence by that—I’m sure it’s a rollicking read. More importantly it’s a book I absolutely must, must, must read and reference for my university study (and it does contain, I’m sure, and by pure virtue of currently being inaccessible to me, the key to my entire thesis).

I should preface the rest of this rant with a note that this is not the fault of Booku, the ebook retail site that complements Boomerang Books. In fact, although Booku doesn’t support PDF files on iPad Minis, it had the clearest, most concise, most communicationally designed (that’s a technical term) help information I was able to find. If it weren’t for Booku, I’d still be googling and randomly attempting to download apps and readers and who knows what else (and no, I’m not just saying that because I technically work for them). I also feel the need to specify that it’s not an Apple product thing. It’s an ebook format war thing. Every ereading device currently available comes with quirks and cons.

The issue is that downloading a book to any device shouldn’t have to be this hard. This format war stuff needs to be sorted the f$%k out.

The Indigo SpellI can’t recount the steps I took to get my PDF onto my iPad, partly because I don’t want to bore you and mostly because I can’t remember the myriad, seemingly unending, largely fruitless steps I took. I should also admit that although I’ve now got the book open and readable on my Macbook Pro, I still haven’t managed to do it on my iPad Mini (it appears that I can only download the Adobe Digital Editions to the former, because it’s not an app, which kind of defeats the purpose of me specifically purchasing an iPad Mini to be an ereader). If you’ve got any advice on how to do this, I’m all eyes and ears.


Who knows, maybe half of what I’ve typed here today is incorrect. But I don’t apologise for that—this ebook stuff is unnecessarily confusing. Because here’s the rub: I don’t care what format my ebook is in. Nor should I even have to know. As the producers and distributors of this product, the publishers and retailers should be across that. And they should be making it as easy as possibly for me, the enduser, to simply decided on my purchase and download it with ease. That’s how the interwebs work these days.

There’s a reason why iTunes and Amazon’s (particularly with the latter’s oh-so-dangerous, impulse buy-encouraging one-click functionality) are dominating the sales spaces, and it’s not because they’re behemoths. It’s because they’ve made it easy for people to get the things they’re after. I’m actually reasonably tech savvy and interested in ebooks (it is, after all, central to my work and industry). If I can’t work it out, what hope is there for the lay reader who just wants to enjoy some Sunday afternoon Vampire Academy (I’m eagerly awaiting the arriving of my just-released The Indigo Spell)?

To be blunt (not that I haven’t already been), I resent having to have about 17 different ereading apps downloaded to my ereading device and playing which-one-will-work roulette every time I want to read a book. I resent not being able to use the ereader of my choice, instead being dictated to by the format that it may or may not support. I also resent having my ebooks spread across various apps—I imagine there’ll be a time when I lose my s$%t trying to find a book I know I own but can’t remember its format and, subsequently, in which app’s library it will happen to be stored.

I’m sure downloading Kanter’s book didn’t and doesn’t need to be this hard. But I didn’t know the steps and I shouldn’t have had to. They should be intuitive and the process should be seamless. It shouldn’t have involved me having to first find and then type in my stupid Adobe ID multiple times. (As a side note, Adobe also forced me to give the company my birthday, which enraged me no end. The only reason they need such information is to gather marketing data on me is that they will use against me or sell on to a third party. It’s not ok, Adobe. You knowing my age doesn’t affect whether I can get a goddamn PDF downloaded and opened on my device.)

Nor should the process have had to involve me becoming an expert of what kinds of ereading apps are available and which formats they support. For the record none of the ones I looked at—Goodreader, Stanza, Kindle, iBooks, Overdrive, and Bluefire—and especially not the last two, are intuitive titles that people would think to use as search terms. Where is the generically named ‘ebook reader’ app? Where is the ereader that’s easy to find, intuitive to use, and that reads all formats?

The Smell Of Books – Mythbusters’s Edition

The “smell of books” is an evocative phrase and a contentious subject. Our ebooks’ (or should that be ubooks’) blog was even originally named for it with the first ever blog post taking on the idea directly. Fans of the paper book (or “dead tree”, as it is less kindly known) rhapsodise lyrical about the joy of the feel and distinct smell of older books, and during the week I came across a tumblr image giving what seemed to be a scientific endorsement of that love.

