In which I join the 21st century

I have a traditional method of buying expensive new technology: I think vaguely about it for a few months, then I think seriously about it for a couple of weeks and do a whole bunch of reading, then I dither for another couple of weeks while I decide whether to buy it. This is an excellent habit which saves me from enormous credit card bills, and means I don’t pay the early adopter tax.

In this case I realised that my dream ereader, which has a large colour screen, reads all formats including PDF, and has a battery life of several months, does not exist and is not about to pop into existence. So I bought a Kindle instead.

It is, mostly, made of awesome. It is thin and light, the screen is excellent, the controls are fine and I can read it one-handed while standing up, I can’t tell you how good the battery life is because I haven’t managed to run it down yet. Take two books onto the train? Not any more! I should have bought one ages ago, except it would have been more expensive and not as good, but you get the point. I think I would quite happily read all books from my Kindle.

Now I have an ereader, I have to navigate the murky world of ebooks, formats, and DRM. A few recommendations:

  • Calibre is a piece of software for organising your ebook library. There may be others; I do not know, because everyone recommends Calibre, and that is because it is great. I got it to manage my library, and also because it converts epub to mobi – the Kindle does not read epub, and while most books are available as mobi because otherwise you cut out a big swathe of your audience, the ability to convert is handy.
  • Wizard’s Tower Press is where I bought my first ebook, Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique. I bought it because the paperback would cost me £7, the DRM-ed Kindle version is £3.50, and this copy was £2.99 for a DRM-free version. No contest.
  • Webscriptions sell a lot of books by Baen, but also books by Night Shade Press, all of which are $6 and DRM-free. This is how I bought God’s War, like everyone else who follows Niall on Twitter, but I also picked up Strahan’s Year’s Best 5, and have my eye on a couple more. Baen have also made the entire Vorkosigan saga available for free, because they think that will increase sales – readers will buy the hardbacks, buy copies for their friends, buy future books in the series and other Baen works. I’d be interested to know if this has worked – I think I am more likely to buy future Vorkosigan books, but I have another fourteen to get through before I get to that point, and if they’d made only two or three of them available for free, they might have sold me the other twelve. It’s an interesting strategy, anyway.
  • I haven’t actually bought any books from Fictionwise yet, because I am dithering over whether to get Asimov’s from here, or as a Kindle sub. Fictionwise has the advantage of being DRM-free, but the Kindle sub would automatically send it to my Kindle. What I find fascinating about Fictionwise is that looking at the charts, for multi-format (ie, DRM-free) books, the top sellers have tons and tons of SF&F romance and erotica, and most of it very short. (And also they overestimate reading time, or else I read very fast.) It’s a market I was basically not aware of, but is clearly doing okay.
  • Angry Robot Books have their own online store, where I can buy DRM-free epub. Do any of the other UK imprints have an equivalent?
  • Ebook pricing and availability is obviously a big thing right now. I’m probably more informed than the average book buyer – I know that ebooks have 20% VAT, and I know that not a great deal of the price of a book is the paper it’s printed on – but I still find some ebook pricing confusing.

    Take A Dance with Dragons, which I would like to read as soon as it comes out, and is only out as a hardback sure to be about the size and weight of a brick. Reading it on my Kindle would be a whole lot easier. The ebook is currently more expensive than the hardback, and I realise the book is being heavily discounted, but I don’t want to pay more for the privilege of an electronic copy I can’t lend out. (Or stun a burglar with, but I already have a copy of The Wise Man’s Fear for that.)

    Which brings me to DRM. Books from the Kindle store have DRM on them. I realise that most books I buy and read once, and for a few quid for a paperback, it’s not worth worrying about what happens in the future if I decided to replace my Kindle with another device – I don’t reread that many books, and I might have ditched the physical copy anyway. Still, it bothers me, and I am less inclined to buy books from the Kindle store because of it, and I resent paying the same for an ebook as a physical book when I don’t get all the rights I get with the physical book, namely the right to tell my friends it is brilliant and lend them my copy. I have bought one book from the Kindle store, to give it a spin, and it was absolutely painless, but I am always aware that I am buying a license, and not really buying the book. I know I could strip the DRM pretty painlessly, but I don’t want to do that, and I don’t want to feel like a cheeky pirate for wanting to buy a book and not the right to read it for a while until the servers go down, or they block my account.

    And finally, Cryptonomicon. My copy has literally fallen apart, and an ebook would be perfect. I can only find ebook versions in German. Sort it out.

4 Thoughts on “In which I join the 21st century

  1. Yeah – I resorted to downloading an illegal ePub of Cryptonomicon, because I couldn’t find a legal one. (The paper copy is sitting on my shelf, so I didn’t feel too bad about that).

    And I feel likewise about DRM. I have no objections to paying for media, but I’m not being locked in to any one supplier or format (which is what DRM effectively does).

  2. I have managed to run the Kindle battery down but it took several weeks to do it. It could be that running it continuously for longer periods (I was reading on the bus for about 45 minutes at a time) will cause a greater strain, but it’s still an incredibly long-lasting device.

  3. liz on 13/06/2011 at 5:48 pm said:

    (I thought I had threaded comments on here, but apparently not. Back to fiddling with layouts.)

    Andrew: (The paper copy is sitting on my shelf, so I didn’t feel too bad about that).

    This is the special thing about ebooks, which is that if I don’t like the DRM there’s always the paper alternative, and even out of print books are available second-hand a lot of the time, so I’ll just buy a physical copy instead. And if I’ve already paid for the physical copy, then I’m less likely to feel that downloading an ebook is wrong – I could scan my own copy and turn that into my own ebook, so why not get the copy where someone else already did that?

    I also went and looked at how I would go about DRM-stripping my Kindle books, and it took about two minutes to find a script to do it. I buy a lot of games with DRM on them, often pretty ridiculous DRM that requires me to be online whenever I play it, but I have no alternative – I can’t legally get the games without DRM, and cracking them is generally complicated and time-consuming and requires you to trust the programs doing the cracking. To get rid of Kindle DRM requires a few hundred lines of code that I can actually read myself and check it isn’t doing something malicious to my hardware.

    Abigail – I believe that e-ink screens only use battery when you turn the pages, so battery life should be proportional to reading speed. I haven’t worked out if it uses up battery to leave it on the screensaver rather than shutting down, but in theory it shouldn’t.

  4. Corin Egglestone on 15/06/2011 at 3:00 pm said:

    Hi Liz

    I’m a PhD student at Loughborough University in the UK. I found your name on the list of people who follow 23andme on Twitter, and followed a link in your profile to your blog. I was wondering if you’d be willing to fill in a survey for my PhD research, it’s for people who have either bought a genetic test from a company like 23andme, or are thinking of doing so.

    There’s more information and a link to it at , it should only take about 10 minutes and would be really great if you could! If you have any questions then please email me at


    Corin Egglestone

    p.s. I enjoyed reading your post about the Kindle, I’ve got one myself and am going to look up Calibre for it.

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