Amazon, Project Gutenberg, and Italian Literature

This post starts in the strangest of places. The other night, my mother was complaining how few free Italian books are available on the Kindle Store.

Turns out, a friend of the family, who also has a Kindle, has been enjoying reading free English older books on hers. As my mother does not speak or read English, she’d been complaining that the same is not possible in Italian.

The books she’s referring to are older books, the copyright of which expired, and that are available on Project Gutenberg. Indeed, the selection of Italian books on that site is fairly limited, and it is something that I have indeed been sadden about before.

What has Project Gutenberg to do with Kindle? Well, Amazon appears to collect books from Project Gutenberg, convert them to Kindle’s native format, and “sell” them on the Kindle Store. I say “sell” because for the most part, these are available at $0.00, and are thus available for free.

While there is no reference to Project Gutenberg on their store pages, there’s usually a note on the book:

This book was converted from its physical edition to the digital format by a community of volunteers. You may find it for free on the web. Purchase of the Kindle edition includes wireless delivery.

Another important point is that (again, for the most part), the original language editions are also available! This is how I started reading Jules Verne’s Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours while trying to brush up my French to workable levels.

Having these works available on the Kindle Store, free of both direct cost and delivery charge, is in my opinion a great step to distribute knowledge and culture. As my nephews (blood-related and otherwise) start reaching reading age, I’m sure that what I will give them as presents is going to be Kindle readers, because between having access to this wide range of free books, and the embedded touch-on dictionary, they feel like something I’d have thoroughly enjoyed using when I was a kid myself.

Unfortunately, this is not all roses. the Kindle Store still georestrict some books, so from my Kindle Store (which is set in the US), I cannot download Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso in Italian (though I can download the translation for free, or buy for $0.99 a non-Project Gutenberg version of the original Italian text). And of course there is the problem of coverage for the various languages.

Italian, as I said, appears to be a pretty bad one when it comes to coverage. If I look at Luigi Pirandello’s books there are only seven entries, one of which is in English, and another one being a duplicate. Compare this with the actual list of his works and you can see that it’s very lacking. And since Pirandello died in 1936, his works are already in the public domain.

Since I have not actually being active with Project Gutenberg, I only have second hand knowledge of why this type of problem happens. One of the thing I remember having been told about this, is that most of the books you buy in Italian stores are either annotated editions, or updated for modern Italian, which causes their copyright to be extended do the death of the editor, annotator or translator.

This lack of access to Italian literature is a big bother, and quite a bit of a showstopper to giving a Kindle to my Italian “nephews”. I really wish I could find a way to fix the problem, whether it is by technical or political means.

On the political side, one could expect that, with the focus on culture of the previous Italian government, and the focus of the current government on the free-as-in-beer options, it would be easy to convince them to release all of the Italian literature that is in the public domain for free. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t even know where to start to ask them to do that.

On the technical side, maybe it is well due time that I spend a significant amount of time on my now seven years old project of extracting a copy of the data from the data files of Zanichelli’s Italian literature software (likely developed at least in part with public funds).

The software was developed for Windows 3.1 and can’t be run on any modern computer. I should probably send the ISOs of it to the Internet Archive, and they may be able to keep it running there on DosBox with a real copy of Windows 3.1, since Wine appears to not support the 16-bit OLE interfaces that the software depends on.

If you wonder what would be a neat thing for Microsoft to release as open-source, I would probably suggest the whole Windows 3.1 source code would be a starting point. If nothing else, with the right license it would be possible to replace the half-complete 16-bit DLLs of Wine with official, or nearly-official copies.

I guess it’s time to learn more about Windows 3.1 in my “copious spare time” (h/t Charles Stross), and start digging into this. Maybe Ryan’s 2ine might help, as OS/2 and Windows 3.1 are closer than the latter is to modern Windows.

When (multimedia) fiefdoms crumble

Mike coined the term multimedia fiefdoms recently. He points to a number of different streaming, purchase and rental services for video content (movies, TV series) as the new battleground for users (consumers in this case). There are of course a few more sides in this battle, including music and books, but the idea is still perfectly valid.

What he didn’t get into the details of is what happens one of those fiefdoms capitulates, declaring itself won over, and goes away. It’s not a fun situation to be in, but we actually have plenty of examples of it, and these, more than anything else, should drive the discourse around and against DRM, in my opinion.