The image is that of a quote, apparently from a book called Perfume: The Guide, which reads:

“Lignin, the stuff that prevents all trees from adopting the weeping habit, is a polymer made up of units that are closely related to vanillin. When made into paper and stored for years, it breaks down and smells good. Which is how divine providence has arranged for secondhand bookstores to smell like good quality vanilla absolute, subliminally stoking a hunger for knowledge in all of us.”

A quick google revealed that the quote has really got around with over sixteen thousand results from bookshops and book-publishers and book bloggers and more.  It’s a wonderful quote; evoking instant nostalgia for browsing second hand book stores and dawdling in comfy chairs in the library. It sounds, simply, too delicious to actually be true.

Well, there’s the sad bit – it probably isn’t true. Old books don’t always smell of vanilla – as a quick sniff through the more elderly titles on my book shelf told me. Even with my beloved copy of the Never-Ending Story (30 years old, and done in three different shades of ink) I was getting more of a musty damp smell than the urge to lick the page.

I decided to look it up. The quote is indeed from a book called Perfume: The Guide but – according someone who works in the book business – it’s not particularly accurate, and they made their own image (complete with a NSFW word meaning male bull excretion stamped over it, so be warned if you click at work) to refute it.

“Old books don’t smell good. They’re also not made from lignin. They are made from cellulose. The lignin is the sugary glue that holds the cellulose together in the form of wood. When the paper is made, they cook the lignin out of the wood to get cellulose. The lignin is a waste product that’s usually burned in a boiler. It doesn’t make it into your book and doesn’t smell like vanilla. It smells like molasses. This whole thing was pulled from someone’s ass to make you feel good about old books.

Signed, someone in a paper factory.”

But now I had two opinions on the smell of books, neither of which seem particularly unbiased. I did a bit more digging and found a slightly longer and more scientific (and less sweary) explanation in an interview conducted by the Naked Scientist with the Head of Laboratory for Cultural Heritage at the University Library of Slovenia:

“An odour of a book is a complex mixture of odorous volatiles, emitted from different materials from which books are made.  Due to the different materials used to make books throughout history, there is no one characteristic odour of old books.  A professional perfumer has evaluated seventy odorous volatiles emitted from books and described their smells as dusty, musty, mouldy, paper-like or dry.

The pleasant aromatic smell is due to aromatic compounds emitted mainly from papers made from ground wood which are characterised by their yellowish-brown colour.  They emit vanilla-like, sweetly fragrant vanillin, aromatic anisol and benzaldehyde, with fruity almond-like odor.  On the other hand, terpene compounds, deriving from rosin, which is used to make paper more impermeable to inks, contribute to the camphorous, oily and woody smell of books.  A mushroom odour is caused by some other, intensely fragrant aliphatic alcohols.

A typical odour of ‘old book’ is thus determined mixture of fragrant volatiles and is not dominated by any single compound.  Not all books smell the same.”

So, is there a smell of books? Yes, but not just one and not always as pleasant a one as the phrase “smell of books” tries to conjure. Sometimes it’s a touch of vanilla, other times it’s a touch of damp wood. Does this mean I’ll be junking my collection of beloved older books for a smell-free electronic version? Definitely not. I just need to pull them out more often to air – it’s a great excuse to read them anyway. What’s the oldest book on your shelves, and what does it smell of for you?

Virtual flirtations with good intentions

Today I’m all about e-books.

Yes, I know we have Joel at the Smell of Books for that.  In fact I highly recommend that, if you are looking for and educated opinion and some facts, you go read his blog. Joel can provide an informed opinion on all things e-published whereas me writing on ebooks is like Kyle Sandilands writing about emotional empathy or Gillian McKeith giving serious scientific advice on food and nuitrition.

At near 1,200 pages, it's easy to see why I'm hoping they bring this out as an ebook soon.

But the darn things keep cropping up on me, tempting me. While I have confessed to being an ebook luddite (for reasons ranging from the fact that the sight of a full bookshelf makes me happy to the sad reality that sometimes I really like to have the option of throwing a really terrible book off the wall) having played with a Kindle a little over the weekend, I am becoming more tempted by the day. I don’t see myself ever giving up real books completely, I can just see the benefit of being able to take 20 books on holidays without having to carry their weight in your rucksack.

