Friday, February 25, 2011

Adam Engst on iPad and ereaders

When I first interviewed Adam Engst in 2008 about ebooks, e-reading was still pretty much a dream for me and most people. The Amazon Kindle was out, but it was slow, and I didn't like the grey screen, so I hardly used it. But now the iPad has given the whole field a big boost, I read everything on the iPad if I can, so I felt like talking to Adam again from this new viewpoint. 

Do you feel that the success of the iPad has had an impact on your e-publishing arm, Take Control Books?

Adam Engst:
Absolutely. After the iPhone came out, and even after there were apps that enabled ebook reading on the iPhone and iPod touch, we had an occasional query from a reader asking how to get our ebooks onto the iPhone. It wasn't easy or a particularly good experience, due to the limitations of iOS and the available apps, so people were almost apologetic about asking.

Fast forward to the release of the iPad. Within a short while after it came out, we were getting intense demands to know how our ebooks could be read on the iPad. It was frustrating, because until the release of GoodReader, and later, with the release of an iBooks update and iOS 4, it was also quite difficult to work with the iPad. That's gotten a lot easier over the past few months, and we now have much better answers for people who want to read Take Control ebooks on an iPad.

In the past few weeks, in fact, we've figured out a sneaky process to create our own EPUB files via Pages, which allows us to make them look a lot more like our PDF originals (previously we were forced to outsource the task and put up with what we got back). And we're coming close to a site design change that will make it easier for readers to download various formats from their accounts on our Web site, and even to read online.

You said to me back in 2008:
"'s about reading, not books specifically. People read newspapers and magazines and blogs and email messages and Web sites and all sorts of things..."
I think that along with the screen, this is what makes the iPad so much more useful to me than the kindle. The Kindle does do web, but not very well. And much of my reading is web articles (sent to the iPad via Instapaper) and such. I also like Zinio, color magazines converted to the iPad. Do you think that the Kindle will end up as a niche device if Amazon does not come up with one which has a color screen and does web well?

I remain somewhat surprised that the Kindle has done as well as it seems to. Amazon finally dropped the price, which made a big difference, since the Kindle DX was originally priced the same as the low-end iPad, for a device that wasn't nearly as useful. But we have several Kindles for testing, and I find the user experience just awful in comparison with the iPad.

One thing that I think is potentially helping the Kindle is that Apple has become so large and so dominant that buying a Kindle is almost an act of rebellion. People go on about how the Kindle is great because there are no other distractions and because you can read it in direct sunlight and whatnot, but my feeling is that they're really saying "I'm avoiding the iPad because I don't want to be seen as slavishly buying everything Apple releases."

Apple's iBooks store still has many fewer titles than Amazon's Kindle store. I think you also said that the process of getting books into iBooks is a hassle… can you explain?

Not in a family publication.

Seriously, I can't say that working with Amazon has ever been easy for publishers (and we haven't done much with it), but working with the iBookstore has been the most amazingly horrible, opaque, and frustrating experience I've had. Apple's software is terrible, the iTunes Connect Web site is lousy, and support questions often aren't answered for - and I'm not kidding here - months. It's gotten a little better over time, but mostly it makes my stomach hurt.

I admire Take Control Books and O'Reilly for publishing ebooks without Digital Rights Management, which means the books are portable to other devices easily. I always felt DRM and the big fear of copyright breaches was self-defeating in marketing. I understand that non-DRM publishing has been good to you?

Yes, I think so, though I can't say that I've actually seen any quantifiable sales that wouldn't have happened had DRM been applied. The main thing is that DRM doesn't stop anyone from doing anything really - anyone who wants to break it can - so it's just a waste of time and effort. What it really comes down to for me is that utilizing DRM means that you see your customers as criminals, and when you treat someone like a criminal, they act like it.

How many of the books downloaded from your store are PDF? ePub? Kindle format? (That's mobi, yes?)

We're still selling all our books in PDF format, so when you purchase a book, you'll get PDF at the end of the process. That said, we have EPUB and Mobipocket (which can indeed be loaded onto the Kindle) for a large number of our titles, and pretty much everything for the last couple of years. We didn't bother converting very old titles because, let's face it, no one needs to read about upgrading to Panther on an iPhone. Right now, to get the EPUB and Mobipocket files, after you purchase a book from us, you can log into your Take Control account, which knows what you've bought, and download the alternative formats from there. Or just click the Check for Updates button on the cover of your PDF and get the alternative formats from a link on that page. We'll be making this process even easier in the future, but we're not sure if we'll bundle all the books together so they can be downloaded all at once during the purchase, if only because the extra files might confuse people who just want PDF and don't know what to do with EPUB and Mobipocket, especially since few apps on the Mac will even open those files.

Although a higher-res screen would be cool, about the only weakness of the iPad, to me, is weight. How do you feel about the iPad as a reader device?

Yes, weight is one of the major issues, but I'm not sure how much different a lighter device will really be - the Kindle DX is lighter, but I don't feel that it makes any real difference in actual use. That said, I don't like holding things anyway, and have become quite fond of the Zerochroma case I have on my iPad, which gives me a built-in stand. That lets me prop it up on my lap or on a pillow with less effort.