For some reasons, the main example of failed fiefdoms is to be found in books, and I lived through (and recounted) a few of those instances. For me personally, it all started four years ago, when I discovered Sony gave up on their LRF format and decided to adopt the “industry standard” ePub by supporting Adobe Digital Editions (ADEPT) DRM scheme on their devices. I was slow on the uptake, the announcement came two years earlier. For Sony, this meant tearing down their walled garden, even though they kept supporting the LRF format and their store for a while – they may even do still, I stopped following two years ago when I moved onto a Kindle – for the user it meant they were now free to buy books from a number of stores, including some publishers, bookstores with online presence and dedicated ebookstores.

But things didn’t always go smoothly: two years later, WHSmith partnered with Kobo, and essentially handed the latter all their online ebook market. When I read the announcement I was actually happy, especially since I could not buy books off WHSmith any more as they started looking for UK billing addresses. Unfortunately it also meant that only a third of the books that I bought from WHSmith were going to be ported over to Kobo due to an extreme cock-up with global rights even to digital books. If I did not go and break the DRM off all my ebooks for the sake of it, I would have lost four books, having to buy them anew again. Given this was not for the seller going bankrupt but for a sell-out of their customers, it was not understandable that they refused to compensate people. Luckily, it did port The Gone-Away World which is one of my favourite books.

Fast forward another year, and the Italian bookstore LaFeltrinelli decided to go the same way, with a major exception: they decided they would keep users on both platforms — that way if you want to buy a digital version of a book you’ll still buy it on the same website, but it’ll be provided by Kobo and in your Kobo library. And it seems like they at least have a better deal regarding books’ rights, as they seemed to have ported over most books anyway. But of course it did not work out as well as it should have been, throwing an error in my face and forcing me to call up Kobo (Italy) to have my accounts connected and the books ported.

The same year, I end up buying a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition, which is a pretty good tablet and has a great digitizer. Samsung ships Google Play in full (Store, Movies, Music, Books) but at the same time install its own App, Video, Music and Book store apps, it’s not surprising. But it does not take six months for them to decide that it’s not their greatest idea, in May this year, Samsung announced the turn down of their Music and Books stores — outside of South Korea at least. In this case there is no handover of the content to other providers, so any content bought on those platforms is just gone.

Not completely in vain; if you still have access to a Samsung device (and if you don’t, well, you had no access to the content anyway), a different kind of almost-compensation kicks in: the Korean company partnered with Amazon of all bookstores — surprising given that they are behind the new “Nook Tablet” by Barnes & Noble. Beside a branded «Kindle for Samsung» app, they provide one out of a choice of four books every month — the books are taken from Amazon’s KDP Select pool as far as I can tell, which is the same pool used as a base for the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library and the Kindle Unlimited offerings; they are not great but some of them are enjoyable enough. Amazon is also keeping honest and does not force you to read the books on your Samsung device — I indeed prefer reading from my Kindle.

Now the question is: how do you loop back all this to multimedia? Sure books are entertaining but they are by definition a single media, unless you refer to the Kindle Edition of American Gods. Well, for me it’s still the same problem of fiefdoms that Mike referred to; indeed every store used to be a walled garden for a long while, then Adobe came and conquered most with ePub and ADEPT — but then between Apple and their iBooks (which uses its own, incompatible DRM), and Amazon with the Kindle, the walls started crumbling down. Nowadays plenty of publishers allow you to buy the book, in ePub and usually many other formats at the same time, without DRM, because the publishers don’t care which device you want to read your book on (a Kindle, a Kobo, a Nook, an iPad, a Sony Reader, an Android tablet …), they only want for you to read the book, and get hooked, and buy more books.

Somehow the same does not seem to work for video content, although it did work to an extent, for a while at least, with music. But this is a different topic.

The reason why I’m posting this right now is that just today I got an email from Samsung that they are turning down their video store too — now their “Samsung Hub” platform gets to only push you games and apps, unless you happen to live in South Korea. It’s interesting to see how the battles between giants is causing small players to just get off the playing fields… but at the same time they bring their toys with them.

Once again, there is no compensation; if you rented something, watch it by the end of the year, if you bought something, sorry, you won’t be able to access it after new year. It’s a tough world. There is a lesson, somewhere, to be learnt about this.

Discovering new writers

I’m a book nerd among others. I love reading, although the time sometimes is lacking and I’m quite far off from the end of my queue of books to read. In particular, just before leaving for Dublin I got the collection of Ian Fleming’s novels for $2/each through Amazon and their Amazon Local deals. But while I have quite a few authors that I absolutely love, and to which I turn when I want to have an enjoyable read, I also like discovering new authors and new series.

