Monday, March 30, 2020

E-Book Options During COVID-19 Lockdown


As I approach my third week of shelter-in-place, and confront the (albeit still nascent) need to stave off boredom, one of the activities I miss the most is going to the library. So during a couple of days off from work I dove in to learn what electronic resources my library has to offer. This post documents that effort, and frankly that struggle. Don’t worry, it’s not as dull as it sounds. (Trigger warning: this post contains lots of profanity.)

Virtual book club

My book club moved its meeting to Zoom, following in the footsteps of my world-famous, game-changing Virtual Pub Night. This worked out very well. At the end, we chose the book for next time, which presented a problem for me.

My standard book club protocol is to go to my library’s website the very moment the next book is announced, to put it on hold (possibly ahead of my fellow members in case few copies are available). I’m a cheap bastard, and though I love buying books, I only buy cannot-lose titles I know that a) I’ll read more than once, b) I’ll want to loan out, and c) I’ll keep forever. Plus, I prefer to buy from library sales where books are only a buck or two. No disrespect to my book club, but our selections seldom meet these high standards. Now, with the library option no longer available, I had to buy Picking Cotton and had to figure out where.

The obvious solution would be Amazon, who has it for just $7.51. But can we really do that to our local booksellers, when they’re already suffering, while Amazon’s business is booming more than ever? My book club agreed we couldn’t. And yet, our local bookseller wants $17.99 for the book, plus $3 shipping, so with tax it’s almost triple the price. I’d still do it, except that it’s not at all clear how quickly this local outfit could fill the order right now. Actually, that’s the total BS rationale I contrived to feel better about myself. The truth is, I’m just a cheap bastard.

The Kobo

Fortunately, I have in my tech arsenal a little e-reader called the Kobo. What, you haven’t heard of it? Well, neither had my book club. In fact, I myself had no idea what this thing was when I inherited it from my late father a couple years back. I also have no idea why he bought it. I powered the thing up some months ago out of curiosity, and found that it only had one book one it, which was actually just a teaser excerpt of Heart of Darkness which was totally not my dad’s style.

Via a quick trip to I learned they could sell me Picking Cotton for $12 all-in. Would it be worth setting up an account, signing up for endless spam no matter how many times I opt out, forking out the money, and learning the ins and outs of this weird Kobo thing?

I stared at the dumb little reader. Obviously it’s not best-in-breed because nobody has heard of it, and if my dad didn’t get any mileage out of it, why should I think I would? But that’s a loaded question. My dad, though an even cheaper bastard than I, often bought stuff he never ended up using, like a $2700 tricycle (featured here, but you’re too late, somebody already bought it).

Toward the very end of his life, when my dad was already riddled with cancer, he planned a cross-country solo road trip, dragging a little teardrop trailer behind his tiny car over remote highways. I talked him into getting a mobile phone in case he encountered trouble. He bought an Android phone and a prepaid plan and the guy at the phone store got him up and running, but my dad never used the phone. He literally never placed a single call, nor, apparently, did he even turn it on. It just sat there in its box. I suspect he was intimidated by the technology, particularly because he knew it was designed for anyone, even a dumb teenager or technophobe blue-hair, to easily grasp. Paradoxically, this increased the intimidation factor because my dad—an actual rocket scientist who programmed computers back in the ‘70s when they were the size of refrigerators—feared the intense embarrassment of being stymied by this basic consumer product.

Pondering this as I gazed upon the little Kobo, I realized I really had no choice but to engage with it. In fact, as tired as I was after book club, I knew I had to figure this thing out immediately. You see, another idiosyncrasy of my father’s was that he loved to put stuff off. A common rant from my poor mother, before they divorced, was “‘Someday’ … it’s always ‘someday’!” Sure, he’d fix the garage door … someday. He’d get that VW Beetle running … someday. So frequent was our mom’s rant, my brothers and I used to compete for who could do the most accurate rendition of her “‘Someday’ … it’s always someday’!” So given my knee-jerk reaction to the very notion of procrastination, I stayed up late and had that Kobo up and running before I turned in.

