Why e-books?

Much has been said in favour of digital books and against them. I believe e-books to be beneficial, as it is getting more and more difficult to publish texts that do not fit easily into the non-fiction, self-help or bestseller categories. The reason may be that publishers do not have enough staff or money, or that most people no longer read challenging books, or that the internet has disrupted traditional channels of distribution. Perhaps it is a combination of all these factors. My impression is that texts that show real workmanship and sophistication are rarely published as printed books today.

E-books provide a solution to these problems. I believe that in future many good texts will be published on the internet, because this additionally opens up the possibility of collaborating with people around the world to improve texts. I believe that many successful digital books will later be published in a printed version by a publishing company after they have made their mark on the internet. I don't see these two worlds at war.

Unlike printed books, electronic books are exclusively the product of computer technology, and they come with the advantages this technology offers, but also with the drawbacks.

The EPUB file format

The electronic books I am talking about here enable the reading device to adjust the text of the book dynamically so as to set the best possible font size for the display at hand. This means that you should always be able to read the text with ease, no matter if you're viewing it on a small dedicated reading device or on a large computer screen. This type of e-book does not have any page numbers, or even a certain amount of pages. It is rather more like a web page, dynamically adapting its content, than a printed book.

I believe the data format of electronic books should conform to an open standard. As far as I know, this currently is the EPUB format. This file format is standardised by the International Digital Publishing Forum, a standards organisation based in Toronto, Canada, that is controlled by big computer companies and publishers. Electronic books that use this format have the file extension “.epub”. I wouldn't advise using other formats like Amazon Kindle (file extension “.azw”) or Microsoft LIT (file extension “.lit”), because these books can only be read by certain devices or reading applications. They are thus useless to a whole lot of people.

Dedicated reading devices

You can buy a whole range of reading devices dedicated to reading e-books. My advice is to buy a reading device with an “electronic paper” display (these screens are made by companies like E-Ink, SiPix or LG Display). The screens of such dedicated e-book readers do not emit light; That is why they are often called “reflective displays”. A computer screen, in contrast, normally has a backlight. The advantage of electronic paper is its very high definition that allows the user to read for a long period of time without straining their eyes.

All reading devices do a good job of displaying books, some better than others. You should expect to pay between one and two hundred euros. The display size, which is defined as the distance between two opposite screen corners, is normally around 5 to 6 inches (13 to 15 centimetres). I recommend buying the Kobo devices "Kobo Glo HD" or "Kobo Aura H2O" or the "Tolino Vision 3HD", which is sponsored by the major German booksellers; these devices are up to date. I would not recommend buying any “Amazon Kindle” device, simply because they are unable to read the EPUB format for technical (or business strategy) reasons.

Applications for your computer

Strangely enough, only a very limited amount of good reading applications exist for a normal computer which enable people to read e-books with a certain amount of convenience. “Convenience” in this context means that the text is broken down into short lines (and, mostly, multiple columns), the font size is adjusted to the size of the screen automatically, and you can “turn the page” easily and navigate between chapters, for example by using the table of content.

My current favourite application is the Firefox browser's “EPUBReader” extension. The extension is easy to install. You simply open the Tools menu in Firefox and chose “Get Add-ons”. Enter the word “EPUBReader” (without the quotation marks) into the search field and press the Enter key. Once the “Search” menu is displayed, make sure you have the option “Available Add-ons” checked (not “My Add-ons”). Then simply click the “Install” button next to the “EPUBReader” entry. Close Firefox and restart it again. The application has now been installed and is ready for use.

To read an electronic book that you have saved to your hard disk or any other storage device go to the File menu in Firefox, and then select “Open File...”. A file manager will open; browse through your files until you find the e-book you are looking for, click on the file name and then select “Open”. The electronic book will open in a Firefox browser window.

If you download an e-book from a web page you have opened in Firefox, the book will automatically be opened in a new tab by EPUBReader. You can save the e-book to your hard disk by clicking on the image of a floppy disk at the bottom of the web page ("Save Copy").

Using the “EPUBReader”

The reading process is controlled with the horizontal bar at the bottom of the screen. You can bookmark the page you are currently reading by clicking on the page icon with a red bookmark (“Bookmark this page”). You can only bookmark one page at a time. The bookmark is saved when you close the electronic book. When you open the book again, the page you have bookmarked will be displayed; This is a very simple type of bookmarking.

You can browse through the book by page or by chapter, by clicking on the blue arrowheads or by hitting the “left” and “right” arrow keys on your keyboard to turn the page. Clicking on the page icon with a horizontal and a vertical arrow („Switch Reading Style“) will switch the layout from a true e-book multi-column layout (Book style), where you can browse by page and chapter and cannot scroll, to a single-column web page layout, where you can only browse by chapter but can scroll through the text like on a web page (Website style).

What's the point? Well, the Website style for instance enables you to search entire chapters for key words with the aid of the usual search function (CTRL + F). As of August 2012, references (e.g. footnotes) also did not work properly in Book mode, but they worked perfectly in Website mode.

You can reduce and increase font size by clicking on one of the two icons on the extreme right. You may also use the "+" and "-" keys. This works best with the keys on the numeric keypad.