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Ever since Manchester Libraries introduced ebook lending, I’ve been waiting for the chance to read them on my phone. On Feb 5th, while doing my bit to drive up loan stats, I found that the waiting is over! OverDrive now offer ebook support as well as audiobooks for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices, and I just had to try it out.

I’ve been reading ebooks on my phone for quite a while, using a nifty little text reader called jjReader. It’s fairly basic, but that’s what I like about it – I can customise text size, colour etc, and it’s quick and responsive. You can choose how you turn pages – I favour an upwards flick that’s easy to do with the index finger, while holding the phone top and bottom between thumb and middle finger. (I thought I’d take a photo of how I hold my phone for reading, then realised that my camera is on my phone. You’ll just have to imagine it.)

Best thing about jjReader? No ‘page turning’ animations! I appear to be the only ebook reader who hates these – for me, they interfere with the clear and direct passage of story to brain. I don’t fixate on page turning when I’m reading a physical book: it’s a mere physical necessity to make my way through the story. Why is it deemed such a desirable thing to have in ebooks?

So it was with a little trepidation that I downloaded Bill Bryson’s ‘Down Under‘ to my phone. Out of my chosen books, it had to be that or ‘The Mating Season‘ – this is for bedtime reading, you see, and I don’t read anything with a plot at bedtime. Strictly short stories/humorous essays/poetry/light non-fiction. And Wodehouse. This is in an attempt to keep my reading addiction under control, and stop myself staying up to 3am every night to finish books…

The trepidation was because I really, really wanted to like the OverDrive Android app. Borrowing library ebooks to my computer is exciting enough, but to my phone?!? To be able to choose from current, in-copyright works to read instantly and for free wherever and whenever you like? Tell me you didn’t just come over all goose-pimply at the thought.

But what if the app was horrible? What if it was like the Kindle app? (it lasted about 2 hours before I deleted it. Don’t ask.) What if I couldn’t change the text colour? My phone has a very bright screen, and reading on a white background it simply out of the question. What if next page navigation was awkward? What if it had non-optional page turning animations?

I’m very pleased to report that it isn’t at all horrible. Sure, it’s not as fast as jjReader, but I didn’t expect it to be, and the load times are bearable (faster than Aldiko, for instance). You have only 2 colour choices, but as one of those is white text on black background, I’m happy. Page navigation is a little awkward – you need to tap the right side of the screen to move forward. As I usually hold my phone in my left hand to read, this does mean there’s a bit of stretching, and the occasional finger cramp, but overall it’s ok.

It runs full-screen, unlike jjReader which leaves the notification bar free. This means that if you get a message or email while reading in OverDrive, you either have to try to concentrate with a little green light winking at you (much harder than it sounds), or you have to exit out of the reader, clear the notification, turn OverDrive back on and wait for the book to load again. I realise that this is a peculiarity with my phone rather than OverDrive, and started turning automatic notifications off while I was reading. Then I thought a bit more, and decided that it really wasn’t healthy to be waking up every morning to the ‘you’ve got emails’ symbol staring blithely at me as I fumble for the alarm, so automatic notifications are now off overnight. What started out as a mild nuisance has actually helped me to manage my stress levels.

And the page animations? You can turn them off πŸ˜€

So what don’t I like about it? When you open up OverDrive, it shows you your library – what titles you have available (with cover image, which is nice), and how long is left on the loan.

Ahh. There we are. Every time I settle down for my 20 mins with Bill before sleep, I’m reminded of just how many days it will be before the loan expires, and the book will be gone. Now, barring accidents, I’ll get it finished on time. But there’s still something very unsettling about the prospect of having your bedtime reading whisked away.

I know why it needs to be there. I really do. Once ebooks expire, that’s it. They’re gone. You can’t ‘forget’ to take them back until you’ve finished. You can’t renew them. You get your 21 days, and that’s your lot. I’m fairly sure there’s no limit on how soon you can redownload a book you’ve returned, but you’d still have to go through the checkout/downloading/loading process again. Assuming, of course, no-one else has reserved it. If they have? Well, you don’t mind waiting 3 weeks to find out the ending, do you?

I was browsing around the internet a few weeks ago, and found a link to Star in a Story. Your name in a classic story! for only $5.95! What a bargain, eh? How can you put a price on being part of classic literature?

Well, the ‘classic’ bit really is a bit of a hint. A quick glance at the list of title shows that they are all public domain! (well, actually, they’re not – more on that later).

I saw the site, thought ‘pah!’, and went away. But I couldn’t quite shake a nagging feeling, and ended up back on the site last night. The cause of my morbid curiosity?

