The Geomancer


My Life in eBooks

I read my first ebook in 1990. It was William Gibson's Count Zero, and I read it on Apple's Hypercard stacks program. I loved the experience, particularly being able to highlight a character's name and call up every occurrence of that character in the text. Hypercard didn't last, but I was hooked. I could see the future.

In 2000, I worked in a dot com start up called, long vanished now, but one of the first to be taken seriously in the ebook space. (First to market, first to, well you know...). While working at the company, where I read Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter in our proprietary browser-format, I found that reading online books radically increased my own purchase of physical books. This trend continues...

For the last year, I've been doing all my manuscript submission reading on Stanza for iPhone, and have recently been editing on it as well (most recently The Dervish House and The Goblin Corps). Now I've gotten an iPad, and I've started reading manuscripts in iBooks (using Stanza Desktop's "Save as ePub" feature to convert Word docs, which are then easy to upload to iTunes with a simple click of the "add to Library" menu button.)

I've learned that I can walk and read, and, in fact, walking and reading cuts down on all the distractions offered by the Glorious Desktop Screen, so I'm reading on Stanza for iPhone in the morning, and in iBooks on iPad in the afternoon in Starbucks. (I walked 11 hours over the last four days, by the way. Drunk a lot of coffee too.)

I've purchased books for the Kindle app, the Barnes & Noble eReader app, and the iBook app. And I've downloaded quite a few free ones. I don't own a Kindle or Nook, but I have played on the former briefly and borrowed the latter for a few days from my father - before it froze up on him and he returned it!  Yesterday, I finished reading Fritz Leiber's Swords & Deviltry on the B&N eReader on my iPhone, and I completed a 10 day long (chapter a day) read of Winnie the Pooh to my son on iPad.

So here's my thoughts on eReaders, with the caveat that my needs are fairly specific, given that I read more manuscripts than finished books, and YMMV.

First in general, I really don't like e-ink, which looks to me like reading off a digital watch. I do my pleasure reading in bed, from 6 to 6:35 am while my wife sleeps, and I need the back-lighting. And I like color. And I just much prefer the screen on my phone to the screen on either the Kindle or Nook.

When reading documents on the iPhone, Stanza is far and away the best reader, given how easy it is to upload, how easy it is to cut-and-email paragraphs (to authors, with notes) and also the general user-friendly and aesthetic experience of the reader itself. Because it's such a versatile device, it loses some formatting, particularly italics, so it's not my ideal reading device for commercially-available books, just manuscripts. The Kindle app, by contrast, is a much less comfortable reading experience. I've noticed weird kerning and leading between words in the way text is displayed, and I just don't find it comfortable on the eyes. So for commercially-available books, I use the B&N eReader software. It was the most comfortable read, the best display, in many ways, the most like Stanza actually. My only complaint is the number of books they offer that are currently missing their covers, and the inability to customize your ebooks by manually adding the cover you want back in (as you can with Stanza).

When reading on the iPad, iBooks is hands down the best experience. Now, it should be said, neither Stanza nor B&N has come out with an iPad-optimized version of their respective reader, though it is expected both will appear in May. By that time, however, I may be completely hooked on iBooks.

However, it should be said that Kindle for iPad is gorgeous, much much better than Kindle for iPhone, or really, the actual Kindle itself. And, while you cannot purchase magazines for your Kindle for iPhone ap, Apple has very wisely chosen to treat the Kindle for iPad like another form of Kindle, and you can read magazines on it. I downloaded samples of Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was impressed with the display. I've yet to read a whole book on the Kindle for iPad app, but plan to soon (most likely starting with Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, since I already own it in this format as well as hardcover -- see prior comment about ebooks/physical books.) I expect I could be reading magazines on the Kindle app soon too.

Where iBooks scores over all of them is the ability to upload your existing ePub files into iTunes with a click, which is as simple and elegant as adding MP3s to iTunes has trained us to expect. And in its display. I would have thought two weeks ago that I wouldn't have cared less about replicating the look of a book turning pages, but I have to say it made reading Winnie the Pooh to my son, who thrilled at watching the pages flip under his finger. Also, the artwork in the book, essential for children's books of this age range, looked fantastic. The artwork in Kindle books, by contrast, looks much much better on the iPad than on the iPhone, but still has a box of contrast around it (the white of the illustration background against the white of their page). I have Elric: Stealer of Souls in Kindle format, though, and I must say that Picacio's artwork looks amazing. So I am nitpicking, as the Kindle books I've sampled on the iPad all look great and Kindle for iPad is a very close second to iBooks. And, of course, you cannot beat Kindle for availability of titles, which is key.

What I'd like to see from iBooks soon is the ability to annotate the text and export the annotations. As it is, you can already copy selections of text and then close out of the application and paste them into emails, which makes it fine for manuscripts requiring a light edit, but not great for ones requiring a heavy one. (For those, I'd use the Pages app, except that it is wonderful in all respects but one: it lacks a Track Changes feature, making it useless for editing!!!) I'd also like to see an iPhone version of iBooks, but since we are reportedly seeing that come the next OS update this summer, I'm happy.

In summary, I wish I could come down to just one app on one device, but I figure I'm going to end up using multiple apps on two devices, both with an i at the start of their names. I expect that for manuscripts I'll continue using Stanza for iPhone when I need to be at my most mobile, iBooks for iPad otherwise, and that for my own ebook purchases I'll probably stick to iBooks (whose selection isn't yet where it needs to be), with occasional purchases from B&N. I would have already purchased Swords & Death from them, if their eReader were optimized for the iPad. As it is, I'm waiting.

