eBooks Are Still A Mess In 2023

I can definitely consider myself an early adopter of eBooks and reading devices. Indeed, most of my journey through this particular turn of life has been documented on this blog, from when on a whim (and with basically all the savings I had at that point) bought a Sony PRS-505, and struggled to find content for it.

For the past ten years, I ended up settling for the Amazon Kindle ecosystem, well understanding the problems connected with the vendor lock in and region locking that the system has. I’m currently at my third Kindle device, after having broken my Kindle Keyboard of one yar just before heading to Dublin, and eventually replacing one Paperwhite for another with USB-C charging to make my travel more easy. I also got my mother and my wife their own Kindles, as we all like to read but have no space to keep all of the books we would like to read (my mother reads a ton, and honestly she would hoard books like in a TV series if I didn’t do that!) The PRS-505, sadly, met an untimely demise when the friend I sold it to dropped it and broke the screen — too bad, it would be nice and vintagy nowadays.

More recently, I got myself a couple of different styles of eInk devices — I have written already about the Onyx Boox Max Lumi, but I also bought a second hand ReMarkable 2 (after hearing a lot of good things from multiple people), and after that I splurged on an Onyx Boox Air C. A full comparative review of these will come, but for now I want to talk about the experience of using the ReMarkable 2 for eBooks, because it turned out to be a lot closer to the PRS-505 than the Kindle, in part because of the target usage of the device.

While obviously the primary use case for a device where you can scribble on the screen is to be used as a notepad, and to sketch, I’m not that artistic — the best use case I have had for that on the Max Lumi is to sign documents without having to bother with the whole print-and-scan cycle, and in a few cases I started drawing diagrams for the few hardware projects I manage to pull off since then. The size of the Max Lumi, more so than the ReMarkable, fits well for datasheet PDFs, and in turn scribbling on those to point out the most important information has actually proven a great time-saving option.

Indeed the primary use I’m having for the ReMarkable is to be able to draft blog posts “on paper” while watching stuff on the sofa with my wife — jotting down ideas and notes, and then expanding on them when I have more focus time. But there is a second use case that I wanted to explore when I decided to buy it: annotating articles and technical books.

You see, my current manager has been working miracles: not only he helped me recover my confidence after the horrible experience at my previous employer, but he also helped me explore what I expect to be doing in my role as a Senior Engineer and beyond. So I’ve been spending a lot more time, last year, reading about my likely next step, including Tanya Reilly’s awesome The Staff Engineer’s Path (and I don’t say awesome just because Tanya is a friend!) And one thing that I feel the need with some of those texts is the ability to “scribble in the margins” in the same way as I did for the datasheets.

I could, obviously, just write these notes on a separate notebook or note-taking app, but there is value in knowing that the the notes are always attached to the text they belong to, so that there is a “canonical copy” of the. Post-its are a good alternative when the book is too precious or nice to scribble on, of course.

Now to be honest, I wanted to do this from before Amazon released their Kindle Scribe (are we nicknaming it the “Scribble” yet?) which, well, basically does allow that, except that instead of scribbling on the margins (which only works if the rendering of the pages stays constant), it requires you to “attach a post-it” to a paragraph. I have not tried this model, and since I just splurged on the Air C (for a different use case) I’m unlikely to go and grab one any time soon. So for now, just assume that I still intend to use the ReMarkable for this.

And here where I get annoying flashbacks of my early adoption of the PRS-505 to try and get content to load on the ReMarkable itself. So the first problem is sourcing content: the ReMarkable has surprisingly good PDF rendering capabilities, but most eBooks are not delivered in this format anymore; thankfully the device can also render ePub, and while its rendering is not as customizable as a Kindle, it is very good and serviceable, including a wide enough margin to scribble a few works to connect with the content. No “virtual Post-It” though: you will lose your annotation if you change the rendering layout of a book, so you do want to get it right the first time around.

But where do you source ePub files? Particularly DRM-free to be able to load them on the device and write on top of? Back in the days I relied heavily on Safari Books Online and O’Reilly — but those days are over for many years now. My old friends at Kobo, on the other hand, are still in business, and they will (if the publisher says so) give you a DRM-free ePub, which is great. Add to this the ability to cash in Rakuten Rewards points as Kobo credit and I’m ready to be a customer again.

Except… the selection of technical books available on Kobo (and pretty much every other ePub reseller!) is quite desolate — even worse than 13 years ago. Of my career-oriented reading list, I could only find a few available in ePub at all, let alone DRM-free! As it turns out, at least Tanya’s book would have been DRM-free if I did buy it in ePub, but since I bought it before I had considered getting the ReMarkable, that one I have on Kindle instead — and while Amazon allows publishers to release DRM-free Kindle books, it appears that O’Reilly didn’t do that for the Kindle edition, only for the ePub one.