Once upon a time, I used to listen to a BBC books podcast; that podcast is no more nowadays, but it made me discover one of my favourite books ever, The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway — and the author of the book as well, since I also loved his Angelmaker which I bought as soon as it came out. I also read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which I did not like as much but was not a bad read.

Unfortunately the podcast is now gone. I tried a few alternatives but none seems to be the kind of not-too-heavy and interesting programme that I used to listen to. So I needed a different source for discovering new authors and series. Suggestions by readers and other friends are obviously quite useful, but that usually bring me to fill my wishlist with new books that I haven’t bought yet.

What did help me last time to discover something new has been The Humble eBook Bundle which made me discover Mercedes Lackey, Invasion and the Secret World Chronicles — I look forward to read the second part, I’m trying to consume the rest of the queue before buying anything new.

It’s not just that buying the Bundle makes it cheaper – although I admit it does – but there’s also the fact that by mixing well-known authors together with newcomers, you know that you won’t be disappointed with the expense. In the case of the first bundle, I had the comics from penny Arcade, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal and XKCD that I was very happy with getting, everything else would have been fine even if it completely sucked, luckily it didn’t though. With the second eBook bundle, I was happy with getting Doctorow’s book as well as Wil Wheaton. I haven’t gotten around reading them but I’m sure they are going to be quite the read.

Another, different approach is the one I tried to take with Amazon Local deals. I’m still subscribed to the Los Angeles deals, and it seems like every other month they come up with a “Get these Kindle titles at $1/each” kind of deal. Last time I decided to try some new authors, in the thriller/crime novel genre. Of these, I ended up buying a craptastic one which I’m going to recommend everybody not to read. It was unfortunate, at least it was only $1.

I’m still looking forward for more book recommendation — I really wish there was an alternative to Amazon’s “Recommended for you”, more like “Your friends read these books”, but even Anobii seems to be basically in non-maintenance mode. If you have some suggestions on podcasts to follow for new books coming out, I’m all ears (pun intended), so let me know in the comments!

The odyssey of making an eBook

Please note, if you’re reading this post on Gentoo Universe, that this blog is syndicated in its full English content; including posts like this which is, at this point, the status of a project that I have to call commercial. So don’t complain that you read this on “official Gentoo website” as Universe is quite far from being an official website. I could understand the complaint if it was posted on Planet Gentoo.

I mused last week about the possibility of publishing Autotools Mythbuster as an eBook — after posting the article I decided to look into which options I had for self-publishing, and, long story short, I ended up putting it for sale on Amazon and on Lulu (which nowadays handles eBooks as well). I’ve actually sent it to Kobo and Google Play as well, but they haven’t finished publishing it yet; Lulu is also taking care of iBooks and Barnes & Nobles.

So let’s first get the question out of the way: the pricing of the eBook has been set to $4.99 (or equivalent) on all stores; some stores apply extra taxes (Google Play would apply 23% VAT in most European countries; books are usually 4% VAT here in Italy, but eBooks are not!), and I’ve been told already that at least from Netherlands and Czech Republic, the Kindle edition almost doubles in price — that is suboptimal for both me and you all, as when that happens, my share is reduced from 70 to 35% (after expenses of course).

Much more interesting than this is, though, the technical aspect of publishing the guide as an eBook. The DocBook Stylesheets I’ve been using (app-text/docbook-xsl-ns-stylesheets) provide two ways to build an ePub file: one is through a pure XSLT that bases itself off the XHTML5 output, and only creates the file (leaving to the user to zip them up), the other is a one-call-everything-done through a Ruby script. The two options produce quite different files, respectively in ePub 3 and ePub 2 format. While it’s possible to produce an ePub 3 book that is compatible with older readers, as an interesting post from O’Reilly delineates, but doing so with the standard DocBook chain is not really possible, which is a bummer.

At the end, while my original build was with ePub 3 (which was fine for both Amazon and Google Play), I had to re-build it again for Lulu which requires ePub 2 — it might be worth noting that Lulu says that it’s because their partners, iBookstore and Nook store, would refuse the invalid file, as they check the file with epubcheck version 1… but as O’Reilly says, iBooks is one of the best implementation of ePub 3, so it’s mostly an artificial limitation, most likely caused by their toolchain or BN’s. At the end, I think from the next update forward I’ll stick with ePub 2 for a little while more.

