An Introduction to eBooks and eBook Readers
By Bob Kruger
Last Updated: 3/18/2006
When people learn that I’m involved in publishing and selling eBooks, the
conversation generally follows a predictable line. First they state that they
could never read books on a desktop computer. I protest that I don’t read books
that way myself, but they tune out when I try to explain PDAs and other
devices. Once in awhile, having encountered an article about digital paper
or the Rocket eBook, a person asks me to recommend a reading device. The
request seems pretty straightforward, but answering it requires giving some
I’ve read many articles critical of eBooks that make some strange objections to
them. Recently, one self-appointed eBook expert stated that she doesn’t like
eBooks on a PDA because she has to wield a stylus to scroll down the screen. No
PDA I know of has this limitation. You press a button or toggle switch and the
device instantly displays the next page of your document. It isn’t like reading
on a Web browser, more like turning the page of a print book. Some reading
software programs, like eReader (formerly called Palm Reader), offer an
autoscroll feature at adjustable speed so you can read continuously with your
hands free. I suppose this could be useful if you’re disabled or using a
treadmill, but normally you don't scroll text to read an eBook.
In the aforementioned article, the author also said that unless you only have a
two-hour attention span for reading, eBooks won’t work for you, because you’ll
have to recharge the battery. This is true of many laptops, but with a Palm
Pilot or Rocket eBook, you’ll get ten to twenty hours of reading on a charge.
I’ve even taken a Rocket eBook on a hiking trip for several days, and it never
ran out of power.
What I Use
These are my two devices for reading eBooks: an original-model Rocket eBook with
four megabytes of nonexpendable RAM, and an eight-megabyte Palm m125 handheld –
both of which have black-and-white screens.
Together these devices cost me about five hundred dollars, but you can now get
much better versions of both for half that, total. I download and store eBook files on
my desktop and then transfer them to one unit or the other. In combination with
my PC, these readers give me access to more books than you could find in most
bookstores, and the public-domain ones are free (more about that later). The
Rocket eBook has a nice big high-contrast screen (black against white), an
adjustable backlight, and a built-in lithium-ion battery that goes for a whole
weekend on a charge. It’s a great reading device. The m125 has a tiny little
screen, poor resolution, and a bilious green backlight. What’s more it takes
AAA batteries, and sucks down a pair of them in about twelve hours. (I’ve tried
rechargeable nickel hydride batteries, but they don’t work for some reason;
they overpower the device and wipe its memory.) I bought the m125 because I
wanted a lowest-common-denominator Palm Pilot for looking at eBooks we’d
created. Even so, it turns out the m125 beats the Rocket for reading eBooks.
On the surface, the only thing the m125 has got over the Rocket eBook is a
memory card slot. On a card that’s lighter than a nickel and the size of a
postage stamp, I’ve got just about everything Neal Stephenson and George R.R.
Martin ever wrote, plus a lot of other books, and I haven’t come close to
filling its 64MB of memory. However, what makes the m125 my preferred eBook
reader is its small size and versatility. I keep all my contacts on it, so it’s
with me all the time. I got used to the small screen and low resolution early
on. The small screen is a minor tradeoff for being able to hold the reader and
turn its pages with one hand.
Fortunately, you don’t have to settle for my Palm Pilot, a discontinued model.
All the PDAs worth mentioning are cheaper than the m125 was when it came out in
2001 yet have much higher-resolution screens, full color, and lithium-ion
batteries that go a long time on a single charge, not to mention faster
processors, a lot more RAM, and the ability to play MP3s. These devices now
include the Pocket PC, which can read almost any type of eBook software. And
finally, the Rocket eBook itself has come back, in the improved 1150 model,
which has expandable memory.
I’ll get back to the hardware soon, but first, you’ll need to consider the
software offerings in eBooks, because the device you choose will limit the
software you can run. The basic versions of these eBook reading applications
are all FREE, and you can install them on your desktop computer to
preview their features.
Adobe Reader (PDF): A few years back, Adobe bought
the Glassbook Reader and transformed it into the Adobe eBook Reader. Soon
after, they rolled the eBook Reader functionality right into Adobe Reader,
which is more commonly referred to in publishing by its filename extension,
PDF. PDF is first and foremost a prepress format, that is, a format used to
make the final plates for paper printing. It’s not the best eBook reader for
handhelds, but I recommend it for certain books meant to be read on tablet and
notebook PCs where the PDF is an exact duplicate of the print book.