One of the books was Anne of Green Gables. Now, I’m fairly familiar with the book, and remembered that Anne being called, well, ‘Anne’ was fairly important to the story at a few points. Hmm, thinks I. Surely they must allow for that? Surely they actually have some knowledge of the text, and have put a bit of effort in to making the name change believable. Surely, for $5.95 per text, they’ve not simply done a string match find and replace? Am I really going to fork over 4 quid of my hard-earned cash to find out?

Let’s see, shall we?

The original:

“Oh, I’m not ashamed of it,” explained Anne, “only I like Cordelia better. I’ve always imagined that my name was Cordeliaβ€”at least, I always have of late years. When I was young I used to imagine it was Geraldine, but I like Cordelia better now. But if you call me Anne please call me Anne spelled with an E.”

“What difference does it make how it’s spelled?” asked Marilla with another rusty smile as she picked up the teapot.

“Oh, it makes SUCH a difference. It LOOKS so much nicer. When you hear a name pronounced can’t you always see it in your mind, just as if it was printed out? I can; and A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished. If you’ll only call me Anne spelled with an E I shall try to reconcile myself to not being called Cordelia.”

“Very well, then, Anne spelled with an E, can you tell us how this mistake came to be made? We sent word to Mrs. Spencer to bring us a boy. Were there no boys at the asylum?”
(From Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery, available at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/45. Public domain in the US.)

and the ‘Star in a Story’ version

“Oh, I’m not ashamed of it,” explained Bethan, “only I like Cordelia better. I’ve always imagined that my name was Cordeliaat least, I always have of late years. When I was young I used to imagine it was Geraldine, but I like Cordelia better now. But if you call me Bethanplease call me Bethan spelled with an E.”

“What difference does it make how it’s spelled?” asked Marilla with another rusty smile as she picked up the teapot.

“Oh, it makes SUCH a difference. It LOOKS so much nicer. When you hear a name pronounced can’t you always see it in your mind, just as if it was printed out? I can; and A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished. If you’ll only call me Bethan spelled with an E I shall try to reconcile myself to not being called Cordelia.”

“Very well, then, Bethan spelled with an E, can you tell us how this mistake came to be made? We sent word to Mrs. Spencer to bring us a boy. Were there no boys at the asylum?” (From Bethan of Green Gables, copyright (apparently!) Chris Burgess)

And later on:

‘”Ann Ruddock has a very bad temper. Ann Ruddock must learn to control her temper,” and then read it out loud so that even the primer class, who couldn’t read writing, should understand it.’

Yup, string matching on ‘Anne’ and ‘Shirley’ it is. And if you look closely, you’ll see the formatting on the Bethan version isn’t great either – the em dashes are missing (as in ‘was Cordeliaat least’). For $5.95 I was expecting a nicely formatted pdf at the very least – what I got was an automatically generated webpage. If you’d like to see how it looked as a whole, (minus any name at all for the lead character!), check out http://www.star-in-a-story.com/Anne-of-Green-Gables.php. This (with my name in it) is what I got for my money. When I bookmarked the page and went back, lo and behold it’s the template copy! At least I’d copied and saved my little piece of immortality first, eh?

So what’s the lesson from this, for us as info pros? (other than that I’m a fool who can’t be trusted with money). It’s all about education, information literacy. I knew immediately I saw the list of titles that they were public domain. I chose to pay for it for investigative purposes. If I just wanted a copy of Anne of Green Gables with my name in it I know darn well I have quick, simple, and free alternatives.

But what about people who don’t know? Isn’t this the sort of thinking that we should be instilling through information literacy – don’t pay for anything on the internet without first checking out that you have to!

This doesn’t just apply to individuals offering services such as ‘Star in a Story’. The big boys are guilty of it too. Recently, I was looking for a version of Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four to read on my phone, and thought I’d check out the new Kindle for Android app. The cheapest copy I found in the Kindle store? 72p. Now, I know that’s only 72p, and not exactly a major investment – BUT I knew full well I could get a copy from Project Gutenberg (in a number of formats, including Kindle-compatible) for free. And hang, on, what about my local library? Yes, it’s available for download as a free ebook there too – but someone has it checked out. Back to Gutenberg for me!

Obviously, people may well prefer the convenience of the Kindle store, and that’s fine – as long as they’re making an informed choice, and not thinking that paying 72p in the Kindle store is their only way of getting hold of that text as an ebook.

