On the road with the Sony reader: Part 2

The author David Hewson continues his exploration of the new Sony ereader. I promised to take a look at Sony’s digital book on the road, since that is probably where many people would expect to use it. Imagine packing for your holiday and storing hundreds of books on a single little electronic device. True it is electronic, but no more fragile than a camera. And it would read beautifully on a beach.

It was not beach weather when I turned up at Kings Cross for my events in South Shields and Edinburgh where, very soon, I discovered what a different world we inhabit when things go digital. I happen to go under the fancy title of international director of the authors’ organisation International Thrillerwriters Inc. We have a growing band of members outside the US where ITW began, and some of the most enthusiastic are in South Africa. A band of them, under the editorship of Joanna Hitchen, have a short story collection coming out next year under the title Bad Company, published by Pan Macmillan South Africa. I promised to ask Lee Child, until recently an ITW member too, if he’d write the foreword (knowing Lee, one of the most generous bestsellers around, I didn’t think this would be difficult).

At Kings Cross I got the message that the collection was finished, ready to be read and enclosed as a pdf attachment. It downloaded onto my Nokia in under a minute using 3’s trusty mobile broadband and, before we were out of London, I’d transferred it to the Sony reader and was able to start reading the first typeset proof, finished in Johannesburg, edited in Cape Town, immediately. Excellent it is too. But could you imagine that a few years ago? Transferring an entire book across continents and then reading it, on what looks very like a real book, all while sitting on a train?

Bad Company is a professionally typeset book and, like most of those sold for the reader, looks pretty much on screen as it will on the page. Unfortunately you can’t expect that kind of publication quality with everything you can put on the reader. Some of the out of copyright classics Sony supply for free seem to be formatted more for computers than ebooks, in that they have extra line spaces between the paragraphs. This can be quite distracting. The reader’s screen is a touch short in any case, and wasted blank lines do get in the way of fluent reading.

I also took with me two versions of my current first draft of the ninth Nic Costa book, some 25,000 words, one in pdf format, one in rich text (the reader can handle both). The rtf worked fine and was as readable as an ebook, though if you switch between the three text sizes the reader does take a little while to process the rerendering of the text. The pdf was much more problematic. I use a Mac which will produce pdfs at the drop of a hat - as easily as printing. They look fine on my Mac, and on a PC too. But the Sony doesn’t like them at all, and they were dogged in particular by soft line breaks turning into hard ones, rendering the text unreadable. (Update: this can be fixed - see end of story). 

If, like me, you are an old book addict this is a bit of a problem. I use a wonderful piece of software called Voluminous which can track down out of copyright ebooks from sources such as Project Gutenberg and turn them into a readable format through a simple search interface. It would have been wonderful if I could have just hit ‘print to pdf’ and sent them to the Sony, but this wasn’t to be without faffing around with rtf and deciding fonts and font sizes.

Searching the web for a solution I discovered I wasn’t alone in noticing this apparent glitch in the Sony’s software. Is it a big deal? Probably not, since you can use rtf instead. Also it’s important to point out this is a machine aimed at normal human beings, not authors and publishers. It is simply a reader, not an editing console. You can’t write notes in the margin, search for text, or do anything to a manuscript beyond insert simple unidentified bookmarks. Readers probably won’t miss a thing, but as an author I would look for those facilities in a manuscript handling device - which this is only up to a point.

But these are professional quibbles which will not bother the mass market. The honest truth is the Sony behaved impeccably throughout my trip. The battery life is astonishing (partly because it doesn’t have fancy features such as wireless internet and a keyboard). The readability is excellent under a variety of conditions. I couldn’t help noticing the passenger in the next seat sneaking a look at it on the way north. And that brings me to the next and final article in this brief series. Let’s show Sony’s invention to a few potential everyday customers and see what they think.

But first an event at Edinburgh’s beautiful Central Library - where I might just show it off out of interest too.

*Thanks to the comment below I am happy to retract my statement that Mac pdfs don't work on the Sony. It's all a question of formatting and getting the page size right. Which isn't easy by the way - some help for Mac users from Sony would be appreciated.