Kobo vs. proper book – Volume I

So how did the Kobo work out? Well, nine years ago I blogged about the Kindle, giving ten reasons why I wanted to hate it. The Kindle was synonymous with e-readers back then, there having been no real competition. I conceded then that ideally I would have read an entire e-book before advancing an opinion on them. Now I have.

I had to install the Kobo app on my PC, create an account, and give over my credit card info. The device itself was fairly self-explanatory but I had to expunge my dad’s account info from it, which was just a little weird, like exorcising a ghost. It wasn’t clear how to do this so I pried the back off and stuck a paper-clip through a tiny hole to do a factory reset. When reconfiguring the Kobo I noticed the WiFi was extremely flaky: it’d find wireless networks I’ve never seen before on any of my other devices, but would fail to find the access point on my desk, less than five feet away. (It did pretty well when I leaned it right against the access point but really, should any device be that finicky?) Eventually I got Picking Cotton loaded on the Kobo and over the next few days worked my way through reading it. Now I’m able to give you the pros and cons of this e-reader.

Overall, in the “pro” category I’ll say this:
  • The screen was pretty easy on my eyes;
  • I like how an e-reader doesn’t interrupt and distract me the way a smartphone does via all the content being pushed to it by apps, friends, and colleagues;
  • Unlike a smartphone, I don’t have to unlock it (which isn’t that hard, but still)
  • Battery life was excellent;
  • The Kobo sits flat on a table (unlike a book) so I could easily read while eating lunch;
  • It’s lighter weight than a book, so if I were to read it while lying on the sofa I’d probably appreciate that (vs., say, a hardback of Anna Karenina)
  • My wife didn’t bristle to see me peering into the Kobo, at least when she realized it wasn’t my phone;
  • It gave me some interesting stats at the end (e.g., it took me 4.4 hours to read Picking Cotton)

In the “con” category I’ll just say at least 7 out my 10 original misgivings about e-books still apply. Looking at #5, “I can’t buy used titles at a great discount,” I figured it’s been a long time … maybe the market has changed. Since this may not be the first time I need an alternative to my local library, I figured I should see if the Kobo folks might have some great deals.

I searched a couple random titles to see how the prices were. Started Early, Took My Dog (2011) is ten bucks. That’s no bargain. Maybe an older book would be cheaper? Nope … The God of Small Things (2008) is $14. What about much older? I found Lolita (from 1955) for $13, which is a rip, but As I Lay Dying from 1930 is available for only a buck. If I searched on price, what else might I turn up?

Wow! They’ve got a lot! Check out these free titles:

Wow … “She’s stumbled into a lair of desperate dragons—and she’s just the thing they need.” No wonder my dad bought this Kobo! (Wink.) Now, if you’re not into the romance genre, there are also lots of free nonfiction titles for cheap… here are a few.

Remarkable, isn’t it, that Saundra’s sweet revenge actually happened, and that there really was a bike path killer? Fascinating. Now, if I’m willing to pay just a bit more, here’s a priceless book:

But seriously, this was getting me nowhere. The bigger question is, what could I get from the library for free to read on my Kobo?

Digital content from the library

I’ve long known that the Berkeley Public Library has lots of alternatives to bound paper books, CDs, and DVDs. Almost too many options, really … the full list is a bit intimidating:
  • Kanopy (streaming movies & music)
  • Hoopla (digital books, audiobooks, music, and movies)
  • Naxos (music)
  • Alexander Street (music)
  • In-branch albertnet via guest WiFi (wow, cool!)
  • Overdrive (e-books, audiobooks)
  • RBdigital (digital magazines)
  • Flipster (kids’ magazines)
The trick with these platforms is they don’t always get included when you search for a title on the library’s main website. (I learned that the hard way … it turns out Hoopla has as audiobook of Picking Cotton and I could have saved a lot of trouble had I discovered that earlier.) The other issue is that you have to set yourself up on each platform individually, which isn’t that hard but obviously presents some friction.