But I cannot see purchasing a Kindle or a Nook when you can purchase an iPad and have the option of all three reading platforms in one device, that also surfs the web, does email, plays games, streams movies, etc...

So, screw all those cliched complaints about "Where's my Flying Car?" - this is the future world I've personally been waiting on since 1990. I might even have to go full circle and reread Count Zero.


  1. To each his own. You could not pry my e-ink Kindle from my hands, even if you offered an even swap for a pretty new iPad. The iPad is gorgeous, but to carry one with me everywhere, I would need a much bigger purse. A Kindle is just the right size-- still portable but much more text than on a phone-- and e-ink works for my my eyes.

    That said, I can see a future where there is a magic something the size of an iPhone that unfolds a few times, to make the screen bigger, and that has something better than an LCD for eyestrain but still does color, and works for things besides books.

    What the Kindle gives me is the ability to read more. I have no downtime now, as long as my purse is with me. Of course, I'm using my Kindle to read, not to write. I've written several novels on my laptop, but I can't image typing more than a dozen words at a time on the Kindle keyboard.

    Interesting to hear your opinions on the various software eReader packages. I'm willing to bet software developers everywhere are hard at work on making them better.

  2. Lou-great post. And I must say my experience has been very similar. I've done lots of reading and evaluating in Stanza on my ipod Touch and then sent edit notes via email.
    Having just started tinkering with an ipad, I agree the ibooks interface is pretty nice and I've been thinking of getting pages, but no 'track changes' option does limit it's usefulness.
    Thanks for sharing, ebooks and print books are such a big part of our lives, it's great to read about your experiences.

  3. Excellent post. I appreciated you in-depth examinations of how *and why* you use the apps and devices you use.

    Here's my big question to you: why do you still buy the hard copy of something you've already read electronically? I know in one of our e-mail exchanges you mentioned you are a book collector. I appreciate that. But I'm still wondering why? Is it the cover art? Is it because an author can sign the hard copy artifact?

    I guess it comes down to this: why does online reading increase your purchase of physical books?

  4. Karen - again just my opinion and YMMV.

    Joseph - given that a track changes would make the iPad immanently useful to the legal profession, and that lawyers have apparently been asking for it in droves, I imagine it will come soon with an update.

    Scott - this is over the last 20 years of my online reading experience. Until the iPad, I still wanted a physical object. I suspect that it will wean me off physical books the way iTunes weaned me off needing to own CDs and Jewel Cases, but that I'll still buy my absolute favorite authors in hardcover (Moorcock, Gibson), just as I still buy Bowie and Hitchcock on disc.

  5. Wow--HyperCard. That takes me back. There was a HyperCard game that my son and I used to like to play on the first computer we owned (a gently used Mac Plus). "Bug Hunt" it was--sort of a "choose-your-own-adventure" thing in hypertext.

    I'm with you on e-ink, so if/when I go for an e-reader it may be something like the iPad. I guess I'd like something more durable, though--more like a netbook, less like an iPhone or iPod. Something droppable, because I know I'm going to drop it somewhere, sometime...

  6. Should clarify as favorite authors/books that I don't edit.

  7. Don't know about the other guys, but I'm willing to stand in line behind Moorcock & Gibson...

  8. You are already in line behind one of them, in that you will get your signature page of the Subterranean Edition of Swords & Dark Magic after Mike has signed it. And Robert Silverberg, Gene Wolf, Glen Cook, and CJ Cherryh. I'm on the same page, and thrilled.

  9. It's funny, while I can quite happily use my iPhone for articles etc., I'm not enamoured of reading fiction on it. Still has to be a physical book for me.

    On the other hand, thanks to my old iPod and now my iPhone, I've become a massive fan of audiobooks in the past few years, freed up from the need to use cassettes or CDs I now think they're perfect. Since I can listen to them on walks and when queueing and all of that I now do half my reading by listening. When you get a good enough reader it can even be an improvement on the text version (Anansi Boys and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell being perfect examples).

  10. I have a nook and an ipad, and have read books on both. I must admit that the ipad is a much more enjoyable platform to read from. The backlit screen did not bother my eyes like I thought it would, and the speed of the ipad (page turning, on/off, loading)is much better (for both iBooks and Kindle app), but the size is an issue. It is much easier to tote around the nook. That said, once B&N comes out with their app for the ipad I may switch to that permanently. Starting to wish I had waited for the ipad instead of jumping on the nook.

  11. My father had a Nook, kept it for two weeks. It froze on him and he returned it, but he did ask me constantly when the 2nd generation Nook was coming out, and said that he might get one of those. However, when the iPad came out he got one and is now in love with it. I do like the Nook, but for my own needs, the iPad is the device I've been waiting on ever since I saw them being carried around on ST:TNG.

  12. There is something different with a real hard copy book, the smell the feel, an ebook is good, i can carry a library, but theres something more "REAL" about paper.

    I have a elonex ereader. Given a choice of a real paper book and a ebook and reader.. I would choose a real book. (Now if they could make a reader the size of a proper book, as in depth, so it feels like a real book in weight and size but with all the bells and whistles.)

  13. I love a good hardcover with a beautiful dust jacket. Book as object. Book as art. But I am falling in love with books on my iPad. I think that my ebook buying will increase and my physical book buying will center on those books that are so gorgeous you have to have them as physical editions. I am also already getting some in dual editions - one to archive, one to read electronically. For instance, I have the hardcover of The Graveyard Book on the shelf and am reading it on Kindle for iPad now.