Buying books is such a mess

Buying books is such a mess right now, at least if you try to switch over to eBooks in one form or another. Let’s see what we have here.


Kindle has the advantage of running on Kindle devices, Windows, OSX, iOS, whatever. Books are also usually cheap on Kindle, even though there are examples where the electronic version is actually more expensive than the paper version. The problem with Kindle is that it’s a proprietary and DRM’d format, and that doesn’t feel right. Non-technical litterature without illustrations are pretty nice on Kindle, but anything with code, drawings, or images sucks big time. Reading programming books on Kindle, at least on iOS and OSX, the platforms I use, is horrible.


I’ve never bought a book on iBooks. They may be fine, I don’t know, but since iBooks, an Apple product, doesn’t run on OSX (and how sick is that), I wouldn’t invest in any book on that platform. The books are also more expensive than on Kindle, while being just as DRM challenged.

Protected PDF

APress used to sell protected PDF books, and it was really shitty. You had to use Adobe Acrobat to read them, with all the limitations, such as not being able to read them on the iPad. They fixed that by switching over to unprotected PDF. Several other publishers still use protected PDF, but you have to really scrutinize their sites to discover this vital fact. I’m avoiding doing any business with these people.

Online reading

I have to include online repositories such as O’Reilly bookshelf. I have access to a limited form via ACM, but it’s pretty shitty. The interface to the book is based on a Flash browser plugin, making it difficult to navigate. And, worse, it doesn’t work when you’re offline.

Plain PDF

I’ve found three publishers that sell unprotected PDFs, or at least they are not mandating that you use Adobe Acrobat; any PDF reader, including Goodreader and OSX Preview, is good enough. The only thing these guys do is sprinkle the document with the name of the purchaser, making it really easy to see who gave away copies to the torrent sites. I find this totally acceptable. The three publishers I’ve found are Pragmatic Bookshelf, Apress, and O’Reilly. Somewhat disturbingly, O’Reilly charges almost double for their eBooks as compared with Kindle for the same titles, which irks me enough to not buy the books I would normally have wanted to buy.

What a mess this is

You end up with some of your books on Kindle, some in Dropbox (where I put the unprotected PDF files), and some on your physical bookshelf. The advantages of carrying around a laptop or iOS device with all the books on it, are huge, though. PDF files can also be easily searched, even from Spotlight on OSX. Luckily, the three publishers I mentioned, publish enough good titles that I can simply ignore the rest, at least as far as modern programming goes. I actually think that this is the model that will dominate in the long run, at least as far as technical books are concerned.

2 thoughts on “Buying books is such a mess”

  1. What about ePub, in its several flavors?

    I put all eBooks, not just PDFs, in DropBox. Just so any apps I use now or in the future to read them already have access to them.

  2. I put everything in Dropbox as well. I don’t bother with ePub, since the PDFs from the aforementioned three publishers are so close to the original paper versions, and Preview under OSX and Goodreader on iOS are really pleasant readers.

    Interestingly, all three publishers offer ePub formats as well once you buy the PDF, but I simply haven’t gotten around to trying them out.

    The important thing is that there’s no DRM requiring special readers. I figure that’s the only viable way forward.

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