Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ebook Stress Test — How Healthy Is Your Ebook ?

Ebook Stress Test —
How Healthy Is Your Ebook ?

[Author's note: This is an expanded and revised version of an article that I posted in December 2009. &mdashMP]

Not all ebooks are created equal. There is much debate about ebook prices; there should be more discussion about ebook value. A healthy ebook is worth much more than a feature-reduced ebook. Locked by DRM, an ebook in the EPUB format can be read on a device made by one company only (or at most, on a small number of devices). An EPUB ebook with no DRM can be read on almost every device.

Before you buy an ebook, use this simple guide to evaluate the quality of the "ebosystem" — the ebook ecosystem. This includes two essential parts: the ebook (the digital file itself), and the ebook reading system of your choice: iPad, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Sony Reader, iPhone, cell phone, Calibre, WattPad, Adobe Digital Editions (ADE), Google Editions, reading on the web via BookWorm, and many more.

This guide is designed to be customized. You can (and should) add your own questions (and delete mine), based on the ebook's features that are important to you. ("Is the ebook free from geographical restrictions?" is a question that might matter very much to persons living outside the USA.)

You can give different weight to the questions that matter most to you. For example, if "no DRM" is very important to you, give 50 points instead of 10 for ebooks that are DRM-free.

The purpose of this guide is to educate consumers (and, unfortunately, publishers) about good and not-so-good practices in ebook publishing.

For example, the University of Michigan Press recently announced an ebook "rental" program ( Here are their prices for one of their books, titled "The End of History" (which answers the question of when I would rent an ebook instead of buying one):

—Buy (a Paperback): $ 29.95
—Buy (a PDF ebook with DRM, Adobe Digital Editions): $ 28.95
—Rent for 180 Days (a PDF ebook with DRM, Adobe Digital Editions): $ 22.00
—Rent for 30 Days: (a PDF ebook with DRM, Adobe Digital Editions): $ 12.00

This is what I would call a "not-so-good" publishing practice: the buyer does not get good value. (In addition to the time limit, the rental ebooks have restrictions on printing, whereas the purchased ebooks allow unlimited printing.) I would happily buy this ebook if it were offered as an unencrypted EPUB for $ 9.99 or less.

Early in my philosophy training, I was taught a basic principle: "Can does not imply ought." Because we possess the technological capability to do something, does not necessarily mean that it is good and useful to do it. In theory, it is a clever trick to build a "time bomb" into the ebook that makes it self-destruct (unable to be read) after any time period that you choose; in practice, this is a very foolish idea. The "rental ebook" is nothing more than a euphemism for the "perishable ebook." Healthy ebooks endure.

Take the Stress Test For A Healthy Ebook

In the sample questions below:
Score 10 points for each YES.
Score 0 points for each NO.

If the answer is not a clear "Yes" or "No", then you can assign partial points, from 1 point to 9 points,.

One reason to give more than 0 points for a "NO" answer: if the ebook is not in the EPUB format, but can be easily converted into the EPUB format, then that score might be upgraded from a 0 to a 9.

The higher the point total, the healthier the ebook. Like Lemuel Gulliver bound by the 6-inch-tall Lilliputians, the healthy ebook is not tied down by publishers' restrictions. Therefore the healthy ebook offers more flexibility and more benefits to ebook buyers and readers.

1. Is EPUB the ebook's format ?
10 ... 9 ... 8 ... 7 ... 6 ... 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... 0

2. Does the ebook have no DRM ?
10 ... 9 ... 8 ... 7 ... 6 ... 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... 0

3. Can the ebook be read aloud ?
10 ... 9 ... 8 ... 7 ... 6 ... 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... 0

4. Can the ebook be shared ?
10 ... 9 ... 8 ... 7 ... 6 ... 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... 0

5. Is the ebook's price $ 9.99 or less ?
10 ... 9 ... 8 ... 7 ... 6 ... 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... 0

6. Is it a non-shoppable ebook (a "shoppable ebook" contains links inside that encourage readers to click and buy various items) ? Does the ebook contain advertisements? Is the story filled with "weldons" (paid product placements) ?
10 ... 9 ... 8 ... 7 ... 6 ... 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... 0

7. Is the ebook optimized for study, allowing students to print, highlight text, process text (cut, copy, paste) and add bookmarks and annotations ?
10 ... 9 ... 8 ... 7 ... 6 ... 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... 0

8. Is the ebook available for purchase only, not for rent ? (If purchased, it must not contain an expiration date).

10 ... 9 ... 8 ... 7 ... 6 ... 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... 0

9. Has the ebook been efficiently edited ?
10 ... 9 ... 8 ... 7 ... 6 ... 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... 0

10. Is the ebook well-designed ?
10 ... 9 ... 8 ... 7 ... 6 ... 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... 0

Add your own questions, and create your own criteria for evaluating the health of your ebooks and ebook ecosystems.

