1.5 Million Free Books for iPhones

Google announced yesterday that they had extended their Book Search project to mobile, which means that they’ve turned iPhones and Android handsets into book readers. Which is a pretty cool concept, I’d say.

The portfolio consists of 1.5 million free books that are in the public domain (ie out of copyright), which normally means pretty old, or “classics” if you’re an optimist. Copyright is hugely complicated and varies from country to country, but a rough rule of thumb is that books are in copyright for the author’s life plus 70 years – so writers who died pre-1939 generally speaking. So you won’t find John Grishams or Stephenie Meyers, but there’s a rich cornucopia of Dickens, Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Mark Twain (no relation to Shania), which should keep you busy for a while.

I had a bit of a read of Dickens’s Hard Times last night (and you thought we had it tough) and it works pretty well as a reader, though it’s no comparison to the real thing – the Kindle – or the old real thing, a book. You can’t download it per se, just view it online, 15 pages at a time, which means that the size of the screen means an awful lot of scrolling down. It would also be hard to read a whole book in snack sessions, as it would mean a little bit of clumsy navigation to return to your place every time. I think that could be a little irritating.

Having said that, Dickens especially, lends itself well to snack reading as he wrote most of his novels in installments, not books. This means that each chapter builds to a crescendo, designed to get you to originally buy the next one and these days, navigate to the next chapter. This led to a famous real scene in the US where the quay was lined with people waiting to hear the news of Little Nell, the desperately ill heroine of The Old Curiosity Shop. As the ship approached the harbour, it was hailed with shouts of “What news of Little Nell???!!”.

She died, by the way.

Anyway, back to Book Search. Strangely, given the parent of the project, the one main criticism I have of it is that it’s actually not very good for ummm…searching for a book – or displaying its wares for discovery either.

As far as discovery is concerned, there’s a category called “Featured Books”, which in principle should be used to whet your appetite for hidden gems or popular choices. In reality, the same 5 books are featured every time you visit the page or refresh it, or click the “Load More” button.

In search, books are presented pretty randomly – or perhaps I couldn’t see a pattern – with critiques of works often ranked higher than the original book, as an example. Maybe it’s in order of popularity of download so far and maybe lots of English majors use the service, swatting up for exams. But it seems unlikely.

Finally, and I don’t want to be picky, but an awful lot of books that are free and available online aren’t available for mobile. So the 1.5 million books used in the headline is rather misleading at this stage. I’m assuming (and hoping) that they’ve rushed out to market with a very limited selection at this stage and will be adding to the portfolio on an ongoing basis.

Having said that, the logical approach would be to load popular works first, and then round out the portfolio. This doesn’t seem to be the case, with some really obscure stuff already there and some great works unavailable for mobile at the moment. We should be told.

So, nice one, Google. Thanks for what we have so far, I’m sure I’ll be using it from time to time and I look forward to enjoying it get better.

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