All the excitement about eBooks on the iPad tends to make us forget that many have been reading eBooks on the Mac and PC for a long time. Also, the Mac is a better platform on which to actually store, manage and convert books between various formats. This how-to is a first look at eBook management, conversions and readers on a Mac.
First off, I should say that I am a beginner at all this, learning as I go along. This how-to explains what I’ve learned so far, but I am far from an expert, and I expect that some readers will jump in with a few corrections and valuable contributions. But I’m having fun learning, and I want to share what I’ve learned, or think I’ve learned, so far.
In a previous how-to article, “How to Get Free Books on your iPad,” I briefly discussed the idea that you’re better off using you Mac as a management center for your non-DRM protected eBooks. “If you download to a Mac, you’ll have the file firmly in the grips of your Downloads directory. You can move it around, put it in a collection, back it up with Time Machine, move it between a PC and a Mac, and so on. If you have the right reader on your Mac, you can read it there…. You’ll feel more secure about your collection moving to the future because you’ve archived it, naked, so to speak, on your Mac.”
However, there is a more ambitious concept that involves an app that more actively manages your book collection. Imagine an app that allows you to organize all your (non-DRM’d) eBooks into a searchable database, provide for converting between some formats and even lets you read those books. There is such an app, and it’s called Calibre for the Mac by Kovid Goyal. It’s free and open source.
Calibre - main window
One of my book author friends* has suggested that not everyone loves Calibre, but after downloading it and experimenting with it for awhile, it looked promising on the surface. (And I love the beautiful icons.) Without otherwise affecting your separate collection of unprotected eBooks, it will import them, create a searchable database, allow certain conversions for non-DRM’d formats, and allow you to read them with a pretty good reader.
Calibre gives you the option, in Preferences -> Behavior, whether to read PDFs with the internal viewer. I looked at a PDF book with the internal reader for PDFs, and, frankly, I’d stick with Preview.
Calibre eBook formats and those defaulted to the internal reader
The list of book formats Calibre can read is impressive, however, the reader is only as good as the state and stability of that book format and the quality of the translator. This might well lead to a situation where the reader is good enough to read the document but might not meet the most rigorous tests for publishing conversion.
Other eBook Readers
Calibre, of course, isn’t the only Macintosh eBook reader for non-DRM’d eBooks. If the book is in PDF format, you can use Apple’s Preview, a really good PDF reader than lets you search for text.
Other eBook readers for the Mac include Stanza, in beta right now, and a plug-in for Firefox that reads EPUB files. The supported formats for Stanza desktop include EPUB, MOBI, LIT and a few others. Stanza doesn’t seem to be as far along on the Mac as the iPad version, and if you want to read lots unprotected books on the Mac in a wide range of formats, my preference would be, for now, Calibre.
So far, I’ve discussed the management of a collection of DRM-free books. For modern books you buy, say, on an iPad, from Apple’s iBookstore that have DRM applied, you’re pretty much stuck with buying and downloading them directly to your iPad or other iOS device and using the iBooks app that’s designed to unravel the DRM. You can, however, sync your book collection between, say, your iPad and iPod touch or iPhone. iBooks is not available for the Mac.
In the case of Apple’s iBooks, nothing prevents you from drilling into iTunes, finding the eBook, and copying it somewhere else as a backup. (A CMD-F search on files that end with .epub will show them. Be sure to have View -> Show Path Bar turned on in the Finder.) You just won’t be able to read these books without iBooks. (Even your one free iBooks book, Winnie the Pooh, has DRM applied.)
For Amazon’s Kindle books, you will be able to read those purchased, protected books on the Mac with the Kindle app reader, plus you can move unprotected books from the Mac into an iOS device’s Kindle app, via iTunes file sharing, if you wish.
As of this writing, it appears there is no Nook app for the Macintosh. There is an older eReader app which, I believe, reads the older PDB formats as well as EPUB. I’m still investigating and have more work to do there.
Calibre has an amazing list of file conversions, but this isn’t a formal review, so I can’t vouch for how robust those conversions are. Here, for example, are the conversions offered for EPUB documents.
Calibre File Conversion Formats for EPUB
As I mentioned above, these conversions may well be more suited to the casual reader, and may or may not be suitable for rigorous source publication. Wikipedia has a list of all the eBook file formats, descriptions and supported features.
There are several applications that I have become aware of that will create documents and/or export to the EPUB format. They are: Adobe InDesign, Scrivener, Sigil, iStudio Publisher, and Apple’s own latest version of Pages. As Steve Sande pointed out last year, Apple and others tend to add their own tweaks to the EPUB standard, so it’s not trivial to prepare eBooks for publication universally. You can get a taste of that from expert Liz Castro. By the way, Ms. Castro has a book that goes into all the EPUB publishing details.
Managing an eBook collection isn’t as trivial as simply buying protected books on your iPad. Buying protected books there can lure one into the idea that the iPad is the ultimate eBook manager, and it isn’t. As we move into the future of digital books and other publications, there will be issues of file management, migration to the future, eBook publishing standards, format conversions, and device portability. An iPad alone doesn’t solve all those problems. In fact, DRM and publisher competition has created a host of new problems.
This how-to merely touches the surface of this rich topic and describes a few of the tools and procedures you may need as you start to think about a modern digital library. Getting plugged into the eBook community also will provide a wealth of insights and experiences. Ah, if only it were still as simple as paper books and wooden bookshelves.
* My thanks to author John Farr of Taos, NM for valuable contributions to this article.