If you love your books, that phone may be your future

random person with phone
So what’s next? Reading books on your phone or something?

While bemoaning the fact printed books are going the way of the record album and landline telephones, I’ve come to like the convenience of digital books. You can read them just about anywhere.

Like on your phone.

Smartphones are the big thing now. They’ve got more processing power than that desktop computer you had 10 years ago, and it’s amazing all the things they can do. Including reading your books.

Well, kinda sorta.

The one-and-a-half big entities in the ebook world, Kindle and Nook (since that one’s dying it only accounts for half a company), have apps you can load onto your smartphone. So rather than putting your entire library on something that’s not much larger than a single paperback, you can carry thee books on your telephone. Shove it in your pocket or clip it onto your belt, no backpack, no hands, just whip it out when you want to read something.

Margaret Atwood, an accomplished novelist, is heavily involved with a Web site and app for the growing legion of phone readers. It’s called Wattpad, and you can download freebies from authors seeking a little exposure. From what I see most of the writers are young. Genres like YA (Young Adult) fiction and fantasy/horror/gothic novels with the requisite number of vampires and/or zombies predominate here. But it seems the younger folks prefer to read on the phone. It helps if you have young eyeballs.

Like it or not, Atwood’s site is a real bellwether in the publishing industry. That phone is your future.

 

The old man and the e-reader

Futuristic or not, you can’t beat the convenience of reading from your phone. Unless you’re 55. That’s when things get a little goofy.

There’s just not a whole bunch of space on a 4+-inch smartphone screen. There isn’t. To keep things at a size that I can still comfortably read with or without my old-man bifocals, my screen holds 20 lines of about four or five words each. Do the math. That’s about 80 to 100 words per screen. The standard paperback book has about 30 lines of nine or 10 words each — around 270 to 300 words. That’s a lot of page flipping on your phone.

Plus when you go to anything large enough for me to read, my phone-based Kindle renders its pages poorly. I’m stuck with justified margins, and automatic hyphenation doesn’t exist. Therefore I’ll have some lines where the words are jammed fairly tight, and other lines where the words have lots of space between them. Maybe it’s just because I’m a print geek, but I find this oddball spacing unattractive, even disconcerting. A quad-left format looks much better, but the Kindle phone app won’t let me go there.

Now if my eyesight gets worse than it is now I can bump the type size from 10-point to 12 or 18. Cuts down the number of lines, cuts down the words per line, and the onscreen page gets real ugly in a hurry.

I had a Nook some time ago. It was given to me by a friend (an avid reader; the kind who has three books going at a time) when he upgraded his equipment. I’m also an avid reader (three books going at a time), and I think between two high-mileage owners and one tragic accident the Nook finally gave up the ghost. I loved it, though. The e-ink display is easy to read, and it doesn’t matter if the sun is shining directly overhead. I can still read it. With a clip-on lamp I can read in the back of a darkened van, like I did on a road trip to North Carolina.

 

Kindle or Nook? Yes …

But now my go-to reader is my phone. Unlike a proprietary e-reader, I’m not chained to Amazon or Barnes & Noble. I can comparison shop, get the best price, download my book and read it. The only thing I can’t really read on my phone is the older-style .pdf file because, well, the screen isn’t big enough.

To get geeky for a minute, Kindle uses a proprietary .mobi format. Nook uses the more universal .epub format. Even if you hand-loaded Kindle titles into your Nook, you’re out of luck. Ditto if the book has copy protection limiting it to just the device you loaded the book on. There is software that handles both .mobi and .epub formats (I have one, FBReader on my phone), but I’m straight outta luck if I wish to read a copy-protected book with that app.

Further mixing up the equation, many self-published authors stick with Amazon (read: Kindle) for their work. There’s a good reason for this. If you give Amazon exclusive rights to your ebook your royalty is 70 percent of the retail price. If you want to spread the love among several outlets, your royalty drops to 35 percent. Now that’s still a lot better than the approximately 10 percent you get if you go through a big publishing house (before your agent gets his 15 percent cut), but it’s still a significant difference. Amazon is the big gorilla in publishing, and the sales through Barnes & Noble and others aren’t enough to justify the reduced royalty.

(Full disclosure: All of my ebooks are available only through Amazon/Kindle, for the reason noted.)

