Review: The fateful debate about books and e-books

Posted Apr 25, 2013 by Jack Kapica
Kobo’s new Aura HD, a ‘limited edition’ e-reader for ‘the most passionate book lovers,’ is a great e-reader. But it launches in the middle of a dubious debate
Kobo Aura HD
Kobo Aura HD
Kobo Inc.
I had just received my review unit of the new Kobo Aura HD Limited Edition ($169) e-reader when I tripped across an on-line discussion about e-readers that started with the question, “Are printed books really going to become obsolete?”
It was probably just a troll trying to rile book lovers, but I still can’t believe the stupidity of the question. I’ve seen it countless times in countless variations in different online discussion forums. The problem is that it assumes publishing e-books is a winner-take-all game that will make one technology, in this case digital e-readers, render everything else obsolete, in this case printed books. This discussion has shown up with the introduction of all sorts of new technologies, asking the same question about computers, smartphones, digital tablets, televisions — you name it. The question assumes that society is bound to totally reject the way it did things previously, such as walking (when you have a car), phoning someone (when you have a videophone) or writing anything by hand (when you have a computer).
The question also assumes that in the next stage of the battle between e-books and printed books, there will be a winner-take-all situation in which one e-reader — perhaps the Kindle, because its maker Amazon is just so freaking awesome — will push all the others off the market. This kind of thinking is currently distorting the smartphone market, in which one phone — most likely the iPhone, of course, because you have one and cannot conceive that someone else might prefer another brand — will crush the competition and gather the entire market to itself.
In blacker moods I also suspect the question might be posed in discussion forums by e-reader manufacturers who want to distract people away from other, more serious issues raised by the e-book revolution. For instance:
Most e-readers are tied to one major bookseller, and are increasingly being made to deter owners from “sideloading” e-books from other bookstores — such as transferring a book you bought from Amazon (which uses a proprietary format) into your Kobo e-reader. The primary use of e-readers is to drive people to specific booksellers. This is the secret behind the iPad, a device Steve Jobs created mainly to force its users to buy things through his iTunes store. Some people may not mind his trap, especially those who limit themselves to bestsellers; but people with catholic tastes are likely to be quickly frustrated. The end result is that you might have to buy a new e-reader for those books that aren’t available at the bookstore that sold you your e-reader.
Want proof? A recent ad for the Kindle Paperwhite e-reader states that buyers will have access to “over 250,000 Kindle exclusive titles that you won't be able to find anywhere else, including books by bestselling authors such as Stephanie Bond.” I have no idea who Stephanie Bond is, though I found online that she is a Harlequin author; but I now know I can’t read any of those quarter-million books unless I have a Kindle.
Essentially, e-readers are made for a mass market that feeds almost exclusively on bestsellers. Look for a book that is geared for a specialty market (see how many university texts you can buy as an e-book) and you’ll find yourself in a bind.
Another element that the winner-take-all argument obscures is book ownership. You do not “buy” an e-book, you buy only the right to read it. The cost of publishing a digital edition has been reduced to almost zero, leaving the price you pay as a kind of compromise between what you might have paid for the book when it was in printed on paper and what the e-book market will now bear. And except for what a publisher will pay the author and for the publicity, that’s almost all profit.
The e-book stays “in the cloud,” meaning every time you connect to the Internet (via Wi-Fi), your e-reader will check with the online bookstore to see whether you have the right to read the book. You will not be able to lend it to anyone or even use it as a doorstop. Your “library” does, to a certain extent, store the book you’re reading, but plug most e-readers into your computer and see if you can find a specific book on it and copy it to your hard drive. Not bloody likely, except in some rare exceptions, and not unless you are a computer whiz kid.
In any case, we can safely assume that the question of printed-book obsolescence is already settled for people who read only novels by John Grisham, J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown.
Okay, that’s now off my chest. But it is important to know when thinking of e-readers.
The Kobo Aura HD has a few interesting features that address some of my concerns. It’s much like the slightly older Kobo Glo in that they both have a backlit screen that allows you to read in the dark (in bed, lecture halls, airplanes, museums and the like). It also has 10 font styles, scalable in 24 sizes for reading ease and it will display text in many languages (including English, French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, Portuguese and Japanese).
