Sunday, May 15, 2011

Essay: eBooks and What Matters

Context is very important. Last week, I came across two seemingly-contradictory articles, at least if we only read the headlines and the first few paragraphs: E-Readers Fail At Education and iPad Study Released by Oklahoma State University. To sum up both articles: one showcases how ineffective eBook readers are, while the other praises the iPad.

Over the past few months, I've migrated from reading eBooks on a computer to an iPod Touch to a cheap eBook reader to an iPad. While my conclusions is based on personal experience, I think it gives me leeway to extrapolate on the subject.

The Reader Matters

Whenever there is a discussion, I think it's important to nail down who the reader is. It's not simply about the demographic, classified by age or profession or degree, but who they are as individuals. Are they open to reading on a computer screen? LCD or e-Paper? How tech-savvy are they? Any medical handicaps that may impede (or in some cases, benefit) from using an eBook reader? (I also want to point out how these questions are framed from the assumption that paper is the default and theoretically best method.)

That's not to say these details are easy to consolidate and present in a report, especially as a statistic, but when it comes to individual choices of whether to use an eBook reader or not, I think these are essential questions which can't be covered by a generic recommendation.

The Book Matters

I've been in a reading slump as of late but there have usually been two motivators for me when it comes to reading books on an electronic device--and this element isn't stated often.

The first is how badly do I want to read this book? I'm a genre reader from the Philippines so book scarcity--whether it's a supply problem (not available here) or a finances problem (it's available but it's not within my budget)--is a genuine problem. If eBooks can overcome those problems, my desire to read a particular book can possibly overcome any anti-eBook bias I might have. I don't think this is constant rule, but just as we make exceptions to various standard responses, I think a book that's compelling enough to the reader might make us "put up" with eBook readers, no matter how sub-optimal it might be.

Related to this is the content: reading on an electronic device is compelling because the writing is good, rather than because of the medium. Similarly, it might be an unpleasant experience because the writing is terrible. I think what often doesn't get asked is whether the text is unwieldy because of the text itself, rather than the fact that it's an eBook.

The Device Matters

I've held a Kindle. I've used an iPad. The two are completely different reading experiences. And those aren't the only options: personal computers, tablets, mobile phones, and various eBook readers. Sometimes, even the lines are blurred (is the Nook a tablet or a dedicated eBook reader?). Businesswire's coverage of the iPad is focused and presents us with all the necessary variables ("The most important consideration is the device must be truly integrated. Simply distributing the device without evaluation of how the course might be modified for its use limits the impact."). Fast Company, on the other hand, generalizes Kindle as a representative for all eBook readers (it's not).

Here's my story: I bought an iPod Touch. It's portable and I carry it everywhere. I love reading ePubs on it. PDFs--which happens to be most of my collection--not so much. I bought a generic eBook reader. It was slow. I read one book with it--and it's a book I really really loved--and then gave it away. I bought an iPad. It's perfect for PDFs. I easily sneak in time to read on an iPad.

Not all devices are created equal, and there are other variables at play as well (see below).

The Format Matters

There is also the format question, and it's a very important question, especially as you move from genre to genre, or depending on what your eBook is designed to do.

On a fundamental level, bad design can ruin an eBook. It can be improper formatting or simply an inelegant presentation of a book in an electronic medium (which can be the case with text books and other, fancier eBooks such as this).

Another way is the story I mentioned above: on a small device like an iPod Touch, I prefer ePub. For an iPad, whatever reservations I had for PDFs are nonexistent (of course it has to be said that other people dislike PDFs even on an iPad).

Much like Fast Company's assumption that all eBook readers are Kindles, we also need to take into consideration the various formats and its correlation with eBooks. eBooks isn't just ePub. Or PDF. Or Mobi. Or Docs. There's a plethora of formats out there and it does impact the reading experience.

The Price Matters

While some options are clearly superior to others (again, relative to the user; for me an iPad is superior to the Kindle but that's not the case for everyone), this is mitigated by practical concerns such as economics. For example, I think iPads are great in the academe... except most students here won't be able to afford it. I just bought an iPad and it's easily twice my monthly salary, if not more. Print, especially in countries outside of the US/UK (where English eBooks are at its peak), is simply more efficient and practical due to sheer economics.

1 comment:

michael said...

You raise good points. My Kindle is excellent for reading fiction and marginal for PDFs or books that need to integrate text and graphics. My wife's iPad has the advantage of rendering PDFs well and can display books in the most popular formats. It will play embedded video and audio and serves many other uses. It sucks under a bright sun, where a printed book or e-ink do fine.

I can slip my Kindle in a jacket pocket. The iPad is both too large and too heavy for that use. I tried out a Color Nook and found it slow. I'm hopeful that the next version will be better.

The ideal platform hasn't been created yet, but we already have some great choices that make it possible to carry an entire library in one device. It's an exciting time for to be a book enthusiast.