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Your Guide to eBook Retailers

ebook readers

The holiday shopping season is looming which means it’s time for a new round of eReaders to be introduced from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and maybe, just maybe, Apple, and there will be several months of us giving them our money.  But before you buy, read on to find out exactly what you’re getting into, in terms of both hardware and retailer.

A note before I get started: you’ll read the term “iDevices” a lot in this article.  I and many others use it to condense Apple’s mobile device lineup, the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, which, for the purposes of this article, are practically the same thing.

Selection
Given that I don’t have the time to count how many hundreds of thousands or millions of eBooks each store has myself, I’m going to have to take their word for it.  So, as of September 1, 2012

  • Amazon: 1,531,179;
  • Barnes & Noble: 2,998,704;
  • Apple: I was unable to determine an exact count from either Apple.com or the iBooks app, but according to http://www.apple.com/ipad/built-in-apps/, they have “700,000” titles and counting;
  • Google: Again, I was unable to produce an exact number, but according to http://support.google.com/googleplay/bin/answer.py?hl=en&p=books_overview&answer=179839&rd=1, Google Play currently has “over 4 million books;"
  • Sony: I’m unable to find a solid number anywhere on Sony.  They’ve been selling eBooks for the longest time, however, so I’m willing to bet their stock is somewhere between B&N’s nearly 3 million and Google’s 4 million.  


eBook Pricing
This is a tricky subject to write about, given the recent US Justice Department suit against Apple and five of the world’s largest publishers in regards to eBook price fixing.  It’s a complex topic regarding “wholesale pricing” VS “agency pricing,” and I’m going to let the Wall Street Journal give you the rundown of the case.  What it boils down to, however, is that Amazon’s prices will gradually fall to be among, if not -the- absolute, cheapest.  For the moment, most publishers still control the pricing of eBooks, so prices will be identical across the different stores.  Fifty Shades of Grey, the New York Times best-selling novel for the past 26 weeks, is $9.99 no matter where you go.  On the other hand, The Hunger Games on Google and Amazon is $5 (or free if you’re an Amazon Prime Member with a Kindle), and $8.99 on Barnes & Noble and Sony.  Clearly it’s a matter of the title and publisher in question, but in my experience, you’ll get the best pricing on Amazon and Google, but pricing alone should not make your choice for you.  

Hardware Selection
Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony all have their own branded eBook readers.  Google and Apple have no official eBook readers as such, but the Nexus 7 and Apple iPad are a pretty close match.  The cheapest prices for each of these, respectively, are $79 (with banner advertisements, sorry, “Special Offers”), $99, $129, $199, and $399,  though it should be noted that the first three devices employ simple e-ink displays and are therefore cheaper than Google’s and Apple’s full-blown tablet computers (though the Apple rumor mill is spinning wildly about a new, cheaper “iPad Mini” we’ll see sometime this fall, in which case I will update this article).  

eBook Cross-Compatibility
One of everyone’s largest gripes regarding eBooks, and rightly so, is the way that retailers tie them to their particular stores and devices.  This makes comparison shopping for the eBooks themselves practically meaningless if you’re only willing, like most people, to purchase one retailer’s device.  Let’s run down the list:

  • Apple eBooks are only readable on Apple iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches. There is no Apple reading app for Android tablets, PCs, or even Macs, and you certainly can’t view them in other eBook readers.  
  • Amazon Kindle books can be read on Kindles, Apple iDevices, Android Devices, Blackberries (for as long as that matters), Windows Phone 7, as well as Windows PCs, Macs, and in the following Web browsers at read.amazon.com: Firefox 6 and newer, Chrome 11 and newer, and Safari 5 and newer.  They cannot be read on any other manufacturer’s dedicated eBook reader, such as Nook and Sony.  Basically, the software or hardware for reading their books must be branded as Amazon Kindle--no Kindle books on your Nook!
  • Barnes & Noble Nook books can be read on Nooks, Apple iDevices, Android Devices, Windows PCs, Macs, and Web browsers; there is no longer an official app for Blackberries, and I don’t believe they ever supported Windows phones.  Just as with Amazon, Nook books must be read in Nook branded hardware or software - no Nook books on your Kindle!
  • Google’s paid eBooks can be read on Android devices and Apple iDevices using the free Google Play Books app.  They can also be read on any eBook reader that supports Adobe Digital Editions DRM which is basically every eBook reader out there, including the Nook but excluding the Kindle.  A note to Nook purchasers of Google eBooks: once transferred using the Adobe Digital Editions program for your PC or Mac, Google eBooks will not be displayed with your eBooks purchased from Barnes & Noble, but rather will be stored in Library → My Stuff → My Files → Digital Editions.  
  • Sony’s paid eBooks can be read with the Sony Reader, as well as the Reader app for Windows PCs, Macs, and Android devices.  Sony has not released a branded app for Apple’s iDevices, but considering Sony eBooks support Adobe DRM, making them work on just about any device other than the Kindle, you can just use the free BlueFire Reader app from Apple’s app store.

