Kindling free e-books

My library’s IT department bought a Kindle for staff to experiment with, and I checked it out for the week. Using it has been an interesting experience.

When it first came out I read a lot of commentating and criticism about the Kindle as a publishing model, but I hadn’t really paid much attention to the specifics of its interface. So my first discovery was that it’s almost impossible to hold the thing without accidentally pushing buttons. And in fact a lot of the interface decisions made me wonder if Amazon had done any usability testing at all. Still, over the course of the week I did adjust to the Kindle’s quirks, and I found the act of reading on a Kindle to be unexpectedly pleasant.

Ultimately, the thing I found most annoying about using the Kindle had nothing to do with the Kindle itself. It was the format of the free e-books.

Some quick backstory: In order to prevent staff from charging John Grisham’s entire oeuvre to the University credit card, the library’s Kindle is not connected to an account, and you can’t use it to purchase anything. Instead, the lovely people in Desktop Support loaded it with a nice assortment of public domain and Creative Commons-licensed books in a range of genres (all from Many Books), so borrowers could experience using the Kindle for several different kinds of reading. I found that the cook book would be a pain to use, ditto the Complete Grammar of Esperanto (I love an IT department with a sense of humor). Most of what’s on the library’s Kindle is novels, and for novels the Kindle is great. I’ve been reading Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow’s first novel and an early experiment with CC-licensing.

And here’s where I got annoyed. The e-books on our Kindle mostly came from Project Gutenberg, a “volunteer effort to digitize, archive, and distribute cultural works,” according to the Project Gutenberg General FAQ. Every Project Gutenberg e-text includes a very long license header, and the license requires that this header remain intact in every future version of the e-text. Go take a look at the header. It’s really long. On the Kindle, there is no way to skip it. Using a moderately-sized font, you have to click through 15 pages of Gutenberg front matter before you get to the actual book you want to read (yes, I counted). It’s totally annoying.

What’s worse, the Down and Out e-text includes not only the Gutenberg license but also the Creative Commons license. And not just the brief, human readable summary of the license. It includes the entire legal deed, which adds another 15 clicks to the front end of the book. That’s a total of 30 clicks, just to get to the first page of the first chapter. That’s 29 clicks too many.

Here’s the thing: Project Gutenberg has made some major contributions to the body of public domain works available electronically. That’s awesome. The organization is also a big proponent of protecting the public domain and of ensuring free, open access to cultural works. Also awesome. But if your free open content is crappy to use, people who don’t know any better will think that all free open content is crappy to use, and that is not a good message for evangelists of free open content to be sending.

The growing popularity of mobile devices for reading books presents an enormous opportunity to groups like Project Gutenberg. There is a huge new audience of people who just want to spend their commutes reading a little Sherlock Holmes (or Jane Austen or Adam Smith or Shaw) on their Blackberries. These people may never have considered the value of the public domain before, or cared about the origins of their reading material, and they definitely don’t have a clue what ASCII is, but they might be willing to donate a little money if they develop nice feelings about the people who provide their free books. It works for public radio; Ira Glass just asked me for five dollars at the beginning of the free weekly podcast of This American Life. I love Ira, and I love my free weekly podcasts, so I sent him five dollars. Project Gutenberg could pull off something similar, but it would require a much friendlier header.

Instead of 15 clicks worth of front matter, Project Gutenberg should include a very brief intro in all of its e-texts, identifying itself as the producer of this free e-text, and encouraging readers to check out the PG website, donate some money, and read the full license deed at the end of the book. Then stick all the legalese at the back. Nobody reads it anyway, they just click (and click and click) through it.