Durable ebook formats?
April 8, 2010 9:00 PM   Subscribe

Suppose I'm thinking of purchasing an e-book reader (or an iPad/tablet), and my primary hesitation is that I don't want to buy a bunch of e-books in a format that (1) will someday be useless or unreadable or (2) will lock me into a specific brand of hardware forever. What do I need to know?

Also assume that I'm primarily interested in unquestionably legal e-book acquisition. No torrents, etc.
posted by Pater Aletheias to Technology (20 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
epub is currently supported on all the iProducts, the Sony reader, the Barnes and Noble reader and on the freeware fbreader program which runs on the Nokia N series tablets and Windows / Mac / Linux. Most / all of your free e-book websites (public domain books) use epub, as do those stores which sell some books.

Keep in mind that, at least right now, proprietary formats are the easiest way to get the vast majority of non-public domain popular books. If you feel you have to go that way, Amazon now offers Kindle software for all the iProducts.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 9:05 PM on April 8, 2010

Calibre is a great tool for converting PDF's to ePub format. Windows, Mac, Linux. It handles a bunch of other formats, too, including: CBZ, CBR, CBC, CHM, EPUB, FB2, HTML, LIT, LRF, MOBI, ODT, PDF, PRC**, PDB, PML, RB, RTF, TCR, TXT
posted by jenkinsEar at 9:17 PM on April 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

Amazon Kindle software is completely cross-platform (even runs in Ubuntu), and your books go with you even if you have several different devices/platforms.

The only thing that bugs me about the Kindle system is that they can revoke your books at any time. If they want to pull a book, it's gone.

On the other hand, IIRC they will refund your account and you can just go get your book from the library or whatever.

I just got into Kindle (on my iTouch, soon on my Ubuntu machine too) and I bought 4 books. Spent $40. But the books are not just novels, they're specific historical non-fiction books that are excellent and IMO worth the money as long as I'm reading away from my book collection.

I also stalk Project Gutenberg and use their HTML format to do quite a bit of reading. Great if you love history...
posted by circular at 9:36 PM on April 8, 2010

I bought a Kindle because of the cross-platform aspect, and I don't regret it. The "pulling at any time" aspect can be gently set aside by downloading backups of your purchased books to the computer -- though the only book ever pulled was done because it was an illegal copy, and everyone was given a credit to pay for it, which I think is more than fair. The hardware keeps working, too -- original Kindles are still heavily in use and loved by people I've met who have them, and much cheaper if you're on a budget.

The Kindle also supports a bunch of other formats, and what it doesn't can usually be converted using a program like Calibre. The free, public-domain resources for the Kindle are aplenty as well.
posted by iarerach at 10:05 PM on April 8, 2010

Also assume that I'm primarily interested in unquestionably legal e-book acquisition.

The problem with this is that you need to concern yourself not only with the format of the ebook, but with the DRM of the books that you buy. Apple's iBook uses the epub format, as does the Barnes and Noble Nook and the Sony Reader. This does NOT mean, however, that an epub book purchased on your iPad will be transferable to your Nook.

This is all very reminiscient of the situation in the online music buying world up until 3 or 4 years ago. Music purchased from one vendor could never be listened to on another vendor's hardware. I generally illegally downloaded my music in those days, not due to cost, but due to openness. Today most online music stores are DRM-free, and I buy most of my music again. I hope the transition to DRM-free ebooks will be quicker than the transition in the music industry was.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:18 PM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I hate to say it, but we're at sort of a strange moment in ebooks, and I get the feeling that what you're asking for - an ebook format that's maintainable and lends itself to the building of a library that can be migrated without too much money or trouble across platforms - is all but impossible. The epub format, for example, is often erroneously called an open format, but it's not, at least not necessarily, and I happen to know that most ebooks obtained in epub format will contain a DRM layer to prevent conversion and migration across platforms.

I recommend strongly against the Kindle if you want migratable ebooks. Everything that's been said here about their apparent convenience and friendliness is quite true; but the fact remains that you will never be able to use most Kindle books on any other platform, and Amazon has gone to great lengths to make sure that this is so. So you might be happy with every other respect of a Kindle, but a key requirement that you list - the ability to migrate platforms - won't be there. And if your Kindle breaks someday, and Amazon has stopped supporting that file type or decided that you should have to buy your ebooks anew, you'll be up the creek.

As I've said, this is impossible to avoid, unfortunately. Virtually every sort of ebook locks you into a particular hardware intentionally; no ebook maker or publisher seems to have any incentive or desire to make anything like migrateability possible. My suggestion, sadly, is that you avoid ebooks entirely for a year or two at least, until some solution like the one you're talking about becomes viable. I hope somebody else has some suggestion.