Thanks to Adam. Find his many-sided work at TidBITS


TC [Girl] said...

I'm sure the check is in the mail re: the Apple accolades! lol! That was DELICIOUS to read! (as in: I didn't think they were as "perfect" as Jobs likes their image to appear!) :-D

Unknown said...

I have both an iPad and a Kindle.

I prefer the Kindle for book & newspaper reading: much lighter, good screen, long battery life. It has weaknesses for sure: klutzy navigation beyond page turns and a cramped keyboard.

The iPad wins hands-down (on a stand) for colour magazines and web access but it's heavy, shows messy screen with any use and the battery life is not great. But I am certain that some of this will be improved in v.2

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

For sure there'll be a fourth kind of Kindle this year. And a new iPad tomorrow, and some say a third kind already in the fall, possibly a different size and higher screen resolution. So I'm very interested to see how all these things will make the landscape change.

Dave and Nancy Madsen said...

Thank you for noting how the book publishers create various formats, Epub, PDF, etc. for various reading devices, and their reasons for doing so. Yes, iPAD2 is thinner and lighter, faster and has better graphics, the battery life is still about 10hours, not two weeks. However, over night recharge is a reasonable action. I doubt that Apple will provide a smaller display (economies of scale and manufacturing differences, marketing and inventory issues ... these are not trivial.) Would we like 'em, perhaps, but the size and flexibility of the iPAD concept has been an overwhelmingly successful. As software is upgraded, relationships are solidified and built-in to digital publishing ... the world needs for print will shrink rapidly ... not entirely ... but the need to reduce printing, distribution and storage is cumbersome to state it mildly. Thank you for sharing this info... it is definitely helpful

Dave (theoleguy)

Anonymous said...

Awesome, a ton of these questions are things I myself was wondering about. I want to have EPUB/MOBI/PDF sales later on, and I really appreciate the insight about the respective stores. Thanks.

I'll definitely grab your RSS feed ;)

Unknown said...

People go on about how the Kindle is great because there are no other distractions and because you can read it in direct sunlight and whatnot, but my feeling is that they're really saying "I'm avoiding the iPad because I don't want to be seen as slavishly buying everything Apple releases."


Wow, I thought I read books on my Kindle because the screen is better for text, I no longer get eye strain, it weighs less, I can read it in sunlight and the battery life is outstanding.

But now I realize that I'm just a tool who was only using it because I'm anti-Apple.

Thanks for clarifying that for me jackass.

Peter said...

I was an early iPad owner, but when I realized how I was using the iPad, I sold it on Craig's List and bought a Kindle. I was prepared to sell the Kindle too, if I felt like I wasn't making good use of it, but have it still. (I'm a Mac user at work and at home and even own a few shares in the company, so it would be hard to detect any anti-Apple biases) The advantages of the Kindle to me are the ones you dismissed, plus a few others, like free 3G access and being able to email documents from my Mac to my Kindle. This works quite well getting Mobi versions of Take Control books (of which I own several) to the Kindle by the way, where they are quite readable. I could do this with Mobi or PDF, but Mobi works much better. I'd like to make the obvious point that we live in a multiplatform world and only a very powerful or obstinate publisher (and I'm sure there will be some) would slight the iPad, the Kindle or Android. Interesting interview anyway.

valiant66 said...

extra files might confuse people who just want PDF and don't know what to do with EPUB and Mobipocket, especially since few apps on the Mac will even open those files

Stanza Desktop and Calibre for Mac OS X both work just fine for reading ePub books on the Mac. Yes, two qualifies as "few" but when it comes to the iPhone or iPad there are more than a few apps that will handle ePub books, not least of which is Apple's iBooks (although I prefer reading in Stanza for a number of reasons).

I much prefer reading a book on my iPhone in ePub rather than PDF format (although I primarily read books made up of words with few pictures -- I assume Take Control books have lots of screengrabs in them). I can't speak to the iPad experience since I don't have one.

Eventually I'm sure Apple will build a desktop reader into the increasingly-misnamed iTunes as well: Stanza Desktop is poorly maintained (even though their iOS app rocks) and Calibre is an exercise in masochism to use, even though right now it's the best of breed.

I just searched both versiontracker and macupdate for "ePub" and neither of them returned either Stanza or Calibre, so perhaps it's no surprise most Mac users don't know there's Mac desktop reader software for ePub books.

Anonymous said...

Uh, I read on my Kindle because it's ridiculously superior to the iPad for reading books. Considering i spent something like $100,000 on Apple products for my department this past fiscal year, I don't think I'm using the Kindle to avoid buying Apple products.

Michael McKee said...

Adam, as president of a Mac User Group, I can hardly be accused of being anti Apple. Yet I use one of the small Kindles. If you are going to me carrying something around with you all day that's a huge advantage. My wife has an iPad and leaves it home or in the car when we are out all day. Why? Weight. Oh, size is important, too. I can slip the Kindle in a coat pocket.

John said...

