Missing a market: E-readers and academics

I’ve been thinking about getting a tablet or an e-reader for a while. My husband is firmly behind this – seeing my endless piles of papers and books, it just makes sense in so many ways – for the environment, for example. And now that I’m getting ready to move and having to pack said papers & books, I’m certainly coming around.

Here’s my problem: none of the e-readers on the market right now work great for academics. I held out for months, waiting for a e-readers that has what, to me, seem like a few simple features. Finally, two weeks ago as a gift for my dissertation defense, my husband got me a NOOK touch. It seemed like it had it all – an e-ink display (a must – I spend enough time with computer screens! – ruling out many tablets), a touch screen for easy highlighting, note-taking capabilities, reads pdfs. Great! But disillusionment quickly set in – you can’t highlight or take notes on pdfs using the NOOK. So I set out finding a pdf to epub translator and everyone suggested calibre. Only problem – it can’t deal with two-column pdfs, which is how most of the academic articles I read are printed. Further, Barnes & Noble doesn’t have a ton of academic books, limiting that source of reading material. Sure, the NOOK works great for regular books (as my husband can attest to) – but realistically, as an academic, most of my reading ISN’T for fun.

So, now I’m pinning my hopes on a rumored Amazon Kindle touch that might come out in October (and Hans gets the old NOOK – great gift, right?). Amazon definitely has the advantage of greater selection in academic books – but can they do the pdf’s right? Or come out with a pdf-to-epub translator that works?

I don’t think I’m asking for much – an e-ink display and let me highlight and comment on pdfs! – or make it easy for me to get it in a format I can. I’m willing to pay for these services, hoping to save money on paper and ink – and space from these endless binders. Academics, by their very definition, do a lot of reading – and I don’t think my e-reader requirements are a-typical. So why is e-reader market missing out on this great source of revenue?!

**Thanks to a commenter, this post has been edited to reflect the differences between tablets and e-readers and clarify my complaints.

UPDATE: I updated this post on July 16, 2012, including more information about e-reader options: http://emilyk.vraga.org/blog/2012/07/16/still-missing-a-market-academics-e-readers/


  1. Ah! I totally agree! Although I was only looking in to an e-reader as an alternative to regular books-it would be an added bonus if I could read/highlight PDF’s on there as well. Let’s hope the new Kindle or Amazon Tablet will fit the bill: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/technology/2011/07/amazon-tablet-rumoed-for-october-release-date-alongside-two-new-kindles-report-says.html

    Oh and of course Hans doesn’t want to return the Nook and hold out for October-he gets a nice little gift for himself along the way =)

    • I have to say, for pleasure reading, the NOOK simple touch is wonderful. It’s light, battery lasts forever, and it’s touch interface is quite intuitive. I’m am disappointed, however, that it isn’t ‘fitting the bill’ for PDFs, and even more surprising to me was Barnes & Noble’s simple lack availability for some of the academic e-books other services (read:Amazon) have.

  2. I guess as an equally obvious solution – why aren’t more journal articles available in the “e-pub” format? An easy fix and as more academics get e-readers, I’m betting there will be more pressure – and more incentive – to make them available in a variety of formats, not just .pdf

  3. The problem here (as I see it) is the blurred lines between a tablet (which the Nook is not) and an e-reader, (which the Kindle and Nook are). There are existing solutions on the market, but they’re all tablets, which are designed to be flexible, expandable (to a degree) and run multiple pieces of software (apps). The e-reader, on the other hand, is designed to do exactly what the name states: allow you to read in an electronic format. You repeatedly refer to tablets throughout your post, but what you’re really critiquing is an e-reader. And based on what your requirements are, a tablet is really what you’re looking for (and no, I don’t view the Nook Color as a tablet… it’s been to crippled by B&N in an attempt to lock you into their system).

    That said, I do agree with your complaint regarding the availability of different resources across platforms. But, again, the use of an actual tablet as opposed to a proprietary e-reader bypasses these concerns, as apps are available for all of the outlets currently providing e-books.

    As for the academic articles, I’m still waiting for some journals to provide OCR copies (as opposed to page images) of their articles. So the likelihood of them adopting any proprietary format, as opposed to the relatively open PDF format, seems to be asking for the impossible, as well as counter productive from an accessibility standpoint.

    • Jasun:

      You are 100% correct about the e-reader/tablet distinction. I am referring to e-readers throughout this posting, as one of my first requirements is: not another computer screen! Therefore, I would argue I’m not looking for a tablet (unless there is an e-ink tablet?), but instead a more versatile e-reader. I will correct the article above for clarity’s sake and in acknowledgment of your point.

      But I disagree that asking journal articles to provide their content in more accessible ways is counter-productive. Yes, they should all be OCR, not images. But they should also offer multiple formats so that all academics can read their works more easily. Journals, after all, are trying to make money – and I’m going to be more likely to read (and cite) a journal that makes their articles easily accessible and readable. Life as an academic is hard enough without making getting the articles difficult!

  4. So why is tablet market missing out on this great source of revenue?!

    Because the Kindle’s purpose is not to sell Kindles, but to sell ebooks. That’s why Amazon focuses so much on having their ebooks be readable on as many platforms as possible. The question is, also, why are academic publishers missing out on this potential source of revenue?

    • Great point – it’s not just the e-readers/tablets at fault, but academic press (books and journals). These are still largely for-profit businesses, so both the journals themselves and the e-readers/tablets should be looking for ways to expand their business. Part of the problem is an academic can’t refuse to read articles altogether – but as I point out in the comment to Jasun above, I’m more likely to read more articles from accessible sources.

      There’s also money to be made from a third-party source who makes a great transcription services available. I would pay a small monthly charge (or make a somewhat-large purchase) to someone who can guarantee me a great transcription services that works across many platforms and formats.

      Hopefully the free market figures it out soon!

      Thanks for the comment!

      • Oh, also, I forgot to tell you this. If you are having an issue with two column PDFs, a program named Briss might help you. I haven’t used it to split them myself, but that’s one thing it does.

  5. Pingback: The Catch-22 for E-books: Market failure « Emily K Vraga

  6. My thoughts, exactly!
    There are readers out there which have large, E-ink screens, read pdfs, and have note-taking ability. Sadly, they’re all expensive or I would have bought one already:
    Pocketbook Pro 902-$250+
    Pocketbook Pro 912- $350+ Like the 902 but with 3G connection and a touchscreen
    Sony PRS-950- no longer made $400+
    Hanvon WISEreader E920- $500+ Hard to get in the US right now.
    Hanvon WISEreader C920- color e-ink! $500+ Hard to get in the US right now
    Onyx Boox M92- $400+ Also supports Word, Excel, and Powerpoint files

  7. Pingback: Still missing a market: Academics e-readers « Emily K. Vraga, Ph.D.

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