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eBooks: What to read on which reader

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eBook readers will be everywhere this Christmas, in the shops if not under the trees, but even publishers don't seem to know what books one can read on the things.

Amazon's Kindle makes things simple: one store with 296,947 books available, and if it's not there then you can't have it. But competitive hardware can get content from a variety of sources, sometimes at different prices, which makes buying an eBook online more akin to wandering down Charing Cross Road than nipping into Tesco.

Not that one has to pay for every eBook - the Gutenberg project has more than 30,000 beyond-copyright works available for free download and import onto one's eBook reader, much of which is worth reading - not least HG Wells's contemporary fiction and war-game rulebook - there's also a plethora of free (self-published) books floating around the internet, a few of which are also worth reading.

But of more interest is content that one can pay for, modern novels and reference works that download and render on an electronic book, which means one has to start by looking at formats.

Most commercial eBooks are protected by some form of Digital Rights Management, so if you're ideologically opposed to DRM then your options are severely limited.

Books for Amazon's Kindle come as AZW files, which can only be read by Kindle hardware or software, which now includes a PC client and an iPhone app. Amazon also owns Mobipocket, a cross-device platform that works on a variety of mobile devices, but is slowly being starved to death by its parent for obvious reasons.

Then we have Adobe's Digital Editions, which uses ePub for layout. Adobe also provides a PC client, and manufacturers of eBook readers can pay around $75,000 for a licence as long as they also agree not to include Mobipocket or Kindle software on the device: Adobe wants the field to itself.

Then we come to Barnes & Noble's effort, a proprietary system that the company got when it bought Fictionwise (and thus eReader) back in March. The Barnes & Noble PC client is a branded version of the eReader software, which is also available for the BlackBerry and iPhone platforms, but until we get our hands on a Nook (B&N's own hardware eBook reader) we won't know how well it integrates into a real eBook reading device.

Banes & Noble seem to be trying to copy Amazon in producing its own platform which it can then license out, but Plastic Logic - which until the announcement of the Nook considered itself to be the supplier of choice for a B&N-branded eBook reader - already has a deal with Adobe for Digital Editions. So it will be interesting to see if the QUEreader supports both formats when Plastic Logic launches it next year, or if the deal with Adobe will quietly be dropped once it goes onto the B&N shelves.

But that's all in the future - today the choice is Amazon's Kindle or Adobe's Digital Editions.

Amazon lists almost 300,000 titles as being available in Kindle editions. That compares well to the Foyles' Charing Cross Road store, which stocks about 250,000 titles. When you use Amazon you can easily and quickly find if a book is available, unlike the Foyles of our youth, but if it isn't there then there's no other option... equally unlike Foyles.

One might imagine that books would either be available electronically or not, and if available then one could get them anywhere, but such is the state of the industry that it's not nearly so simple.

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