Better to buy actual books. At least you can be sure that you can keep actual books for years to come and use them however you like separately from the whim of a publisher or manufacturer. That's not true yet of any ebook, I don't think.
posted by koeselitz at 10:37 PM on April 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

And, before someone mentions this: I'm aware that the Kindle software works on lots of platforms. But it's still tied to the proprietary software; that's the point. You must use Kindle software to open Kindle ebooks. That's a ridiculous layer of DRM, no matter how you look at it, and in ten years, it could pose a tremendous problem for an owner of an older ebook; will the Kindle software be completely backwards-compatible? Will old ebooks still work with it? Will Amazon decide that owners of older books should buck up and buy new versions when the software updates? They can, and maybe I'm being cynical here but I imagine they will. Even if I'm dead wrong, the fact remains: things are pretty much up in the air at this point, and we just don't know.
posted by koeselitz at 10:42 PM on April 8, 2010

DRM will prevent you from taking the books to other platforms regardless format. Amazon does have it's Kindle app for Apple devices which will let you read purchased books..
posted by wongcorgi at 10:53 PM on April 8, 2010

will the Kindle software be completely backwards-compatible? Will old ebooks still work with it? Will Amazon decide that owners of older books should buck up and buy new versions when the software updates? They can, and maybe I'm being cynical here but I imagine they will.

I don't work at Amazon, but I am friendly with some developers and know the company's operating principles through them. It is highly likely that Amazon will go out of business well before it stiffs over its customers in this manner. And I write this as someone who would otherwise tell the OP to buy an iPad.

To answer the OPs question, if you have to get an electronic book reader, the Kindle will provide you with the most flexibility in reading options by providing cross-platform access to your library.

Only the Apple iPad device currently provides the option of reading books downloaded through the iBooks service. So if you want to read the books through another workstation you're stuck (for now, at least).

As far as DRM and copyright goes, Amazon has a positive track record in addressing customers' concerns in a fair manner. You can share your library with others by setting up a common account. Amazon also has the largest library of ebooks, and public domain material (which can be read with other devices and software) can be easily downloaded to the Kindle device.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:56 PM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't want to buy a bunch of e-books in a format that (1) will someday be useless or unreadable or (2) will lock me into a specific brand of hardware forever.

The best solution I can think of, and the one I use, is to use plain text files as much as possible.
posted by mkdirusername at 11:20 PM on April 8, 2010

I came here to suggest DRM-free PDFs. Several e-book publishers sell them (including Pragmatic Bookshelf and LeanPub).

Also, mkdirusername's suggestion of plain text files is eminently sensible.
posted by blue grama at 1:14 AM on April 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Because it is currently so easy to convert files from text to pdf to azw (amazon's format) and, i imagine, epub, i don't think this is a major problem. (I know this from looking at torrents that offer the same content in many formats, but it's still true.) This is a much simpler medium than music or video. Furthermore, Amazon has Kindle software for PC (and "soon" Mac), so you should always have some access to your books.

If you purchase books as you read them, instead of replacing your entire library, I doubt you'll regret it.
posted by acidic at 1:14 AM on April 9, 2010

Got a Kindle. Work on the assumption that what is out there for it is more than enough and that all things change and so I can not put off till the next changes come about...Know the shortcomings you confront and the values you should get and weigh them.

On actual books: I have twice in my life had very substantial collections of books. And twice for moving and other reasons I have had to cut back on my collection. I discovered that hoarding books silly. I kept reference works, mostly, and discovered that I could reread anything I wanted by using the library and inter-libarty loan. In most cases, the security blanket of the books in my home was silly beause rarely if ever did I reread any of them. The few I did, I bought again or took from libary. If a Kindle hold over a thousand books, then when you acquire that many, buy another ereader and think of the dusting you will have saved.
posted by Postroad at 1:53 AM on April 9, 2010

I'm sort of waiting on this company to release their netbook line, which feature a regular LCD screen but you can switch over to an e-book mode. Not e-ink precisely, but a very refined LCD mode that is reportedly very much like e-ink. Low power, can use in bright sunlight. The same tech used in the OLPC.

A netbook like this is best because a) it's a functional computer and b) to answer your question, you can use any number of apps to read your e-books. (Probably. I think.) DRM won't be an issue at all.

