Sunday, 7 November 2010

Reading Paradise... or DRM Hell?

New Toy

Yesterday, I bought myself a Sony PRS-650 Reader Touch Edition as a belated birthday present. I could have bought the new Kindle, as there are lots of adverts for it in the tube, it's cheaper and it has Wi-Fi. I went for the Sony PRS reader instead because I don't really need Wi-Fi and it has a touch screen, which means that it's not encumbered by a keyboard and is therefore a lot smaller for the same screen size (6" display). The Sony device does really fit in a pocket as it's about the size of a very thin paperback. If you want even smaller, you can get the Pocket edition, a.k.a. PRS-350.

So the first thing I did was go to Waterstone's as I know they stock the PRS-650. Unfortunately, between two shops I visited, they had 5 demo devices, only one of which seemed to work and no staff in sight to help. So I ended up going to the Sony Centre in Tottenham Court Road, where I was served by very helpful staff who were happy to answer any question and demo the device. What's more, if you buy the device from Sony direct, you can also have it in a very nice red colour that is much less boring than the black and grey offered by Waterstone's.

Back home, I installed calibre from the Ubuntu repositories and, lo and behold, my new toy was immediately recognised and supported out of the box! On a side note, the connection is a standard Micro-B USB connector, which means that the cable to connect it to the computer and charge it is the same as with my Nokia N900.

But getting the device to work is only the start, you then need to load it with books. The PRS-650 supports a variety of file formats and whatever it doesn't support, calibre should be able to convert to EPUB. So you basically need to find books to download. Here's a quick list of what I tried.

The Good

  • The first thing to do when you get your Sony reader is to register it on My Sony, you will then be able to download 100 free classic books in Sony's own format, including titles like Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels, The Importance of Being Earnest or David Copperfield.
  • If you want more classics, Project Gutenberg is the place to go to: thousands of books in a variety of languages for which the copyright has expired.
  • If you are into science fiction, Baen Publishing offer most of their titles as non-DRM e-books that you can then load into calibre. They even offer some of them for free through their free library.
  • For technical books, both The Pragmatic Bookshelf and O'Reilly offer their titles in a variety of formats without DRM.

The Bad

  • Waterstone's, WHSmith, Penguin, rbooks (Random House) and kobo will only sell you DRM-encumbered books that require Adobe Digital Editions, which of course doesn't exist for Linux. Apparently it works well under WINE but Adobe won't offer the Windows download if you connect to their web site using Ubuntu. It also means that you are forced to use a particular piece of software, which may or may not be practical. Add to this that, apart from kobo, the other web sites are not very forthcoming with that information so you may end up buying an e-book that you can't download and only discover that after you've actually paid for it!
  • Amazon, quite predictably, will only sell you books for the Kindle but won't let you download the file, you have to use either a Kindle device or the Kindle software, which only works on Mac OS-X or Windows and won't work with the Sony reader anyway.

The Ugly

  • Foyles and Books, etc. have a web site that seems to be able to show me e-books or fiction books but not fiction e-books so I was unable to find what I wanted and eventually gave up.
  • Blackwell's seem to have a very limited list of titles available as e-books so I gave up and also failed to find out any information on the e-book formats they offer and whether they were DRM-encumbered.

It looks like the publishing industry is following blindly in the footsteps of the music industry, leaving very few options for Linux users to buy e-books legally. And as usual it's not a question of hardware support, it's all about restricting what customers can do with the media they purchase. Surely, there must be a better solution than this mess?

Update 1

I originally thought that The Book Depository didn't offer e-books but in fact they do and, like a number of others, only sell DRM-encumbered books, require you to use Adobe Digital Editions and don't tell you until you've actually bought the book. So that's one more candidate for the bad list above.

Update 2

I mistakenly said above that The Book Depository didn't warn you about the requirement for Adobe Digital Editions. In fact they do, just not in a place where I was expecting it so I didn't notice it. As a result they won't refund you if you mistakenly buy an e-book that you can't download.

WHSmith also mention that you need Adobe Digital Editions. However, they do that at the very bottom of the book's page below adverts for other e-books and customer reviews, so not quite as prominently as you would expect. They won't refund you either if you make a mistake.

rBooks will refund you if you ask them politely.

Update 3

Waterstone's will refund you too if you ask politely.

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