An Important Note about Adobe DRM

While Adobe DRM may make eBooks from both Google and Sony more “universally supported,” it’s still DRM, which implies a sort of devil’s bargain.  In the case of Adobe, it means that an app or device with which you intend to read eBooks must be activated with a free Adobe account.  Once an eBook from Sony or Google has been downloaded to a device or app, it is forever paired with the Adobe account that device or app has been activated with.  In other words, hang on tight to that Adobe account information, you’ll need it if you ever want to migrate your eBooks from your old device to a new one, which, thanks to Apple's market influence, is basically an annual event for a lot of folks.  I know that I tend to forget my Adobe account details a lot more easily than I do all my other accounts because I didn’t actually buy the eBook from Adobe.  Still, as long as companies like Google and Sony use Adobe’s DRM technology, they’ll play a very annoying role in the lives of our eBooks.  

Hardware Cross-Compatibility
You can glean most of the devices’ reading capability from the above section, but there are more formats to consider, so to be clear:

  • Apple iDevices can be used to read basically any file format given the correct app, and as we all well know, there’s an app for that!
  • Amazon Kindles can support TXT, PDF, unprotected MOBI, and PRC files natively (such as those downloaded from Project Gutenberg).  Other unprotected file types, like doc and docx can be supported using Amazon’s Kindle Personal Document Service or converted using the free Calibre eBook manager.  They do not support Barnes & Noble Nook eBooks, Adobe DRM-protected eBooks from the likes of Sony and Google, or Apple eBooks.
  • Nooks support the more universal ePub eBook format (including those ePub eBooks that are DRM-protected), PDF, PalmDOC (PDB), JPG, BMP, GIF, and PNG (source: http://wiki.mobileread.com/wiki/Nook).  They do not support Amazon Kindle eBooks or Apple eBooks, but they will take Google and Sony eBooks.
  • Google devices are Android-based and therefore can pretty much read whatever format you want them to with the correct app, except for Apple eBooks.  
  • Sony eReaders, like the Nook, support both Adobe DRM-protected and unprotected ePub eBooks, as well as PDF, TXT, JPEG, PNG, GIF, and BMP.  They do support eBooks purchased from Google, but not Apple, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble.


Other Store Content
Other than eBooks, we also have magazines, videos, music, and apps to consider:

  • Apple: Without a doubt, the largest selection of all non-book content, period, paired exclusively to Apple devices, with the exception of music which can be played on any device and videos which can also be played in iTunes on either PCs or Macs;
  • Amazon: The runner up and only because of its smaller app selection; in fact, you can usually get better deals on music and video from Amazon than you can get from Apple.  Videos can be played in any Web browser with Adobe Flash, as well as the Kindle Fire, and a number of other devices like the Roku Player and a bunch of other devices besides.  Its music can be played on any hardware and, with the exception of certain apps tailored specifically for the Kindle Fire, its apps can be used on any device running Android.
  • Google: Though their content offerings are constantly growing, they still can’t match Apple and Amazon; their app store is generally considered to be better than Amazon’s though nowhere near as good as Apple’s.  Their music can be played on any device, their video on any Android device or Web browser with Adobe Flash, and their apps run on any Android device.  
  • Barnes & Noble: B&N doesn’t really have much in the way of apps, music, video, or really anything except books and magazines.  Of all the content stores, excluding books, they’re probably the weakest, save for . . .
  • Sony: Sony offers an interesting mix of content.  In addition to their eBook store, they offer a streaming music service similar to Rhapsody and Spotify, as well as videos, comics, and Playstation games using their Media Go software.  However, an account created for Media Go cannot be used in the eBook store and vice-versa.  This lack of universal service combined with the fact that they do not sell music-to-own makes for an overall cumbersome experience that could stand to take a page or three out of Apple, Amazon or Google’s books.  