And it’s not just potential buyers who might be in need of a little advice from an info prof! When I scanned the list of titles available in ‘Star in a Story’, my first instinct was that they were all public domain. ‘But hang on’, thinks I, ‘Pygmalion? I’m sure George Bernard Shaw is still in copyright in the UK!’ And yes, he died in 1950, and won’t be public domain in the UK for another decade yet. What about Anne of Green Gables? A quick check on the dates of L M Montgomery reveals she didn’t die until 1942 (I think the assumption that she’s public domain probably comes from Anne being published in 1908), and therefore her works are still in copyright in the UK too. Not only did Chris Burgess of Star in a Story sell me an overpriced, shoddy piece of work, but – unless he paid royalties to the estate of LM Montgomery – he also broke the law in doing so. Perhaps a little advice from his local librarian could have prevented this?

Now, I’m not against ‘your name in…’ in general. Ok, I found Bethan of Green Gables creepy and disturbing, but I see that there is a market for this sort of thing, especially for encouraging reluctant readers. But the key is doing it right, and ‘Star in a Story’ is, I’m afraid, doing it wrong.

Well, I promised you a post about what I hate about ebooks. I wish I hadn’t. But it’s important to balance the flow of love with some of the more negative issues that surround ebooks. There’s no way I can possibly cover all of them (mainly because I probably haven’t thought of most of them!), so here are a few things that affect me.

Lending ebooks. Well, you can’t. I suppose you technically could, by physically handing over your ebook device, but that assumes a number of things:

  • that you don’t mind being without that device for however long it takes for them to read the book
  • that you trust that person with your possibly-very-expensive device (as opposed to, say, an 8 quid paperback)
  • that the person you are lending it to is comfortable with reading ebooks a) in general b) on your device in particular

(That last is quite an important point – none of the three people I most regularly lend books to read ebooks. This, for me, takes a lot of the joy out of book ownership. Visitors to my house rarely go home without having at least one book eagerly pressed upon them; some leave with bagfuls.)

If you don’t want to hand your device over, can you lend an ebook? Certainly not (legally) an in-copyright work – you’ll have to enjoy it alone.

Ahh, copyright, the bane of the ebook world! Let me admit (cue career death and professional ostracism) that I have broken UK copyright law, by reading certain ebooks. Now, I’m certainly not admitting to being part of the growing piracy network for ebooks, but I have fallen foul of the copyright trap that is Project Gutenberg. Yes, having sung their praises, I’m now pointing out a flaw. They do give the copyright status of each work on the item page, usually ‘Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook.’. Now there’s the rub – and the thing that caught me out. Check the laws of your country! I was so delighted to find the lovely selection of PG Wodehouse books available on Gutenberg, that I never spared a thought for the fact that old Plum didn’t shuffle off until 1975. His works won’t be in the public domain in the UK until a whopping 2046. [yes, I did have to go on a big copyright-fact-checking mission to make sure that was right. and I’m still not entirely sure]

I’m sure this isn’t the only case where I’ve inadvertently infringed copyright through ebooks that are public domain in the US, but not the UK. I don’t usually remember to check. And if I, as an information professional who Really Should know better, don’t check, who does? Now, as far as I’m aware, publishers and authors don’t seem to be making an issue about this. I haven’t heard of anyone being threatened with court for illegal ownership of a text document, but just because you’re probably not going to get caught doesn’t mean it’s legal. [I’m sticking with the ‘legal’ argument here – my opinions on the state of current UK copyright law are for another discussion entirely.] I think we can all agree that it’s much harder to accidentally infringe copyright with pbooks – although I’m sure I’ve bought at least one book in the past with ‘not for UK distribution’ stamped on it…

What else don’t I like about ebooks? Well, they can hurt your eyes. I don’t have a dedicated ebook reader that produces the ink-on-paper effect, so I can’t speak for those, but I have spent many hours getting my settings right in the various programs I use.

Ah yes, ‘various programs’. Now there’s a thing! I have 6 dedicated ebook readers installed on my home pc, plus microsoft word (which I use where possible – it has a far better customisable reading view than any of the dedicated readers). Of course, you know what’s coming. You have to use the ‘correct’ reader for each ebook format. Adobe Digital Editions giving you a headache? (and trust me, they will) Tough. You want to change the font colour, you buy the book again. In a different format.

What else? well, there are the occasional OCR issues (I read an ebook once where ‘God’ was rendered as ‘Cod’ the whole way through. Nothing has cheered me up quite that much for years). You don’t always get illustrations, or maps. Fixed-length lines can be annoying. But these are minor quibbles, and pbooks have many of the same display issues – we’ve all read the cheap editions with tiny blurred text. And shoddy editing/proof-reading is no respecter of format.

