Six Unusal Free eBooks On My Reading List

The Sony eBook ReaderThe thing about blogging is that it tends to steal bits of your time away from daily activities, if you let it. And I’ve been letting it run rampant. Happily though, in my situation, it seems to mostly be cannibalizing my TV time, which is wasted time anyway. But unfortunately it has also been sneaking bites out of my reading time.

Now that my wife has read all the things she’s interested in reading on my Sony Reader (meaning I can use it again), I plan to reclaim some of that time. As an incentive to get myself reading again, I’ve picked a list of the most random, intriguing and off-the-wall books I could find for free on ManyBooks.

Here, more or less in the order I’ve found them, are my selections:

Trapped by Malays by George Manville Fenn – From what I can gather, this is a turn of the (last) century English colonial adventure story that takes place on the Malay peninsula (probably somewhere in modern day Malaysia). News and stories about Malaysia are few and far between where I live now, and I always make a point to check out anything I come across relating to my wife’s home. (I always have to chuckle whenever I hear the word “Malays”, it sounds just like “malaise“. It’s an almost irresistible call for a witty pun. Almost. :) )

The Practical Distiller by Samuel McHarry – As the subtitle to the books says, it’s “An Introduction To Making Whiskey, Gin, Brandy, Spirits, &c. &c. of Better Quality, and in Larger Quantities, than Produced by the Present Mode of Distilling, from the Produce of the United States.” Sounds like a must read for anybody interested in making a bit of moonshine or bathtub gin! This will be especially interesting to me because my friends took me on a tour of an Oregon distillery as part of my recent all-day bachelor party. (Eat your heart out, I got to try a little somethin’ right from the still! “Mmmm… this tastes like blindness!” :D )

King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain by H. Rider Haggard – These are the books that inspired the Allan Quatermain character in the truly unfortunate movie The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. If one thing positive can be said for that movie, it forever locked Sean Connery in my head as Allan Quatermain, which can only help make these books more fun to read.

The Hacker’s Dictionary by Eric S. Raymond – This is the youngest book on this list, being a mere 15 years old (1992) as of this writing. It also has the chance of being a book that is impossible to read in the conventional sense, if it truly is a dictionary. However, I’m gonna take a stab at it, and I may just fire up the movie Hackers (1995) to get me in the mood. (The most up to date version of this book can also be found online here, under the name The Jargon File).

The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey – All I can say is that it’s hard to pass up a title like that. Based on the excerpt listed with it, it could be a pompous, insufferable read. If it is, I hope it will so bad that its actually makes a good, but unitentional, comedy. Based on the wikipedia page dedicated to the book, it was considered both “taboo” during its Victoria era context, due at least in part to the description of Mr. De Quincey’s opium trips in great detail. Perhaps it will be a pretentious R-rated Alice in Wonderland?

If any of these sound interesting to you, check ‘em out. Maybe we can compare notes later. And if you do enjoy them, consider making a small donation to ManyBooks. I plan to. They really provide an awesome service to eBooks fans. Happy reading!

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Are eBooks Actually Cheaper?

The Sony eBook ReaderIn previous posts, I’ve done a pretty good job of putting together a solid, if not slightly biased collection of information on the Sony Reader. I’ll admit it, I’m a borderline fanboy, I really enjoy my Sony Reader. I think they’re great, and I really hope it will be phenomenally successful. What’s in it for me? Greater availability of eBooks, at more competitive prices. I don’t get any kick-backs from Sony to hype the reader, I just genuinely think its a fun product in spite of its flaws. (At least I don’t get kick-backs yet. Sony, baby, let’s talk! 8) )

In an attempt to be a bit more objective and helpful to the steady flow of visitors looking for information on the Sony Reader, I’ve decided to investigate the accuracy of much-touted 20% discount on eBooks sold through the Sony eBook store. For comparison, I’ve selected Amazon.com. This is both because it’s really convenient, and because people who buy eBooks have likely purchased books from Amazon in the past.

