Saturday, October 16, 2010

My Slow Conversion to eReaders

Commuting on the train the other day, I had the (stereotypical) technological divide between two generations right in front of me: to my right, an older gentleman (older than me, at least), reading a thick paperback. To my left, a young lady holding her Blackberry with one hand and her eReader in the other. I guess I was somewhere in between, age-wise and technologically, listening to FM radio on my cellphone (LG has made it impossible for me to download MP3s).

Trying not to stare at the young lady's eReader (lest I be accused of being a little creepy), I started to realize, probably very late by some people's standards, how popular eReaders are becoming. Visiting my favorite websites has left me largely immune to eReader advertisements. The odd television commercial I have seen for the Kindle has left me lukewarm.

Starting in October, I started commuting to work by train. After being isolated in my car for so many commutes over the years, I was now standing or sitting next to people with eReaders; posters for eReaders abound near the train doors. Now with more free time during my commute, I start thinking: maybe an eReader wouldn't be so bad.

A few thoughts entered my mind:
  • What about my hard copy books? (Ah, my perfect timing - I purchased a number of books from eBay this past year.)
  • What about the long tail of niche titles that Amazon and other online book sellers catered to?
  • What will the impact of eReaders be on the Content Management industry?
My Books - Now and in the Future

I have purchased a number of older books - mostly foreign and out-of-print titles. If I buy an eReader, I worry that I will become enamored with a new gadget at the expense of reading all of these books that can last me for at least a couple of years. Is digitizing all of these books an option? Legally, I believe the answer is no - even photocopying books 20 years ago violated copyright laws. Invariably, however, I think this is where we are heading - provided the technology is there.

I have bought a number of CDs. I paid the record company, and by extension the artist, for their music. I now have an MP3 player. I have started to convert my CDs to MP3s. Note the word "started" - my procrastination has led me to listening to FM radio on my cellphone, as previously mentioned. Luckily the conversion technology is already on my Mac, and it's a breeze to convert my CDs.

In my opinion, this ability should also apply to my hard copy books. I have paid the publishing company, and by extension the (living) author, for their work (even if I bought a used book, someone bought it originally). More specifically, I have paid for their content. The format of this content should not matter.

The biggest roadblock right now, as I see it, is technology. My scanner, part of a larger fax/photocopy/printer box, does not have Optical Character Recognition (OCR). OCR is critical to having an interactive book where I can find specific words or passages. Otherwise, I'll have "paper under glass" - a picture of words sans meaningful text. The other technology aspect is the process of digitization. I don't think I will be hunched over my scanner, scanning one page at a time of my 368-page copy of Saint Augustine's Confessions. I could read it in the time it would take to scan and format it.

Of course, maybe all I need to do is to wait. Technological innovations arrive at a pretty fast clip. Even book scanning is becoming popular in Japan, the world's high-tech nursery. If this technology arrives and I can easily convert my overstuffed bookshelves to the size of a notepad, we are back to the issues of copyright law. Hopefully a sensible approach on viewing the purchase of content (as I outlined above) will prevail, but someone is always looking to make another buck - even if they legitimately made it the first time.

The Long Tail

The other issue with eBooks right now is the relatively limited number of available titles. I have always loved books but did not buy a lot of them until the advent of Amazon and Chapters (in Canada). Almost overnight, I became downright excited searching for books that dealt with my own special interests; setting up wish lists and dreaming of Christmas or my birthday to treat myself with the perfect gift; or comparing the price of several titles so that I can get the maximum number of books at a price just over $39 and free shipping to boot.

It was the long tail of niche titles that really got me hooked on online book sellers. I used to check footnotes in a book and see a really interesting title written by a foreign author or obscure academic. 30 years ago. Neither my local library or bookstore would ever carry this title or even have it available for ordering. Now, with Amazon, a lot of these titles became available. I also shop at Chapters' online store, but they have fewer titles, especially French books (compared to Amazon), which I find quite disappointing for a Canadian company.

What does this have to do with eBooks? Well, I, like most other readers, have my own quirks and special interests. In my case, I studied History at university, and my final year thesis was on the Organisation Armee Secrete (OAS) in French Algeria. I am an Algeriophile, if that is even a word. If I go to Amazon and type in "Algeria" under Books, I get over 17,000 titles; under eBooks, 58 titles (449 and 1, respectively, at Chapters). If I buy an eReader, looks like I will be stuck with more conventional titles until they start digitizing books that fall into my niche interests, and who knows how long that could take. Hopefully not longer than it will take to read all of those great hard copy French books I purchased on eBay.