On the other hand, getting these two to work also got me to have a working upgrade path to XHTML 5, which failed for me last time. The method I’ve been using to know exactly which chapters and sections to break on their own pages on the output, was the manual explicit chunking through the chunk.toc file — this is not available for XHTML5, but it turns out there is a nicer method by just including the processing instructions in the main DocBook files, which works with both the old XHTML1 and the new XHTML5 output, as well as ePub 2 and ePub 3. While the version of the stylesheet that generated the website last is not using XHTML5 yet, it will soon do that, as I’m working on a few more changes (among which the overdue Credits section).

One of the thing that I had to be more careful with, with ePub 2, were the “dangling links” to sections I planned but haven’t written yet. There are a few in both the website and the Kindle editions, but they are gone for the Lulu (and Kobo, whenever they’ll make it available) editions. I’ve been working a lot last week to fill in these blanks, and extend the sections, especially for what concerns libtool and pkg-config. This week I’ll work a bit more on the presentation as well, since I still lack a real cover (which is important for eBook at least), and there are a few things to fix on the published XHTML stylesheet as well. Hopefully, before next week there will be a new update for both website and ebooks that will cover most of this, and more.

The final word has to clarify one thing: both Amazon and Google Books put the review on hold the moment when they found the content available already online (mostly on my website and at Gitorious), and asked me to confirm how that was possible. Amazon unlocked the review just a moment later, and published by the next day; Google is still processing the book (maybe it’ll be easier when I’ll make the update and it’ll be an ePub 2 everywhere, with the same exact content and a cover!). It doesn’t seem to me like Lulu is doing anything like that, but it might just have noticed that the content is published on the same domain as the email address I was registered with, who knows?

Anyway to finish it off, once again, the eBook version is available at Amazon and Lulu — both versions will come with free update: I know Amazon allows me to update it on the fly and just require a re-download from their pages (or devices), I’ll try to get them to notify the buyers, otherwise it’ll just be notifying people here. Lulu also allows me to revise a book, but I have no idea whether they will warn the buyers and whether they’ll provide the update.. but if that’s not the case, just contact me with the Lulu order identifier and I’ll set up so that you get the updates.

The future of Autotools Mythbuster

You might have noticed after yesterday’s post that I have done a lot of visual changes to Autotools Mythbuster over the weekend. The new style is just a bunch of changes over the previous one (even though I also made use of sass to make the stylesheet smaller), and for the most part is to give it something recognizable.

I need to spend another day or two working on the content itself at the very least, as the automake 1.13 porting notes are still not correct, due to further changes done on Automake side (more on this in a future post, as it’s a topic of its own). I’m also thinking about taking a few days off Gentoo Linux maintenance, Munin development, and other tasks, and just work on the content on all the non-work time, as it could use some documentation of install and uninstall procedures for instance.

But leaving the content side alone, let me address a different point first. More and more people lately have been asking for a way to have the guide available offline, either as ebook (ePub or PDF) or packaged. Indeed I was asked by somebody if I could drop the NonCommercial part of the license so that it can be packaged in Debian (at some point I was actually asked why I’m not contributing this to the main manuals; the reason is that I really don’t like the GFDL, and furthermore I’m not contributing to automake proper because copyright assignment is becoming a burden in my view).

There’s an important note here: while you can easily see that I’m not pouring into it the amount of time needed to bring this to book quality, it does take a lot of time to work on it. It’s not just a matter of gluing together the posts that talk about autotools from my blog, it’s a whole lot of editing, which is indeed a whole lot of work. While I do hope that the guide is helpful, as I wrote before, it’s much more work for the most part that I can pour into on my free time, especially in-between jobs like now (and no, I don’t need to find a job — I’m waiting to hear from one, and got a few others lined up if it falls through). While Flattr helps, it seems to be drying up, at least for what concerns my content; even Socialvest is giving me some grief, probably because I’m no longer connecting from the US. Beside that, the only “monetization” (I hate that word) strategy I got for the guide is AdSense – which, I remind you, kicked my blog out for naming an adult website on a post – and making the content available offline would defeat even the very small returns of that.

At this point, I’m really not sure what to do; on one side I’m happy to receive more coverage just because it makes my life easier to have fewer broken build systems around. On the other hand, while not expecting to get rich off it, I would like to know that the time I spend on it is at least partly compensated – token gestures are better than nothing as well – and that precludes a simple availability of the content offline, which is what people at this point are clamoring for.