I feel guilty in considering neglecting my beloved paperbacks for their hot new digital friend  but I’m certainly not alone in it. Earlier this year, Amazon revealed that 115 Kindle eBooks were sold for every 100 paperbacks sold in January.  And, in a year where Borders and Angus and Robertson were going broke, Amazon reported record quarterly sales of $13 billion the last quarter, up 36% compared to previous year. They have their own awards. The New York Times now has a dedicated eBook Bestseller List. I’m considering grabbing a Kindle, with 8 million sold in the last year, I’m far from alone.

Ebooks are everywhere and, just maybe, that’s not such a bad thing. They are making some good things easier to do. For example, the ebook format allows for acts of altruism that would be near impossible on the convention physical books scale. One example of this is the fast release of Fault Lines, an ebook of nature stories by Australian writers put together to raise money for the Red Cross’s relief efforts in Japan and New Zealand following the devastating earthquakes. From conception to contribution to implementation, it took less about a week and a half. It’s near impossible to imagine a reaction that fast from conventional printing.

The whole thing has been organised by Matt Granfield, in a fraction of the time you would expect, with the aim of raising money for the Red Cross’s efforts in Japan and New Zealand. Fault Lines is a ebook collection of new writing by some of Australia’s most popular authors and bloggers, including two of my favourites – the intrepidly-travelling Peter Moore and the world’s most satirical Masterchef fan Ben Pobjie.

The essays and stories range from side-splitting to serious and if, like me, you suspect in your quieter moments that you are not reading as many Australian authors as you should, it provides a great intro to some writers that you might not have come across already. It’s only ten bucks and 100% of the proceeds go straight to charity. You don’t even have to have a book reader to read it, so my books may be safe from the Kindle cohabitation. For now.





An enduring complaint – on new publishing methods

While many people are quick to applaud recent changes in publishing, we should remember that not all change is good. The advent of new technologies has, it’s true, made books cheaper and more widely available. But at what cost to books and the people who read them?

New mass-publishing technologies simply encourage too much writing of too little value. I can barely get through my bookshelves as is. Now with all the recent technological advances, there is more information out there than one person could ever hope to read and more appearing daily. And while there more out there, the quality of available reading has decreased. Any idiot who wants to drivel on has been given a free licence too by the easy availability of self-publishing and publishers for hire. Manuscripts are rushed without any attention to the quality of the text, and the sheer mass of new books distracts readers from focusing on more classic texts.

Sound familiar? It should. These are common complaints from the Renaissance era after the invention of the printing press, according Ann Blair, professor of history at Harvard University. Her article, “Information overload – the early years”, describes both the general reaction to the printing press and the coping and optimising mechanisms developed to deal with the sudden surge of text.

She argues that, far from the printing press devaluing words, human history is a long process of learning in exponential increases. We are very good, it appears, at both accumulating information and coming up with innovative new methods for dealing with those accumulations.

She also highlights (perhaps accidentally) that getting your sook on about the stresses and changes imposed by new technologies is something the human race seems to really enjoy. The invention of the printing press brought forth a hundred and something year slew of complaints that people currently advocating ebooks, self-publishing and online media might find wearily familiar. Allegations that it allowed any person to speak, irrespective of whether they are really wise enough to be worth listening too. Charges that publishers are too quick to bow to the whims of the masses and release publications that were “foolish, ignorant, malignant, libelous, mad, impious and subversive”.

The article highlights that, while accumulating knowledge and methods of dealing with that are ancient traditions of the human race, so too is having a really good whinge about it.

“Complaints about information overload, usually couched in terms of the overabundance of books, have a long history — reaching back to Ecclesiastes 12:12 (“of making books there is no end,”). The ancient moralist Seneca complained that “the abundance of books is distraction” in the 1st century AD. “Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books?” asked Erasmus, the great humanist of the early 16th century.”

More recently we’ve had have Mark Bauerlein penning The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), who believes modern technology is fostering a “brazen disregard of books and reading”. Maggie Jackson  goes even further  with her book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age in suggesting that our culture of constant information which “warns that modern society’s inability to focus heralds an impending Dark Age—an era historically characterized by the decline of a civilization amid abundance and technological advancement.”

Even Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which is combines neuroscience with history and pop-culture in a search for how the internet will shape the thinkers of the future, struggles to say anything really positive about the future of text and reading. It’s all doom and gloom in the future, even if we have all the books that we could ever want to read there and then some.

