Monday, March 12, 2012

Head in the Cloud

I've discovered a whole new way to enjoy reading. eBooks have been around for years but since the introduction of the Kindle Reader by in 2007 they've really taken off. I've resisted buying a Kindle because I didn't want to be forced to buy books from a single outlet, be it Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Sony, that produces those books in a proprietary format readable only on their device. But I've changed my position on that recently because as a traveler and a voracious reader I simply cannot bring with me all the books I will read in a span of 6 or 8 months. I don't have room for them and I don't want to pay to ship them all over the world. I read most books only once and then I must decide what to do with them. I usually give them to a friend but sometimes I throw them away or sell them at a second hand shop. I definitely don't want to carry them with me on the motorcycle or stuff them into my already heavy roller bag and take them flying with me.

eBooks solve that problem perfectly. They weigh nothing and take up no space. I can read several books simultaneously, choosing one for bedtime reading, another for afternoons, still another for a quick, topical read. Conventional bookmarks aren't required because the page you're on is always remembered. And you do not need to buy a separate stand-alone reader. At Amazon at least, you can download your books to a normal computer (or several computers) and read them in your browser. The Kindle Cloud Reader is a Flash based application that requires nothing other than a recent version of Chrome or Firefox. I'm carrying a raft of books with me now -- a couple of them in book form would be weighty tomes (A tale of Two Cities, Infinite Jest) that would push the weight of my roller bag over the 23 kg limit. And, surprise, surprise, some of the books in my Cloud Library were very cheap to purchase, some even free.

A portion of my Kindle Library
One of the nicer features of these apps is that you don't have to be online to read. You can download and "pin" any book (or many books) and read offline. In the photo above you see some of the titles I've purchased. They are in "The Cloud" in Amazon's parlance -- they do not actually exist on my computer but are on Amazon's servers somewhere in cyberspace. In the top center of this screen shot you can see a tab labeled "Downloaded". Clicking on this tab displays the books I've pinned, i.e., downloaded.  These are ready to read anytime I want them, whether I happen to be near a wi-fi access point or not. A full electronic copy exists on my computer. Very cool.

Are the eBooks expensive? Yes and no. They usually cost less then their printed counterparts but Amazon and others have got to be making a ton of money on them because, let's face it, the production costs must be small compared with manufacturing a printed book, packaging it, distributing it, stocking it, etc. That said, most of the books I've bought cost about $10 -- about what you pay these days to download an mp3 album by an established group.

And here's something I discovered only recently. Many Kindle books are available cheap, from 99 cents to 1.99. These are termed Kindle Singles. Some of these are books that might never have seen ink if conventional metrics applied. They are good books in their own right but for various reasons, maybe they're too short or appeal to only a limited audience, would never have been printed. Ebooks have opened the door for many authors, some very well known, to get these works published despite a lack of industry interest. The entire top row of titles in my Cloud (which happens to be displayed in order of purchase) are Kindle Singles and represent about $15-20 worth of purchases. There are the short, topical reads I mentioned above -- most can be finished in an hour or two. One is by Pulitzer Prize winner William T. Vollman. Into the Zone describes his experiences when he visited Japan following the 2011 Tsunami Disaster.

Aside: How does one find these free or cheap books? Pull up Amazon's listing of Kindle Singles, for example. When it first appears it will be arranged by Popularity. There's a drop down list near the top of the page where you can choose to see the list sorted by price. The cheapest items will now appear first.

Many of the other titles in the top row of my Cloud Library were discovered in a new blog I've begun to follow. It embraces the fact that eBooks are here to stay and that science buffs as well as science writers and educators need a source of critically reviewed short subjects available in eBook format. Check out Download the Universe. This blog just started in January so it is very new but I'll be following it closely for  recommendations. This blog is oriented towards science topics so it may not appeal to everyone but their notion that books that aren't worth printing using the conventional publishing paradigm are nevertheless worth reading is certainly important and one that will create gigantic repercussions throughout the publishing world.

Oh, and a few of those titles in the screenshot came to me absolutely free. When is the last time you saw this in an online catalog?

I don't know if I'll ever get around to reading A Tale of Two Cities but it's on my list of Books I Must Read, it cost nothing to buy, weighs nothing and takes up no room in my suitcase. Why not carry it along in my Cloud Library?

The Cloud Reader app is a limited version of what's available in full blown readers, Android tablets and the iPad. The possibilities for publishing truly stunning works of art and literature and science are practically limitless given where the technology is heading with those very capable platforms. Am I ready to buy a Kindle Reader? I'm close but I think I'll wait a while yet to see what's ahead in the Android Tablet world. The browser based reader in my tiny Netbook is easy to hold in bed, almost like a book, and serves my purpose for now. Eventually I'm sure I'll fully embrace the new paradigm.

What about you? It's easy to try. If you already have an account, go to and search for Tale of Two Cities. Click on the title to display the full page spread and then click on Kindle Edition. Buy it (for 0.00 dollars) and elect to begin reading on your Cloud Reader.