Kobo s Aura HD is sleek e-reader with a lot of improvements under the hood  an improved screen and a...
Kobo's Aura HD is sleek e-reader with a lot of improvements under the hood, an improved screen and a faster processor. One thing it won't do is to stop the silly argument about whether e-readers will totally replace printed books.
Kobo Inc.
One thing I like is that the Aura HD supports e-books published in the EPUB and Adobe DRM formats, which allows you to read books from a public library.
It has a built-in dictionary, which is nice for a quick definition, but it’s not the Oxford English Dictionary, or even the Random House Dictionary. It’s Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate dictionary, which is serviceable, though hardly definitive.
Readers can also highlight text, record notes and attach them to the text and share the book titles on Facebook. Kobo has enhanced some features, including predictive search, brightness controls, zooming in on texts formatted in PDF, and the ability to read other formats, such as image files (JPEG, GIF, PNG, TIFF), TXT (raw text), HTML (Web-style text), RFT (Reversible-form text, developed for IBM mainframe text presentation), as well as CBZ and CBR (for comic books).
I am, however, nonplussed by Kobo’s social-networking features, which include Kobo Picks (it suggests books selected by other readers based on their feedback and preferences), and Reading Life (which tracks your reading statistics, and allows you to share them on Facebook’s Timeline). Reading is, to me at least, a much more private experience than can be enjoyed in the hyper-competitive and exhibitionist atmosphere of social media such as Facebook. But I won’t deny others’ right to boast about their reading habits to their pals.
The Aura HD also boasts a high-definition screen for clarity, though it doesn’t mean much to my tired eyes, even when using my best reading glasses. The resolution is 1440 by 1080, or 265 dpi, on a 6.8-inch Pearl E Ink touchscreen (not in colour), which is smaller than a standard paperback page, even when its font size is greatly reduced. It also has 4 gigabytes of on-board storage, which Kobo proudly says will contain 3,000 e-books (I’m guessing they’re all-text books of average novel length).
I’m also a little befuddled by exactly what Kobo means when it says the Aura HD is a “limited-edition” e-reader. The Aura HD, Kobo says, “is designed for the most passionate book lovers — those who devour hundreds of stories each year — who asked us to create the ultimate e-reading experience. Kobo Aura HD is our way of celebrating these customers.”
Well, sure, okay. I applaud any attempt to encourage reading. That includes outfitting the Aura HD with a faster, 1GHz processor and removable memory that stretches the capacity from 4 GB to 32GB and designing the fonts to work with the new, high-definition screen. Together, these features are promoted as pushing “the boundaries of e-reading the same way [Kobo’s] readers do — together, they'll know no bounds as they find their next great read.”
To me, the new features of the Aura HD make it a better version of the company’s previous e-readers, though I don’t see how pitching the product to more sophisticated readers is a good reason to limit its production. I will just see the Aura HD as a new model in Kobo’s line of e-readers.
I spent most of my professional and academic life with my nose in one book or another, even spending a number of years as The Globe and Mail’s books editor. I left that world some years before e-readers came out. My initial reaction to e-books, then, was negative; it remained that way until the price of e-books dropped to something resembling sanity and the choice of titles became wider. I also became more positive when I realized I could buy books that had largely fallen out of print or had been limited to regional markets.
These days I buy a lot of e-books, and read them on my Kobo e-readers. I find that aside from finding books that I could never lay my hands on in local bookstores, I like them also because I can carry an e-reader around much more easily than the paper-bound versions.
But my tastes in reading matter have changed a little too. I now buy e-books when I want pure entertainment or light information; I don’t even bother to look for digital versions of lavishly illustrated coffee-table books. The last printed book I bought was a two-volume collection of Raymond Chandler’s complete works, including selected letters and essays, a timeline and a short biography. I can’t imagine buying and reading that in e-book form — and I can’t find that two-volume set online anyway.
It’s clear that e-books are a serious and inevitable evolution, but I would urge anyone trying to discuss the fate of printed books to think things through before even asking about the fate of all printed books. The future of publishing is far too complex and subtle — and changing too rapidly — to be settled easily or quickly.