Michael Pastore is a novelist, and the author and/or editor of a number of non-fiction books including The Zorba Anthology of Love Stories, and 50 Benefits of Ebooks: A Thinking Person's Guide to the Digital Reading Revolution. A new (2010) edition of 50 Benefits of Ebooks will be released by Zorba Press on September 8, 2010.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Protest Against the Commercialization of Ebooks

Acolorful advertisement at the top of the New York Times (online) today asks us to click to read "The First Shoppable Children's Storybook."

I hope it is also the last.

In an ebook, the marriage of videos and commerce creates a monstrous mutation, not a genuine reading experience that should bring delight and wisdom. Books are one of the last refuges in our world from the constant cry by advertisers to spend money and fill our lives with unnecessary things.

I am not against videos in ebooks (although they should not be called "books"); I am not against commerce, done with balance and integrity. But these two things together, inside a book for kids -- takes us backward into a world obsessed by consumerism and overconsumption, an approach to life that has been the cause of so many of our present troubles and crises.

You can read the ebook online, and then judge for yourself:

Technology can be used to enhance our lives, or to diminish them — here is an example of an ebook that I could happily do without.

— Michael Pastore, author
50 Benefits of Ebooks

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

EPUB Straight to the Point (Book Review of the Paperback)

EPUB Straight to the Point
Creating ebooks for the Apple iPad and other ereaders
by Elizabeth Castro
Peachpit Press, ISBN: 978-0-321-734686
Available Formats:
Paperback, 192 pages
PDF (watermarked with buyer's name)
EPUB (unencrypted, direct from Castro's web site)

Reviewed by Michael Pastore, Epublishers Weekly

We can dance on the moon, probe the depths of space, transplant organs, make maps of the murky mysteries of the deep seas and the 25,000 human genes, communicate instantaneously around the entire Earth, and — in minutes or less — access an unimaginable quantity of the world's accumulated knowledge.

Nevertheless, right now, it is impossible to find, borrow or buy any software that lets you push a few keyboard keys to create a perfectly valid, ready-to-read ebook in the format known as EPUB. Even the latest CS5 version of Adobe's omnipotent InDesign — listing for $ 699 — cannot get the EPUB files quite right.

That is why I am wildly enthusiastic about this new book by Elizabeth Castro: EPUB Straight to the Point. Beginners will learn all the essentials, thanks to the many illustrations (screen shots) and the step-by-step instructions that never fail to be clear. EPUB professionals and experts — and I am one of these — will find dozens of ideas for transforming ordinary-looking ebooks into ones that are beautifully designed.

Ye of little faith can easily see for yourself. Visit Castro's web page about the book, then download either of the two free sample EPUB ebooks (of Thoreau's incomparable classic Walden) created by Castro. Now open this EPUB ebook on your favorite ebook reading system: your iPad, dedicated device, smartphone, or computer desktop. You will see (as in the screen shot above) an example of an EPUB ebook with many eye-catching aesthetic touches along with practical features that improve readability: large colorful titles, the right amount of line spacing, headers, images inside the ebook, and even — in one of these EPUBs — a specially-chosen font.

You don't need to spend megabucks to make ebooks. You can use free text editors and free zipping software; however that no-cost solution works only when you understand a good amount about XHTML and CSS. To allow readers without XHTML-CSS skills to painlessly make the EPUBs, Castro's Chapter 1 describes how to use Microsoft Word for the first steps in the EPUB-making process. Don't worry that MS-Word's export to XHTML adds all kinds of bizarre coding to the file: the book tells you how to meticulously clean and polish the funky Word-export until it shines as a well-formed file of XHTML.

Because so many publishers use InDesign to lay out their paper editions, it makes sense to use InDesign to make the ebooks, and that is the subject of Chapter 2. Castro points out an annoying InDesign bug that corrupts the EPUB links; she writes "hopefully, Adobe will fix this". But until they do, you can use the workaround explained in the book.

The heart of the book is Chapter 3 — Inside an EPUB File — which, in just the right amount of detail — explains all the facets of every EPUB file. Whatever you choose to use to create your EPUBs — MS-Word, any text editor, Adobe's InDesign, or any EPUB-making shareware or freeware — such as Julian Smart's admirably simple eCub, or the superb program by Kovid Goyal named Calibre — you will still need to make many (and I do mean, many) changes and tweaks to get to a finished EPUB that is valid and works. This chapter tells you how to make all the necessary changes. The chapter also contains useful tips (such as how GREP-enabled editors can save tons of time); and a vivid explanation about how to understand and work with the dreaded "content.opf" file — the file, in my experience, that has been by far the most complex and troublesome file to create, fix, and update.