So let’s look into the issues more deeply: why the NC clause on the guide? Mostly I want to have a way to stop somebody else exploiting my work for gain. If I drop the NC clause, nothing can stop an asshole from picking up the guide, making it available on Amazon, and get the money for it. Is it likely? Maybe not, but it’s something that can happen. Given the kind of sharks that infest Amazon’s self-publishing business, I wouldn’t be surprised. On the other hand, it would probably make it easier for me to accept non-minor contributions and still be able to publish it at some point, maybe even in real paper, so it is not something I’m excluding altogether at this point.

Getting the guide packaged by distributions is also not entirely impossible right now: Gentoo has generally not the same kind of issues as Debian regarding the NC clauses, and since I’m already using Gentoo to build and publish it, making an ebuild for it is tremendously simple. Since the content is also available on Git – right now on Gitorious, but read on – it would be trivial to do. But again, this would be cannibalizing the only compensation I got for the time spent on the guide. Which makes me very doubtful on what to do.

About the sources, there is another issue: while at the time I started all this, Gitorious was handier than GitHub, over time Gitorious interface didn’t improve, while the latter improved a lot, to the point that right now it would be my choice to host the guide: easier pull requests, and easier coverage. On the other hand, I’m not sure if the extra coverage is a good thing, as stated above. Yes, it is already available offline through Gitorious, but GitHub would make it effectively easier to get offline than to consult online. Is that what I want to do? Again, I don’t know.

You probably also remember an older post of mine from one and a half years ago where I discussed the reasons why I haven’t published Autotools Mythbuster at least through Amazon; the main reason was that, at the time, Amazon has no easy way to update the book for the buyers without having them buying a new copy. Luckily, this has changed recently, so the obstacle is actually fallen. With this in mind, I’m considering making it available as a Kindle book for those of you who are interested. To do so I have first to create it as an ePub though — so it would solve the question that I’ve been asked about the eBook availability… but at the same time we’re back to the compensation issue.

Indeed, if I decide to set up ePub generation and start selling it on the Kindle store, I’d be publishing the same routines on the Git repository, making it available to everybody else as well. Are people going to buy the eBook, even if I priced it at $0.99? I’d suppose not. Which brings me to not be sure what the target would be, on the Kindle store: price it down so that the convenience to just buy it from Amazon overweights the work to rolling your own ePub, or googling for a copy, – considering that just one person rolling the ePub can easily make it available to everybody else – or price it at a higher point, say $5, hoping that a few, interested users would fund the improvements? Either bet sounds bad to me honestly, even considering that Calcote’s book is priced at $27 at Amazon (hardcopy) and $35 at O’Reilly (eBook) — obviously, his book is more complete, although it is not a “living” edition like Autotools Mythbuster is.

Basically, I’m not sure what to do at all. And I’m pretty sure that some people (who will comment) will feel disgusted that I’m trying to make money out of this. On the whole, I guess one way to solve the issue is to drop the NC clause, stick it into a Git repository somewhere, maybe keep it running on my website, maybe not, but not waste energy into it anymore… the fact that, with the much more focused topic, it has just 65 flattrs, is probably indication that there is no need for it — which explains why I couldn’t find any publisher interested in making me write a book on the topic before. Too bad.

The problem with eBooks

If you follow my blog, you know already I generally like eBooks, although I have found some technical issues with many of them (beside the obvious problem with DRM). But in general I keep preferring them over the dead-tree variant; if anything because they don’t require me to choose between leaving them in Italy, or spending a vast amount of money to have them back here.

But what I have here is probably more of a social problem than a technical one. I’m currently in the outskirts of Los Angeles, knowing almost nobody outside of the office in this area (Pesa is far enough), and too shy to go out the night alone. What I have spent most of my weekends doing here is reading: on the Pier and in the local Starbucks. Which is good, to be honest, as I like to read, and I used not to find enough time to. This is the part I like about travelling: I find time to read.

Anyway, I wouldn’t mind meeting people around here, and with people I don’t necessarily mean girls, to be clear. I would just prefer not to feel so … isolated in the crowd as I feel now. I guess being a geek in the surfer’s paradise is not that great a situation. But what has this to do with eBooks? Well, one thing that seemed to help for me the few weeks I spent in university was greeting people who were going around with books that I read before (and the other way around).. but it’s hard to do so when you move around with an Amazon Kindle, as it shows no book cover!

Okay, it’s true I did talk for a little while with a guy who was curious about the reader itself, but it still takes away all the people who know already the Kindle, and who might already have one. Maybe eBook readers should have two screens, one on the backside where it can keep displaying the cover of the book you’re reading, so that you can break the ice with new people. But most likely I guess this is one less thing people can rely upon to break the ice.

