Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What I Don't Like About My E-Reader

For the last few years I've had one of Barnes & Noble's nook e-readers.  I've bought a variety of books to read on it, and borrowed e-books from the library.  But I have a problem with it.  It's not one of the normal problems that I hear people complain about.  Yes, the contrast leaves something to be desired, particularly in low light.  Yes, the power connection is in an awkward place if you're putting the reader in some sort of a rest while charging it.  Yes, I've dropped it and put a small ding on the screen.  Yes, the screen is too small to deal well with technical books.  Yes, the user interface for organizing books and other files could be better.  But those aren't what I want to complain about today.

The problem I have with my e-reader is that it tempts me to do illegal things.  Once you start poking around on the Internet, you quickly discover that there's an enormous volume of pirated print material, particularly what I'll just call "geek fiction."  All of those old books have been scanned and run through some sort of character recognition software in order to produce computer-readable versions.  New books of interest show up fairly quickly.  If there's an e-book version of the new book, unencrypted copies of that also show up quickly, avoiding the character recognition errors to which the scanned copies are subject (for example, the character pair "cl" is often recognized as the single character "d").  TTBOMK, all of the encryption schemes used by the publishers and distributors have been broken [1].

 The e-reader has also tempted me to begin design of a rapid book scanner based on a digital camera, and to look at the software chain necessary to convert images of the books in my personal collection into EPUB format.  I'm not the first to do so, of course.  There's a whole community of people dedicated to do-it-yourself book scanning.  And commercial scanners up to and including robotic scanners that automatically turn the pages.  I'm not getting any younger, and the day will come when I want to live somewhere smaller.  When that happens, many of the bookcases and their contents are going to have to be left behind.  But I don't want to give up a lifetime's worth of tucking away books that I've purchased.

There are a variety of reasons why people would want to make a copy of a print book if it were quick and easy to do.  Backup copies are an obvious one; if my house burns down, I lose hundreds of books that would be hard to replace.  My favorite reason came from a student I spoke with at the University of Denver.  At the beginning of each quarter, he spent a Saturday or Sunday afternoon while football or another sport was on TV scanning all of his new textbooks.  He didn't cheat in the sense of scanning the book and then returning them for a refund; he kept the dead-tree version of the books.  He didn't do character recognition either, just took a picture of each page and stored it as a fairly high-resolution image on his laptop.  Then, when one of his professors said, "Now, if you'll all turn to page 257 in Wilson," he's got a copy with him.  A few keystrokes pulls it up.  Meanwhile, the rest of the class is looking desperately through their backpack to see if somehow (by accident) they've brought that book to class.

I know I'm going to build the scanner and acquire the software -- there's absolutely no way that I'm going to resist the temptation [2].  I just wish that the writers and publishers would work out an archive and pricing scheme so that I didn't have to.  Here's my advice to them, particularly for out-of-print books.  It's out of print.  You're not going to make a dime from it unless a miracle happens and enough demand materializes to make it worth a press run.  The cost to store an e-copy is trivial, as is the bandwidth to deliver it.  Make it available somewhere easy to find for a dollar or two.  At that price, I'll download a clean e-book rather than any of (1) scan it myself if I have it, (2) wait weeks for it to show up from my local library's network and scan it, or (3) find someone else's scanned copy online.  And particularly if the author makes it available, s/he makes almost a dollar that they wouldn't have otherwise.

[1] And if not, they will be soon.  This is a technology battle that the publishers can't win.  Each has to pick a scheme.  That scheme has to run on consumer electronics that has a very slow turnover, so they're stuck with the scheme.  I have argued for years that in that situation, the encryption will be broken in a general sense -- that is, there will be software available for personal computers that will decrypt everything encrypted with a particular scheme, not just brute-force cracking of a particular item.  To paraphrase Napolean, "I generally find that God fights on the side of the heavier artillery," and the hackers' artillery is by far the heavier.

[2] If it comes down to it, I'm competent to write the necessary software myself.  Suitable algorithms for each step have been published, and I spent years coding up other people's algorithms from time to time in order to evaluate performance.

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