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A Beginner’s Guide to E-Books

A Beginner’s Guide to E-Books

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.

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    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.

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    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:

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    • 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?

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    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!

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    Last Updated on April 8, 2019

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

    Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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    1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
    2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
    3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
    4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
    5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
    6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
    7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
    8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
    9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
    10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
    11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
    12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
    13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
    14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
    15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
    16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
    17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
    18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
    19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
    20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
    21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
    22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

    Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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