I guess it’ll take me quite longer to actually get to meet people around here then. Next thing to try? Getting a real deck of Magic: The Gathering and finding out where the nearest place to play is.

Artificial Regions Redux

It’s now over two months ago that I landed in the US with the idea of doing my job, do it well, and then consider moving here if the job was right. And two months ago I wrote about some stupid limitations of services based on where you were when you registered.

Now, even though I’m not here stable yet, I’m getting there: I have a bank account and a check card, and I have some billing address that I can use. So finally for instance I got access to Amazon’s App Store, which is not enabled even if you’re paying for Amazon Prime, as long as you don’t set your primary form of payment to a credit card (and address) in the US.

This should be easy, shouldn’t it? Not really; as it turns out, once I switched that around, Amazon stopped letting me buy Italian Kindle books…. which sounds silly given that they let me buy them before, and I haven’t removed my Italian credit cards, just not set them as default! Furthermore I’m not stopped from accessing them if I had them before.

The absurdities don’t stop here though; since I now have a check card in the US, I moved my iTunes Store account over… this actually enabled a few more functionalities, such as the “iTunes in the Cloud” and the fact that I can now re-download my purchased music as well as Books and Apps (which is the only two items that can be re-downloaded in Italy), but on the other hand, it threw off the previous purchases, showing all my purchased Apps as not available. While I was neither expecting nor hoping that my previous music purchases were available, I was pissed by the fact that it asked me to purchase again the software, especially things like TeamViewer, which is quite expensive. Luckily Apple’s tech support solved the issue relatively quickly.

So there you move to Android Market Google Play, that actually enabled me access to the US software simply by popping in the AT&T SIM card… well, while they did enable access to the US software, they still thought better to keep me off the Google Play Music store, as I was still registered in Italy. And while at it, when I actually purchased an App there… it ended up being charged in euros instead of dollars — this might sound strange, but it means that you pay more for it simply because the bank is going to ask you extra money for the currency exchange. Technically, the MII should tell them which currency the card is using by default, but instead of relying on that, they rely on your billing address… which they also don’t validate against the bank (as Newegg does instead).

Oh well… at least things seem to be more or less sane by now: most of the Italian books I had in my Amazon wishlist are available through the publishers’ group webshop which also provide most of them without DRM. Looks like Amazon is making it much nicer for everybody to buy eBooks now. Not all of them of course, but it’s still a step in the right direction.. and at the same time I’m very happy with buying them on the Kindle if I’m on the go, as I’m sure they are not going to kick me in my balls like Kobo did with The Salmon of Doubt (which I’m currently reading, after buying it again).

The misery of the ePub format

I often assume that most of the people reading my blog have been reading it for a long enough time that they know a few of my quirks, one of which is my “passion” for digital distribution, and in particular my liking of eBooks over printed books. This passion actually stems from the fact I’d like to be able to move out of my current home soonish, and the least “physical” stuff I have to bring with me, the better.

I started buying eBooks back in 2010, when I discovered my Sony Reader PRS-505 (originally only capable of reading Sony’s own format) was updated to be able to read the “standard” ePub format, protected with Adobe’s Digital Editions DRM (ADEPT). One of my first suppliers for books in that format was WHSmith, the British bookstore chain. At the end I bought six books from them: Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World (which I read already, but wanted a digital copy of, after giving away my hardcopy to a friend of mine), and four books of The Dresden Files.

After a while, I had to look at other suppliers for a very simple reason: WHSmith started requiring me a valid UK post code, which I obviously don’t have. I then moved on to Kobo since they seemed to have a more varied selection, and weren’t tied to the geographical distribution of the UK vendor.

Here I got one of my first disappointments with the ePub “standard”: one of the books I bought from Kobo earlier, Douglas Adams’s The Salmon of Doubt I still haven’t been able to read!

(I really wish Kobo at least replaced the book on their catalogue, since even their applications can’t read it, or otherwise I would like some store credit to get a different book, since that one can’t be read with their own applications.)

Over time, I came to understand that the ePub specifications are just too lax to make it a good format: there are a number of ePub files that are broken simply because the ZIP file is “corrupted” (the names within the records don’t match); a few required me to re-package them to be readable by the Reader; and a few more are huge just because they decide to get their own copy of DejaVu font family in the zip file itself. Of course to fix any of these issues, you also have to take the DRM out of the picture, which is luckily very easy for this format.

