My interest in Amazon Kindle has kindled my interest in epublishing (in its narrow sense, i.e. ebook publishing) in general. I spent a whole day this week investigating various aspects of epublishing, including, ebook formats, ebook readers, ebook converters, ebook editors, ebook vendors and ebook libraries, and whether Kindle and Kindle format are the best ebook reader and format respectively. The following is a summary of my discoveries and opinions.
There are a number of ebook formats. The most important one is probably EPUB. It is an open format based on XHTML and CSS, and is supported by the majority of major ebook readers. Kindle is one of the few exceptions; it uses its native, proprietary format by default. I even thought of purchasing Kindle, but the more I have discovered, the less enthusiastic I have become about it. It is true that it is one of the cheapest ebook readers available in the market now, and there are probably more books available in Kindle format than in any other format. But this seems a good example of the so-called vendor lock-in; purchasing ebooks in this closed format is to ensure that they may not be readable in the future. For the same reason I evade Apple hardware, Adobe software, Microsoft office suite, to mention just a few.
There are four types of ebook readers: hardware, desktop software, browser addons and online ebook readers. Amazon Kindle is the most popular example of the first type. The greatest advantage of this type of ebook readers is that they use the so-called epaper. Unfortunately, I have never seen how it looks, but it seems better suited for reading than computer screens. I wish there would appear personal computers with epaper. Because of its proprietary format Kindle cannot be my choice. My ideal ebook reader of this type has to support Hebrew and Japanese in EPUB format, though there are not many ebooks like this. PocketBook seems a good choice, but it is still too expensive and its design is not sophisticated enough.
There are also a number of desktop ebook readers for personal computers and handheld devices. Kindle as software is also available for these devices, and I tried Kindle for PC, but I did not like it at all. The ebook reader I like best as of now is FBReader; it is opensource cross-platform software, but it still needs more sophistication in functionality and interface. EPUBReader and Bookworm have impressed me most as a browser (Firefox) addon and an online ebook reader respectively.
EPUB has both pros and cons in comparison with PDF. One of the pros is that documents in this format are fluid. There are a number of online tools for converting documents to EPUB. One of them is ePub Converter. It is easier to convert existing documents to EPUB than to prepare documents directly in EPUB. One of the best ebook editors I have found is Sigil; it can also edit documents in EPUB format.
As I wrote above, I would not purchase ebooks stored in a proprietary format such as Kindle format, however popular it may be at this moment. Vendors that sell ebooks in EPUB format include eBooks.com (in English) and Mendele (in Hebrew). I have not found any vendor that sells Japanese ebooks in EPUB. Japanese ebook industry is plagued by a plethora of proprietary formats never used outside Japan. One of the main reasons for the chaos is that EPUB does not enable epublishing in ways that are common in Japanese print publishing. Having found it necessary to adapt EPUB as the default ebook format, Japan Electronic Publishing Association has issued Minimal Requirements on EPUB for Japanese Text Layout.
In addition to commercial vendors there are a number of digital libraries where one can get ebooks in EPUB for free. Project Gutenberg and Google Books are two of the biggest and most famous digital libraries. If one does not mind taking the trouble of converting electronic documents to EPUB format and reading them as they are in PDF and other formats not meant for ebooks, there are more digital libraries even in Hebrew (e.g., Hebrew Books and Project Ben-Yehuda), Yiddish (e.g., Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library) and Japanese (e.g., Aozora Bunko).
In conclusion I have decided to purchase neither Kindle nor any ebook stored in its proprietary format. I have started to use FBReader to read ebooks downloadable for free from the above-mentioned digital libraries. As for new books, I am looking forward to Google Editions, which is said to open in the near future. I can easily foresee that ebooks will soon outnumber printed books because of their many advantages, but they pose a problem for observant Jews on Sabbath and festivals.