Beginner\'s Guide to E-Books

In the last year, e-books have started taking off in a big way. E-books have been around for a long time, of course, but a few events in the last year suggest that they’re really starting to get traction as a viable alternative to paper-based reading. One is the success of e-books like Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done (read my review). Another is the emergence of e-book-only publishing concerns and widespread self-publishing made possible by the availability of cheap tools and widespread Internet access. The third is the release of viable e-book readers, especially the Kindle.

Another sign of the success of e-books, though, is not such a happy one: the huge glut of poorly written, scammy, second- and third-rate e-books that has suddenly started flooding the market. As with music and video, the Internet has made publishing and distributing books easy and next to free, and it can be hard to find anything worth reading.

Still, there’s some gems out there if you know where to look. For those of you who are just discovering e-books, or are ready to take another look, I offer this basic guide to finding and reading e-books, with a few tips and tricks thrown in.

E-Book Formats

There are dozens of different formats out there, all intended for different devices and platforms. Here’s a quick overview of the most popular ones:

  • PDF: Adobe’s Portable Document Format is the leading format for e-books, since it can perfectly simulate the appearance of the printed page.
  • LIT: Microsoft’s LIT format is used by Microsoft Reader, available for Windows-based PCs and mobile devices. LIT files look nice, but are often copy-protected and have limited functionality.
  • MOBI: A portable document format created by Mobipocket (which runs on Windows PCs and just about every kind of smartphone or PDA), MOBI picked up steam recently when it was adopted, albeit in a slightly modified form, by the Kindle.
  • Plain Text (txt) and HTML: Standard file types that can be used by just about every device known. TXT files lack any formatting.

How to Find E-Books

There are thousands, maybe millions, of sites offering e-books on the Internet, but here are a few good ones:

  • Amazon: Of course Amazon has e-books, with just about any recent mainstream book for sale. Your favorite online retailer probably carries e-books, too.
  • Project Gutenberg: Millions of free, public domain books, generally available in text and HTML formats. Includes just about any classic book you can think of from before 1923, and a few more recent books.
  • Wowio: Beautifully formatted books, including some fairly recent mainstream books, all free.
  • The Internet Archive: The Internet Archive is scanning books in libraries around the world and making them available for free in a range of formats, including searchable PDFs of the original page images. They have about half-a-million texts so far, and counting.
  • Baen Free Library: A pioneer in the e-book field, Baen makes selected titles from it’s line of science fiction and fantasy books available for free download. Lots of good stuff for SF fans!
  • Free-eBooks.net: A huge directory of free e-books, most of which are self-published. You’ll have to do some digging to find quality stuff here, but there are plenty of good books to be found with some patience.
  • Web Warrior Tools: Founded by two of the stars of the personal productivity blogosphere, Leo Babauta of Zen Habits and Glen Stansberry of LifeDev, Web Warrior Tools offers a collection of books devoted to topics like better email, podcasting, and other Lifehack-y subjects.
  • Memoware: Memoware includes tens of thousands of public domain books, formatted for a wide range of portable devices. They also have a premium bookstore where more current, mainstream books can be bought.
  • Fictionwise: A huge e-book bookstore, specializing in SF, with titles formatted for a range of devices. Check out their always-changing selection of free e-books drawn from their collection.

How to Read E-Books

Nobody has figured out a way to read that adequately replaces the way we read traditional paper books, but that isn’t always important — and some solutions come pretty close! There are a number of ways to read e-books:

  • On your computer screen: This is probably the least preferred way to read e-books. But it’s fine for short pieces — you read on the Internet at your computer, right? It’s also fine for quickly looking at reference material like an encyclopedia or computer manual.
  • PDA/smartphone/iPhone: I’ve read dozens of books on my old Palm IIIe, when I lived in New York and took the subway a lot. iPhones are supposed to be particularly nice to read on. Most PDAs and smartphones come with some kind of pre-installed e-book reader, or you can easily download Mobipocket, Microsoft Reader, or a range of other programs depending on your device’s operating system.
  • Dedicated devices: New devices with “electronic ink” technology come very close to reproducing the appearance of printed text on paper pages (although the background is closer to “pulp fiction gray” than “first edition white”). There are several devices on the market, but the leaders are:
    • The Kindle: With built-in wireless Internet to download books on the fly and the support of Amazon’s extensive inventory of e-books, the Kindle was a surprise hit — especially considering how ugly it is!
    • The Sony eReader: Better looking than the Kindle, but lacking the wireless Internet. Both devices use basically the same screen and cost about the same. Because the e-ink technology used in the screen only uses electricity to change the screen (e.g. to turn pages), battery life on both devices is quite high — unless you use the built-in mp3 player or the Kindle’s wireless Internet services.
  • Paper: I often print out longer works that I don’t want to read on a screen, especially if it’s likely I’ll be holding onto and re-reading it. Save paper by using your printer’s “multiple pages per sheet” function and printing on both sides; I also keep a ream of paper with pre-drilled holes handy so I can stick printed out books straight into a binder.

E-books can be quite practical — there’s a universe of great literature, history, science, how-to, and reference material available at a moment’s notice, often for free. What could be wrong with that?

If you know of other sites where good e-books can be found, if you have a favorite way to read e-books that I haven’t listed here, or if there’s a program you especially like, let us know in the comments!

Love this article? Share it with your friends on Facebook