It’s been over two years now since I first starting writing about electronic books and e-book readers on my blog. At the 2006 introduction of Sony’s reader, I was concerned that the “long tail” of niche and out-of-print content was being ignored in favor of making the latest John Grisham best sellers available on an inferior platform:
Sony should quickly reposition the Reader by striking deals with Google and as many publishers as possible to get out-of-print and niche books available online in a proper format. The device would also be great for reading blog posts, news feeds and other web content offline. Sony should add features to its software to highlight that use and make it it one-click simple (like subscribing to podcasts on iTunes).
In January 2007, I got excited about Google’s bookscanning project as a possible supplier of exactly the kind of hard-to-find content I wanted.
But for the past few years, the book scanning project and Google’s resulting book search engine turned out to be more than a little disappointing. For one thing, until the recent blockbuster deal with publishers, there was no way to access most of the books in the search index without visiting a university library that might be thousands of miles away and/or not allow access to the general public.
Even more annoying, out-of-copyright books were only available as PDF files or in a PDF-like display in your web browser. That made it difficult to read the books on your computer, impossible to load them onto an ebook reader and horrendous for printing out. Even though the copyright had completely expired and the works were in the public domain, there was no good way to read them.
In the meantime, Amazon came out with its very fine Kindle reader, which you might notice allows access to hundreds of thousands of books still in copyright, plus thousands of free older books on the Internet, plus one-click access to blogs, newspapers and magazines for reading even while offline. Just what I was asking for!
Now it’s time for the next wave. The other day, just minutes after I was despairing about the Kindle’s lack of progress and improvement, Amazon announced it had a big announcement to make on Monday, February 9. Looks like an improved Kindle is on the way. Then Google Books unveiled a new feature allowing you to read books in an unformatted text version instead of just the less than great PDF-y way. And today, the New York Times reports that Amazon is making deals to offer Kindle-formatted books on a variety of mobile phone platforms. A-list blogger and publisher Rex Hammock and I have gone back and forth a couple of times about whether Kindle or the iPhone will triumph in the realm of e-books but maybe the real answer is “both.”
Here’s what a free copy of Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Tom Sawyer looks like under the new plain text formatting. Note that Google is using optical character recognition software to produce this format, so there are a few spelling glitches:
Further comments from around the web:
jkOnTheRun points out one flaw in the new Google mobile format: “There’s also the offline factor: you can’t read the titles in Google’s library without a connection. Commercial platforms only need a connection to initially download content.”
Marshall Kilpatrick at ReadWriteWeb is perusing the available non-fiction: “The business and economics section is a charming selection of very old books. You have to remember that only works old enough to be in the public domain can be viewed in full for free, but if you can accept that then there’s lots of fun to be had.”
(AMP adds: A bit too much is being made of the Google plain text library for mobile phones. This is mainly out-of-copyright stuff and I would say that the few tens of thousands of such books that people most want to read, like Tom Sawyer, have long been available from other sources like Manybooks.net in formats that work with Kindles, iPhones etc. This horrid PCWorld coverage doesn’t even mention that the Google books are limited to out-of-copyright)
Russell Buckley on Mobhappy says the book search needs better…search: “Anyway, back to Book Search. Strangely, given the parent of the project, the one main criticism I have of it is that it’s actually not very good for ummm…searching for a book – or displaying its wares for discovery either.”