2012.04 | eBookstores > eReaders

I read a lot of books and since I got my iPad last June I have spent a great deal of time reading eBooks on my device.  When I bought it a year and a half ago, I only read a few eBooks, but that number has been steadily increasing.  In fact, over the last 6 months I’ve bought more than twice as many eBooks as traditional, and I expect that the number of traditional books I’m buying will only continue to decrease as I become accustomed to using an eReader.

From a retail technology experience, the most interesting part of e-reading is not the device itself.  The interesting part of the e-reader scenario is that retailers have moved a store from the desktop into the customers hands.

One of the unique aspects of using an iPad or an Android tablet device is that there are multiple apps that provide a software version of the e-Reader experience. On my iPad I have Kindle, Kobo, iBooks, Goodreader, and Bluefire readers.   Which is the best really depends on your needs and preferences.

Goodreader I find best for reading PDFs and many other file formats. That solution provides a PC like experience where a directory tree can be accessed and manipulated and files can be read, moved and more. It is a basic reader that works well for downloading and reading some of my 50 years of Mad Magazine PDFs, free books from the Internet Archive, or trade publications and studies that I want to read and keep in directories. It allows for notes and annotations that are useful – particularly for work reading.  While a very useful and free application for many purposes, I wouldn’t recommend this one for beginners who just want to read books.

I also have Bluefire for a very specific purpose. Early adopters of eBooks will remember Adobe Digital Editions. I recently decided to pull down an ebook only available on Digital Editions, and Bluefire was the best solution I could find to get that format on my tablet. Bluefire works fine, but I prefer apps with direct access to a bookstore as I expect most users do. I’m not interested in moving files around or changing formats or any of the other bothersome plumbing that Bluefire required.

iBooks is Apple’s eReader app. There were big hopes for iBooks based on the iTunes juggernaut. The app works well and is very polished in the Classic Apple manner. It was first out of the gate with attractive colour images of the book covers and art, but beyond the polish is just a bit lighter on functionality than the Kobo and Kindle apps. It originally lacked night reading functionality (white text on black background) which is important to me (no lamp clicking or bright light to trouble my sleeping spouse as I read at night).   On the whole it is very functional.  Note:  I haven’t played with iBooks 2, but I’m sure that ups the ante.

Amazon’s Kindle App is a very strong entry. It’s very simple and fundamental, but that also means it is intuitive. Changing fonts, navigating tables of contents and taking notes is well done. It is also easy to move books in and out of the archive to the main book shelf.   The app is also available on the iPhone and your place in the book is synched flawlessly (same goes for iBooks and Kobo). I never thought I would read on my phone but it does lend itself well to that should you unexpectedly catch yourself without your reader and time on your hands.

My personal favourite at present is the Kobo eReader app.  The Kobo app looks great, it has great note taking and bookmarking features, and the night reading feature meets my needs very well.  On the down side, Kobo changes the app constantly and seems to think that I want to share my reading habits with all of my Facebook friends and constantly wants me to do so – a flaw I work very hard to ignore.  I will at least give credit to the fact that Kobo is putting the effort into trying new things and staying ahead of the curve.  I have also managed to get library books into Kobo at one point, but it wasn’t easy.

At bottom all of these apps work well, but what makes any of them absolutely stand out?  Their stores.

Goodreader and Bluefire have no bookstore.  This is a non-starter for me.  I’m not going to use them as as my default reading app unless it’s easy to get library books into them.

iBooks have a great app.  They have the only bookstore that you can buy from directly within the app.  Apple decreed late last year that they were going to charge a 30% fee for everything sold within an app – an untenable business model for other booksellers.  Apple doesn’t have to pay a fee to themselves, so they have a monopoly on in app purchases.  While that gives them far and away the best user experience for purchasing, there is a problem.  Most of the books I want to purchase are not available on it.  I’ve only personally purchased one book from them.

Amazon had a great store on the iPad, but with the changes to apple policy that all went away.  Instead of a in app store, Kindle has to tell customers to keep a weblink on the iPad to their ebook store.  From there, the Kindle bookstore available to me is a bit of a debacle. First, it is a true webpage and has none of the simplified look and feel of a tablet app or tablet formatted webpage, making it less intuitive to less experienced users.  It feels like one has been dropped into a giant warehouse built with HTML from 2005 with no rhyme or reason.  It is easy to search but suggestions for purchases are way down past first screen requiring a scroll to see it. If a desired book is not available in Kindle format it just doesn’t show up but lower on the page there is an option to buy the hardcopy. While I understand that, it felt strange for the first number of times I used it. From a user experience and interface perspective it could improve.   Let’s be clear, though, Amazon are far more interested in getting you to buy a Fire or a Kindle, so they have spent their time building an intuitive interface for those devices instead.  [Note: Since I wrote this, they have upgraded the page and it’s actually a bit better.]

Kobo are also hampered by having to provide a weblink for users on their iPads.  The store itself is far superior to the Kindle store on the iPad – web page or no.  It’s easy to navigate, and simple to find things.  It’s formatting fits on the tablet well.  They also have most of the books I’m looking for and – surprise of surprises – their prices have been lower of late.  They also recently updated their app to show some shelves that include recommendations.  A nice touch.

Some thoughts on all of this that are applicable to any shopping experience on a mobile device.

1.  The content is as important as the app.  The app has to look good and be functional, but if there is no content to back up the app, I’m going to lose interest.  The prices also have to be reasonable.

2. Making the user experience very very simple will sell more stuff.  I’m so sick of having to enter my login and passwords to buy books.  I know Apple is to blame for that, but figure out a way that I don’t have to do that.  Having to go back and buy the book on the webstore after reading the first chapter is really quite lame.  I should be able to just hit a button to get the rest of the book at the end of the chapter.  I’m also sick of hunting around for the button to download a sample.  Some of the stores make that hard to find.

3. Give people options on sharing.  I’m sure someone loves sharing all of their reading habits and opinions via social media.  That’s terrific, but don’t keep hitting me over the head with it if I’m not into it.  It gets downright bothersome.  I would appreciate a simple way to tell specific friends I think they should read this or that book – directly – without the world knowing.  Perhaps ask me at the end if I want to recommend it.  Maybe I could even get some points if my recommended friends buy it.

4.  All of the ebookstores could improve.  I like the fact that Kobo now suggests books I might like right on my bookshelf, but their recommendations seem a bit simplistic.  If I buy a book from an author, I don’t want every book on my recommendation shelf to be from that author.  I could figure that out.  Amazon makes some reasonable suggestions but I have to go online to see those.  On the whole, the ebookstores still feel like a web page to me.  Things shouldn’t feel like a web page anymore.  We’ve moved on to apps – or at least an app like interface.

5.  What are you using all of that data for?  Store and selling data is really interesting, but the data about consumption must be a new window that could not be cracked in the past.  As a consumer I could get all freaky about privacy and what the retailers know about me, but I actually hope that the eBook sellers are mining all of this data.  The apps know the time of day we read, they know if we read the book in one sitting or over months, and they know if we actually finish or not.  Seems like they are sitting on a really rich set of data that might be interesting to publishers and authors.  If it means more books I want to read and a strong publishing and book selling industry I’m all for it.

I’ve come to enjoy the convenience of eReaders.  I can bring lots of books with me, read without the lights on, keep notes, search within the books, and buy books wherever and whenever I want.  Kudos to booksellers for not falling into the same trap as the music industry.

eBookstores are really only just getting up to speed and will be a fascinating window into mobile commerce that should be heeded by all of those retailers trying to harvest business in that space.

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