I’m not sure how this is happening, but it appears a lot of smaller publishers are opting to provide eBooks via Amazon, but not through other channels. Some, like No Starch (hi Bill!), do sell direct through their website, DRM-free (awesome!) while others… just don’t. And that makes me sad, even though some of them do provide the Kindle version DRM-free, which in theory can be converted quite cleanly to ePub and used on a ReMarkable.

For now, I only attempted that once, with The Effective Engineer, which was suggested to me by a colleague, and that in theory aligns a lot with some of the work philosophy that I tend to follow. The eBook is not available, to the best of my search, outside of Kindle, but it is DRM-free — so I have bought it, downloaded, converted, and transferred… and ended up with a badly formatted book where paragraph styles look out of place and images are missing. Not that the Kindle renders it a lot better, but at least images are visible.

So once again I find myself annoyed at ePub, annoyed at the “standard” that is not a standard for eBooks, and pondering if I should try to figure out how to fix that conversion, or even the source Mobi file, so that I can read it properly — which is honestly not what I was planning on doing to be able to study more. Likely I’m not going to be doing that, and instead keep complaining.

To be honest, there is some improvement on the state of the world. Back when I got the PRS-505, a few people suggested me to grab books from Project Gutenberg and read some classics. I did that for a while, but the problem has always been that whatever you got out of Project Gutenberg might have had the right content, but rarely usable formatting – most ePubs would be just be generated out of single page HTML files (which are inefficient to render on most hardware, and unusable on my old PRS-505), or out of print out of text files. So eventually, I ended up actually _buying_ Kindle editions that are very likely just a properly formatted Project Gutenberg source, including a French-language collection of Jules Verne’s novels to make sure my French wouldn’t get too rusty.

So you can imagine that I was very happy to see Standard Ebooks being shared online lately. It is finally accepted that it’s not just the content that matters, but also the presentation of it. And that providing a free, but difficult to access, collection of knowledge is not the same as making the knowledge accessible to the world. Yay!

On a less positive note, though, let me rant at O’Reilly a little bit more, in particular referring to Tanya’s book. The book, as I said, is awesome, but in addition to the content in the book, Tanya made a great index of secondary content, which in the eBook version you can click on to links to read (and by the way this works better on the Kindle than ReMarkable.) Nothing to complain about that idea, as a lot of the linked content is incredibly valuable, except…

The first problem is that online content is ephemeral. Even leaving aside the odd link to a Tweet that might be lost by the complete disregard for Twitter users that Musk has been showing, a few years ago I tried identifying broken links from my blog posts, and the result was far from happy: not just projects disappearing in thin air, or entire project hosting services being lost, but even personal and professional blogs have been completely lost to time. Robert Love, whose book I read many years ago and I still have at my mother’s house, completely removed his blog from his website. While the Internet Archive has preserved some of the content, we should all remember that the Wayback Machine is not forever either: if a domain is left to expire and the new owners ask to remove it, the Archive will comply!

The second problem is an interesting one because in one sense it could be a way to address the first, and in another it’s not that at all. All the links on the Kindle eBook (I can’t speak for the ePub) point at an O’Reilly-controlled URL shortening service (on the Libyan TLD). As I said this could be used to make sure that broken URLs can be replaced with working ones without having to deliver an update to the eBook to the readers… but I somehow doubt that’s going to happen, as proactively scanning for still-working links is not trivial, since you can’t be sure if a permanent redirect is actually bringing you to the new home of a particular page.

Instead, I’ll venture the guess that O’Reilly uses these to get a feeling of how many people _actually_ read the book and its sources. This makes it a liability instead: if O’Reilly was to shut down the shortening service, or lose the database for it, all those links would end up broken, and you’d have to hope to find what Tanya was referring to! And it’s not just O’Reilly that is a liability here: Libya is not the most stable of countries at this point in time, and while there is no cause for immediate worries around their TLD handling, I wouldn’t personally depend on it.

This is obviously not criticism for Tanya’s work — as much of the way O’Reilly appears to have put this very work at risk, for what comes down to be a marketing affectation. It is both a great use of the medium of eBooks, where clicking on links is easy and cheap, and an abuse of the ability to track the users’ patterns — and this is without me actually spending time to figure out how fingerprintable Kindle readers are: if they transmit a serial number at all, this would just be a straight out privacy problem!

Anyway, here’s to the hope that in another ten years eBooks will finally become boring enough that I don’t need to think about them at all.