They've been promising a release that is at least a year late; at the moment it's still vaporware. If another company can pick up the ball, I'd be just as happy with them.
posted by zardoz at 4:07 AM on April 9, 2010

I totally dig what the OP is worried about but I think it may be a little chicken / egg.

As an owner of both a Kindle and an iPad... if these are the two main options that you're considering I would like to suggest that you really think about when and where you're reading more than on what software.

I'm returning/selling my iPad as soon as I get home from this trip. It was perfectly timed to test out the iPad in a real world travel situation. It fails on this aspect and a number of others. Reading on the iPad is near on to impossible in a brightly lit room with overhead lighting. While I can easily read my Kindle in full sun on the beach in Mexico. the iPad? Not in the Dunkin Donuts yesterday morning. Not in the bright light of the airport at AID. Barely in the terminal at DIA. Certainly not in the park the other afternoon.

For me the ability to actually read the particular device that holds my ebooks is just as, if not more, important than the format they come in.
posted by FlamingBore at 5:53 AM on April 9, 2010

Pixel Qi is strictly an R&D company. They license display technology to manufacturers. Notion Ink is promising to release an iPad-like device with Pixel Qi's dual mode screens later this year (demo here). So we're a little closer to not just vapor hardware. A couple other companies claim to have similar display technology in the pipeline.

I am nervous about the idea of trusting Amazon because they're a good company. We'll have to see how nicely Amazon decides to play with competing ebook readers (and publishers, and customers). I'd like to buy an Adam (Notion's tablet) or a similar device when they come on the market, but I'll probably be downloading mostly public domain material until I see what happens.
posted by nangar at 6:42 AM on April 9, 2010

It's supposedly very easy to un-DRM the books.
posted by nomisxid at 8:26 AM on April 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

As several people stated above, ePub is definitely the way to go when purchasing your eBooks. It's an open format, so it should be easier to find programs that can convert your ePub books to whatever format you'll need in the future. It is also becoming widely supported by eBook readers and eBook stores alike (with the notable exception of the Kindle and Amazon's huge book selection).

A few stores that carry ePub books are Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Sony, and more. Try searching for the books you'd buy on InkMesh to see where they are carried.

This link has a long list of devices that can read ePubs. If the device you want isn't listed here, then you can probably convert your ePub files to the desired format with Calibre.

Now comes the part of questionable legality. All of the eBooks you buy will probably have some DRM. Fortunately, with ePub there are programs out there that can strip the DRM from the file, leaving you with a book that you will be able to read on a ton of devices. While this is no doubt illegal, many people would argue that there is nothing ethically wrong with unlocking a book you've purchased as long as you don't distribute it.
posted by upplepop at 8:46 AM on April 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Blazecock Pileon: “I don't work at Amazon, but I am friendly with some developers and know the company's operating principles through them. It is highly likely that Amazon will go out of business well before it stiffs over its customers in this manner. And I write this as someone who would otherwise tell the OP to buy an iPad.”

I've heard nothing but great things about the Kindle, honestly. And every user of one that I know of is absolutely happy. So I'll echo that sentiment, and point out that a friend of mine who works in publishing has the feeling that Amazon has also been very good for publishers.

However, Pater Aletheias asked about being able to migrate his ebooks across platforms. Amazon has never allowed this at all - it's never been even remotely possible with their ebooks, and there's nothing on the horizon that indicates to me that it ever will be. It's simply not an option with Kindle.

They'll go to great lengths to make it possible for you to view your books on any platform you'd like, though; as has been mentioned here, Kindle has software interfaces for Linux and all iStuff, as well as many other kinds of operating systems. The likelihood is that, while you'll never be able to shift a single one of your ebooks to another format, you'll be able to open them on most devices.

Some people are comfortable with that, and I sympathize with them. However, I'm not comfortable with it, and I've watched enough of the wrangling of the last year to know that Amazon doesn't always have a choice to stock what they want to stock, as much as their regard for their customers may always be high. I have no doubt that the Kindle will be supported for years to come, but (maybe I'm weird) that's not good enough for me - I'd like to be able to control my ebooks, I'd like to be able to manipulate parts of them and translate their formats and search them externally, et cetera. And Amazon will most likely never allow any of that.

It depends on what you're after, really. If Pater Aletheias is willing to give up format portability, I imagine he could be very happy with a Kindle.
posted by koeselitz at 6:03 PM on April 9, 2010

I love my Kindle. That being said, mobi/azw is a horrific file format for long-term storage/archive (proprietary format, etc). I *ahem* shift everything into a DRM-free epub, (which is essentially html plus metadata). And html ain't going nowhere for a long time.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 7:43 PM on April 9, 2010

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