To advocates of ebooks and online reading and writing, all I can say is that slagging off new technologies has a long and illustrious history and this, too, shall pass. Going on the Renaissance model, you can confidently expect the complaining to die down. In about a century and a half or so.

Brown paper bags and iPads – disguising less literary moments

I’m not an ardent Apple lover and haven’t blasted through this month’s food money to buy an iPad, but I can see a useful application for it already.

I’m not going to go through the technical ins-and-outs of the iPad reading experience (if you have a hankering for that sort of thing, I suggest popping over to the Smell of Books, where Joel has already covered it nicely) but state one simple fact – reading through an iPad means that you’ll never again have to put up with people judging you by your book’s cover.

While what you enjoy reading should be a personal choice, reading in a public space can be an alarming reminder that not all literature is seen as equal. As with any subjective matter, opinions are divided and occasionally offered in the most insulting possible way.

A friend of mine has given up reading her Twilight books on the train, thanks to pointed glares from non-fans and one person asking her if she was capable of reading a “real book”. Much like the kids who disguise their comics, pulp serials and (ahem) educational adult material in a heavy encyclopaedia while in the school library, she now disguises them with a book sleeve of something more high-brow. Another keeps their taste for corset-busting romances firmly hidden in brown paper covers since a drunken commuter insisted they could be their semi-clothed pirate prince instead of “some poof in a book” and then proceeded to open their shirt and prance around the carraige to demonstrate.

My own habit of reading motivational and pop-psychology books has put me in cringe zone a few times when I have looked up and seen people reactions to my choice of book. These books that are worth a flick, but perhaps not without reading either on an iPad or with a plain brown paper cover.

1. He’s Just Not That Into You

It’s more a comedy than a melodrama of a book, with wonderfully down-to-earth advice but if you decide to read this on public transport you may as well place neon flashing sign over your head. And that sign says: “I have been dumped. Dramatically dumped. I am just one visual reminder (“There’s a car. George used to drive a car.”) or off-hand comment (“He said hello. George used to say hello…”) off breaking down into a torrent of tears while wailing “Why, George, WHY?”

You don’t have to use George. Insert the name of your ex, or if anyone is wearing their work ID, try bawling their name between gut-wrenching sobs just to watch them twitch. If you feel like cranking the Embarrassometer up a notch, you can turn up the next day reading He Just THINKS He’s Just Not That Into You, causing all your co-commuters to call home and check that the bunny hut is safely secured.

2.The Game by Neil Strauss

You may be engrossed by the fascinating world of the PUA’s, or Pick Up Artists, or enjoying Neil Strauss’s honest and irreverent humour but everyone looking at you thinks you are only reading it for cheat tips to the opposite sex. If you are a guy reading this, people assume you a damp-pawed and creepy type who also owns How To Pick Up Girls By Hypnosis* and tries the “there is.. .something… in your eye…” line at parties. If you are a girl reading this people assume you are a damp-pawed and creepy type who also owns How To Pick Up Girls By Hypnosis. Basically, no one is making eye contact or shaking hands with you all the way home.

3. Anything on unarmed combat, knife-fighting or ear-biting. Or How-To guides by the SAS.

On the plus side, no one will take the seat next to you for the whole trip. On the minus, those four burly armed security staff closing in on you are not doing so to offer you a chocolate muffin and a nice cup of tea. As a general tip, most commuters are fine with you reading books about horrifically bloody murders, it’s when you start reading about real-life methods of mayhem and squinting speculatively around the carraige they will decide to call the cops.

Perhaps the release of the iPad and other e-readers is a licence enjoy your guilty or gorey pleasures. Tescos reported sales of downloaded Mills & Boon titles grew 57 per cent in the five months after the Sony Reader went on sale, and with the advent of the iPad, who knows what the person next to you on the bus could be reading? You’ll just have to ask them to show you.

And if it’s How To Pick Up Girls By Hypnosis or anything on knife-fighting, I suggest keeping your eyes on their screen and smiling vaguely the whole way home.

* This book does not exist out of the science fiction series Red Dwarf, so don’t bother looking for it. At least, if it DOES exist, Boomerang Books thankfully don’t stock it.

I suggest keeping your