Where do you find e-books?

So you have bought a nice e-ink based e-book reader, and you need to quench your thirst for books. How do you get them? Free e-books are, well, free and without encryption; paid e-books, on the other hand, can be either encrypted or unencrypted.

For the sake of simplicity, I will assume that your reader is able to read ePub and PDF files and supports the Adobe Digital Editions DRM for both formats. Most readers can however be reprogrammed to support Mobi files, however, but I personally suggest to stick with ePub.

Free e-books

Free e-books are usually classic works whose copyright has expired, and are therefore in the public domain. Without delving into deep the deeper meaning of this, the practical effect is that they can be freely republished and spread. It should be noted, however, that different countries have different copyright regulations, and it may very well be that a specific work is in the public domain in one country but still under copyright in another. Care should be taken not to infringe the local regulation.

Most books written over a hundred years ago are in the public domain, and many of them can be found in ePub format. While Project Gutenberg has an experimental ePub output format, its internals are still based on simple text files that contain the whole book as a single, uninterrupted flow. This can be acceptable, but there are better options out there.

Enter Feedbooks, my personal favorite. With thousands of books at the time of writing, there is something for everybody. The site is split in two sections: public domain and original books. Many of the ones in the public domain are actually imported from Project Gutenberg and fixed to take advantage of the unique features of real e-books: table of contents, clear chapter marking, and so on. If you are going for classics, look no further. Original books, on the other hand, are recent books made available for free by their authors. Indeed, Feedbooks also doubles as an online self-publishing platform for writers. There are some gems hiding in there, so don’t dismiss the idea of reading stuff by unknown authors!

Another interesting source is Manybooks, which carries many books also carried by Feedbooks, but also adds some from other sources.

Using unencrypted e-books is as simple as dragging and dropping the .epub files onto the memory of the e-book reader, or using a specific software such as Calibre. I will not review the latter, though, as there are many other websites explaining how it works in great detail.

Paid e-books

More recent books, such as Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol” (or Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight”, if you are that kind of person) are — obviously — not available for free.

There are many online stores online that carry e-books in many formats, and that is a good thing, because you can sometimes find different prices. The downside is that, even if you have a favorite bookstore, you may still have to hunt around to find one that will be able to sell what you are looking for. Publishers, unfortunately, are stuck in the “regional limitation” paradigm: just like you can’t watch an European DVD in an American DVD player (unless you force it), you can’t purchase e-books targeted at a given area of the world if you are in another. In the case of e-books, this is even more frustrating than dealing with DVDs, because there is no artificial technical limitation. The difficulty is in getting hold of the file itself, since the issue arises during the check-out process.

That said, once you purchase an ePub with Adobe Digital Editions DRM (from now on: ADE), or a PDF with ADE, you will be presented with a very small .acsm file. The Adobe Digital Editions software — which you will have to have already installed and configured at that point — will open it and proceed to download the actual books and decrypt it. It will then be able to upload it to your actual e-book reader, if you have previously authorized it from within the ADE application.

My favorite e-book store is, without a shadow of a doubt, eBookPie. In addition to having a bunch of e-books of all kinds (with many being added daily), the site’s interface is very sleek and easy to navigate. Unlike many competitors, one distinguishing feature is the ability to limit search queries — or any other book listing, for that matter — by device or format.

My e-book reader, for instance, can open ePubs and PDF files, both encrypted and unencrypted. I can choose “Sony Reader” from the “Narrow by” dropdown box (it can read the same formats as the Cybook Opus), and I will not be presented with books that I wouldn’t be able to read. That’s more useful than it may seem, because most publishers are still getting the hang of electronic distribution and might only have their materials in formats that won’t work with your equipment.

It should be noted that “Adobe Digital Editions” and “Adobe ePub” are two different beasts: the former is a PDF file encrypted with ADE, while the latter is an ePub file encrypted with ADE. If possible, go for the latter. PDFs are not reflowable, and it may be slightly more difficult to read them without having to navigate actual pages. ePub files, on the other hand, are reflowable and your reader will build the pages itself, without forcing you to see half-pages or other monstrosities like that. In my experience, though, e-books in PDF format tend to have smaller pages than the full-fledged A4 or Letter paper sizes, so it’s not that bad. Not as good as ePubs, though.

There is, however, one reason that makes eBookPie stand out and crush the competition like an elephant does with an anthill. (I really hope PETA doesn’t come after this for such a comparison.) The reason is simple: outstanding, top-notch support.

When I first tried purchasing an e-book from eBookPie, on Friday night last week, I had some issues with the check-out process. I sent an email to tech support, asking whether it was indeed possible to buy files from Italy. Less than half an hour later, a very kind reply came from Ms. Jill Tomich, who asked me to provide additional information about the problem. This led to an exchange of messages back and forth, and the problem was ultimately fixed the next morning. Note that all of this happened between Friday afternoon and Saturday morning their time, and the whole exchange was extremely friendly. I have said in my previous post that Bookeen’s support was incredibly good, and that was true. eBookPie‘s support, however, is a million times better. I was utterly amazed by how much care an employee gave to a new customer who was just trying to buy a $1.66 e-book (yes, that’s one dollar and sixty-six cents). Now imagine my surprise when I noticed that Ms. Jill Tomich is not any employee: she is the co-founder and CEO of eBookPie. The CEO. Taking my $1.66 purchase so seriously that she followed up with me on a Saturday morning. She even sent me a discount coupon as a way to apologize for the trouble. She rocks, and the company she co-founded will grow huge.

See, it may appear that I am easily amazed, but in this case it’s absolutely worth it. Here in Italy, customers are seldom taken care of, and certainly not in such a friendly way and by someone at such a high level in a company. You are generally just another wallet to squeeze, and aggressive marketing has replaced customer care entirely. It’s all about quantity, not quality; so who cares if someone is disappointed and leaves? With companies such as Bookeen, and especially eBookPie, the approach is completely difference: you end up being so satisfied that you go back to purchase from them and you tell everybody else that they are great. That’s why I have made every single occurrence of the name eBookPie a link: they absolutely deserve it. Trust me, they are great!

Oh, and did I mention that they carry over 250,000 titles? Two hundred fifty thousand titles. Yep. You’d better be a cat, because one lifetime just won’t be enough to read them all.

In one of the following posts I will talk about a peculiar use of e-book readers: interactivity.