About the only other drawback I can see with the old e-ink reader is that the screen’s not touch sensitive. Most of the time that’s not a problem, but if you like to highlight or annotate text (raises hand) the process couldn’t be any more unintuitive if they tried to make it that way. It’s ridiculously involved and easy to screw up.

Hint to hardware developers everywhere: Howzabout an e-ink reader that can handle both Kindle and Nook? With smoother highlighting? I’ll be glad to beta-test it for you.

 

E-readers and pads and phones, oh my!

Reckon I could get an Android pad (those Nexus 7’s sure look good to me) or I can get all brand-name-conscious and pick up an iPad, but the only real difference is the screen size.

And convenience. Did I mention convenience yet?

And the knowledge that ol’ Stonefingers can drop the phone a couple of times before it craps out. Just try that with a Nexus 7 or iPad. (C’mon, I dare you!)

Forget about reading from a phone or ‘pad before you go to bed, though. Since the phone emits its own light, it’ll allegedly do a number on your sleep cycles. That’s why your so-called sleep experts advocate shutting off all computers and turning off some lights a couple of hours before you go to bed. Besides, taking the phone to bed is just plain weird.

The older Kindle and Nook e-ink readers were great for that. Just attach that reading lamp to the unit (available as an accessory and well worth it), and you can read until you fall asleep. It’s just like reading a real book.

Whatever you do, though, don’t roll on your e-reader during the night or you’ll crack the screen. I state this with authority.

 

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Old-style e-ink reader is easier on the eyes, sleep cycles.

Being good/bad in bed is probably not the standard I'd consider for an e-reader, but ...

I’m old-school enough that I’d never thought I could enjoy an e-reader. But what’s this thing about downloading books on my old Palm a decade ago, or reading them on my Android phone now?

Never mind these apparent contradictions. I’m a print guy. Plunk my butt down somewhere with music playing and a stack of offbeat books and I’ll call it vacation. Real books that feel like paper, pages that turn, and sufficient margin space for my annotations.

The electronic versions, well, that’s not the same thing at all. Real books do not have pages that glow. Got it?

But then a friend upgraded e-readers and gave me his old Nook. It is, I believe, a first-generation model. It does not emit light on its own, the pages are straight black and white, and I’m loving it.

I’ve barely made a dent in the memory, but I have a few hundred books downloaded already.

The newer e-readers seem to be getting away from the so-called e-ink technology, and this isn’t such a good thing. Cool graphics or not, reading the newer-model Nooks, Kindles and iPads provide all the sexiness of reading off a computer screen.

Shoot, I spend enough of my life staring at computer screens. Must I spend my relaxation time staring at more of them?

Reading the first-generation Nook with the light up, just like Wrigley Field. Photo by Eric Pulsifer.

If I need to read at bedside, I have several options: Turn on a light, or read under the covers by flashlight like I did when I was a young’un. But I have these options because I’m a single man, live alone, and maintaining peace in the household is not a priority for me.

But this Nook came with a snap-on cover that includes a small lamp, like what you see on paintings at the museum. It’s powered by a pair of AAA batteries. Theoretically it should illuminate the page while not bothering the significant other, but I never got around to asking the previous owner how effective it is. It just doesn’t seem right to ask.

I bring this up because of a recent advertising pitch for Nook (now in some strange alliance with Microsoft). In this ad Nook announces its own soft-glowing Simple Touch, which is illuminated by a string of LED’s along the top edge. In the ad Nook calls out Kindle, saying the competitor is “not that good in bed.”

E-readers are a lot of things. But even my own brain, which takes some bizarre angles on a lot of things, still has trouble grasping the good/bad in bed concept.

I do know that reading from an e-ink reader as you go to bed is a whole lot better for you than reading something that lights up. In its most natural state, the human body regulates one’s sleep time by the presence or absence of light. Having a house fully lit up at night does tend to screw these cycles up, and that’s probably why it’s best to pull yourself away from the computer at least a couple hours before the Sandman starts pounding on your door.

That’s my theory, and I’m stickin’ to it.

Anyway, I really like that old-school Nook. It’s not quite the same experience as the printed page (annotation is tough with the on-board keypad), but it’s easy on my poor abused eyeballs.

I can even read it under the covers by flashlight, just for old times’ sake.

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Guess I’m not the only one who likes the older e-ink readers. Check out this column by Joe Wikert.

 

 

 

 

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