eBooks, eReaders, and why you need to keep up with the tech

eBooks, eReaders, and why you need to keep up with the tech

I would normally post something like this on my tech blog, but I feel like this is more of a writer issue than a tech issue, though tech is a big part of why I’m writing this post. I’ve been pondering this for a long time — and a few inklings have come out in past posts — but the recent resurgence of AmazonFail and the reactions to it made me think it was a good time to share my thoughts on this.

As many of you know, I work for a technology magazine and part of my job is to keep up on news about gadgets and another part is actually reviewing them. Because I have interest in books and am a fiction writer besides, I ended up as the go-to person for eReaders. Last month I covered eReaders at the Consumer Electronics Show and got to see several devices that will be on the market in the next few weeks and months. I must say, there are a LOT of eReaders out there, folks.

To go along with these eReaders, many companies are also setting up online bookstores, kind of like Sony did back in the day. However, there are some differences in the way things are now. First, almost every device coming to market will have the ability to read EPUB books. EPUB is becoming the standard eBook format (spearheaded by Sony), thus the books you want should be readable on the Nook or the iRiver Story or the Alex eReader regardless of where you buy them. In theory.

The logistics of this are a bit gray right now — for instance, it’s not clear if you can buy a book from Sony then load it on the Nook, or buy a book from Barnes & Noble then load it on the Alex. I chalk this up to the general messiness in the eBook area at the moment. Eventually these issues are going to have to be sorted out. In the meantime, a lot of the smaller eReader vendors/eBook sellers are touting that the titles you buy from them can be read on any device, though they’d be happy to sell you their own.

Contrast this with Amazon, whose eBook format is proprietary and therefore can only be read by Kindles and Kindle apps for smartphones and computers. If a Kindle owner decides they like the Nook better, they can say goodbye to their eBook collection. To be fair to Amazon (I know, I know, but bear with me) this was status quo for a long time in the eBook world. Sony only recently started selling EPUB books — before they had their own format for their own readers. And the EPUB as universal format is a fairly new movement. So naturally newer eReaders are poised to take advantage of it.

Regardless of what Amazon is doing, the rest of the industry, including Apple, is going with EPUB and building their own online eBookstores to sell them. Will all of these individual stores survive? Most likely not, especially if the devices they’re attached to don’t do well. It also depends on what the DRM situation is with books bought from bigger players like B&N. But I’m sure eventually some eBook selling entity will arise from all of this and become the default store multiple devices attach themselves to. iBook might be that store, or something scrappier will come along.

So, why is all of this important to you, the folks reading this who are likely to be writers and/or book industry professionals? It’s important because a big part of the future of eBooks isn’t being shaped by publishers and booksellers wrangling with each other over percentages, it’s going to be driven by the devices consumers choose to consume the books.

While I do not agree that the iPad will CHANGE EVERYTHING ZOMG and that it will destroy all stupid eReaders1, there are plenty of devices and technologies on the horizon that could change the landscape drastically within the next year or two. I’m talking way cooler than the iPad (and much more useful). Here’s a really brief overview:

alex eReaderAlex eReader — I only got a little bit of time to play with this device at CES but I liked what I saw a lot. (I should be getting a review unit soon.) This eReader has two screens — a 6-inch eInk display and an LCD display below it. It’s kind of like the Nook except the LCD screen is bigger like the kind you’d find on a smartphone. It runs Android like the Nook, but not locked down. So you can use it just like an Android phone — load apps, surf the web, email, IM, whatever — except without the phone part. Android is on everything these days, so it’s not unusual. The makers of the Alex hooked up with Borders recently, so that will be the default store.

Entourage eDGe — This is another dual-screen device, but it’s more of a combo tablet and eReader than a handheld device. A little smaller than most netbooks, the eDGe (no, that is not a typo) has a 9.7-inch electronic paper display on one side and a 10.1-inch LCD on the other. It also runs Android, and the two screens interact, so users can choose books or documents on the LCD, read them on the EPD, make notes or scribbles, click links in books or documents and have them load on the LCD, and much more. The eDGe is aimed mainly at the education market right now, but has some appeal to non-education and non-business users as well. Look for this to be a really excellent magazine platform.

Notion Ink Adam tablet — Remember how I talked about technologies that can change the landscape drastically? This device incorporates one of them. The Adam tablet is yet another Android device but it’s designed to be a multitasking tablet rather than just an eReader. How is that different from the iPad, you might ask? The difference is in the screen. It utilizes Pixel Qi’s dual mode display that goes from ePaper to full color at the touch of a button. Yep. Click the link, there’s video. This right here solves the problem most basic eReaders face — unitasking — and the problem tablets that want to be eReaders face — LCD eye burn out. It also runs Android, which means it can multitask. And it has a powerful chip inside so it can play hi-res video and complex games without breaking a sweat.

Qualcomm mirasol — This isn’t a device but rather a technology. Qualcomm has developed a type of display that uses ambient light to create color based on the mechanics of how butterfly wings work. This means they can create LCD-like displays that don’t strain the eye yet offer the same depth of color and clarity as LCD. In some cases, even better. They told me the first eReader with this display would be out by the fall, but I’m betting that the future of mirasol lies in tablets, and maybe one day in laptops2. This is another game-changer.