The subtitle of this book is: Creating ebooks for the Apple iPad and other ereaders. A smart approach, in my opinion, because the iPad offers the very best ebook reading experience; and yet the ebooks that you create with this book's guidance will look great on any EPUB-supporting device, and anywhere that EPUBs can be read. Although Amazon's much-hyped Kindle cannot read any EPUB at all, Castro has you covered: in a thoughtful afterthought to Chapter 3, she explains how to convert your EPUB to a format — .MOBI — that Kindles can happily understand.

You have probably heard the joke about the very amateur Shakespearean actor who, while playing Puck in the middle of A Midsummer Night's Dream — was booed and pelted with organic tomatoes. The actor ripped off his mask, stopped performing, turned to audience and then shouted: "Don't blame me, I didn't write this junk!" ... For a while, EPUB ebooks shared the same fate as the Bard: some hasty critics looked at some badly-made EPUB ebooks, and then griped that the EPUB format is a failure because it cannot make nice-looking books. Castro dispels that myth; her Chapter 4 — Advanced Epub Formatting — covers advanced topics including how to prevent ebook reading devices from overriding your CSS; how to choose the fonts in your ebook; how to create drop caps and small caps; how to control spacing and indents (essential when formatting poetry); how to insert images and their captions; and how to enhance (or, as some people might say, increase the distractions in) your EPUB ebooks by adding links, tables and videos.

Publishers, authors, book designers — everyone interested in making EPUB ebooks — can buy Castro's book with complete confidence; the book will teach you to build a better ebook than you've ever built before.

Michael Pastore, editorial Director, Epublishers Weekly
Author of 50 Benefits of Ebooks:
A Thinking Person's Guide to the Digital Reading Revolution

== Story Links ==

The Book on the Publisher's Web site:

Elizabeth Castro's website for the book:

Elizabeth Castro's blog:

Sigil: A WYSIWYG ebook editor, with full EPUB support

PADILICIOUS.COM: Creating Digital Books for the iPad (Mac only)

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Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (book review)

The Shallows:
What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

by Nicholas Carr
Published by W.W. Norton
Hardcover, 276 pages, June 2010
ISBN: 978-0393072228

It takes great courage, as well as insight, to stand up against prevailing practices, to shout or whisper to the fad-following crowd that the way we are living is unhealthy for us.

More than 50 years ago, Aldous Huxley, interviewed by a cigarette-smoking Mike Wallace, warned:

“We must not be caught by surprise by advances in technology.”

Other eloquent warnings about technology's dangerous side effects have come to us from the works of Lewis Mumford, Erich Fromm, Neil Postman, Sven Birkerts, Mark Slouka, Theodore Roszak, and Bill Joy. A famous debate about this issue, "What Are We Doing Online", (from a 1995 edition of Harper's Magazine), thoughtfully explores the Internet's benefits and harms.

The latest voice speaking against the sacred cow of our technologies comes from Nicholas Carr, in his extraordinary book "The Shallows." Carr is not a Luddite; he uses technology capably, and acknowledges his appreciation of the Net. Carr, however, is concerned that there are losses along with the gains. Thanks to the Internet — the most sophisticated and useful tool for communications ever invented — we are losing our ability to concentrate and to think deeply. Carr cites indisputable evidence to show that the passive activity of using the Internet for short, skimming searches and shallow reading, is creating measurable changes in the structure and development of our brains.

Musing on the classic passage by Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose calm reflections were interrupted by the strident noise from a passing locomotive, Carr writes:
"The problem today is that we're losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we're in perpetual locomotion."

Like Neil Postman in Technopoly, Carr shapes his book not to point to solutions, but to illuminate the problems -- and he has done this work expertly. Despite his confessions that his powers of attention have been diminished by the Net, Carr's book is always thoughtful, and often captivating and profound. He cites Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey, where HAL the computer shows more feelings than the human characters. Carr's concerns, that begin with the loss of our powers of attention and concentration, conclude with worries that too much Internet and too little reflection may lead to a loss of our humanness.

We need computers, we need the Internet, we need quick access to the latest information — but we need it in the right amounts. All told, The Shallows is a superb starting point for the kinds of face-to-face discussions that might help us to break our collective addiction to screens, and to renew our interest in the slower, more personal, and more profound realms of our inner lives.

—Michael Pastore, Epublishers Weekly
Author of
50 Benefits of Ebooks:
A Thinking Person's Guide to the Digital Reading Revolution.

Story Links

Get a sample of Carr's book by reading his essay in the Atlantic:
Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Carr's Blog Rough Type ...

What Are We Doing Online?
Ironically, this fascinating and deservedly-famous debate (which first appeared in Harper's Magazine in 1995) is not easily findable online -- the link from Kevin Kelly's website is now broken.

Aldous Huxley interviewed by Mike Wallace in the early 1960s:

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