Title Amazon Sony Savings %
The Secret $13.17 $13.59 -$0.42 -3.18%
The Tipping Point $8.97 $7.99 $0.98 10.92%
Freakonomics $16.77 $15.96 $0.81 4.83%
Einstein $19.20 $13.59 $5.61 29.21%
The Road $8.97 $7.96 $1.01 11.25%
Running with the Demon $7.99 $5.59 $2.40 30.03%
Wikinomics $16.35 $20.76 -$4.41 -26.97%
Step On a Crack $17.63 $14.39 $3.24 18.37%
Simple Genius $14.84 $15.19 -$0.35 -2.35%
The World Is Flat $16.50 $12.00 $4.50 27.27%
Getting Things Done $8.99 $12.00 -$3.01 -33.48%
Where Have All the Leaders Gone? $15.00 $13.59 $1.41 9.40%
 
Summary: $164.38 $152.61 $11.77 7.16%

I’m being honest here, I had no idea how this was going to turn out. (I was pulling for the Reader, but I was prepared to eat crow.) I selected books based mostly on name/cover recognition, assuming that books I recognize are likely to be books people are interested in buying. To improve my chances of being correct, I picked my books from the Amazon’s and Sony’s lists of best sellers. I have, of course, excluded books that are not yet available through the Sony Connect eBook store. I also tried to pick a few books that have been around a while but have solid name recognition. At least a few books on this list are now in paper back. Shipping costs have been excluded from consideration, but will alter the results for single book purchases in favor of Sony.

So based on my semi-scientific, semi-objective list, on average, it is to your advantage to buy eBooks from the Sony store. :D If you bought the entire list from the Sony store, you’d spend $152.61, saving $11.77 or 7.16% compared with a $164.38 Amazon purchase. (So much for the reported 20% savings.) What’s really interesting is that it is more expensive to buy from Sony in some cases. For example, for the privilege of having a digital copy of the book, you pay an extra $3.01 for Getting Things Done and $4.41 for Wikinomics. Clearly, if you were interested in just one of those books, your best bet is to buy it through Amazon (depending on how much you pay for shipping). If you were able to find Amazon prices for either of these in your local book shop, you’d clearly be ahead.

So what’s the bottom line? If you’re expecting the Sony Reader to pay for itself, you’d have to buy $21,875 worth of books to break even. If the average book is price is $12.72 (it is in this list), that means you’d need to buy roughly 1720 books. So I think it’s safe to say that the Sony Reader will never pay for itself based on purchases of bestsellers, at least for most people. (Of course, these figures do not take into consideration the volume eBooks available for free through sources like ManyBooks.net.)

OK, Brian, so why buy it? You need to buy this because you love to read. And because you love cool, compact gadgets that store a ton of stuff. If you’re looking for cost effectiveness, you need to either not buy it or take a chance at finding a deal on eBay. Or you could wait and see if the price comes down. I think it will, but I have nothing to base that on.

My previous posts on the Sony Reader:

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Why eBooks Are Bound to Reign Supreme

The Sony eBook ReaderMike Elgan clearly didn’t read my post on the Sony Reader before he wrote his Computer World article Why e-books are bound to fail. (Side note: Don’t you just hate it when they split an article across several linked pages? Is that crap usability or what?) I’m nailing at least 20 page views a day at this point, so you’d think he’d have heard the news: My wife is carrying on a love affair with my Sony Reader.

My wife is not some silly Sony Reader fangirl; in fact she kept trying to talk me out of buying it. Nor does she have advanced technical prowess. She’s capable with word, excel and an internet browser. And yet in spite of her lack of slide rule aptitude, she curls up every night with my Sony Reader. Yep, Mr. Elgan, she curls up with it. It’s actually a surprisingly easy thing to do. I thought you’d like to hear about it, as you twice mentioned your doubts on the “curling up” scenario.

Of course my wife’s behavior is purely anecdotal, but then so is the example of one book being only $1.25 cheaper on ebooks.com than Amazon. Many books are free on websites like ManyBooks.net. Free beats any price you can find on Amazon. Of course, many of these free texts are classics, but classics are heavily read each year by both students and literature junkies.

As the price of the hardware comes down (and it will), a few lingering quirks are worked out (OK, there’s more than a few), and more eBooks become available at competitive prices. I absolutely believe you will begin to see eBook Readers take off. It already has in the technically-savvy bookworm community. The reduced price will help it spread into the academic and business/road warrior community, and eventually into the non-technical, novel reading community.

And even if I’m wrong, it’s only a matter of time before the feature creep of mobile phones, MP3 players and PDA’s expands to include improved eBook reading features. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of eInk. It’s too revolutionary. While you might be correct in the sense that none of current line of readers will become the next iPod, eBook readers are not going away.

