What is the best way to buy ebooks in 2023?
May 16, 2023 11:19 AM   Subscribe

My teenage child is about to start buying ebooks for school. This will continue for several years, and probably entail purchasing thousands of dollars of books. What is the best way to purchase ebooks to maximize portability and minimize lock-in? They want to be able to read the books and take notes on an iPad and Macintosh.

The books they are buying at this time aren't textbooks. They are general titles that you might find in a bookstore or order online. There will undoubtedly be textbooks in their future, though.

They work on a Macintosh and an iPad, and make extensive use of note taking on the iPad with an Apple Pencil.

Is it possible to purchase books in a portable format that can be viewed in a variety of e-readers? Where and how? Alternatively, is it straightforward to break the copy protection of books purchased from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Apple so the books can be moved to other e-readers?

(As I write this, I realize that they may be able to borrow the books in ebook format and save a lot of money. That's a separate question, though.)
posted by Winnie the Proust to Technology (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I've found the Kobo store to be reliable about DRM-free versions if the publishers support it, nearly always epub (which is standard for most book reader apps), plus the copy protection on their Adobe DRM is much more straightforward to bypass for further convertibility than Amazon. Additionally they either price-match Amazon or run even better promotions.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:34 AM on May 16, 2023 [1 favorite]

In my experience, whether it's music or books or whatever, breaking DRM is a cat and mouse game. Someone figures it out, the manufacturer adjusts, someone figures it out, the manufacturer adjusts again, etc, etc, etc, so what's true today might not be true next year or the year after or five years from now...

So I think making any plans based off the assumption that you'll be able to break the DRM both now and at some arbitrary point in the future is potentially folly.

That's why most DRM-removal articles you'll find online say "How to break DRM on <>> in 202X" - because it's typically only true for a short-lived amount of time.

I'll second the Kobo store and leaning into DRM-free versions when possible.
posted by kbanas at 11:47 AM on May 16, 2023

I would say that epubs would be the way to go for portability, since they are readable on many different devices - the standard doesn't belong to anyone. They are carried by more than one seller - they are sold by Kobo, but also Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, as well as by some publishers directly, so you don't need to commit to one store. My local library lends epubs (with or without DRM, depending on the publisher). I don't rely on any store to maintain my collection; if I bought it, it's mine and saved on a local machine.

Sometimes a title is only available through one seller with a different format (i.e., Amazon); if so, I will buy in that format, but will immediately strip the DRM and convert to an epub. Calibre is a widely used library program which converts from one format to another. (DRM-removal from Amazon books is tricky, so you need to know you can do it before you buy.)

For older books that have passed out of copyright, obviously these will be widely available in a variety of formats. I remember even getting Thomas More's Utopia online in about 1995. (For non-English books, translators matter and are more likely to be in copyright.)
posted by jb at 1:03 PM on May 16, 2023

Also note that textbooks will be a different beast entirely. Expect those to be thoroughly locked down with some DRM scheme or another and only available on select platforms (at least legally).

(ETA: just noticed you mentioned not needing textbooks, so nevermind)
posted by Aleyn at 1:24 PM on May 16, 2023

They are general titles that you might find in a bookstore or order online.

If you mean they're at the point where they're going to be reading classic novels and other things by dead people, the first answer is Project Gutenberg or just searching for "booktitle filetype:pdf" or "filetype:epub" or whatever their preferred file type is.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 2:26 PM on May 16, 2023 [8 favorites]

If they aren’t textbooks, it would be worth it to subscribe to your local public library and download whatever software they use to borrow whatever ebooks they might have. My library uses the app called Libby. They won’t have everything but it might save you a little bit of money.
posted by gt2 at 5:18 PM on May 16, 2023 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: If you mean they're at the point where they're going to be reading classic novels and other things by dead people...

No, I mean books by Samantha Power, Richard Haass, and Henry Kissinger (sigh).

Child has Libby, and uses it a lot, especially for audiobooks. The issue with using it for this class is that the checkout period is only two weeks, with no guarantee that you'll be able to renew. They need access to the book for the full summer term. In addition, they want to be able to take notes, which I don't think Libby supports.

It sounds like epub is the format they should get. But it also looks like there isn't really anyone selling DRM-free books, in epub or any other format. I check the syllabus against Kobo, and they have the titles but they are all DRM protected. So the thing to do would be to buy them (probably from Kobo), strip the DRM out asap, and keep the liberated version?
posted by Winnie the Proust at 5:37 PM on May 16, 2023

Does your library offer Hoopla? Books can only be read in the app, but the upside is that, unlike Libby or Overdrive ebooks, multiple patrons can check out the same book. So no waiting and no problem with renewing after your 3-week checkout ends.
posted by elphaba at 6:35 PM on May 16, 2023 [1 favorite]

Yes, strip DRM, and avoid PDF of at all possible, as it's likely to have formatting issues.
posted by rhizome at 6:47 PM on May 16, 2023 [2 favorites]

No, I mean books by Samantha Power, Richard Haass, and Henry Kissinger (sigh).

I think Project Gutenberg/The Internet Archive is still worth a look! They have some more recent materials which, though theoretically only available as DRM-protected loans, are fairly easy to crack. And if you don't have scruples about piracy, there is of course always LibGen...
posted by the tartare yolk at 6:55 PM on May 16, 2023 [1 favorite]

using Calibre (ebook organiser) and a deDRM plugin to strip out any DRM has worked fine for me for years.
posted by alchemist at 8:24 PM on May 16, 2023 [9 favorites]

In addition, they want to be able to take notes, which I don't think Libby supports.

Psst… you can add notes and highlights in Libby, and export them :)
posted by tamarack at 9:47 PM on May 16, 2023 [3 favorites]

Just want to add one more data point: the Kindle app is available on iPad and Mac according to Amazon's app store. That would allow you to buy from Amazon in Kindle format and/or use the 'Send to Kindle' function- which now supports the epub format (converting it to AZW, the current Kindle format, before you get to read it)
posted by TimHare at 9:47 PM on May 16, 2023

Calibre installed on their MacBook can centralise all the copies they buy and spit it out in various compatible formats. It is pretty simple to strip DRM with calibre and plugins and have a tidy library that if you backup via iCloud or Dropbox is easy to access from phone, iPad etc. My books are all over different shops and that’s how I handle it.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:18 AM on May 17, 2023

Ebooks.com is an independent ebook store unaffiliated with any particular big corporation and often sells DRM-free versions. I buy my books exclusively from there and then use ePub DRM Removal to remove DRM and then Calibre as a ebook management program to then put the books on my Kindle or iPad (there's also a Calibre library tool for iPad that helps with seamless transferring without getting the Apple Books app involved). It works great and has for years, even with library books (my library doesn't support Kindle and I owned a Kobo and hated it).
posted by urbanlenny at 5:20 AM on May 17, 2023 [1 favorite]

If you have problems removing DRM from ebooks you have legitimately purchased, I have two words for you:

Anna's Archive.
posted by lhauser at 6:14 PM on May 17, 2023 [2 favorites]

Buy them on the ibooks store, but then find them on z-lib dot is. Join, and get a telegram link. Much faster than going through the website/their single-sign in website. There'll be no DRM on them.

I read them in Marvin3, which allows me to export all the highlights/notes, whereas ibooks cuts off the exports after a few lines.
posted by FranzKanner at 6:00 PM on May 19, 2023

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