Mobipocket Reader: The Mobipocket Reader program works
on almost any device and platform: Windows, Pocket PC OS, Palm OS—even
cellphones. On the ElectricStory.com site, we offer both unencrypted Mobipocket
and copy-protected, “secure,” Mobipocket titles. Many international bestsellers
are available in Secure Mobipocket format. Mobipocket has many great features,
including support for embedded dictionaries. While you read any book, you click
(or tap) a word and the dictionary launches itself and looks up the word. The
VOX Spanish dictionary is extremely smart about finding the infinitive form of
a conjugated verb. No more thumbing through a paper dictionary!
The following link will take you to a page where you can download the
latest, free Mobipocket Reader for both unencrypted and encrypted books. You
can also get a free emulator program that will show you what Mobipocket looks
like on various handhelds, and you can obtain either a personal or professional
package for creating your own Mobipocket eBooks.
Microsoft Reader: The Microsoft Reader program for
Windows and Pocket PC operating systems emulates the feel of a print book
better than any other eBook-reading software. The Reader engineers did
extensive usability testing on the program and developed a technology for it
called ClearType that uses subpixels in LCD screens to make the text extra
sharp. As of October 2004 all the Reader eBooks we sell on the
ElectricStory.com site are unencrypted, that is, not copy protected. Reader
doesn’t work on Palm OS devices, only Pocket PCs and Windows systems. If you do
own a Pocket PC, we encourage you to use Reader. There’s no better eBook
software. To read encrypted Microsoft Reader eBooks, you associate Microsoft
Reader with a Microsoft Passport account. Go to
http://www.microsoft.com/reader/ and then choose Downloads.
Rocket eBook: eBookwise, a Fictionwise imprint, is now selling the REB
1150 version of the Rocket eBook, which I’ll discuss in the next section. The
REB reads Rocket-format titles, which you get free along with MS Reader and
Mobipocket when you buy one of our unencrypted-format titles. If you don’t own
a Rocket eBook but are curious about what the device and the books look like,
you can use Google to find a free emulator program for Windows called eRocket
(use a reputable site like CNET to get it). Actually, the emulator displays an
older version of the Rocket, not the REB, but it’s close enough that you’ll get
the idea. Note that eRocket goes a little overboard in its fidelity to the
original Rocket eBook: in addition to looking just like the device, it can hold
only as many eBooks at a time as the original model, and you can’t resize the
program window. Check out the REB 1150 at the eBookwise beta-test site:
eReader: eReader, which until recently was called
Palm Reader, is a proprietary format of the Palm Digital Media company. Many
eBooks are available in eReader format, and you can install eReader on your
handheld—either Palm Pilot or Pocket PC—right alongside Mobipocket, no problem.
It’s a nice stable reader with cool features like autoscroll. We don’t yet
support eReader, but probably will soon.
You can pay over a thousand dollars for tablet PCs, phone handhelds, and various
other minicomputers that display eBooks, but I don’t think you gain anything by
going over 300 bucks (U.S.) for a dedicated eReader, with 200 being plenty for a
decent setup. Here are some eBook devices priced between $100 and $350.
eBookwise-1150 eBook Reading Device: The Rocket is
back! When Gemstar, Inc., bought Nuvomedia, the makers of the Rocket eBook,
there was a lot of misplaced optimism that they’d do great things for eBooks.
Instead, they priced their successor to the Rocket eBook, the REB, higher than
the Rocket—$250 if memory serves—and crippled the REB so you couldn’t
put your own content on it, a limitation that alone ensured the its demise in
the market. Gemstar’s eBook program is dead, but the REB 1150 has been
resurrected in a saner form. Fictionwise, Inc., under their eBookwise imprint,
has acquired the right to sell the back inventory on the REB, which reads both encrypted and unencrypted eBooks, including
all the old Rocket eBook-format titles. For full directions on putting unencrypted and personal content the device, see this page.
