During the last year I went from eBook skeptic to eBook convert. Surprisingly I do most of my eBook reading on my iPhone using iBooks. On the phone I just prefer iBooks to the Kindle app. On the iPad it’s closer but I try and keep one reader. I primarily buy on the Kindle only when the book isn’t available from Apple. Also it seems like there are far more ePub readers than there are Mobi readers. So I like to maintain my library in ePub as much as possible. Yes there is DRM with iBooks but there are ways around that.
While this discussion is a bit long, it really isn’t meant to be comprehensive. I’ve not looked at readers that cost money yet had bad reviews. I also am sure there are a ton I’ve simply not known about. I think I have found the best solutions at the moment but frankly they really aren’t great for a variety of reasons. Especially if you use both ePub and Mobi you are going to be pretty frustrated reading books. There really is no one “great” program.
First up let’s note that there are three different types of functionality we have to deal with. The first is organizing our books. In theory the organizing program needn’t be the program you read with. Indeed with iBooks you’ll probably do most of your organizing in iTunes and your reading on iOS. For organization we mean storing the books so you can find them, handling metadata, fixing cover art, and creating collections or folders of books. Next up is actually reading books. Most readers have limited organizational tools but may be great for reading. Whereas many organizers are pretty poor readers. Finally there are tools that may convert eBooks between formats or strip off DRM so you have more flexibility using them.
Since I bet most people reading this organize their eBooks with iTunes, we’ll start there.
Now iTunes has a much deserved reputation. It’s acquired quite a lot of cruft over the past 12 years.1 Many of us have been begging Apple to split its many different functions up. I think when you start using it with books you quickly see why. However even with all its many flaws the one thing iTunes had always been focused around is organization. The iTunes database made handling metadata easy. Applescripts and third party tools based around Applescript made modifying metadata quite nice and flexible as well. With the recent iTunes 11 update Apple made the program much more annoying to use for organization — inexplicably moving towards an iPad like use case. Gone were multiple windows and a lot of great features. While I hope Apple introduces soon an iTunes 12 that returns the focus to organization one has to accept that you have a one size fits all tool that really was designed around music.
My big complaints about iTunes with books is that Apple doesn’t really seem to take books seriously on OSX. That’s obvious considering how many years it’s been without iBooks for OSX. But it’s also true of basic functionality within iTunes. Apple clearly can’t fathom that someone might make playlists of books rather than music. They work fine if you have the sidebar turned on but are interspersed with the music playlists with no way to see book playlists broken out. Your playlists don’t sync with iOS even though you can create groupings on iOS for your books. There’s really little between iTunes and iBooks. You can click on your iOS device to select (in a different screen) what books sync. However the UI is quite poor for deciding what to copy. There fortunately is a spotlight filter that lets you see just the books that contain that text. You can sort by title, author or date added and you can filter by books or pdfs. That’s it. There’s only a single icon view with no metadata displayed other than the author. It’s quite annoying. Worst of all you can’t sync books that are in a playlist — something that is amazingly convenient when syncing music.
When it comes to syncing Apple clearly wants you to buy purely from its bookstore and do your organization on iOS not on iTunes. This is sad since iBooks is much nicer than Kindle for reading third party books. For one you can easily add PDF and ePub books. There are quite a few free books out there and in my opinion iBooks is the best way to read them. Not at all unexpectedly iTunes doesn’t support Mobi files. However given how much of a pain it is to get Mobi files into the Kindle that’s not unexpected. Outside of Mobi though iTunes supports a fair number of format and tends to include audiobooks as books.2 Honestly though if you primarily read on a Kindle and listen to Audible audiobooks you shouldn’t bother with iTunes. The Kindle/Audible integration is fantastic and you should be using those apps, not iTunes, to handle your content. Where iTunes is good is for the other types of media. If you want something that handles everything. Well, just accept you’re out of luck.3
Despite the syncing issues iTunes actually is a pretty good organizer. You can modify your existing iTunes scripts to modify author, title and so forth. This is helpful when you are downloading free books (most of which seem to have come from the Gutenberg eBook project although there are exceptions). Often different sources handle author and other metadata differently. Cleaning it up easily is nice and I’d argue iTunes does a better job than any other alternative.
