Suppose there are two rival companies—let’s call them A and B. Each wants to dominate the blossoming world of electronic books (e-books).

Photoimaging Monica Gupta / Mint

Company A (that’s A as in Amazon) began life selling physical books online. Its reading gadget, Kindle, stores hundreds of books in a plastic slab that weighs only 10 ounces. To accompany Kindle, Company A built an enormous electronic bookstore, filled with 345,000 books that can each be downloaded on to Kindle in 30 seconds.

Company B (as in Barnes and 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 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 catalogue has 700,000. Instead of just the iPhone and Touch, B’s free book-reading app is also available for the BlackBerry.

Noble plans?

You get five free out-of-copyright books to start you off (Dracula, Sense and Sensibility and so on). Instead of one typeface—love it or leave it—B’s book-reader programmes give you a choice of many. Instead of just black, white or sepia, B’s software lets you choose any colour 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 modelled 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. At least on paper (does anyone still use that expression?), Barnes and Noble’s new e-empire seems to trump Amazon’s.

Between the pages

In practice, however, there’s more to the story. First, there’s no Barnes and 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. Now, Plastic Logic has spent the last year marketing its machine as a business document reader—but maybe it will be good for leisure book reading too.

Second, B’s claim to having 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 such as “vzen" instead of “when" and “i86f" instead of “1861."

There are other complications. You can’t search Google’s catalogue 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 Kindle too. They await you at 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 and so on.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to find popular books that are offered by B but not by A. In other words, Barnes and Noble may have more books in terms of pure quantity, but a lot of them are just fillers.

The last chapter

The real shocker, though, is how much more expensive B’s books are. Both companies offer free sample chapters and $10 (around Rs480) pricing on current best-sellers, which is great. But beyond that: The Lovely Bones (A charges $10, B, $12); The Kite Runner ($10 vs $12); Dune ($8 vs $12.80); Freakonomics ($10 vs $16); Lord of the Rings Trilogy ($12.25 vs $30); The Godfather ($7 vs $13.50).

B’s press officer countered this data with a list of 2009 books that B sold for $10 and A, for more. 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 downside. 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.

Missing books

Furthermore, a huge number of important books are still missing from both catalogues. 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, 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, so it’s not A’s and B’s fault. But it’s still a black eye for the e-book industry in general. You’ll always find something to read— but you may not be able to find something specific.

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 and Noble acquired when it bought a company called Fictionwise last spring).

Add to your cart?

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. Few will figure it out easily.

More confusion: If, on the iPhone, you tap on a category (such as 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 then refunded at checkout. And B doesn’t offer “page where I stopped" syncing among different gadgets.

Barnes and 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 overall, this is a 1.0 effort—which, incidentally, the company acknowledges. It vows to address the glitches and shortcomings.

That’d be great. Maybe then we can raise the company’s grade from a B to an A.



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