They’re selling the units for $124.95, with a 64MB expansion card thrown in, which is a decent price. You can actually
plug the device into a phone port, buy encrypted eBooks from Fictionwise, and
never have to use it with another computer, but that’s just silly. An eBook
device isn’t much good unless you can download files into it from your
computer. Fortunately, the REB can hook up to a computer, and it’s Mac and PC
agnostic. The REB takes SmartMedia cards, so you can put a huge library on it,
and the big lithium-ion battery packs enough juice for fifteen hours of reading
on a single charge. Also, it appears that a new version of the REB is in
production now, so the Rocket format will be supported in years to come. The
Fictionwise guys aren’t offering any affiliate program to people who recommend
their device, so we’re telling you as a public service. Of course, we hope you
buy one and then come back here to purchase your eBooks.
HieBook Reader: I don’t know much about this device. It looks pretty
decent but has a proprietary format and costs a good deal more than the new
REBs. If anyone owns one and would like to send in comments, I’d be more than
happy to post them. http://www.ebookad.com/hardware.php3
Minimum requirements for an eBook reader include an expansion slot so that you
can carry around a practically limitless number of eBooks on Secure Digital
(preferred), MMC, or other cards, a backlight so you can read in bed without
disturbing your partner, and a rechargeable battery. I’d say color vs.
grayscale is not really that important, but nowadays you can’t get a decent PDA
that doesn’t have color, so the point is moot. The following devices all
conform to these requirements and play MP3s, too.
$300: Palm Tungsten TX Has 128MB non-volative flash memory (even if it loses power, you won't lose data), Bluetooth
wireless, an ARM 312MHz processor, SDIO expansion port for multimedia cards,
and a big 320x480 screen, nearly the size and resolution of a paperback.
$250: Palm E2 Has 32MB non-volative flash, Bluetooth, and a
200 MHz ARM processor. The screen is 320x320
transreflective, which you should find nice and crisp.
$129: Palm Zire 31. Has 16MB ram, and a 160x160 screen, which is
one-quarter the resolution of the other two Palm models: 320x320 = 102,400
pixels; 160x160 = 25,600. Still, I read on a device at this resolution, and it
doesn’t bother me at all.
Don’t get the b&w Palm Zire or Palm Zire 21 if you’re serious about eBooks!
They’re cheap, but neither model has a backlight, and you’ll want one.
The nice thing about Pocket PCs is that they run the widest range of eBook
reading software, with Microsoft Reader, eReader, and Mobipocket probably being
the best. They’re a bit battery-hungry, so you might want one that lets
you replace its rechargeable battery. A replaceable battery port not only gives
you the option of backup power but also ensures you won’t have to send your
unit in to be rebuilt if the primary battery stops holding a charge.
$300: HP iPAQ rx1955 runs Windows Mobile 5.0 and has
a 300MHz Samsung SC32442 processor, 32 megs of SDRAM, integrated wireless,
a 3.5-inch transflective display, integrated microphone, speaker, and headset jack, and a
1,100 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable/removable battery.
Tablet PC: If money’s no object, you might consider laying
down a grand for a tablet PC, a device that’s a full-fledged computer – albeit
about half as powerful for the money as a notebook PC. With a tablet PC you
get a large display area, full color, and multimedia power. You can
control the device with a stylus just like a giant PDA, except the handwriting
recognition is by all accounts way better. You can run MS Reader, Mobipocket,
PDF, and a cadre of lesser-known eBook-reading apps on them. If you’ve got
enough money to buy a tablet PC as a dedicated eBook reader, you might as well
buy a REB 1150 and a nice PDA, too; then you’ve got the form factor for every
reading situation. If we had deep pockets, we’d do it.
Cybook: The Cybook is basically a
modestly powered tablet PC that just does eBooks. It looks suspiciously like
the MyFriend reader that came out a few years back in Italy and tanked due to
its $1200 price tag, so I'm not sure whether it's really new or just
back-inventory. The MyFriend was an attractive-looking device, and at $399, the
Cybook is three times as attractive, but still pricey for a dedicated reader:
(Note: The price on this unit has gone up and down in the last six
months: first $500 at debut, then $700 a month later. They're obviously
struggling for the right price point. As of April 2005, it was down to $399,
which for the form factor makes it a pretty good deal.)