UPDATE: I originally wrote this most of this post last night, and in a great ironic twist, I found my wife curled up with an analog reader. Yeah, a paper book. I was shocked. I asked her why she wasn’t hogging my reader. She said there “weren’t any nice books left on it.” She had polished off Infidel and The Science of Getting Rich (the original The Secret) and wasn’t interested in reading my Allan Quatermain novels. Looks like Sony will be getting a few more bucks from me soon.

UPDATE 2: I think I’ve found my next purchase. Chuck Palahniuk (a Portland/Pacific Northwest Author!) has a new book Rant on the Sony ebook website.

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The Sony Reader: Too Good For Me To Use

The Sony eBook ReaderMan I just love a title that leaves you thinking, “what the hell is he talking about?!” If you’ve read this blog very long, you’ve already realized that. Anyway, what I mean is that the Sony eBook Reader is such a great gadget, and so much like reading a book (sometimes better because it’s so light) that my wife has stolen it from me.

That’s right. To steal a term from my friend and technology uber-guru Scott Hanselman, the WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) is off-the-charts high. As you know, it’s usually very difficult to get your wife to OK the purchase of a new gadget, especially if it causes any redundancy with any the stuff you already have. Occasionally, you’ll get a grudging acknowledgment that something was worth getting. (I’m still waiting on that for the killer 5-day wireless weather forecaster I bought a week or so ago… these things take time…) But you almost never get the kind of response I got to the Sony Reader… She’s taken it, and won’t give it back!

Ok, since I tagged this post as a review, let’s get to what I think about it in more useful detail.

What I Like About the Reader:

  • My wife loves it. This makes it very easy to buy eBooks for it. It just makes it difficult to read them.
  • It’s very easy to read. In fact, reading it is like reading a book. I know this because I still catch myself reaching up to the corner of the reader to flip the page. Because of the marvels of eInk, you can read it at virtually any angle, as long as you have a light on. (It isn’t backlit, but there’s a reason for that…)
  • It’s very light. The reader is smaller and lighter than most hardback books. Though it isn’t small enough to fit into a normal shirt pocket, it fits easily into a medium sized purse (WAF again) or a backpack.
  • The battery lasts forever. Seriously, this thing goes for weeks without needing a recharge. I find myself uploading books and accidentally recharging it before I can use up the battery. (This was sort of annoying when I was waiting to see what the I’ve-Run-Out-Of-Juice behavior was like.) Part of what allows it to last this long is that it is not backlit, and it only uses power when you turn pages. I haven’t used the MP3 abilities for this yet (other than to test that it worked), so the mileage for sound will likely be less.
  • eBooks are cheaper than regular books. Sometimes they’re free! The Sony Connect eBook store has a selection of eBooks that is lacking in some areas (some popular authors and topics are completely missing or under represented), but it is improving. The books it does have, which include many new and bestseller selections is typically 20% cheaper than the physical book and even more discount for older titles. Of course, that’s if you even buy any books. There are a ton of free, Sony Reader formatted books available on ManyBooks.net for download. There are so many, in fact, that I’ll be probably won’t need to actually buy a book until next year. And no, it isn’t just old Sherlock Holmes novels. (Though there are quite a few of them, aren’t there?)
  • You can read RTF and text documents. I love being able to grab a huge hunk of text, an article I want to read later, or some online book, and save it as a RTF document (easy to do with Microsoft Word) or a text document. (I actually do this a lot more often than you might expect.) This also has the potential to very handy for anyone in transit that needs to get up to speed on project documentation.
  • You can read blogs on it. You can’t see it online, but the software that comes with the reader allows you to download the latest from 20 different popular blogs including Lifehacker, WiredNews, and Engadget. Many are disappointed by this limitation, but I only read blogs on my reader when I’m flying some place, so it’s not a big deal to me. However, there is a tool out there that many people aren’t aware of named Web2book (originally RSS2book) which allows you to convert any feed into a format readable on the Sony Reader.
  • Multiple bookmarks in multiple books (and blogs too). Bookmarking is an essential feature of the Sony Reader, as it does not give you a method jumping to a specific page. (It does do a good job of remembering your last place in each book you’ve opened, even if you don’t bookmark it, which is nice.) Apparently, you can have as may as you want, I’ve had several pages worth of bookmarks in a single book with even more bookmarks in other books. Handily, it will let you view all your bookmarks in all your books at once, or by individual book.