Customer Service
It’s difficult to find good objective reviews of the eBook stores rather than reviews of their devices.  With the device you purchase frequently tied to a particular store, however, it’s very important to know how well the people you’re buying from will treat you.  

Both Apple and Barnes & Noble have a big leg-up in the customer service department with actual physical stores all over the country (more so Barnes & Noble).  This means you can actually go into a real building and talk to a real person which is a big plus for a lot of people.  

Then again, a lot of people don’t want to bother with getting into their cars and just want someone to coach them over the Web.  There it gets trickier to judge.  I shot off some support questions over the Labor Day weekend and got same-day responses from all five stores, with Amazon coming in first by several hours.  The responses from Amazon and Google were superb, mainly, I feel, because they are purely online entities with no stores to speak of, so their options for problem-solving online are unmatched.  

Sony is the big loser here, as when I emailed them they wrote back and said “Give us a call."  Yay, automated phone menus, my favorite in-door sport!

A Note about eBooks, Credit Cards, and Barnes & Noble
I dislike having to write this section.  Upon the purchase of a Nook Simple Touch last year, I greedily unwrapped and turned on the device right in the store like the gadget geek that I am.  Barnes & Noble stores provide free wifi for Nooks, and I wanted to try to download some eBooks I had previously purchased with a different Nook.  I activated the device with my Barnes & Noble account, went to my library of purchased eBooks to download them and . . . “Credit card number, please!”  

That’s right, I was being asked for a credit card number for an eBook that I had already purchased; apparently it had been so long since I’d purchased an eBook from Barnes & Noble that the credit card I’d used had since expired.  I checked with Barnes & Noble customer service and sure enough, if you want to read your eBooks that you’ve already purchased, you absolutely must have a valid, current, active credit card on file with them.  Their rationalization for this is that most publishers (all the big ones except Tor right now) require that eBooks be encrypted for each customer, or to put it in English, copy-protected.  True enough, and yet so wrong.  

I cannot begin to tell you how much this angers me, but I’ll be objective and simply state that no other store selling copy-protected eBooks, not Apple, not Amazon, not Google, and not Sony, requires you to have a credit card on file for eBooks that you have already purchased.  I bought a 99 cent eBook from each of these retailers, then revoked my credit card number from my account, deleted the eBook from my tablet, and then redownloaded the eBook and was not once harassed for a credit card number.  

As I said, I hate having to write this section.  It so clearly differentiates Barnes & Noble from every other eBook retailer and not in a good way.  This is bad news, because the Nook is one of the most popular eBook readers in the country, specifically because people know and trust Barnes & Noble.  I find this credit card requirement to be more than a little disturbing coming from a corporate entity that has developed such trust.

My advice, if you are intent upon entering the world of eBooks, is that you do not consider Barnes & Noble a viable option.  Not everybody always has a credit card and this is a clearly exclusionary practice that I believe is unacceptable.  

What It Boils Down To
There are so many variables to consider, but I’ll try to condense things for you:

  • If you’re looking for a plain old eBook reader with no frills, you should either buy a Kindle with the knowledge that it is the most locked-down of all the eBook readers, or a Sony, with the knowledge that while it will support the most file formats and book types of any eBook reader, Amazon will have the upper hand in pricing for some time to come and Sony’s customer support leaves a little to be desired;
  • If you’re looking for a tablet eBook reader (color backlit screen, can play music, video, and run apps), buy a Google Nexus 7 for $200 or an Apple iPad if you’ve got a lot of extra money, and I would really recommend going for at least the $500 model, as it and all models above it include the “retina” display that makes text look much crisper and easier on the eye;
  • Be wary of Barnes & Noble; their stores may be a good source of customer support, but being required to have a credit card on file for eBooks I already purchased sets my alarms blaring.