2010 - The Year of the eBook–A Comparison of Technical eBook Publishers

I officially declare 2010 the year of the eBook. In July I purchased an iPad – my first eBook reader – and my reading habits have changed somewhat dramatically. I am buying more than ever, reading more than ever and my thirst for knowledge has skyrocketed – a result, I believe, of accessibility to my whole library anytime, anywhere.

My physical to digital (2009) transition from CD to MP3 highlighted a single important fact – I am a hoarder. Sure, I love to read and I love to listen to music. But probably not as much as I like to collect things, hoard things and, as I believe is often the case with those who like to hoard (embarrassing as it is) to show off those collections…there’s nothing quite like a bookshelf full of intelligent looking books… :-)

In the 6 short months since I bought the device I’ve built up a substantial technical library (and a non-too-shabby non-technical library) of digital books. I’ve purchased from pretty much every technical eBook vendor in the .NET space with varying degrees of success and in this post hope to summarize my experiences.

Note: While PDF is obviously a portable format, when I discuss mobile formats I’m focusing on ePub/mobi and other formats that better suit eReaders and tablets – including the ability to reflow text, resize fonts and provide the reader with a better overall reading experience

Criteria

These are the things that affect my eBook shopping habits and therefore on which vendors are rated.

  • Cost/Deals
    • Bang-for-my buck is an upmost consideration. If I really want/need a particular book then I will buy it regardless. However, for anything on my medium-to-long-term wish list, I am easily won over by a good deal or promotion. A number of technical publishers wisely leverage email promotions/daily deals/etc.
  • Upgrade Path
    • If I buy a print book I expect an option to attain the eBook, for free or at cost. If at cost, I expect it to be reasonable – if I’ve already bought one version of the book it shouldn’t cost the same amount to buy a digital format of the same book.
  • Available Formats
    • I believe that when the dust settles the ePub format will emerge the victor. The format seems pretty open compared to proprietary format, but allows for DRM and other mechanisms desired by publishers. Regardless of who reigns supreme, I want the option to read my book on an iPad or kindle or whatever comes next. To me the formats supported reflects the publisher’s progressive mentality (in this industry it is a must) and agility when change occurs.
  • Access to Downloads
    • When Google’s eBook store was announced, I was confused by the advertised personal cloud storage. At first I took this to mean one could access their downloads at any point in the future – a feature prevalent now but one that a number of vendors have only introduced in the last few months. Google, however, was talking about something more – the ability to read your books from any device (PC, Android, iPhone, etc.), picking up from where you left off. While this is an extremely cool feature – similar to the Kindle's offering – it is something that doesn’t interest me outside of a “how did they program that?” sort of way. I like the dedicated iBooks app on the iPad and do not expect to read much on my desktop pc or my android phone. As such, the feature really does nothing for me. What does matter is the more rudimentary ability to get at my files now and in the future. At this point pretty much all of the vendors on the list have a portal for you to grab your books from, making life easy. Anything beyond that doesn’t excite me much.
Publishers

Below is a breakdown of vendors and my reflections on my experiences as a whole. I am not rating the quality of content – there are too many variables (authors, content type, technical level, etc.) for me to feel comfortable to rate the publishers themselves. However, after spending months purchasing and consuming digital books I am confident that my feedback aptly summarizes each vendor’s eBook capabilities.

Manning (4 out of 5)

I’ve always been a fan of Manning’s contend and I’ve bought a bunch of Manning print and eBooks over the past year.