If you don't find the weight difference between iPad and Kindle relevant, you're unlike almost everyone else who uses them. I have a creaky old 1st generation Kindle and it's still better for reading than my iPad (which I love for many other things). The exception of course is for anything will illustrations, color, etc. where the iPad is much better. But to relax with a novel - Kindle is fantastic.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

The interviewer here:
I do admit I have written more than once of my wish for a reader of the K3's size, but the iPhone 4's screen quality. The high res makes a big difference.

(I dislike the greyness of the Kindle screen.)

Unknown said...

I've never owned a Kindle. But, I did read ebooks on a 'big' PDA, a Palm Tungsten, a few years ago. The experience is far superior on the iPad. Despite being a MacBook Air owner, I prefer carrying the iPad to my 'little' laptop. In fact, I am using it now. It is resting in my lap as I type, so the weight is not an issue. It puzzles me when me complain that the iPad is heavy.

Unknown said...

Correction: when MEN complain that the iPad is heavy.

Nick said...

I very much enjoy reading on my Kindle and about 90% of my reading time is spent with online articles and blog posts. Instapaper is what makes it actually useful, though, by allowing me to bookmark the things I want to read and then helping to format them for the Kindle display.

I'll admit that I haven't used an iPad for reading, but I prefer the Kindle enough that I will find an article on my iMac and then transfer it to Instapaper to read on my Kindle.

johnsmith said...

I also thought that it was strange that Adam chose to say that people only buy a kindle to avoid Apple. If there is one thing that I have found helping others with computers is that it is very much each to their own. I much prefer reading on the iPad to the Kindle - bigger screen and the ability to highlight and annotate along with the fact that I (personally) don't find the Kindle screen any easier on the eyes. However, I understand that there are some people who prefer to read on the kindle for very legitimate reasons. It comes down to personal preference and it is a little condescending to dismiss another’s preferences as nothing more than a fashion statement.

Anonymous said...

I had two Kindles before the iPad. Great battery life, lightweight, and ease-of-use (I could buy a book just before the airplane door was closed and read it on the way home).

I also bought an iPad on the first day it was available and the Kindle for the iPad was one of the first apps I installed. That was the last time I ever used my Kindle.

He's right about iBooks. It sucks, though mostly because of the poor selection of books and Apple's klutzy download system. (When will they figure out cloud syncing?)

Interesting to read the comments of the Kindle enthusiasts. De gustibus non est disputandum.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Thanks, Anon.

I bought a Kindle 3 when it came out in November, and for a week or two I was very enthusiastic about it. And I still love the form and weight. But the slow interface and the grey screen, and the poor handling of web content means I'm also using the iPad exclusively anyway.

I think Amazon has to come out with a tablet at some point, to not lose the hardware game eventually.

Peter said...

"It puzzles me when me(n) complain that the iPad is heavy."

As usual, I have mixed feelings about the implication that I'm kind of a wuss, which carries both a degree of pride and some residual shame, but there you have it.

In any event, I wonder whether J. has used her/his iPad standing on a commuter train for an hour or so. As I believe Einstein proved, things get heavier over time, especially on a moving object traveling at a fraction of the speed of light :).

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Also, it seems to me that using an ereader should hardly require proof of your manhood!

Even if it should, children and seniors use them too. :-)

Adam C. Engst said...

Boy, I didn't expect Eolake's interview to get quite so much attention (via Daring Fireball) or I might have taken some more time to craft exactly what I was saying.

First off, I think people are reading WAY too much into my statement. I said:

> One thing that I think is potentially helping the Kindle is that Apple has become so large and so dominant that buying a Kindle is almost an act of rebellion.

Note the words "I think" and "potentially" and "almost". I'm not stating this as a fact, I'm proposing it as a possibility, as something that might be true in some cases. In fact, I'm pretty sure it is true in some cases, but it would be madness to suggest that it's true in all cases, or even in a majority of cases.

If you're all really interested, we can explore the question of why people buy one device over another, but I don't think there's any argument that not all people make fully rational decisions all the time. Sometimes they just like one thing more than another, or have a good or bad association. I don't wear or buy Nike running shoes, for instance, and while I can make up various rational justifications for why, the fact is that I'm not a big fan of Nike and buying other brands of running shoes is a small personal rebellion about how big and powerful Nike has become.

It's true I'm not a big fan of the Kindle. I have a Kindle 1 and a Kindle DX, and they sit on my floor unused until I need to test something on them, at which point I generally become fairly frustrated with them since I find the Kindle interface slow and opaque, the keyboard is next to useless, and I really dislike the E-Ink screen redraw time. I'm sure my discomfort with the interface is in part because I use them infrequently, but I could also make a point-by-point criticism of the Kindle on usability grounds.

All that said, if you like your Kindle, great. I'm not an iPad fan boy, and most of the reading I do is on paper, because I like to get books out of the public library.

Everything is more complicated than it seems, and there are always more than two sides to every argument. But it's not always possible, in the time and space available, to present and explore every possibility. When it comes right down to it, Eolake asked me these interview questions via email and I hadn't replied as promptly as I would have liked. So I was writing quickly in an effort to get the message out of my Inbox. And because he's a friend with a blog (as opposed to, say, the Washington Post), I wasn't thinking as carefully as I might about my wording. So it goes.

cheers... -Adam