Today, Kobo is once again the protagonist of a disappointment, a huge one, in terms of digital distribution; together with WHSmith. But first let’s take a step back to last week.

While in the United States with Luca, I got my hands on a Kindle (the version with keyboard); why? Well, from one side I was starting to be irked by the long list of issues I noted earlier about ePub books, but on the other hand, a few books such as Ian Fleming’s classic Bond novels were not available on Kobo or other ePub suppliers, while they were readily available on Amazon… plus a few of the books I could find on both Kobo and Amazon were slightly cheaper on the latter. I already started reading Fleming’s novels on the iPad through Amazon’s app, but I don’t like reading on a standard LCD.

Coming back home, we passed through London Heathrow; Luca went to look for a book to read on the way home, and we went to the WHBook shop there… and I was surprised to see it was now selling Kobo’s own reader device (the last WHSmith shop I was at, a couple of years ago, was selling Sony exclusively). This sounded strange, considering that WHSmith and Kobo were rivals, for me in particular but in general as well.

I wasn’t that far off, when I smelled something fishy; indeed, tonight I received a mail from WHSmith telling me they joined forces with Kobo, and that they will no longer supply eBooks on their webshop. The format being what it is, if they no longer kept the shop, you’d be found without a way to re-download or eBooks, which is why it is important for a digital distributor to be solid for me.. turns out that WHSmith is not as solid as I supposed. So they suggest you to make an account at Kobo (unless you have one already, like I did) so that they can transfer your books on that account.

Lovely! For me that was very good news, since having the books on my Kobo account means not only being able to access them as ePub (which I had already), but also that I could read them on their apps for Android and iPad, as well as on their own website (very Amazon-y of them). Unfortunately there is a problem: out of the six books I bought at WHSmith, they only let me transfer… two!

Seems like that, even though WHSmith decided to give (or sell) its customers to Kobo, as well as leaving them to provide their ebook offering instead, their partnership does not cover the distribution rights of the books they used to sell. This means that for instance the four Dresden Files novels I bought from WHSmith, that were being edited, even digitally, by the British publisher, are not available to the Canadian store Kobo, who only list the original RoC offerings.

This brings up two whole issues: the first is that unless your supplier is big enough that you can rely on it to exists forever, you shouldn’t trust DRM; luckily for me on the ePub side the DRM is so shallow that I don’t really care for its presence, and on the other hand I foresee Amazon’s DRM to be broken way before they start to crumble. The second issue is that even in the market of digital distribution, which is naturally a worldwide, global market, the regional limitations are making it difficult to have fair offerings; again Amazon seems to sidestep this issue, as it appears to me like there is no book available only on one region in their Kindle offerings: the Italian Kindle store covers all the American books as well.

Why Autotools Mythbuster is not a published ebook

I have already expressed that my time lately is so limited that there is no hope for me to catch a breath (today I’m doing triple shifts to be able to find the time to read Ghost Story the latest in The Dresden Files novels’ series, that was released today, oh boy do I love eBooks?). So you might probably understand why even Autotools Mythbuster hasn’t seen much improvement over the past month and something.

But I have considered its future during this time. My original idea of trying to write this down for a real publisher was shot down: the only publisher who expressed something more than “no interest at all”, was the one which had already a book on queue on the topic. The second option, that was to work on it during spare time, finding the time through donations covering the time spent on the task. This also didn’t fly much, if at all.

One suggestion I’ve been given was to make the content available in print – for instance through lulu – or as a more convenient offline read, as a properly formatted ebook. Unfortunately, this seems to be overly complex for very little gain. First of all, the main point of doing this should have been to give it enough visibility and get back some money for the time spent on writing it, so simply adding PDF and ePub generation rules to the guide wouldn’t be much of an improvement.

The two obvious solutions were, as noted, lulu, and on the other hand Amazon’s Kindle Store. The former, though, is a bit complex because any print edition would just be a snapshot of the guide at some point in time, not complete and just an early release, at any point in time. While it would probably still get me something, I don’t think it is “right” for me to propose such an option. I originally hoped for the Kindle Store to be more profitable and still ethic, but read on.

While there are some technical issues with producing a decent ePub out of a DocBook “book” – even O’Reilly isn’t getting something perfect out of their ePubs, both when read on the Sony Reader and with iPad’s iBooks – that isn’t the main issue with the plan. The problem is that Amazon seems to make Kindle e-books much more similar to print books than we’d like to.

