eBooks: Software for reading without a dedicated device

Sources of free ebooks and notes on options for dedicated hardware.

eBooks do not begin and end with Kindles!

The following is are mostly things in which I have no interest, apart from being things I've explored as a potential user. (Where I have any interest, it is slight, and explained. I am only sharing with you my thoughts as an experienced user of computers.)

It bugs me that we, the consumers, "have" to accept what the big corporations deign to sell us.

But we have only ourselves to blame.

Want "eBook" and "Kindle" to become synonymous? Want to let the people at Kindle Corp. dictate what we are allowed in ebooks? Fine! Read no further!

You don't need to buy a Kindle, a Kobo Reader, or any other dedicated device to read eBooks. Or pay anything for ebooks.

In this essay, I will look first at obtaining and reading ebooks without a dedicated device. I will conclude with some brief remarks on dedicated hardware for ebook reading. I will assume that you are aware that the "easy" route is to buy a Kindle, pay Amazon for "books" to read on that. I've neglected the Nook... so many projects, so little time!

Kobo... alternative to Kindle?

I was very excited when I first saw Kobo ebook readers in the shops. If you haven't seen one, they look much like a Kindle reader. Competition for the mighty Kindle! Something to keep Amazon (owner of Kindle brand) "honest"; something to drive innovation and keep prices down!

For me one of the great features of the Kobo was that, pp their website, 21 June 12, it supports....

Books: EPUB, PDF and MOBI
Documents: PDF
Images: JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP and TIFF
Text: TXT, HTML and RTF
Comic Books: CBZ and CBR

Now! Don't let your eyes glaze! The point of that long list is that it suggests that you can use a Kobo to read documents, and display images, from many sources. More on that later

But it was of academic interest... I didn't want another device in my life....

But I still wished Kobo well. (By the way... can you guess from where the marketing people came up with "Kobo"?... answer further down page.)

In June 12, I had a moment of weakness, considered adding another device to my life, and visited their website.

It took a little digging, but I was delighted to find that they have something called "Kobo Desktop" which, in some respects, turns my little Windows netbook into a Kobo reader. Fantastic! The joy of reading ebooks was to be mine! Without buying another device. (I'm already stuck with carrying the netbook for other reasons.)

And... before I get too negative... it does work... up to a point.

Who knows... and I presume this crossed the minds of the people at Kobo... maybe one day I will buy their reader, as well as visit their "bookstore". The dedicated readers are always going to be better than reading ebooks on a netbook or laptop or other non-dedicated device... if you need what the dedicated devices offer.

The free"Kobo Desktop" software is available for a wide range of devices, not just Windows PCs of whatever form. (There is no non-free Kobo Desktop... you get the best for nothing.) Here are the devices for which versions of the app are available iPad, iPhone, Android, Mac, PC, BlackBerry PlayBook and smart phones. Pretty comprehensive!


Why is there always a but? If you think that you just....

.. then... I think... you are assuming too much. The "price" of playing with the free Kobo Desktop on, say, your laptop, is that you can only... as far as I've been able to discover... read things you get from the Kobo store.

Oh heck! To me, the main joy of "going Kobo" was that they were embracing multiple sources of ebooks!

You can, yes, get some free books from the Kobo store. Many, many free books, to be fair.

But instead of the Kobo Desktop being a cousin of, say, Adobe Reader, it is more like the iTunes app. The separation between "reader" and "data files" is... as far as I can discover... nonexistent. You can't... as far as I've been able to discover... just drag a .pdf into the right directory, and then read it with the (otherwise excellent) Kobo Desktop ebook reading routines.

The Kobo Desktop is also, to my taste, extremely system invasive.

I have it installed on a desktop XP computer. I've downloaded one book. I've opened and closed the application several times. I've read a bit of the book I downloaded.

Just now, I closed down the app, and then re-opened it, and "opened my book". My security software reported to me that the app felt the need of twelve visits to places out there on the internet. What did it report back to "big brother"? What new things did it bring into my machine? Why does it have to be more complicated than, say, opening a text editor and reloading a data file from somewhere (under my control) on my local hard drive?

What are the implications for system stability of all that complexity? How do I back up texts I've downloaded?

Were you aware that Kindle can "take back" anything you have on a Kindle? Even things you've "bought"? And that there have been instances of them exercising this option?

If I don't know where my Kobo data files (ebooks) are, how do I back them up? How do I migrate a library of books to a new laptop? (Yes... there are legitimate issues of DRM involved, of course. But if I stick to reading texts which are in the public domain, should I have these problems?)