I know I’ve skated over – or ignored entirely – what others might consider to me the most important issues, but I did say that this was going to be about me and my relationship with ebooks, and I must admit that I’ve written this primarily as a reader, not an information professional. This could be because, in my current role, I don’t really interact with ebooks professionally. Perhaps when I do, my feelings will change. But as a reader? yeah, I think I’m in love πŸ˜€

This post from Library Thing’s Thingology blog has had me thinking this week about my relationship with ebooks.

Two disclaimers:

  1. I love ebooks
  2. I hate ebooks

Yeah, I know – how totally uncontroversial. Doesn’t everyone have mixed feeling about ebooks? Does anyone love them unconditionally? Does anyone hate them with a rare and rabid passion? I suppose they must be out there…

So what do I love about ebooks? Well, first off, they’re books. They may not have all those fancy bits-of-paper-with-ink-on, but they contain words that tell stories. That’s good enough for me.

Secondly, they’re immediate. I’m a highly impatient person – I hate waiting for anything – and I’m completely hooked on the idea that if I want to read something *now*, I can. Ok, not everything is available as an ebook, but a suprising number are. Enought to keep me happy, anyway πŸ˜‰ True, it might cost me a lot to read it, but that’s the price of indulgence. And…

… thirdly: so may ebooks are free! It’s almost impossible to say just how much I love Project Gutenberg. It’s a source of constant delight to me. So many books! For free! And I can do whatever I want with them! (within certain limits). What’s really important for me is that Gutenberg ebooks are platform independent. I generally choose to read them in Word if I’m on my pc, and my phone has some good text readers for me to Gutenberg on the go. In fact, Gutenberg are making their texts available in loads of formats, that can be read on almost any device.

But it’s not just Gutenberg – there are loads of good, free ebooks sites. I’m not going to go into details about that here (oh, you insist? ok ;p ), but I will give a shout-out to the Internet Archive texts collection. Sometimes, I really do like the experience of seeing the book in its original layout, rather than robbed of some of their character – as they can be – when they are reduced to just text, and formatted/fonted to your preference.

One of the things I love most about free ebooks is the serendipity involved. I don’t buy new books very often, and when I do, it’s usually by an author I know I’ll like. Most of my reading experimentation is done in the library or the charity shop. But with free ebooks, you get the freedom to try something just because you like the title. I subscribe to the Gutenberg new books rss, and I’ll go through and tag the ones I like the look of. Then when I’m bored – instant reading list!

I know you do get the same kind of low-risk serendipity in libraries, but not to the same extent – certainly not with most public libraries. They’ll have a collection development policy, which will necessarily limit what you will find. The ebooks sites don’t have that – the Internet Archive explicitly states ‘This collection is open to the community for the contribution of any type of text’. This naturally creates a greater diversity (within the bounds of public domain texts, of course) – nothing is excluded, nothing is weeded. Nothing is on loan with a 4-month reserve list!

Before I leave free ebooks, I must mention Distributed Proofreaders, who provide most of the books for Project Gutenberg. Anyone can sign up to start proofreading texts, which have been scanned and OCRd. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Well, it is! I don’t know why, but I really enjoy it. You can choose which books you work on – some really dedicated DPers work on things in miniscule columns full of Latin and Greek and obscure scientific formulae. I work mainly on children’s books, with about 100 words to the page πŸ˜‰

It’s incredibly satisfying to feel that you’ve been a part of preserving this knowledge, and enabling its dissemination. I also like spotting errors (*ahem* librarian *ahem*), and puzzling out what words might be based on the context. Oddly enough, reading a few random pages of a book can be absolutely fascinating. I don’t do as much with DP as I should, but when I do make the time I love it, and vow to do more.

This has turned into a bit of a monster post, so I’ll save the hate (grr!) for part 2 (which means I have to remember to write it). A few more quick ‘things I love’:

  • Portability! Often mentioned, but the fact that I have about 100 hours of reading material on my phone – including War and Peace and 4 vols of Maupassant short stories – never fails to astound and delight me. And it’s always with me. I never used to leave the house without a paperback in my bag; now I’ll only take one for train journeys.
  • The fact that I can read ebooks while eating (assuming, as I do, that I generally eat in front of my computer) without having to juggle food and book, or concoct elaborate book-proppy-open devices. It’s on the screen – it doesn’t move, or close, or get obscured by gravy. And one finger will turn a page.
  • Left your book at home, and dying to spend lunchtime catching up with it? No problem! Just download another copy. This applies to most paid ebooks, as well as free ones – many (possibly all?) retailers allow multiple downloads of the same book. You may have to enter passwords or register a device ID, but you can get at it. And for those of us with story-addictions, that’s a great big plus.

Ok, that’s the love over. Ready for some hate? Part 2 will turn up some time after I get around to writing it πŸ˜‰

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