Shelf Awareness welcomes Jenn Northington, general manager at breathe books, Baltimore, Md., who will write a regular column about her e-reader experiences. Here's the first installment:
I've been a bookseller for five years, four of those at the independents Changing Hands, the King's English and, currently, breathe books, and I'd like to remain a bookseller for the next 50. This requires, of course, that there still be bookstores 50 years from now--an uncertain future I am heavily invested in. Simultaneously, I am excited about the possibilities that I see digital publishing bringing to booksellers and bookstores (physical ones, I should note). While I've expressed this enthusiasm at two panels for the ABA this year (BEA and NAIBA), I've also heard (and sometimes agreed with) the, shall we say, less enthusiastic views.
Because digital publishing is still developing, most of the reviews, articles, blogs, etc., are commentary or speculation, feature lists or (frequently) wish-lists. This has made me wonder: What is it like to own and use an e-reader? How does e-reading compare with reading, something I've been enjoying for practically my entire life? With help from Shelf Awareness, I decided to join the ranks of the estimated five million e-reader consumers. My goal is to uncover and report on all the nitty gritty details of e-reading that get lost in the pro and con rhetoric.
My aim is not to put digital publishing on a pedestal nor to grind it into the dust. Rather I hope to give booksellers a platform of hard knowledge about e-readers that will enable us to talk to our customers thoughtfully and accurately, without judgment.
The first order of business was to pick my weapon of choice. Lord knows, there are umpteen million e-readers. However, I tend to ignore reviews in favor of my "poke it before you buy it" policy--if a piece of software or hardware doesn't do what I want or expect it to do, I move right along (unless I am absolutely forced to use it for some reason). This puts 90% of e-readers out of the running; the only ones you can try before you buy are the Sony Touch and Pocket Editions, and Barnes & Noble's nook. (The Kindle was out of the running automatically because--need I say it?--if it doesn't support the ePub format, it doesn't support independent bookstores. Plus, you can't get your hands on it without purchasing it.) The time I spent at Best Buy and B&N was fascinating, and not at all what I expected. I encourage every bookseller to do the same--even 20 minutes playing with an e-reader is an investment in your job, in your ability to talk knowledgeably to customers about books in all their many forms.
I spent about an hour at Best Buy playing with the Sony floor models, and was shockingly underwhelmed. For second-generation devices, I found the Sony Readers disappointing at best.
The Pocket Edition is attractively small and very basic. It does the minimum of what you'd expect an e-reader to do: it holds books and turns pages (and when I say turns pages, I mean that the screen goes gray and wiggly for a second. This was true for all the e-readers I played with). The buttons are pretty obvious, and work as you'd expect them to (which is actually something of a feat, in this day and age), and aren't in obnoxious locations. For $200 though (did I mention I'm cheap?), I expect a little more function.
The Touch Edition was especially disappointing, since I had read reviews that got me excited. Yes, it has a touch screen, which means fewer buttons, which in theory is a good thing. It also has a stylus. You can write with it, right on the screen, and highlight passages--which is pretty neat. However, I soon found that the controls are less than precise. I'd try to highlight something and get the auto-dictionary instead--the stylus would select a word and up would pop the definition. This was fun at first, but ended up being more annoying than anything, because it happened at the drop of a hat. You can also make notes, annotate, bookmark and play certain types of audio files. But even with all that function, the experience was so bland and clunky that I reconsidered this column. If you went by the Sony models, you'd think that e-readers had a very long way to go before they were worth it.
The nook, to my immense surprise, rekindled my faith. At first sight, it's much better-looking than either of the Sony editions. The reading screen is somehow crisper (they could be exactly the same, but the nook's looked better, I swear), and the navigation screen (a separate touch-screen beneath the reading screen) is functional and beautiful. It takes a little getting used to, since you want to poke both the reading and nav screens, but only one of them will respond to touch. Once I got going, though, the more I wanted it. Bookmark a page? Yes. Highlight a paragraph? Yes. Dictionary? Yes (in theory--the actual definitions weren't uploaded on the floor model). Play music? Yes. Get more books? Absolutely; it can connect to a wireless hotspot--which, I should note, neither the cheaper Sony Pocket or the more expensive Touch can do. All of these other features may be standard, but the actual user experience was engaging and easy, miles away from the blah feel of Sony. Many reviewers have commented on the slow page turning, which was, initially, very slow indeed, but a minute or so after the book was loaded, the lag matched the Sony models. And because the nook is running the Android operating system, you'll be able to upgrade the software and download apps, similar to the iPod Touch. Which means your nook will be only sort-of obsolete in three months. Add to that an interchangeable battery (which no one else has), and you've sold me.
I spent some time speculating with the sales guy (if you're in the Johns Hopkins B&N, tell Michael that Jenn says hi!) about why the nook felt so much better than the Sony models. His theory is that it's because book people are behind the nook, and I have to wonder if he's right. Sony's had a lot of time to get this stuff right, and just ends up looking... behind. The nook, on the first go-round, is very impressive--at least for the 40 minutes I played with it in the store.
One thing I found odd: none of these e-readers has a light (as far as I could tell). I assume this is because e-Ink is, by definition, not backlit. Basically, you're trading reading in bed for reading in direct sunlight. I do more of the former than the latter, so this disappoints me to no end. Apparently B&N already has special nook lights for you to buy. Which should go nicely with your Kate Spade cover... (you think I'm kidding? Visit nook.com).
Here's the kicker: because of the high demand for e-readers, the only one available immediately (when I went looking; things may have changed in the past week) was the Sony Pocket. So I'll be waiting until February for my nook to arrive. But not to worry! The next of the installment of the Nitty Gritty: what to do while you're waiting for your e-reader.