I'd recommend the Palm Tungsten TX at this point. You can
listen to music on it, manage your contacts, and more, and between using
eReader and Mobipocket software, you’ll have access to the full range of eBooks
on the market, including all the current bestsellers by New York publishers.
The screen resolution is nice and high, and the Palm sucks juice more slowly
than a Pocket PC. However, the Pocket PC is pretty cool. It’s a close call
whether to go for the Tungsten TX or a low-end Ipaq for $300 and pick up an
essential secondary battery for another $50. These are full-featured PDAs that do MP3s, office software, MP3s and even movies. If you just want a dedicated eBook reader, you might do the Palm Zire 31 or a Palm Tungsten E (the predecessor to the E2), but if so, I'd try to get one used (you can
compare all the Palm Pilot devices at www.palmsource.com).
The REB is a nice supporting device. There are many books available for it,
though not nearly as many as for a Palm Pilot or Pocket PC. With its large
screen and adjustable backlight, it easily beats print books with a clip-on
light for reading in bed. This may seem like a minor selling point, unless,
like me, you read in bed as a nightly ritual and have a spouse who can't
get to sleep with even a flashlight on next to her.
How to Build Your eBook Library
No, I’m not going to say “Buy our eBooks!” Not yet. Instead, start out by
getting some conversion software for your favorite eBook reader so you can put
together your own eBooks. Here are a few packages:
The standard edition is free!
Mobipocket Publisher is free for personal use and $150 U.S. for professional
use. It also creates Microsoft Reader files.
GEB eBook Librarian http://www.breeno.org/eBook/:
If you have a Rocket eBook or one of the later REB models, you might want to
use this program to create and organize your eBooks.
You can create a few pdf files online for free at
However, if you’re serious about pdf, you’ll need to buy Acrobat:
Palm Makebook and Dropbook http://www.palmdigitalmedia.com/dropbook:
Free utilities for creating eReader titles. I'll explain these later, but first
some background on HTML, which you'll need to know something about to make
The Importance of HTML
Most eBook conversion packages understand basic HTML. If you don’t know HTML,
it’s time you learned. I know I’m probably about to lose you here, but please
don’t go away. This is easy. Bear with me for four paragraphs, and I’ll really
make it worth your time.
First, here’s all the HTML you need to know to enjoy a lot of eBooks:
<html></html> — Tags to identify your document as an HTML file. They
go at the beginning and end.
<p></p> — Paragraph start and end tags.
<br> — Line-break tag.
<i></i> — Italics start and end tags.
<b></b> — Bold start and end tags.
Here’s a very basic HTML file that puts it all together:
<p><b>BASIC HTML DEMO</b></p>
<p>It was a dark and stormy night, and this is the beginning and end of
this paragraph. Well, not quite. How about we put in another sentence? Or a
Here are some books any fantasy fan should read:<br><br>
*<i>A Game of Thrones</i> by George R.R. Martin <br>
*<i>A Clash of Kings</i> by George R.R. Martin.<br>
*<i>A Storm of Swords</i> by George R.R. Martin.<br>
Copy that text, from "<html>" to "</html>," inclusive, and paste it
into a Notepad document or other very basic text editor program that won’t try
to format it (not Word!). Then save the file, with “.htm” on the end of it so
your browser will know it’s HTML. Then double-click it and check it out. It
should look like this. (For more
information on HTML, I recommend you go to www.w3schools.com.
They’ve got excellent tutorials.)
You can use HTML with Readerworks, Mobipocket Publisher, and other eBook
programs to make eBooks. Here’s the big reason you needed to learn how to
create a basic HTML doc:
and, more specifically, http://pgcc.net/.
There are thousands of public-domain eBooks out there for the PERFECTLY LEGAL
taking with the HTML already written. Go to http://pgcc.net/
(they keep changing the domain for some reason, so you may have to find this
site from projectgutenberg.info at the time you read this article). Type
"Doctor Jekyll" in the HTML search. You may have to search a bit in the result
set for what you want, so just to make my point, here’s what I found with this
search in about ten seconds; go ahead and open it:
If you’re using Internet Explorer on Windows, select View from the menu at the
top of the screen, and then select Source from the dropdown. This will open the
page in Notepad, showing you the HTML. (In Netscape, the menu listing is called
"Page Source" instead of “Source.”) Then select Save from the text editor’s
File menu, and save the file with an “.htm” extension, for example, "Hyde.htm."