What I Don’t Like About the Reader:

  • My wife loves it. She’s usually already got it during my prime reading time (i.e. just before bed), which means I’m stuck with the old school paper format.
  • The sad “Connect Reader” software that comes with it. The program responsible for transferring files from your PC to the Sony Reader really wants to be something slick, like iTunes. But the interface breaks so many usability standards, leaving you confused and irritated until you get used to it. When I first started using it, I kept “ejecting” the reader from the application when I was trying to upload files. Actually downloading RSS feeds is a bit of a puzzle too.
  • No search capability. That’s right, you can’t search for a word or a phrase at all. Which means the Reader provides no advantage over traditional books for people needing to read a lot of reference material. Linking inside an eBook is possible (some books have a linked table of contents), so in theory, and index in the back of the book would become easier to use.
  • No jump-to-page functionality. The Reader badly needs a way for the user to jump specifically to a page number. It does allow you to move in percentages through the book by using a set of 10 buttons along the lower side of the screen, but how often do you need to jump 60% into a book? (I have a feeling that this may be in the works, its seems to be the single beef I see the most mentioned around the internet.)
  • Poor PDF support. There are a lot of eBooks and documentation out there in PDF format, and the Sony Reader’s PDF support is really poor. It basically takes the PDF and shrinks it to fit the Reader’s screen. That may not sound bad, but if the PDF is designed to be printed on an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper, it means your 12 point font becomes a 7 point font. Even worse if there are borders. Unless the PDF was designed properly for the Reader’s smaller screen, you won’t be able to read it without a magnifying glass. (There is a rumor that you get better results trying to read PDF’s in landscape mode, but I’ve never tried this… feel free to comment if you have! :) )

What I Just Don’t Care About:

  • The reader’s audio playback. It’s not an MP3 player. And I usually don’t listening to music when I’m reading. I can see this as potentially being OK for listening to audio books when your eyes get tired, but there are a ton of itty-bitty MP3 players out there, get one of those.
  • The picture quality. It’s not a photo album, and does anybody really want to read a comic book in grayscale? (Unless of course, it was in black and white to begin with…) I guess it’s nice to keep a picture of the wife, kids and dog when you’re away on business, but that’s about as far as that goes for me.

UPDATE: Who This Gadget is For:

I just scanned this post again, and it felt like it needed a bit of guidance as to who would most enjoy this gadget, and who would find it disappointing and overpriced. It’s pretty simple (no need for bullet points), this gadget is for people who like to read books that are the cover-to-cover, front-to-back. People who read mostly comic or art books will likely find the display disappointing and those that want to store a bunch of reference books will find it hard to navigate quickly. (There are very few technical books available for the reader anyway.)

I think it’s incorrect to say that this is only for people who like to read “the classics” (which are free, and worth reading), this is just as much for anyone who likes to read the latest Chrichton book or best-selling self help tome.

And I’ll say it again, this isn’t a gadget for somebody who might read books, but is really looking for an MP3 player or a picture frame.

Some Other Sony eBook Reader Resources:

In case I sold you on the reader, or have gotten you a bit more interested in it, here is some more information you can check out.

And for the cigar enthusiasts, I did a quick search for cigars on the eBook store and they do have the Idiots Guide to Cigars and a book about Ulysses S. Grant called Cigars, Whiskey & Winning. Not the best selection, I know, but it beats the heck out of the borders down the street (which has none).

UPDATE: I did some poking around, and I did find a bit more information that will be useful to Sony Reader users, or people thinking about buying one. The MobileRead Wiki entry for the Sony Reader is jam-packed with great information, including some useful stats on the proper size of a reader-friendly PDF. As well as a guide to creating PDFs from Sony. Check ‘em out!

UPDATE 2: I found another option for people needing to convert unusable PDFs to something Reader-friendly. The MobileRead wiki also has a page dedicated to eBook conversion. On it there’s a utility that specializes in converting PDFs to other formats, including text and word documents (which you can then convert to RTF). It’s not free, and I’ve never tried it, but it something to consider trying if you have a lot of PDFs you want to read.

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