Ben Crowder / Blog

Blog: #ebooks

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With Marvin’s recent disappearance from the iOS app store, I’ve started feeling an itch to get my own ebook reading system set up sooner than later — ideally before the sad day comes when I can’t get Marvin to work on my phone anymore.

I’ve tried other iOS ereader apps and they don’t yet meet my needs (and let’s be clear, by “needs” I mean high-maintenance wishes), such as custom fonts, good design, configurable typography, and nice page numbers (ideally the 1,024 characters per page rule that Adobe Digital Editions and Marvin use).

Also, I want to use my phone since I have it with me all the time and can read more often, thus I’m not considering a dedicated ereader like a Kobo or a Kindle. And I have a large collection of ebooks I want to read, so print books don’t meet the need.

The default for me here would be a web app (PWA), with a backend built in Django or FastAPI or Go. That’s probably where I’ll land, but from a research angle I see this as a good time to explore possibilities I wouldn’t normally consider. Some ideas along those lines:

  • PDF — convert EPUBs to phone-sized PDFs automatically and then use a PDF reader like Documents instead of a dedicated EPUB app, possibly with the analog filters I recently posted about
  • Images — convert EPUBs to images (one page per image) and then read via an album in the system photos viewer, deleting each page as I read it (half joking here)
  • HTML — splat the ebooks out into all their HTML files and then put those up on a server behind authentication, reading them in a browser like normal web pages
  • Retro ebook reader — web-based app that feels like a Game Boy or one of those tiny consoles, with a chonky pixel font, possibly using game mechanics for page navigation (I’m intrigued by this idea but in reality it would probably feel super gimmicky)
  • 3D app — deboss the type, procedurally generated paper texture, etc. (also feels gimmicky)
  • Email — export each chapter of the EPUB and then email it to myself (fully joking here) (it would work, sure, but I don’t want to read books in my email)

The PDF and HTML options hold some promise, so I plan to continue exploring them for a bit before I cave and write a PWA.


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I’m getting a bit of a nostalgia kick reading through the Standard Ebooks process. I haven’t made anything with them (though they do good work and I’m reading two of their editions right now), but years ago — in a former life, it seems — I used to make ebook editions of old books.

As far as I can tell, the first ebook I made was Chesterton’s The Ball and the Cross, which I typed up by hand and posted to Project Gutenberg. Around that time I worked on a handful of other books for PG, including Henry Sweet’s An Icelandic Primer, which was much more involved (Old Icelandic characters, tables, etc.) and incredibly fun.

After that I worked on several more books as part of the Mormon Texts Project and also started making EPUB and Kindle editions of other books (like the 1812/1815 edition of Grimms’ fairy tales and George MacDonald’s The Light Princess). Those were quite fun, too.

Somewhere around five or so years ago I stopped, partly from working on other things, partly from repetitive strain injuries. (Even with Vim macros to help, there’s still a multitude of repetitive keystrokes in cleaning up texts, at least for me.) With reading about Standard Ebooks and writing this post, though, I’m tempted to get back into it. I built Fledge years ago as an attempt to script away more of the repetitive work, and I suspect wiser use of both it and Vim might be enough to minimize the RSI.

On a related note, I’ve been wanting to rewrite md2epub. It’s a decent-enough Python script that takes Markdown files and turns them into an EPUB, and it’s worked well. But it’s an old codebase, and I don’t like the name anymore, and it could be faster, and I have a few ideas on how to make it more ergonomic, so I’m planning to dub it Caxton and rewrite it in Go or Rust. (Primarily so I’ll have an easier way to make EPUB editions of my fiction.) This part is the most likely to actually happen, I think.


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On ebooks

For a long time I couldn’t really get into ebooks (in spite of publishing dozens), primarily for nitpicky typographic reasons and because of availability/selection. Over the last few years, however, things changed, and my reading is now pretty much all ebooks.

For EPUBs, I use Marvin on my iPhone and couldn’t be happier with it. (Also, I’ve written a personal-use Python script that replaces f-bombs and other strong profanity in EPUBs with bullet points. Came in handy for Worm, Ra, and UNSONG, all of which I really enjoyed.) In fact, as near as I can remember, reading HPMOR on Marvin was what convinced me ebooks were great. HPMOR also convinced me that fanfiction done well can be amazing. (I liked it better than the originals.)

