Why I Don’t Buy ebooks Anymore

First of all, full disclosure: I own a Kindle. It is registered with my partner’s Amazon account, but we share it and I do most of the reading on it since I travel more often. I know the inherent issues with DRM and Kindles but this post is about the topic more generally.

I’m going to tell you why I do not buy ebooks anymore.

1. Lack of DRM visibility

Mako brought this up in a quick post a couple of weeks ago which I won’t repeat other than saying: Since I am unable to tell which ebooks I’m buying are encumbered with DRM I am in a situation where I don’t even know which ebooks fall into the category of those I’m willing to buy. I am a sharer and love to share good books with friends. If I can’t even legally share/lend a book that I have read with a friend, then I won’t buy the book.

2. Inferior product to physical books
“Why ebooks are only for novels”

Ebooks are, by definition, electronic books. They can be read on an ebook reader (Kindle, Nook, etc) or on some other computing device (phone, laptop, desktop, whatever will run the software). All of these devices have a mechanism where by the reader can interact with the text. This is usually through at least a few buttons. On ebook readers there are special purpose-built buttons for things like turning the pages but there is also normally some method of doing general navigation (like scrolling, selecting from a list, etc). Thus, ebooks are able of being interacted with in much the same way we interact with other electronic content.

BUT! We can’t.

My example is a great book I’m reading by David Graeber called Debt: The First 5000 Years. It is a ~500 page book with endnotes and bibliography. He’s an academic, so he makes use of those endnotes. There are actually a few layers of wrongness here.

A) Academic books should not use end-of-book notes (where the notes are after the end of the book). That way I don’t have to use two bookmarks to read a book. Right now, with Debt, you can watch me on the Caltrain in the morning flipping back and forth between page 150 and 400. This is a total waste of time. Especially so when the end-of-book notes are made up of both extra content/asides and simple citations (eg: Graeber, 2008).

B) Simple citations such as “end of the sentence (Graeber 2008).” should be in-line. They don’t take up much room and are easy to read past quickly and ignore if you don’t care.

C) Academic books should use footnotes (notes at the bottom of the page), not even endnotes (where the notes are at the end of the chapter). This way I can most efficiently read what the note says. No page flipping just a quick glance down and there we are, done. With endnote or end-of-book notes I have to flip a bunch of pages forward, look for a number that I forgot, flip back to where I was, get the number, flip back to the endnotes, find the number, read the note, then go back to where I was.

On this point, David Graeber even agrees with me.

D) This applies doubly so to ebook versions. If I were to read Debt on the Kindle I would probably ragequit within 5 minutes. How am I supposed to deal with end-of-book notes on a Kindle? Sure, I can use the buttons on the kindle to move a cursor down along the left to the correct line, then move it over to the right to the correct endnote number, then select, read it, then hit back to get where I was. That actually isn’t horrible but it is surprisingly slow. Simply moving the cursor down and over takes a long time given the response time of the Kindle.

This may be fixed with newer Kindles. I have a 3rd Generation Kindle.

This would be fixed if they simply added in a small amount of logic to the text display engine that puts the relevant footnotes at the bottom of the current screen.

Academic book publishers should:

  • A) Tell me if they impose DRM.
  • B) Don’t use DRM, of course :)
  • C) Use footnotes at the bottom of the current page.
  • D) Profit!

Yep. If I can find good academic oriented books that follow those two rules, I’ll purchase them (lots of them) for my ereader.

My good friend Molly just posted about how she also is sad about academic ebooks in her post “citing from the kindle.”

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  1. My fiancee just published a new book on smashwords (shameless plug):

    It does not have DRM, becasue Smashwords doesn’t do it:

  2. I use an EBook reader and find it very useful for containing all my academic notes, but it does have the failings you describe and more – no margin notes, no page recognizability, system-imposed document sequence, no sub-folders, etc.

    However, every book and academic paper I use is free of DRM code (whether or not the originator intended it) in plain text, ePub and PDF formats.

    On the PC I can freely grep and pdfgrep my way to half-remembered citations and script a reading list or reference list with ease. I so wish the EBook reader had similar across-document search. A little text-to-speech would be nice too.

    The hardware, however, is a wonder and I can see immense potential in continuing to store my mass of paperwork in this technology as it matures.

  3. Actually, there’s a few answers:

    1) Deal with companies you trust to not put DRM on their ebooks. O’Reilly, Apress, and Packt are technical publishers that do not use DRM for their eBook offerings. There are plenty of tabletop game publishers that don’t even watermark their PDFs (Steve Jackson Games and Posthuman Studios, among others).

    And Baen books is still the premiere cadre of badass science fiction publishers who not only understand eBook publishing ins’t a threat, but have fully embraced it. If you like their brand of sci-fi, I can think of no other publisher out there who truly “gets it”.

    Here’s some of their eBook CDROMs, freely available, with the blessing of the publisher.

    One quick way to determine if there’s DRM: If they mention Adobe Digital Editions ANYWHERE, it’s a good sign that what you’re about to buy is DRM encumbered.

    2) I’ve not had to deal with footnotes, but I’d point to lazy encoding on the part of the publisher over problems with the format itself. ePub and mobi can handle linking, so problems with citations and footnotes are the fault of the publisher not doing due diligence to get things right.

    3) epub files which aren’t DRM-fucked are just a collection of XML in a zip file, like ODF files. I don’t see any reason why they can’t be searched.

    I blame the publishers for most of the failings of the eBook platform. The hardware and delivery methods are pretty solid, but it’s up to the major publishers to recognize that they’re delivering a weak product.

  4. Take a look at the work of Edward Tufte. He uses a wide margin for sidenotes, images and citations. I find this style even more readable than citations in footnotes.

    Oh and by the way, there is tufte-latex which tries to resemble tuftes typesetting.

  5. @Jörn: That’s great! But I think that only really works for physical paper. On an ereader, space is so valuable that I don’t think people would want a 1/3 of their screen (horizontally) “wasted” the whole time for the footnotes.

  6. […] Why I Don’t Buy ebooks Anymore […]

  7. I find footnotes quite usable in ePub books. There is a number of such books where you can go by link to a page with a comment/reference and then go back via backlink.

    I mostly read academic books in Russian and all English papers/book I read were in pdf (unfriendly format to ebook reader).

    So the only example of good quality ePub with footnotes I know is Lord of The Rings in Harper-Collins edition. Not an academic book of course. Since you don’t buy books, I can only give you a torrent link: [deleted by admin]

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