The Good
  • Manning offers a free digital copy of their titles with the purchase of a hard copy. When I originally bought my eBook reader I was able to obtain copies of a couple of recent purchases – at no extra cost. Since then, I’ve bought a number of hard copies with the knowledge that I would also receive the soft copy – had the soft copy incurred an additional cost I might not have done so. I feel that Manning is quite progressive in this regard and the ability to attain the digital copy free of charge has built a lot of goodwill in my mind.
  • File types – Manning offers the three file types that I care most about.
    • PDF
    • epub
    • mobi
  • Up to recently you had 5 days to download a title after which time it was no longer available. Manning has added a portal for customers to download all of their content at any point in time.
  • Manning has daily deals (and Christmas raffles) offering heavily discounted print and/or eBook titles. Frequently eBooks are offered for $15 - I cannot tell you how many of these titles I have purchased but I probably don’t have enough hands to count them all :-)
  • DRM Free
The Bad
  • A number of older titles do not have ePub/mobi versions and are limited to PDF. There are a few titles (WPF with Visual Studio 2008 for instance) that do not have updated equivalents and for which no ePub/mobi is available). It would be great if books from the last X number of years were also upgraded (though I understand why this might not be possible)
  • Manning is a little slow releasing ePubs/Mobis for new titles. That said, they provide clear information as to which titles are next up for conversion under their mobile format section.

O’ Reilly (4 out of 5)

O’ Reilly has the benefit of selling both O’Reilly and Microsoft Press titles. I’m a fan of both and have bought a number of books in the last year.

The Good
  • O’Reilly offers more eBook titles (specifically ePub/Mobi) than anyone else I’ve seen. Their catalog, combined with MS Press titles also sold through the site, is simply enormous.
  • O’Reilly currently offers a cheap upgrade option - limited time $5 upgrades – for those who purchase print versions of their titles. Manning has daily deals offering heavily discounted eBook titles. Books tend to be in the $10-$20 range.
  • DRM Free
  • File types – O’ Reilly is the most progressive in this area, offering more file types than anyone else I’ve seen
      • PDF
      • epub
      • mobi
      • APK
      • DAISY
The Bad
  • While I consider $5 a very reasonable price for eBook upgrades, given that Manning’s are free O’Reilly loses a point here. Also, the $5 upgrade is coupon based and feels like it may be transient.

  • O’Reilly’s daily deal used to be $9.99 consistently. In the last month or two this appears to have change to $14.99. While still great value for money, the initial price point was more satisfactory.

Packtpub (2 out of 5)

Packtpub has been the biggest disappointment for me this year. They have quite a large range of books on a wide variety of topics and I don’t doubt the quality of their work. However, I have made multiple purchases at different times this year where the product page specified that an epub version of the title is available, only to find after purchase that this is not the case. At best there is a lack of communication and transparency. At worst dishonest bait-and-switch tactics are being employed. Customer service has been apologetic, but as of writing this post the same titles remain with the same promises on their product pages – but still no ePubs in site.

The Good

  • Large selection of titles – including technologies not available elsewhere
  • Weekend deals and some extremely cheap seasonal package deals
  • DRM Free

The Bad

  • Lack of transparency – you may not get what you thought you were getting.
  • Limited File types – Packtpub is limited to the following 2 file types:
    • PDF
    • epub

Google Books (New) – (Not enough Information for Rating)

Google’s online bookstore launched a couple of weeks before this post was published but, as with all things Google, is exciting (or scary – depending where you are coming from) due to its sheer scale. There are a ton of books available. To date I have only purchased one, but it certainly won’t be my last.

The Good

  • Massive range of titles

The Bad

  • To date prices have been pretty standard – however there are no signs of any regular or seasonal deals that would force me into impulse buying. Hopefully this will be rectified in the future.
  • Google is currently pushing its own reader app
  • Limited File types – Google is limited to the following 2 file types:
    • PDF
    • epub
  • ePubs are DRM’d

The Others

There are a large number of vendors out there that I simply have not shopped with and thus couldn’t include in this write-up. I’m really hoping that in the next 12 months both Wrox and Apress get their acts together and offer a) a bigger lineup of ebooks and b) upgrade paths to those who bought print copies. Right now I have a bunch of print books from both publishers that I plan to read, but are taking a second seat to their electronic counterparts. I’ve reached the point where I will do everything in my power to avoid buying a book that doesn’t have a mobile version. Hopefully my collection will be 100% electronic this time next year!

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