Skeptical Shopper: The Pros and Cons of Buying E-Books

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When Amazon recently removed copies of George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm from customers' de­­vices and digital lockers, I suddenly re­­membered why I prefer physical media over virtual versions: If I buy a book or a disc, it's mine forever and I can access it whenever I want. Amazon's actions prove that's not necessarily true of e-books.

Amazon removed unauthorized editions of the books at the request of the rights holder. Later, company officials acknowledged that Amazon hadn't handled the issue well and said that it wouldn't automatically remove purchased copies of Kindle books in the future. The company issued full refunds to buyers of the titles.
But how can customers know which e-books are authorized and which aren't? Since Amazon offers hundreds of thousands of titles, something like this is bound to happen again.

Your protections are limited. The digital rights management (DRM) re­­strictions that Amazon places on content purchased at its store prevent you from downloading an Amazon book to a second, non-Kindle, e-book reader for backup. And you can download your copy a limited number of times (Amazon doesn't specify the number, as it seems to vary by publisher) among Kindles and iPhones.

Always download and save any e-book you purchase directly to your PC (you're allowed to do this). When you want to read one, transfer it to your Kindle via USB. That way, your copy won't be living on the cloud (in your digital locker or on your de­­vice); if Amazon executes a sweep, the copy will remain on your PC. Such a back­up will work only on that Kindle, though; if you make a switch to a Sony E-Reader later on, you'll have no access to that file.

If you don't want to deal with Amazon or DRM hassles at all, download e-books from sites that offer public-domain works. They might not have the breadth of titles that Amazon has, but you can find some intriguing things. Project Gutenberg has thousands of e-book titles available for free download, from Ulysses to the Boy Scouts Handbook. Project Gutenberg is hosted by Ibiblio, a collaborative project of the University of North Carolina that conserves freely available information about subjects including software, music, literature, art, history, and science. What's great about these sites is that you can view much of the content on other e-book readers or on your mobile phone--not just on the Kindle. Feedbooks, another good site, offers both public domain books and original, unpublished content.

If some of the content you download isn't Kindle-compatible, you can convert it using Calibre, a free, open-source, cross-platform e-book management program. Besides converting files, this lightweight application can manage your library and sync your books.

Don't give up on your local bookstore--the Orwell fiasco provides a stark illustration of why virtual books won't fully replace physical books any time soon--but don't dismiss e-books either. Buying an e-book version of a key textbook or classic literary work that you'll want to revisit over the years might not be wise. If you want to load up on cheesy mystery novels for your next vacation, however, the e-book format is definitely useful.

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