WHEN YOU DIE, CAN I HAVE THIS?

The title of this post is an actual quote from my nine year old son after a few minutes of playing with my new Sony Reader. He tends to be drawn to any kind of electronic gadget, but he really took to this one fast, even bragging to his friend about how cool it was, and how cool it was that I got it for free. My first impulse was to tell him he could have it now—and not just to stave off the impending patricide, but because my own first impressions were less favorable.

But let me start at the beginning.

Just before Christmas I registered for a series of seminars in New York, the Publishing Business Conference & Expo, in an effort to get a little smarter about the business I’m in. One of the benefits of a full-conference registration is a free Sony Reader. And they were as good as their word—the reader showed up last week, and I couldn’t wait to open it up and see what all the e-book fuss was about.

Let me now reiterate my basic stance on e-books: If people are reading books they’ve paid for, so publishers and authors are being paid, I don’t give a hoot about the format they’re reading it in: hardcover or mass market book, e-book in whatever format on whatever device . . . If you’re a reader, you’re my friend. If you’re not pirating content, you’re my customer. As an editor and author I’m a content provider, equally happy providing that content in whatever format people are most likely to buy.

I’m also an avid reader and collector of books. I like having books around—my house is filled with books. I buy books from multiple sources, mostly new but also used, and I even occasionally borrow books from the library. I’m not at all opposed on general principal to reading books on an e-reader or buying e-books, either, so no preconceived boundary there.

I think I can offer some reasonably unbiased opinions on the Sony Reader, but if I really “review” it will I be breaking two of my cardinal rules? The first, that critics are the lowest form of human life (well, okay, child molesters, Nazis, then critics) and as such I’ve promised myself that I will never be a critic as long as I live? Maybe. The second rule, that I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. The good people at Sony were kind enough to team up with the fine people at the Publishing Business Conference & Expo to give me a device for free that retails for $188 or more, so I should smile and say thank you.

Imagine me smiling. Thank you.

I’m going to give myself a pass on the whole critic thing, just this once, and offer some opinions. These are my opinions, and I encourage you to form your own. I am only an expert on what I like, and even then I have the capacity to surprise myself. Your experience will be different. On with it . . .

The packaging was pretty lackluster. Sony has some catching up to do in terms of design. I just bought a new iPod and Apple is still winning the design war. Inside the boring box is the reader itself, which is small—the PRS-300, or “Pocket Edition” is the smaller of Sony’s range of three e-readers—6-1/8” tall, 4-1/4” wide, and only 3/8” thick. It’s a little smaller than a mass market paperback in actual size, but the screen is significantly smaller than a mass market page. I haven’t put it on a scale, but when I held it in my right hand and a 352-page mass market paperback in my left, the e-reader was a little heavier, which makes it lighter than a hardcover book. Certainly not too heavy to comfortably hold for extended periods of time. The front face of mine is black. I wasn’t given the option of choosing the color of my free one but I’m happy they didn’t send me the obnoxious pink one Sony shows on their web site. The purple trim around the edges is girlie enough.

In the box under the reader was a kinda cheesy padded sleeve to protect it, but then my new iPod came with nothing to protect it, so one up for Sony on that end. The ubiquitous—and essential—USB cable is included. This is not a 3G enabled device. Like an iPod, you have to physically plug it into your computer in order to download books into it. I have no beef with that, actually. I’ve never been particularly frustrated that I can’t order new songs for my iPod on a whim while driving, so the fact that I can’t make that snap decision with e-books isn’t a problem.

Also included in the box is a little booklet with instructions in both English and Spanish.

Interesting. A printed book that tells you how to set up your e-book. See? Print isn’t dead after all.

I’m a Mac user, so tend to be wary of any non-Apple device. Don’t get me started on compatibility issues, but in this case, there were some big ones.

I followed the printed instructions to install the Reader Library software from the device to my home computer and it was a nightmare of multiple restarts, errors, and over-writing. You have to know your Adobe password, which I didn’t, so I had to go through a whole process of resetting that before I could register the reader, and the whole mess took well over an hour, which doesn’t sound like that long, but is about four or five times longer than it should have taken. I was more than a little frustrated, but eventually got it to mostly work.

Because of some confusing keychain password difficulties I could probably solve if I put in the time, I cannot access the device or Sony’s e-book store on my work computer at all. Hopefully Sony is working on an upgrade to this software—it’s fragile, to say the least.