I tried out Hoopla for an audiobook and it’s really easy, once you’ve downloaded the smartphone app. It’s great for road trips if your phone can sync with your car stereo. I’ve also been using Kanopy for a while, and in fact I just set my wife’s PC up on it the other day, in less than five minutes. Kanopy’s digital streaming works great (no jitter or buffering) and it’s easy to connect your laptop to a modern TV.

All this being the case, I was emboldened to seek better return on the time I’d already invested in my Kobo. I asked my older daughter to research this for me, since she was on spring break and stuck mooning around the house anyway. She tapped away for a minute or two and said, “You have to do it through Overdrive.” And thus was my next tech journey launched.

Kobo vs. proper book – Volume II

So here’s where things get complicated. The library can’t just buy the online rights to a book and make it available to all its readers at once … that would be injurious to publishers, like Napster was to the music industry. The library must buy individual licenses for each title it wants, so only a finite number of library cardholders can check out the e-book at once. This is trickier than buying a finite number of physical books, because each library customer must be able to view the same title on more than one device. So when I check out the e-book, I’m downloading a license file with the content, and that file has to travel with the content. How does this work when there are at least 18 companies making e-readers?

The answer is, you have to download software called Adobe Digital Editions (ADE) and install it on your computer, and create a login for that. This software is how you manage the digital licenses. Then you have to authorize your computer, and also your e-reader, with your Adobe account. Now your ADE app will enable content on your e-reader for your login, but no other. You also have to set up Overdrive with your library, to check out the material. You download the content and license, and then use the ADE interface to copy these files over to your e-reader. So you’re getting a crash course in three platforms: Kobo, Adobe, and Overdrive.

So how hard is this, really? In principle it’s not that bad; getting the devices authorized wasn’t too hard. I was able to get an e-book working with my laptop pretty quickly, and then I loaded an e-book on the Kobo, ejected it from the PC, fired it up, and clicked the icon for the new e-book. And then?

This is super annoying on so many levels. It’s bad enough that loading the library book on the Kobo just plain didn’t work, after all that time and effort. Second, no error message should ever say “Oops!” That’s like hearing your dentist say “Oops!” when he’s drilling in your mouth. Meanwhile, the info this error message gives on how “this document is protected by Adobe Digital Rights Management (DRM)” is nothing you don’t already know, and the idea that you didn’t sign with the authorized ID is pure BS. The software wouldn’t let you copy the content over to the e-reader if it wasn’t authorized and you weren’t signed in. Clearly, I followed the process … it just didn’t work. And then, to get the dialog box to go away, I had to click “OK” when obviously this is not OK.

I found a help article about how to de-authorize your devices, delete all copies of the content and licenses, start over, re-authorize, and try again. This accomplished nothing. I also got nowhere cussing up a blue streak … it didn’t even help me feel better. At one point I got an error message about the license having actually expired, so I tried loading some very recently published books, but this too was a bum steer.

The Kobo error message should have said, “Oh, SHIT! I’m really sorry, my software is all jacked up so I can’t access this content, but you’ve done nothing wrong. Really—it’s not you, it’s me. See how easily you can read that book on your laptop? I know. That’s because the laptop works like it’s supposed to. I just can’t get it done. I suck. This is why nobody has heard of Kobo. I’m a loser, so why don’t you kill me.” And the “OK” button say either “FUCK ME” or “Make this dialog go away, and go get on with your life, I’m a lost cause.”

Oh well, I thought, at least I can still buy titles for the Kobo if I need to, like if this COVID-19 shelter-in-place goes on indefinitely. I mindlessly clicked on the Picking Cotton icon, just to remind myself the Kobo wasn’t without value, and was shocked to get another error:

Whoa. Let me get this straight, Kobo: because I tried to load a library book on you, and you couldn’t parse the digital license properly, now the totally separate title I paid for also can’t be accessed anymore? How is this okay in any universe?

