2 March 2012

Since sustaining an actual injury while jogging into work with a copy of an optimistically-titled ‘… in a Nutshell’ book in my backpack, I decided to explore the world of electronic books, and have been pleasantly surprised by what I’ve found. For a number of reasons I think it’s a really great medium for technical content. I thought the following points were worth sharing, and might dispel one or two popular misconceptions about eBooks…

It’s actually fine

I was very sceptical of electronic books for a very long time, and resisted even trying them out until last summer, when I went abroad on a hand-luggage-only ticket and wanted to take several 800-odd page books with me to revise for looming MCPD exams. I gave in, borrowed a Kindle, and made room to pack my sandals…

It turned out that using a Kindle was OK and even enjoyable. I still prefer paper books, and I haven’t been able to bring myself to read any novels on an eBook reader just yet (sticking to good old-fashioned dead tree for now), but it is mostly a matter of just getting used to it. I slightly miss being able to easily flick to another point in the book, or glance at how many pages are left in the current chapter. But apart from these very minor niggles, reading technical books electronically works very well, and I quickly forget about the medium once I start reading. In fact, I’ve started to prefer the PDF versions of technical books, and in the last few months I’ve only come across a single book (The Art of Game Design) where I thought the print version was so well presented that I actually preferred it to the electronic format.

Impulse purchases are good for your education

The ease with which very cheap (or free) eBooks can be acquired means that I can keep my eBook reader topped up with good content, while being able to carry it with me everywhere means that I get through quite a lot of reading without having to specially set aside much time for it. My train journey to work is only ten minutes, but together with other travel time in the evenings and at weekends, this actually adds up to a decent amount of reading time each week. I’ve found I’ve done a lot more reading recently just by merit of having a device with a steady stream of books on it with me at all times.

When I find out about a new project that I’ll be working on, I usually look up a relevant book or three to read. I also keep a general eye out for cheap deals and good free content. Examples include Apress‘s $10 Deal of the Day, daily and weekly deals from O’Reilly, magazine resources such as developer.*, excellent free eBooks like Pro Git, and medium-length content such as InfoQ’s minibooks.

Other advantages include always being able to get the latest version of a books (which is obviously particularly relevant to technical publishing). For example, I picked up the eBook version of Agile Development with Ruby on Rails, which was updated just last month for Rails 3.2 (an updated print version isn’t available yet).

For technical eBooks: Amazon is irrelevant, and DRM is of no concern

Amazon is usually our first port of call for technical books in print, and it’s obviously hugely dominant in the eBook market in general. But for technical eBooks it’s (perhaps surprisingly) a bit pointless; as are other online stores such as Kobo. On these sites, eBooks tend to be slightly cheaper than their print counterparts, but not by a huge amount. Also, they tend to sell books in specific formats that aren’t well suited for technical books (see below), and they typically impose fairly restrictive DRM on books (although this varies quite a bit, even from one title to another). Indeed, DRM is another concern that put me off eBooks for quite a while.

However, all of the major technical publishers sell their eBooks direct, without any DRM, in multiple formats, often a bit cheaper than Amazon. Furthermore, the negligible marginal cost of eBooks means they regularly offer deals allowing you to pick up electronic versions of books for a fraction of the print price (as mentioned above). Most (if not all) publishers digitally watermark the books in some way (so you can’t just put them on The Pirate Bay), which seems fair enough, but the lack of restrictions means you don’t have to worry about difficulty transferring books between your own devices.

The technical books market seems to have converged on this as the standard way of doing business, and every technical publisher I could think of sells their books on very similar terms, including:

It’s also worth noting that any content updates publishers make to their electronic offerings take a little while to filter through to the versions sold through other distributors (e.g. Amazon’s Kindle edition etc.). Also, regarding DRM, note that although there’s no technical restriction on lending books to other people, some publishers do explicitly disallow this in their licensing terms.

PDFs are not going away anytime soon

In the general eBook market, there’s been a big move towards new formats that are well suited to reading novels on small screens. However, the most common standard and proprietary eBook formats (e.g. ePub and mobi) just don’t work that well for technical books, where layout is extremely important and re-flowing text just doesn’t work. This is mainly due to diagrams and source code listings, although technical books also make quite heavy use of other formatting (tables, lists, callouts, various levels of subheadings etc.). There’s a bit of variation between publishers in how much care they put into various eBook formats, but in almost all cases you should just head straight for the PDF.

You don’t need an eBook reader to read eBooks

Most eBook readers have a 6” screen, which isn’t very practical for technical books. Your best bet in this case is to turn your eBook reader sideways and display half a page at a time in landscape mode. A 9” eBook reader is capable of displaying a full page at a time at a comfortable zoom level, but there aren’t many of these around. Amazon seem to be quietly letting the Kindle DX die, and the only two alternatives on the market right now are produced by relative minnows Pocketbook and Onyx.

That said, I took the plunge and bought an Onyx M92 when it was first released just before Christmas. I’m happy with it; the build quality of the device seems very high, and I’ve found the firmware to be slightly unpolished but very stable. However, I’m not convinced it’s worth about 80% of the price of an iPad 2.

I think the value of e-Ink devices in general is pretty debatable. You can pick up a 10” Android tablet for around £150, which can do a heck of a lot more than just read books. A 9” eBook reader is a single-purpose device (despite the best efforts of manufacturers to find something else to do with them), which will set you back by about twice as much. The only really big advantage is battery life: For e-Ink devices, this is typically measured in weeks or even months, compared to days or hours for backlit tablets & smartphones.

The important point is that you definitely don’t need to shell out £300-odd for an eBook reader if you’re not sure that you’ll find it that useful, and in fact many of you probably already own a portable device that would be just fine for reading PDFs on the train, even if you hadn’t thought of using it for that before now.

And finally… eBooks will not save the world

The marketing material for Kindles and other eBook readers point out how wonderfully green you’ll be now that you’re not killing trees anymore every time you buy a book. The heft of some programming language reference volumes might indicate that this argument carries a little more weight for people who read technical books. However, I’m sceptical about how many eBooks I’ll need to read instead of paper ones to offset the environmental cost of manufacturing my extremely intricate electronic reader and shipping it from China.