If you buy a Kobo reader... at the moment (6/12), there are three models in the range (more in a moment)... then, so I am told, you can import into your Kobo hardware .pdf's, etc, i.e. "books" from non-Kobo-store sources. (If I am wrong, and even the PC based "Kobo Desktop" can be used with "foreign" files, and if they don't have to be deep within some obscure system, I would be delighted to be told so... just send me to a webpage explaining the "how tos", please? Here is how you can contact me.)

Kobo hardware: The current (6/12) range seems to consist of...

There's a "compare the features" page at the Kobo website.

I know that the first two use black and white displays, and the last uses a color display. (Bad idea, if you ask me.) I think the first one is an older reader, the "Touch" is the current mainstream reader.

By the way... the name, "Kobo"? Anagram from "book"!


Don't get me wrong... I like the Kobo Desktop on my netbook, in spite of my quibbles... but I've been playing with it for less than 24 hours, and have had but one "serious" reading session.

I looked for readers for Project Gutenberg texts a few years ago. The best, to my tastes, that I came up with back then was Tom Fellner's eTextReader. The copy on my machine is version 1.8.2 of May 2003. It Just Works. The way I'd like an ebook reader to work. The reader is free. The reader and the "data" (the "books") are separate, without any complex structure to go wrong. (When you leave the app, where you were in your book, and your font size settings, etc, are saved to an ini file. Simple... but not overly "basic")

Sadly, when I looked just now (6/12) for the latest on Tom's excellent reader, I found that there seems to be little interest! (I did find it... links in a moment!) I don't know if something thought to be "better" has come along. Tom's reader is now in version 1.9.1, last updated May 2012. Advertised as running on various versions of Windows up to and including "7".

Tom Fellner eTextReader... his page.

Don't be overwhelmed (underwhelmed?) by the non-glossy installation options. All you really need to do is install the tried and tested version 1.8.2 or 1.9.0. If you yearn for the "latest and greatest", at the time I'm writing this, you install 1.9.0 first, and then install some beta changes over the top of that. Not rocket science. And the software is free What do you want for free??

A few brief thoughts on hardware

A laptop cannot be all things to all people. If you are willing to have another device in your life, a reader... be it Kindle, Kobo, Nook or other... will do a better job of displaying your eBooks. The primary benefits are...


I hope something in the above has been useful to you? As someone who reads over meals most days, I am so tired of propping books open with salt shakers, etc. I'm sure that the day of the perfect ebook reader will come, and vindicate some of the visionary prescience shown by Orson Scott Card in his wonderful "Ender's Game"... but... is it here yet? Well, for me, yes and no... Sigh. But I hope I've encouraged you with the thought that there is more to ebooks than the Kindle?

In closing: Are you altruistic? Want to help make the world a better place? Where do you think the free ebooks come from? You can help! Have a look at Distributed Proof Readers, a venture allied with Project Gutenberg.


If you've heard enough, you can stop here! (Although I'd love it if you skip to the bottom, and read the ad for my Windows freeware and shareware!)

Three details....

Kobo store search engine: Why am I unhappy with the Kobo store search engine?

They claim that 1.8 million free books are available from the store. You try to find them! I wanted to read Kipling's Jungle book, long out of copyright, long available in multiple formats at Project Gutenberg.

For the purposes of this essay, I just re-launched the Kobo Desktop on my desktop machine. Twenty eight accesses across the web, and 80 seconds later, it was ready to accept a search enquiry. I believe part of that was to re-populate the advertising panel. I know part of it was to synchronize the state of that Kobo desktop with the state I left the one in my laptop yesterday evening. Now... synchronizing is a wondrous thing... when and where you need it. But nothing comes without a cost. I really don't want to have the overheads, for my reading experience. If I can get at the files with the books in them, and move them around with normal system tools.

Anyway... having finally got to where I could search, I put "Kipling" into the search box. The store offered four texts. "My own true ghost story" for £2.18 (About US$3), and three other... including Jungle book... for about $4.50 each. I downloaded the preview of the Jungle Book, in a quest for why I would want to pay for something I can have for free. It turns out that this edition is compiled by ReadHowYouWant.com, who deserve our respect for producing versions in Braille, DAISY, and MP3, as well as eBook. The preview gave no indication that any of the splendid illustrations from any of the ink-on-paper editions of the book are included in the "pay for it" electronic version.

I then tried searching for "kipling" at Project Gutenberg. Clicked through (easy, two clicks) to see just Rudyard's books.... over 50 free texts to choose from, after you discount a few duplications. And many of those available in multiple formats.