Figuring I could at least start over, I deleted the e-book content and license files from Overdrive, de-authorized the Kobo, re-synced it with the Kobo PC app, and tried again. Still no dice … I just kept getting that stupid error message. So then, based on the advice from a knowledge base article from Overdrive, I de-authorized the Adobe account from my laptop, created a new Overdrive account for the Adobe app, re-authorized the laptop and the Kobo using the Overdrive credentials, and tried again with another library e-book. Still no dice. The Kobo still wouldn’t display the library content, and still wouldn’t even display the content I’d paid for.

Whoever wrote this second error message should be taken out and shot. Beyond the annoying recurrence of “Oops!” there’s the weak statement, “There might be a problem with the file.” Might be a problem? Like, this might not be working? Gee, you think? It should say, “I have clearly failed you.”

And then we get “Try updating your library.” Try?! Haven’t they heard Yoda’s words of wisdom? “Do or do not. There is no try.” I mean, I’m facing an obvious software problem and the Kobo coders are telling me what I might try? How about, “Try sticking your thumb up your ass and whistling Dixie”?

And don’t they realize the word “library” is meaningless here, since they could mean my library folder on the Kobo, or a device software library, or the Berkley Public Library I checked out the (apparently devastating) content from? Perhaps the worst part is referring me to “Customer Care” at Kobo, because Kobo actually does not have a technical support department … just a bunch of useless static content giving you a bunch more dumb suggestions.

(Full disclosure: after much searching, I did finally find a link for “Contact Customer Care” on the Kobo website but here’s where it led.)

Of course I tried rebooting my Kobo, many times. Finally, as a last resort and knowing this would mean starting from scratch and reconfiguring the device entirely, I went for the factory reset, prying the back off again and using a paper-clip through the hole in the back. In the process, because the back is so hard to pry off, I actually drew blood. (From me, not the Kobo, unfortunately.) This time, however, the device would not reset. The factory reset process is apparently as stymied as the rest of the device. All I kept getting was the stupid little smiley face as it rebooted again to its fucked-up state.

“Wipe that smirk off your face, you worthless little shit!” I boomed idiotically at it. You know, with this coronavirus pandemic I think we’re all a little on edge, and I find I actually have less patience than ever for anything that I’m supposed to have control over but suddenly do not. In this light I’m very proud of myself for managing, upon seeing that stupid little Kobo smirking at me over and over, to not just pound the stupid thing to rubble with my fist. It’s reduced itself to a paperweight, and a useless one at that because for its own safety, it really needs to be kept out of my sight. Perhaps my dad was wise not to tangle with it (though in that case he was foolish indeed to shell out $80 for it in the first place).

Silver lining

Okay, so the Kobo is a bust. Item #9 on my list of reasons to avoid e-books was certainly prescient: “I fight with PCs and other electronic devices all day, and books are my respite. I don’t care how foolproof the [device] claims to be: it has an OS that can have bugs, and it has WiFi of which it can be out of range, and it has a battery that can die … all potential headaches.” But I shouldn’t have lost sight of a larger misgiving, #5: “If I end up loving it, embracing its format, and becoming addicted to its convenience and cool features, my literary world will shrink from ‘anything any library or bookstore anywhere has’ down to ‘anything that’s available on the [platform].’” If I can’t buy the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina from (and I can’t), but they’re offering me romance novels about “the brooding, sexy captain of the NHL’s Chicago Blaze” or a sexy young woman being “pinned to the floor by a billionaire playboy,” should I really be spending any time on this platform anyway?

On the plus side, I can still read the one Kobo title I paid for, albeit on my smartphone via the Kobo app. I’ve also discovered that Overdrive e-books can be read on my smartphone, via yet another app called Libby, which has a pretty nice user interface.

So, even if this shelter-in-place has me stranded for weeks or months, I know I’ve got options. I just have to relax … take a deep breath … step away from the Kobo … count to ten …

More reading on the pandemic
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