These four devices and technologies only represent a slice of what’s coming and what’s out there. There are a slew of eReaders either out or coming soon — Nook, iRiver Story, iRex DG 800, Plastic Logic Que, Skiff, PocketBook 360, Sony Readers (Pocket, Touch, Daily) — and a slew of tablets on the horizon — Lenovo IdeaPad U1, Eee Pad, MSI dual-screen, Archos 5, Dell Mini 5 — I seriously can’t name them all without getting boring. The point is, the landscape is rich right now. And it’s a really exciting time for writers and publishers, especially indie publishers and writers with some control over their own eBook rights, but only if you pay attention and starting thinking right now about ways to take advantage.

You don’t have to know the intricacies of it all nor obsessively follow tech blogs for the next new thing3. Just take the time to be aware of what’s out there and what options it opens up for you in terms of publishing or offering your content.

Writers, know where your publisher is putting your eBooks. Is it just Amazon? Just Amazon and B&N? Will people with any kind of EPUB reading devices be able to access them? Let your readers know. If you’re with a smaller press that gives more individual attention, ask them to look in to the smaller bookstores and devices you find. It may not be the right move for them, but at least you’ll know that options have been explored. If you’ve got the e-rights to your backlist titles or other eBook-able material, investigate these places for yourself. They may give you a far better rate than Amazon’s DTP.

I cannot stress enough how much I hope that SF magazines are paying attention to all of this. Being online isn’t enough. Hell, just having an iPhone app isn’t enough. You want a wider audience for your fiction, want to get more people reading the awesome stories you publish? Make it easy for them to get it. I would pay money for a free online magazine if it had an eBook version that downloaded directly to my eReader every week or month. I am not alone in this.

Plus, there are about to be a lot of people with new, cool devices that are going to go to the eMagazine “shelves” on their devices to look for new things to read. Do you know how many eMagazines are in the B&N eBook store right now? Eleven. Yes. More are coming soon as more content partners get involved, but still, this is a good opportunity for standing out and getting noticed. Also check out non-proprietary¬†outfits like PressDisplay.

Publishers, there is a world out there outside of Amazon. Yes, they’re a huge online bookstore and you absolutely can’t ignore them. Just don’t ignore everyone else, either. I don’t think Amazon owns the future of eBooks, and they certainly don’t own the future on eReaders. Not yet, at least.

This got very long, sorry, so I’ll end by saying this: I’m really lucky that I have a job that allows me to combine my interest in the future of reading ¬†and publishing with my love of cool gadgets. The stuff I’m seeing is so amazing, and I’m really excited about how it has the potential to get people reading more or reading at all. I hope you are, too. One of the reason I wrote this post is because I was starting to be afraid that people didn’t know how wide and exciting the landscape was. The iPad is only so-so compared to the other stuff out there, and the Kindle’s limitations are about to bite Amazon in the butt. I hope you’re excited for the future — hell, the present — as much as I am and choose to engage with and become part of it.


  1. The reasons for this are many, but it boils down to this: eInk screens were invented for a reason. And no matter how much some people think it won’t be a big deal to read a book on an LCD screen because they spend all day in front of one, I bet they change their tune the first time they attempt reading full screen black text on a white background and nothing else. []
  2. That depends on price, of course. []
  3. Though following our blog wouldn’t hurt ;) []

11 thoughts on “eBooks, eReaders, and why you need to keep up with the tech

  1. I think you are making short shrift of the DRM aspect. Currently, each one of those ePub readers has a different DRM scenario. To say I can buy a book at the B&N store and use it on the Alex is disingenuous at best.
    I don’t know how this will all play out (the DRM aspect). I’d be curious to read your thoughts on this.

    1. Actually, that’s not true. Most of the eReaders I’ve seen that can read EPUB work with Adobe Digital Editions, which is part of how the DRM is managed. Therefore buying the eBook isn’t as device-specific as Amazon.

      The DRM restrictions are not likely to be device-based but store based, which means you’ll be able to buy books from any store you choose.

      1. So how exactly would that work of o bought a book at the b&n bookstore and then wanted to use it on my Sony book reader? How would I get it from one to the other without this opening it to being pirated?

  2. This is awesome–thank you! I’m in the market for an eReader, and the Kindle, Nook, and Sony all have serious drawbacks. I did like what I’ve seen of the BeBook Neo, and the Alex is intriguing–I’ll be interested in seeing what you think once you get your review copy.

  3. I think many people overestimate the hurdle of reading on an LCD screen. Most of my online consumption is “full screen black text on a white background” or similar, and I honestly don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Furthermore, I am not alone; fanfiction would not be the booming hobby that it is if people had to print it all out. Sure, a few here and there will, but most of us read as much or more onscreen as paper books, and today I got actively annoyed at reading a glossy magazine page in comparison.

    1. Which is not to say that all this isn’t pretty cool, I especially thought the Qualcomm one was interesting and I may have to look up more of that. Sorry if I came off as argumentative earlier; I like learning about eReaders!

  4. Thanks for this – I hadn’t heard of Notion Ink Adam or Qualcomm mirasol before, but I’m hugely intrigued by what they can do. Depending on what else the devices are capable of, I’ll probably be a customer this time next year.

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