I think iTunes could easily become a great service for organizing ones books with just a few minor changes.
• have more metadata fields. Right now there are just a few book oriented fields like author. You can use some music metadata fields but really it’d be nice to have publisher, isbn number and other data available as separate named fields. And read all that data from the ePub info.
• have playlists be useful. Playlists should sync to iBooks and appear as a group there. Also playlists should appear when in “book mode” in iTunes without needing the sidebar. Finally there should be a way to separate different types of playlists when using the sidebar. (This would be very useful for audiobooks and video as well)
• have a way to open in other programs. I can accept iTunes can’t read books. Honestly I don’t want it to. I’d much prefer iTunes get broken up into music organizer/players, video organizer/player, podcast organizer/player and book organizer/reader. However barring that major rewrite I’d like to double click on a book and have it open in the book reader of my choice. Right now if you are lucky your eBook reader supports drag and drop from iTunes. Many though require you to drag and drop from the Finder, not iTunes. A hassle indeed.4
• have better book-centric views. Too much requires icon view — especially in the iOS syncing screen. I really miss iTunes 10′s mode where you had a list view but big icons. I miss that for music too.
Overall you’ll probably end using iTunes but you’ll be constantly fighting with it. I hate to say it but it’s the best solution.
Delicious Monster made quite a stir some years back. Apple blatantly copied a lot of its elements for iBooks on iOS. Since Delicious Monster catalogs all your media you’d think it’d be great for eBooks. Unfortunately while some things work I can’t recommend it. They have up on their forum a discussion of how to handle eBooks. For keeping track of information Delicious Monster can’t be beat. It has extremely robust metadata and a very nice display format.
I love if they’d come out with a version of Delicious Monster that supported eBooks a bit more robustly but honestly DM was designed as a library manager not a data manager. It’s a subtle distinction but an important one. Think of Delicious Monster as a very Mac like alternative to the old card catalogs libraries used to have. It’s for tracking what media you have not organizing it directly.
I’m putting the Kindle app to be complete. Honestly if you are Kindle centric you don’t have a lot of choice. You have to use the Kindle app. The only other OSX app that handles mobi files is ClearView. However if you are using mobi rather than ePub chances are you’re reading on one of Amazon’s e-ink devices. So you’re just better off using the Kindle app.
The Kindle’s organizational features are far more limited than iTunes. You can’t tweak metadata even if you don’t like how Amazon tagged it. There’s almost no metadata anyway. Just title, author and date added. You can create collections which are lists of books. That’s a big plus over iTunes in terms of syncing. But that’s about all you can do. There are two views: a list view and an icon view. So it’s even more limited than iTunes there as well.
While it’s great that Kindle has a Mac app — far better than what Apple provides — it’s also clear it doesn’t get the love that their Android or iOS apps get. It’s functional but not much beyond that.
You can add your own books and you can find free 3rd party Mobi files.5 You can also convert ePub to Mobi via Calibre. However the Kindle app clearly isn’t designed for this. You’re much better off just sticking to ePub if you buy or read 3rd party books. Also as soon as you try and do any modifications the app just shunts you off to the “Manage your Kindle” webpage on Amazon.
As a reader the Kindle app has many of the same features that the iPad version does. There are a few things about it I really like. For one you can, even in full screen mode, set your reading width quite easily. You can have a black, white or sepia background. You even have some control of the brightness. Weirdly when you select text you get an iOS-like control for copying with no way to use the standard OSX methods. (The Edit menu items are largely greyed out) There’s also no option for a scrolling view which some may prefer on a computer screen. Instead you just have the page view with page left or page right. (No page turning animations either)
Honestly as a reader the Kindle app is pretty good. If I had gone the route of primarily reading mobi files purchased from Amazon rather than a mix of ePub files from Apple and 3rd parties I’d be pretty happy with it. It also has some big features if you regularly switch between OSX and iOS or Android: primarily syncing of your reading position. It’ll even intelligently sync your listening via Audible with your reading.6 There really are a lot of good reasons to go Kindle-centric.
The Nook occupies a place pretty similar to the Kindle app. The big difference is that, like iBooks, Barnes and Noble uses ePub with DRM for their books. Now you can’t use a book purchased from Barnes and Noble on iBooks unless you first remove the DRM with an appropriate app. The same is true going the other direction.
Sales the past Christmas for the Nook were apparently pretty dismal. Barnes and Noble has stated they are divesting themselves of the Nook hardware. This is actually a pretty strong argument for why you should strip your DRM if you are able. There’s a good chance that the Nook may die within the next two years possibly taking Barnes and Noble with it. If you have bought books for the Nook there’s a pretty good chance you’ll not be able to access them once the Nook service ends. Since I know people who bought and love their Nook e-ink readers I suspect this means many people will lose hundreds and possibly thousands of dollars in books.
Fortunately once you strip the DRM off you can use the books on any application that reads ePub which is basically ever eBook reader other than the Kindle app. You could easily put them in iTunes and use them with iBooks for instance.
One of the big mistakes that I think Barnes and Noble made was not making their apps into best in class applications. The Nook hardware got praised but I haven’t met many people raving about the iOS or Mac apps. That’s not to say they are horrible. They certainly aren’t. In fact the free Nook app is arguably better than most of the eBook readers out there for OSX. It has one big advantage over most of the other apps: it’s the only reader other than the Kindle that works and syncs with iOS. Unfortunately in so many other ways B&N crippled it. Arguably even worse than Amazon limited the Kindle.
It’s main problem is that it’s designed purely to work with the Nook store. I’ve heard you can get 3rd party ePub books onto it. But you’re really going to have to go through hacks to do so. I confess that I tried to figure out how to get my ePub stuff in there but was unable to. I decided I had wasted enough time and gave up. Really, were I you I’d be spending more time trying to figure out how to get my books out of the Nook rather than how to get them in. It’s too bad since from the screen shots it looks like an eBook reader it’s not that bad.
Alice is one of those apps I kept wanting to like but honestly couldn’t. It’s only $4.99 from the Mac App Store but I can’t really give it a great review. It has the great idea of leveraging Spotlight to do your organization. You specify a few directories and it’ll find all the texts it can read in those directories. It is limited in its formats: just PDF and ePub. But that’s not that bad. Unfortunately it has numerous other problems.
First it expects you to use spotlight search for everything. There’s a single list in a large font size. You start typing and it filters the list down based upon what you type. Unfortunately there’s no other tools. You can’t have collections of books. You can’t access any met data beyond title and author. You can’t even change the Spotlight list’s font size! Which is really annoying.
Given all those limits I just can’t advise using it for organization. You’d be far better off just using Spotlight in the Finder or iTunes and then opening your book in your reader of choice.
The reader part of the app is little better. For ePub documents you get no control over font, margin or line spacing. You don’t get two column viewing and there’s no control over background. It also uses a scrolling view with no option for a page turning mode. I can pretty much guarantee you won’t be wanting to use Alice for reading.
BookReader is a very nice app and supports a pretty wide array of formats including ePub, RTF, DOC, HTML and limited PDF support. (It’ll manage the PDF but will display it in Preview or Acrobat depending what you have set as your default viewer) The UI is very influenced by iTunes 10. So, for example, to change the cover image you just drag an image to the lower left corner — just like you used to be able to do in iTunes. It reasonable metadata access. Sadly the only fields it supports are title, author, genre, added, opened, rating, size and tags. So your tag field ends up as a way of tagging it with any other information you want to access. Not as robust as iTunes by any means but probably adequate for most people. It’ll read the metadata properly from the ePub file. It offers an icon view, list view, and coverflow view.
Most nicely it has a built in feature to import books out of iTunes. You can also select a book in iTunes and simply drag it onto the BookReader icon to open it. As with all general book readers it can’t read DRMed files. If you have DRM based ePub files you should remove it first if you are able. (It’s one of those things where sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t) What’s nice is that if you import a lot of books it’ll tag the icons with a red bookmark saying “new.” This makes it a bit easier to find.
Unfortunately it doesn’t support collections or folders in any real way. There is a favorites list so you can keep the books you want to access easily accessible. Really the program assumes you’re going to use search and tags to quickly find the book you are looking for. It does display all the books for any given tag. So as a practical matter they can function as collections. (Think of the difference between Apple mail and GMail in terms of folders vs. tags. While tags are great you have to hit Get Info and then type the tag for each book. There’s not an easy way of quickly adding tags to many books. (Like say dragging a book onto a tag in the tag list)
I assume the developer recognizes most people will use it more as a book reader than a book organizer. So they didn’t focus on the type of organization that iTunes gives you. It’s really designed for dealing with a few books at a time. If that’s all you need then I think BookReader will be good enough. If you want more information or want to sync things with iOS then you’re out of luck.
It’s reader is very good. However it may divide people somewhat. It has a very skeuomorphic design sensibility as you can see from the above window. It uses a page-centric reading style much like the Kindle or iBooks. Unfortunately there is no way to disable the skeuomorphic view. It doesn’t bother me too much but over time I did find it becoming much more annoying than I expected. There is also no way to get a single column view. Once again this didn’t bother me too much as most Mac screens are wider than long. Even on my iPad I often find myself preferring a two column view. I do wish though that one could select a single column. What I like a lot is that you have a lot more flexibility than many readers in terms of font and text color. You can use any font so if you have a secret yearning to read in Garamond you can. You can also disable animations which is nice. An other nice feature I wish more book readers had is the ability to change your line spacing as well as margins and font size. You can even pick your font color although there are only the three typical choices for background (sepia, white and black).
There’s no annotation capabilities so if you are reading reference books and want to highlight some text you are out of luck. If that’s something you need I’d probably suggest going with ClearView which has some features of that sort. Really though the Kindle app is probably your best bet for annotating books. Not much of a choice if you need to use ePub books.
BookReader is my favorite 3rd party reader – primarily on the basis of its semi-integration with iTunes. Surprisingly I’ve found that in practice I don’t use it much. For one, I do most of my reading on my iPhone and the lack of syncing my position is in practice a big thing. Secondly removing DRM from books (primarily iBooks) is a real pain. However until Apple comes out with iBooks for OSX this or ClearView is probably your best bet. Just be aware of its limits.
I found ClearView after I’d already been using BookReader. It’s a really close second to BookRead and I suspect many of you would end up preferring ClearView. For one it is the only half decent 3rd party reader that I know of that supports Amazon’s Mobi format. If you have Kindle books but don’t like the Kindle reader this is pretty much your only choice. You could try and change formats using Calibre but in practice that is very hit or miss — typically miss if there’s even moderately complex formatting. (i.e. not just straight text) You’ll still need to strip the DRM though so it suffers the same limits that BookReader does.
Rather than using two windows — one for reading and one for organizing — ClearView uses tabs. As with Safari though you can drag tabs out of the window to become their own separate window. This offers a lot of flexibility although I question how many people are apt to have multiple books open in a read. (Maybe for reference works this is useful) You can, as with BookReader, drag and drop books out of iTunes into the ClearView library. I found it wasn’t nearly as good at getting the book covers correct. This may be due to iTunes not storing the covers in the ePub document itself – so if your ePub doesn’t have the right cover you’ll have to fix it in Calibre rather than iTunes. If you aren’t anal about covers this isn’t a big deal. For some inexplicable reason I like all my covers to be the same “style” and don’t mind changing covers to older editions of the book. And of course a lot of free eBooks don’t have cover art at all.
The ClearView library does display bit more information than most organizers. You get the file name, the title, the author, but also the published and publication date. Still not as much as I’d like or iTunes provides. I’d also say having the file name is kind of distracting since it’s usually just the title followed by the extension. Once again I’m a bit anal here but I think having file extensions in the display is pretty ugly. You have four views – an icon view, list view, list view with cover and coverflow. Like BookReader it’s influenced by the old iTunes 10 design. The annoyance is that outside of the title and cover view it displays the file name rather than the title. As I said that’s kind of ugly and a tad unMaclike. One advantage of its coverflow view is that below it’ll display the chapters both as text and image.
You can organize your library into folders that ClearView calls reading lists. This is quite nice and a big advantage over BookReader’s tags in my view. It would be nicer had it smart reading lists able to access more metadata. (Although it does have one built in smart reading list for recently accessed books) If you’ve used smart playlists in iTunes you know how useful they are. You could, for example, have a reading list of all the books by a particular author that updates as you buy new books from that author. How much you’ll use this really depends upon whether you are iTunes-centric or ClearView-centric. The same issue I mentioned with BookReader apply. If you read on iOS you’re going to get annoyed with there being no sync. Further if you read on iOS you’l most likely be using either the Kindle app or iTunes to organize your books. As such one might argue that the organizational abilities don’t matter that much. Still they are a nice feature to the program. The only real annoyance is that while you can drag and drop books from most views you can’t from coverflow. Not a big deal, but a small annoyance.
The reader is quite nice and has a lot of annotation functionality. However it looks like some of the annotation features are not fully enabled. That is they are there on the icon bar but I couldn’t figure out how to draw shapes or change the highlighting color. Given their presence though I suspect they may be enabled in a forthcoming version. If the developer gets them working – especially the ability to add text blocks or stick it notes – then I think this would easily be the reader to beat. Right now you have a yellow highlighting, underlining or strike out which isn’t quite as compelling.
My main initial complaint with the reader was more of a personal aesthetic one. It had several reading modes most of which were oriented around a scrolling-centric view ala Safari. Some people may prefer that. Since I mainly read fiction right now I find it a bit more annoying. Then I discovered that one of the two page views actually was page centric. It just wasn’t obvious at first that was what it was. It even let you click on the right or left margin to change pages. This really switched me from not caring for the reader to thinking it as good as BookReader and in some ways even better since it avoids the heavy skeuomorphic design. It still is a little more limited compared to BookReader though. You have only a few font choices and no real margin or line spacing options. I must confess those are options I missed.
If you read technical eBooks probably there is no better choice than ClearView. You get some basic annotation abilities (which hopefully will increase) along with the ability to use either a page-centric or scroll-centric reading style. For reference works and especially for highlighting text I think a scroll-centric mode is preferable to a page-centric one. For general reading it’s probably a choice between ClearView and BookReader. Originally I preferred BookReader but I must confess I’ve been coming over to ClearView more and more simply because of the multiple ways of reading the text. (Scroll or page styled)
After using BookReader, Ehon, ClearView or even Alice it’s pretty hard to recommend Kitabu. It has basically no organizational abilities. Just a list or icon view. It does support drag and drop of books out of iTunes though and seemed to get the covers right. It’s list view displays the Title, Author and ISBN number. The reader lets you pick any font and font size. You can also read with one, two or three columns. Beyond that there really aren’t any features. It’s not that Kitabu is a bad reader. It’s just that especially compared to ClearView it doesn’t offer a lot.
There are things about Ehon I absolutely love. If you are looking to organize your eBook collection but don’t want to use iTunes then this is the application for you. For one it has the best metadata support I’ve seen. It’s on par with Delicious Monster’s support but with real organization rather than just indexing. It will not only organize books but also comics and a lot more. If you have a lot of non-DRM literature this is the app for you. If you mainly, like me, get your books and the like from DRM based stores it might be a harder sell. It seems to primarily be targeting the torrent based crowd. Still, for pure organization nothing comes close. Not even iTunes.
You get intelligent parsing of the metadata to create collections of “series” and “authors.” That way, assuming you set your metadata correctly, you can have say all the Jack Reacher books automatically appear in a single series. You get the same for author information.
There are smart folders much like smart playlists in iTunes. All of the metadata including tags can be used. You can define series of tags and apply them from a floating window. I could go on but honestly Ehon is the Aperture or LightRoom of readers. Like those photographic apps (and like iTunes) you can choose to have Ehon organize your files for you in a specific library or simply leave the files in place. If you already have folders of comics, books, or the like (say in your iTunes directory) then this will let you use Ehon while maintaining your existing structure.
Ehon also seems to support the largest types of file formats. You get both ePub and Mobi but also pretty great PDF, cbr (a format for scanned comic books), doc and more. If you were looking to organize PDFs but didn’t want to pay for one of the complex technical programs like Papers then you may find that Ehon does a great job. If you have a lot of books in PDF format I’d say that Ehon is your best bet.
There are a few small annoyances. Despite Lion having come out several years ago switching OSX to iOS style scrollbars Ehon still uses the old Snow Leopard style. It doesn’t parse html for some metadata such as the note metadata. Often publisher descriptions of the book are placed there using simple html. Ehon displays the html rather than interpreting the html so it can display bold or italics. It’s hard to complain too much since even iTunes doesn’t access a lot of that metadata for ePub books.
Where things start to break down a bit with Ehon is with its reader. It is great in that it does PDFs and even cbr files quite well. For ePub and mobi files while it will read them you get only a scrolling window with no control over font, background color or more. You get some font size control but that’s about it. There also no way to read in a page centric view as many prefer for fiction.
Overall I think the apps is best suited more towards organizing comic books that people had in cbr or PDF format. Now that so many people read comics in iOS apps like Comixology or the custom apps from Marvel or DC I don’t know how useful this will be. While it’s UI definitely is problematic right now I suspect Marvel Unlimited also herald a new way to read comics. Much like Pandora or Spotify made the whole Napster mentality mostly pointless I suspect we’ll see subscription services for a lot of comics.
For myself I just don’t read a lot of comics. I have a handful of scanned comics in cbr format but not enough to really justify using Ehon. Also while I love its organizational abilities it just is such a poor reader for technical documents or eBooks that I just can’t see myself using it for those purposes. The fact that there are a lot of out of date UI features from the Snow Leopard days also makes me wonder about the developer commitment to the product. It’s too bad too since its organizational abilities really are so great. Had I a MacBook Air instead of an iPad I could see really using something like Ehon for all my reading and just skipping iTunes and iBook entirely. My ideal OSX book reader really would be the reader of ClearView and the organizer of Ehon combined. Sadly without that good reader Ehon is a hard sell for anything but comic books.
I left Calibre for last because it’s interface is so unMaclike that I honestly can’t see anyone using it as either a reader or an organizer. It’s definitely a cross platform app and feels much more like a Linux program than anything else. However Calibre has a ton of power and does things no other application does. It’s main strength is its plugins. There are several plugins available for removing certain types of DRM from books.7 It can also convert books between Mobi and ePub. Although I honestly found the conversions a bit hit or miss. Often after converting I found I had to open the books in BBEdit and change tags there. BBEdit really is a necessary tool for cleaning up some eBooks — especially a lot of free ones with inconsistent formatting.
As a practical matter I think most people will be buying their books from Amazon or Apple or maybe to a lesser extent Barnes and Noble. There are a few other eBook publishers but I think those three have most of the market. Interestingly some of the smaller publishers like O’Reilly or Tor will let you buy their books directly in a DRM free format. However by and large unless you are a pirate (and I hope you’re not) you’ll end up buying your books with DRM. Most of the non-DRMed books are public domain books. (There are tens of thousands of those I should note – but probably not that many that you will actually want to read.)
Since Calibre is just so ugly I won’t even bother looking at it as an organizer or reader. I’ll just say that in terms of raw power it’s great at both but you won’t enjoy using it. Instead I’ll look at the main ways you can use it as a toolbox. I wish someone would break out these tools from Calibre and put a half-decent UI on them. But barring that you’ll probably have to use Calibre. I’ll do a followup post on what features Calibre provides and how to use them along with other useful utilities for removing DRM or the like.
- Yes, it’s really been around for 12 years — longer if you include SoundJam before Apple acquired it and turned it into iTunes. The iTunes store actually was introduced in 2003 and books were introduced in 2010. ↩
- I’m not a big audiobook guy and mainly use that format to store various lectures. Still I have a few – often with each chapter as a separate mp3. I really don’t like having them interspersed with my regular books. ↩
- This fact is why I’ve largely converged on ePub rather than Mobi. The Kindle organization tools are so-so at best but it really is designed to have you have Amazon handle everything. It’s less about syncing than having everything stored in the great Kindle repository in the sky. Uploading third party content is a ridiculous hassle I’m not even going to address. ↩
- You can rig up an Applescript. However I do most of my reading on iOS so it’s just not worth it to me. Also most readers don’t support Applescript so you’d be limited in what you could do. ↩
- I should note that Amazon has a fair number of free Mobi files that are obviously quite easy to add. I’m just addresses stuff you download and need to get on your devices. ↩
- Note I’ve not tried Audible syncing but I’m told it works great. ↩
- Sadly there’s no plugin to remove iBooks DRM which is what most of my books are in. ↩