I’ve also been reading loads of books on Libby, and it’s been great — my public library has a fairly good selection of books on it, and the app itself is far better than the old Overdrive app.

To my surprise, I’ve also started buying books on Kindle. I used to be hesitant to do that (walled garden and all), but I’ve come to terms with it. (To the point that I’ve bought around, uh, 300 books since the beginning of the year. I may have a problem.) (Also, it’s crazy how many books go on sale for a couple dollars. I use eReaderIQ to watch for those sales.) While I do have an old Kindle, I use the app on my phone, since I always have my phone with me. Oh, and the Prime reading library usually has some interesting books, too.

Last but not least, for print books (primarily nonfiction), I tend to scan a chunk of forty to fifty pages using my camera app, turn it into a PDF with Readdle’s Scanner Pro app, and read it using Readdle’s Documents app. That way I can make an “ebook” out of pretty much any print book, letting me read it anywhere without having to lug the physical book around. This method catapulted my nonfiction reading forward, and it’s been great. The only downside is that the scanning takes time, but it’s been worth it. I estimate I’ve read at least 15,000+ pages this way over the past five years.

Overall, I love ebooks. Having them with me all the time is unbeatable. In fact, I just checked and it looks like I haven’t read a print book in over six months. I still love print, but ebooks are the future, at least for me.


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Reader’s editions 2.0

I’m pleased to announce version 2.0 of my reader’s editions of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price.

Like the study edition, this versions now use the licensed text of the scriptures from the Church. They’re available in EPUB and Kindle for now, with PDF and print editions forthcoming.


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Recommended: Standard Ebooks. They’re doing the same kind of thing I’ve done — making nice EPUB/Kindle editions of Project Gutenberg (though my efforts have of course been at a much smaller scale, and far more sporadic). Even better, Standard Ebooks has good typography standards and they’re proofing the books against original scans. This is a good project.


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A slightly different kind of ebook

Turns out reading PDFs of old books (from Google Books, Internet Archive, etc.) on my iPhone works out reasonably well. For example:

iPhonePDF-1.jpg

On the left is the fully zoomed out page. Indoors, I’m able to read it without too much difficulty, though my eyes do thank me when I zoom in (as on the right). The problem with zooming, however, is that navigating to the next page then requires more swiping, and, at least in iBooks, you have to zoom in again every time you turn the page.

After a bit of this, I got to wondering what it would be like to typeset an iPhone-sized PDF, designed specifically to be read on a phone. Here’s how it turned out (and this is a proof of concept, nothing too polished):

iPhonePDF-2.jpg

The pages are set at 7.573×4.267″, which I arrived at by taking 1136×640 (iPhone screen dimensions in pixels) and dividing by 150. Arbitrary, but it worked out well enough. And the text is at 16 points on the left and 18 on the right. (Also arbitrary, but dependent on the page size, of course.)

The PDFs:

The main advantage to a foolhardy scheme like this is full typographic control — margins, fonts, layout (important for poetry), tracking, etc., all without worrying about limitations of ebook readers. I could try to do something about widows and orphans, for instance, though I didn’t do that with this proof of concept.

The downside is that it’s custom-tailored to the dimensions of the iPhone 5S, and on other devices it wouldn’t fit as perfectly. Not necessarily a dealbreaker, though.

Is it worth pursuing? No idea. One of these days I’ll set a full book this way and try reading it on my phone to see how it compares.


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Book of Mormon reader’s edition updated

I don’t know why I didn’t do this sooner, but I’ve released the Kindle version of my Book of Mormon reader’s edition. I’ve also updated the formatting on the EPUB version so it’s nicer (indented paragraphs and all that). Kindle versions and updated EPUBs of the D&C and Pearl of Great Price will come in the near future.


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The Iliad

Today’s release: Ἰλιάς, an EPUB/Kindle edition of Homer’s Iliad in ancient Greek (as part of my Originals series). The EPUB edition looks better than the Kindle edition, at least in iBooks and Digital Editions, but the Kindle edition is pretty usable as well. Enjoy.


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The Wanderer

New release: The Wanderer (part of the Old English Texts Series)


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Dream of the Rood

Today’s release of Dream of the Rood (in EPUB and Kindle formats) also marks the beginning of my Old English Texts series. I’ll be releasing nice EPUB/Kindle editions of Old English texts, using the Labyrinth Library editions as a base. (They’ve been kind enough to grant me permission to do this.)


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