You’re now ready to run it through an eBook creator, and you’ll find
instructions for doing that with the eBook creator you chose.
Man I wish I’d had access to this stuff when I was doing my English degree over
fifteen years ago!
At this point, you’re probably wondering why you see a lot of public-domain
eBooks for sale if they’re this easy to obtain. Probably because most people
don’t know what you know. Here’s another thing most people don’t know: there's
a lot of incredibly good copyrighted fiction out on the Web that can be
converted to eBooks this same way. You can practice with the online stories we
have listed at left. (They’re all really good, but check out “A Dry Quiet War”
— it rocks!) I don’t know if the major Webzines frown on your making eBooks of
their articles and fiction, so I won’t name them here, but you can find some
great sites in the link lists of eBook retailers (hint, hint).
eReader/Palm Reader deserves special mention. You can create eBooks for it
free of charge, but it doesn’t use HTML. It uses a set of proprietary tags
called PML that are very similar. You don’t really have to learn PML. There are
tools at Palm Digital’s site for making Palm eReader eBooks from word processor
Here is the link again for Palm Makebook and Dropbook:
You can get already-prepared eBooks from us. We’ve got a few free ones and will
offer many more soon. Of course, we’ve also got quite a few for sale. There are
no hidden gotchas on our site. If something’s free, it’s free — no strings
attached. You need to create an account, but we won’t share your personal
information or pester you with e-mails. If you opt not to get our newsletter,
the odds are great that we won’t ever contact you at all. The only time we
would is if there were a question with your account.
Here are the steps to getting eBooks.
1. Create an account. You can get to the account-creation page
here. We only need a few things from you: login name, password, first
name, last name, e-mail address, state and country.
We need your e-mail address to verify your identity. Once you create an account,
you can do a lot of stuff on our site, like write book reviews, so we send you
an e-mail with a link to click to verify your address. We need your state
and country to assess any taxes on books you purchase. Right now, we only
collect sales tax on residents of the European Union and Washington state. Of
course, free books are not assessed tax.
2. Add eBooks to your cart. The formats you get for each eBook appear as icons
under the Add to Cart button. If you buy 2020, for instance, you get Rocket
eBook, Microsoft Reader, and Mobipocket formats with your purchase. Click Add
to Cart to put the item in your shopping cart.
3. You can examine your cart at any time by clicking the cart icon at the top of
the page, or you can simply click “Proceed to Checkout” – a link that appears
on many pages when you’ve added at least one item to your cart.
If you’ve just got free eBooks, you’ll see your shopping cart with no charges
listed and a “Download Free eBooks” button underneath. Click the button. (If
you need to pay for eBooks, you’ll see a dropdown for choosing a credit card
4. Download your books. Click My Library at the top of any page to go to your
personal library. Once there, choose a format next to your book from the
pulldown menu; then click Download.
If you ordered a secure Mobipocket title and you don’t yet have a Mobipocket ID
on file, instead of a dropdown and a download button, you’ll get a link that
takes you to a page where you can enter one or two IDs. The page explains where
to look for your Mobipocket IDs (PIDs).
If you’ve already got an ID on file, you’ll simply get a link, like this:
Click "Download Secure Mobipocket" to download your book.
Other Sources of Free eBooks
Many regional public libraries offer eBooks online for their patrons to check
out over the Internet. How’s this possible? The copy you download has a
timestamp on it, and your eBook becomes unreadable at the expiration of the
checkout period. You simply delete the file when you’re done. As an example,
the local King County Library system offers a wide range of good eBooks.
Unless you live in King County, though, you can’t check out these eBooks, but
look into your local library system. Also, there are some eBook subscription
libraries, where you can borrow books for a membership fee, like this one at
eBooks aren’t going to replace paper books anytime soon, but they’ve got big
advantages in certain areas. You can get them on demand anytime day or night
without leaving your home, the public-domain ones are free, they don’t take up
any physical space, and you can read them in bed and the light won’t disturb your
partner. Although it’s a topic for a later article, I’d also argue that you
might as well start building an eBook library now for the day when eBooks do
replace print books. There’s a thing called digital ink that will erase almost
all remaining boundaries between print and eBooks: