Suppose there are two rival companies — let’s call them A and B. Each wants to dominate the blossoming world of electronic books.
Company A (that’s A as in “Amazon ”) began life selling physical books online. Its reading gadget, the Kindle, stores hundreds of books in a plastic slab that weighs only 10 ounces. To accompany the Kindle, Company A built an enormous electronic-book store, filled with 345,000 books that can be downloaded to the Kindle in 30 seconds (each).
Company B (that’s B as in “Barnes & Noble ”) waited patiently. “Let’s let A get all the arrows in its back,” it said.
Then A released a free program that lets you read your A e-books on iPhones and iPod Touches. Now you don’t need a Kindle at all.
Last week, Company B finally struck back with its own e-book empire. It’s intended to be just like A’s — only better.
Instead of 345,000 books, B’s catalog has 700,000. Instead of just the iPhone and Touch, B’s free book-reading app is also available for the BlackBerry.
You get five free out-of-copyright books to start you off (“Dracula,” “Sense and Sensibility” and so on). Instead of one typeface, B’s book-reader programs give you a choice of many. Instead of just black, white or sepia, B’s software lets you choose any color scheme you like.
A slightly jerky Autoscroll option continuously rolls text up the screen, so you don’t have to turn pages at all. On the iPhone, there’s a bookshelf cover-flipping mode that’s modeled on Apple’s Cover Flow feature.
Above all, B lets you read your books on your Mac or Windows computer. That is a huge advantage; believe it or not, there are still some people who don’t have iPhones or Kindles.
The bottom line: At least on paper (does anyone still use that expression?), Barnes & Noble’s new e-empire seems to trump Amazon’s.
In practice, however, there’s more to the story.
First, there’s no Barnes & Noble equivalent of the Kindle yet. In “early 2010,” its books will be available on a new Kindle rival: a very thin, buttonless, touch-screen reader from a company called Plastic Logic. Plastic Logic markets its machine as a business-document reader — but maybe it will be good for leisure-book reading, too.
Second, B’s claim to have the “world’s largest e-bookstore” is slightly suspect. It acknowledges that, of its 700,000 titles, 500,000 are ancient, public-domain texts that have been scanned by Google’s Books project.
Some of them have funny line breaks and weird typos like “vzen” instead of “when” and “i86f” instead of “1861.” There are other complications. You can’t search Google’s catalog explicitly when you’re in the mood for something free; on the other hand, those obscure Google texts clutter up your search results when you’re looking for a more current book.
Besides, if you want free, out-of-copyright books, you can get them on the Kindle, too. They await at Gutenberg.org and other free sites.
In fact, when it comes to books you might actually want to read, B’s bookstore seems smaller than A’s. Many recent (and not-so-recent) best sellers are sold by A but not by B: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Bonfire of the Vanities,” “Catcher in the Rye,” “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”
Meanwhile, it’s hard to find popular books that are offered by B but not by A.
In other words, Barnes & Noble may have more books by pure quantity, but a lot of it is filler.
The real shocker, though, is how much more expensive B’s books are. Both companies offer free sample chapters and $10 pricing on current best sellers. But beyond that, check it out: “The Lovely Bones” (A charges $10, B charges $12). “The Kite Runner” ($10 versus $12). “Dune” ($8 versus $12.80). “Freakonomics” ($10 versus $16). “Lord of the Rings Trilogy” ($12.25 versus $30).
(B’s press officer countered with a list of 2009 books that cost $10 from B and more from A. But compare best-seller lists from past years, and it’s clear that A almost always underprices B.)
And remember, you can never lend, resell or pass on an A or B e-book. You’re buying into proprietary, copy-protected formats — which can have its downsides. Last month, for example, Amazon erased “1984” and “Animal Farm” from its customers’ Kindles by remote control, having discovered a problem with the rights. Amazon refunded the price, but the sense of violation many customers felt was a disturbing wake-up call.
How to move up
Furthermore, a huge number of important books are still missing from both catalogs. A recent New Yorker review of the Kindle identified a huge list of them: “The Bourne Identity,” “Catch-22,” “Portnoy’s Complaint,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Jewel in the Crown,” “The World According to Garp,” “The Remains of the Day,” anything by Jean Stafford, Saul Bellow, Frederick Exley and Graham Greene and others. Nor will you find any “Harry Potter” novels, anything by John Grisham, “A Brief History of Time,” “Jaws,” “The Horse Whisperer” or “Who Moved My Cheese?”
These books are missing because the authors or publishers refuse to sell electronic editions, but it’s still a black eye for the e-book industry in general.
All right then. So B’s e-books may cost more. But at least you have the privilege of reading them on more screens, right?
Yes, but it’s not all sunshine and bunnies. For example, each version (Mac, PC, iPhone, BlackBerry) lets you annotate your e-books, highlight passages or copy bits of text. (The four eReader program versions are touched-up editions of software that Barnes & Noble acquired last spring.)
But none lets you shop for books; you have to do that on the Web. That’s especially confusing on the iPhone, where tapping Shop takes you out of the Reader app and into your Web browser. Once you’ve bought the book, you have to navigate back to your Home screen and reopen the reader app.
The stripped-down Mac version of the Reader is especially baffling; it doesn’t even list your books. Before you can start reading a book you’ve bought, you have to navigate away from the buying page to your online library, download the book, switch to the reader program, find and open the book on your hard drive, and type in your name and credit card number a second time.
More confusion: If, on the iPhone, you tap on a category (like Romance or Sci-Fi) and then Shop, you’re taken to the general store Search box in your Web browser. In other words, you chose a category for nothing.
Buying a “free” book entails a 1-cent charge on your credit card, which is refunded at checkout (huh?). And B doesn’t offer “page where I stopped” synching among different gadgets, as A does. If you read up to page 231 on your PC at work, you have to flip to that page manually on your iPhone for the ride home.
Barnes & Noble’s e-book initiative has some bright spots: the iPhone and Windows apps are mostly excellent, the concept of free access to public-domain books is sound and being able to read your e-books on your laptop is a no-brainer.
But over all, this is a 1.0 effort — which, incidentally, the company acknowledges. It vows to address the shortcomings.
Maybe then we can raise the company’s grade from a B to an A.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: email@example.com.