The store itself is underwhelming compared to the entirely more robust iTunes Store, but Sony hasn’t been in the game as long. There are a few free titles that I downloaded, just to have something on there, and the prices of the books themselves are in line with expectations—not too cheap (and yes, there is such a thing as too cheap), but not too expensive, either.

The next experiment was to download a PDF file into it and see how it handled that. I chose a very big file, the PDF of the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook. (As a Wizards of the Coast employee I have access to those files, and use them for work purposes.) It took a while to transfer over (but it’s a huge 67.2 MB file) and there it is—you can see the whole page but the type comes out way too small to read. The art looks fine, but rendered in black-and-white. The Reader has a little button with a magnifying glass icon that zooms into the text. This makes even the PDF entirely readable, though a little harder—and a lot slower—to navigate around.

Let me tell you, reading from a PDF on this thing is pretty tough. Pages refresh only very, very slowly. That’s not the case for the EPUB books, which seem to change pages more or less as fast as you would flip a paper page. It’s definitely built to read EPUB files, and kinda sorta support PDFs.

What I was hoping to get from the D&D PDF, though, was reasonable searchability. I was hoping I could dump the PDF of all the D&D rule books into this thing and use it in my D&D game rather than carting around all those heavy hardcover books, but unless I spend what would end up being hours setting up a labyrinthine series of bookmarks, getting to a particular page seems to be a torturous process of paging slowly forward, waiting for each intervening page to refresh. No D&D game utility, I’m sorry to say. Properly formatted EPUB books usually have a table of contents that at least allow you to click forward to a particular chapter.

I was also disappointed in the Library software in that it doesn’t seem to want to allow me to change the names of files, which you can do in iTunes. That means my D&D Player’s Handbook is called 4E_PHB_Ch0FM_TOC.indd and the author is “jeff,” who I assume is our digitech guy at Wizards of the Coast who saved the last version of the file. This morning I found a separate file marked PHB1 on my list of books, but when I tried to open it the whole device froze and I had to hit the little reset button on the bottom and restart it. This file name issue seems to me to be something relatively easy to fix, and I hope Sony gets on that.

After downloading a couple of the free books from the Sony store I started reading one and the reading experience isn’t bad. The zoom-in function is my favorite part of the e-reader experience. I’m old enough that it’s getting really hard to read small type. There’s nothing wrong with my eyes, mind you, it’s just my arms aren’t long enough.

What disappoints me, though, is that any finesse that might have been in the printed copy—graphic design and typesetting, both art forms I have enormous respect for—are entirely absent in favor of raw data. This tends to be the result of engineers left to their own devices. You can almost hear them ask, “But all the words are there, what difference does it make?” To me, anyway, it makes a lot of difference. Some really rookie formatting mistakes are made routinely in this format, like a full line space between paragraphs, ragged right margins, fake “drop caps” that cause a leading disruption . . . yuck. That sort of thing does considerable violence to the art of the printed page and if the future is to ignore all that in favor of soulless blocks of text, well, that’s a crying shame.

Just yesterday I got a new iPod which I filled with nearly 4000 songs and my digital copy of the new Star Trek movie. The 160 GB iPod Classic cost about $50 more than I would have paid for the Sony Reader had I actually paid for it, but honestly, the iPod is a far, far superior device—not for reading books, mind you, but in terms of its usability and flexibility. Had I paid $200 or so for the Reader, only to be confronted with buggy software, a rickety store, severely limited search ability, snail-slow PDF viewing, and an almost stone-age lack of esthetic value in design and readability, I would have been disappointed, to say the least.

But even then, I’ll try not to give up hope. The next step in the experiment: Actually read a whole e-book from beginning to end. I have no sense yet of battery life, eye strain, etc. Maybe the experience of reading an e-book will help attenuate some of my complaints with the format itself.

I’ll post again, when I have more to say . . .

Meanwhile, I leave Sunday for the Publishing Business Conference & Expo, and intend to bring my laptop with me. Barring some disaster, I’m hoping to post daily reports right here Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week—recaps and reports of what I saw and heard, and my opinions of the opinions expressed. Come back on Monday!

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
This entry was posted in Dungeons & Dragons, Publishing Business, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to WHEN YOU DIE, CAN I HAVE THIS?

  1. Pingback: FOLLOWING UP « Fantasy Author's Handbook

  2. Pingback: SONY READER: THE (PROBABLY) FINAL WORD « Fantasy Author's Handbook

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