While as an author you can update the content of your book, to replace it with an updated version with more, corrected content, the only way for the buyer to get the new content is to pay again in full for the item. I can probably guess that this was done likely on purpose and almost as likely with at least partially with an intent to protect the consumer from the producer who might replace the content of any writing without the former’s intervention, but this is causing major pain in my planning, which in turn cause this method to not be viable either.

What I am planning on adding is simply a PDF version, with a proper cover (but I need a graphic project for it), and a Flattr QR Code, that can then be read offline. But that’s not going to make the guide any more profitable, which means it won’t get any extra time…

An year with my Reader

Okay so it’s not a full year in any sense – I bought it way over an year ago, and I found out that it could be used with a modern technology like ePub just past April – but if I have to remember one as such, 2010 has been the year of the Reader for me. And not just for me as it happens.

First of all, thanks to the Reader I was able to read a whole lot more than in the past years; I’m not sure if it’s just novelty that will wear off, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have brought with me so many books to read during travels as I did, mostly because of the small form factor (and the fact that it fits neatly into my usual bag). Anobii statistics reports I read 31 books, ten thousands pages worth of content this year — and this is nothing to say about the sheer variety of them compared to the past.

While I was never limiting my readings to a particular genre, the Reader, with the much cheaper ebooks, allowed me to choose among a wider range of books for my readings. Also the convenience of getting the book right away is not something to ignore; I actually read through Cyber War mostly because I could get it right after hearing about it on Real Time with Bill Maher. Beside that particular book, I went on to read some classics like The Picture of Dorian Gray that I never found the time to look up before, and economics/business books such as Too Big To Fail and Free which actually interested me greatly.

Surprisingly, what I found most difficult to read on the Reader were the reason I originally looked back to the Reader: O’Reilly books. Since they are generated with DocBook, they have one big issue that makes them hard to read on these devices, they split too much. Let’s take for instance Being Geek which I’d like to read next, if I can find a way to do so without irks; on a PDF or print edition, there are page breaks only between “sections”, rather than chapters. Chapters, which are actually often enough just a couple of paragraphs long, are simply printed one after the other continuously; this is quite okay because otherwise, the padding added at the end of each would waste a lot of paper, and would transform a 200ish pages’ book into a 500ish or so. As I said, DocBook ePub generation is imperfect in this regard as it splits the output HTML files (yes it uses HTML internally, let’s move on) on chapter markers, which means that every three paragraphs I have to wait till the Reader fetches the next file to render separately, slowing my reading down enough to make it difficult to continue.

Reading the PDF version of books on the reader is also not the brightest idea; since the screen of the PRS-505 is relatively small, you can’t read a PDF file full-size; while the newest firmware allows to zoom and reflow the text, this becomes also unusable as a way to read O’Reilyl books because the page number marker is not ignored. Even worse when complex diagrams are involved as the Reader is pretty much useless for those — for those technical books, I probably wouldn’t mind a tablet with a bigger screen; I’ve been considering the Archos 101 but I don’t currently have the dough to afford one; and when I’ll have, they’ll probably be sold out already.

Speaking about tablets, once again I think that Apple, even though can’t really be praised for a tremendously good job with the iPad, had a primary role in making 2010 the year of eBooks not only for me but for the whole situation, together with Amazon — the latter finally launched the Kindle in Europe (and once again, it’s not something I’d buy, considering Amazon’s “it’s all ours!” approach). With those two companies driving consumer attention (even though rarely consumers themselves) toward eBooks, I was somewhat curious about the Italian branches of Mediamarkt and Saturn starting to carry eInk devices in-store, especially since I knew there were no real Italian eBook pool to draw from, for the customers buying the devices.

Turns out that while Amazon entered the Italian market, IBS, that has been many times considered the Italian answer to Amazon, and Mediamarkt itself opened eBook stores, carrying Italian content in ePub format (mostly locked with Adobe Digital Editions DRM). I’m happy to note that while backcatalog is still not available, at least they carry both the big take-it-all publisher Mondadori and the lesser Chiarelettere with its vastly politics books — especially nice since the average books from the latter I bought before were both pretty expensive, and quite huge in the pure physical dimension).

At any rate, the bottom line for me is that the Reader now looks like a pretty good buy, more than it ever did at the time. But please, make it possible to skip over wireless, 3g, bluetooth, touchscreen.. the two weeks charge that the PRS-505 both promises and delivers make all of those look like wastes, especially since I only end up loading new stuff on it once every two weeks, which is also the time I end up charging its battery.