Back to the Kobo store. What if I searched on "Jungle Book"? Ha! Twenty-three hits! Including two versions for free. Downloaded both. Both have "Gutenberg" on the title page. Both have a nice little decorative graphic over the title, but no other illustrations I could find in a quick skim. Chapter One is 79 pages long, under the settings I have. (If there's a way to know how many pages the whole book it, I have yet to find it... or any other "about this book/file" information, for that matter.) Both are very attractive when I read them on my Kobo Desktop... nice font, layout, etc. No use of font effects (italic, bold, etc) except to highlight chapter names. (Good!)

What about the store's "browse" option, if you don't have a specific book or author in mind? There's a "Top 50" page, which suggests that Kindles and Kobos are doing for the writers of smut what the internet did for the porn video market. No free books there. No "Top 50 non-xxx books" or "Top 50 free books" options. There is a "Recommended" page, and that does have five sub-pages for free books in various categories. Like "The Jungle Book", it seems there is Good Stuff... if you can find it.

Going back for a moment to the "Top 50", when I looked just now, there was a Ken Follett (Jackdaws, 2001) for £1 which for a second-hand ink-on-paper via Amazon would have cost me £2.60 with p&p, and is not available at Project Gutenberg. (Their books tend to be the ones old enough to be out of copyright.)

And... just to be thorough!... the Kobo Store allows you to browse by category... and the categories are sub-divided, e.g. Fiction and Literature breaks into Drama, Poetry, Fiction, etc. You can browse a whole category, or just a sub-category. You can sort the results by Bestsellers, Price, Rating, Title.

Some hints on using the Fellnersoft eTextReader: Yes, Virginia, it remembers your place in your book between sessions. And yes, you can change the margins and font and font size. Ver 1.8.2: Menu / clink on the tall button with chevron (beside "Find/ Edit Copy") to expand "File Specific" and "General" options. Version 1.9.0: Similar... but the button with chevron is small, at the top of the "Menu" drop-down.

Test flow, word-wrap... Yes... you may sometimes have to "fiddle about a bit" with settings, and pressing F5 to re-import files after changing things like font size. By and large, though, things seem to work pretty well. Two "gotchas": There's a "remove single line breaks" box to tick or not, depending on the text you are working with. And when a line starts with an indent in the original... fairly rare in many texts... it can "mess up" the word-wrap for that portion of the text.

Catching your rabbit: I've been fetching books to read with the eTextReader from... you guessed it... Project Gutenberg. eTextReader doesn't seem to be able to cope with ePub format files. I've been using HTML files, and here's the trick....

Navigate to the Project Gutenberg page for the book you want. Under "download this book", you may see multiple options. If "HTML" is there, and you click on it, on my system, at least, the book just opens in my browser. Click on the "More Files" item. You'll see a bunch of intimidating, un-(naive)-user-friendly names, with a common stem... 3006 for "Stalky and Co", as it happens. There should be one with a name ending -h.zip. That's the one for you! E.g. for Stalky and Co, I wanted 3006-h.zip. Click on it, it should download . Put the file someplace sensible... I use a folder called "Downloads-eBook". Extract from within the zip the file called 3006-h.htm. I am a bit obsessive, so I have a document listing the source and original names of files on my system. Keep those records or not, as you wish... but even I would be inclined to re-name the file KiplingStalky.htm... or whatever name makes sense to you. You can, of course, keep the .zip as an archive, move it or the .htm file around on your systems. You can, I believe, upload it to a Kobo Reader... but not, unless I'm missing something, to the Kobo Desktop. Sigh. (Reader: Physical device, dedicated ebook reader. Desktop: Software for reading things from Kobo store on laptop, cell phone, etc.)

When you've got the .htm file on the device you want to read it from, you open it from eTextReader just as you would open, say, a document in a wordprocessor's "Open" command.

Kobo/ Kindle vs eTextReader for note-taking: A small thing, probably, to finish off with. But... if you like taking notes as you read, eTextReader lets you used copy/paste to extract bits of the text you are reading, and with that you can put them where ever you want them, can't you? (Small text file, for instance) With Kobo Desktop, you can "annotate" your reading... a bit like the (dreadful?) practice some people have of writing in the margins of their ink-on-paper books. But... a) You have to load the whole book to look at your notes, and b) each time you open any device that you have Kobo desktop on, any annotations you made elsewhere are transcribed to the device you are using now... a tedious overhead, if you make many annotations.

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