Open Buddha

Open Source Buddhism, Technology, and Geekery

Buddhist Ebooks


By Al Jigong Billings

I'm a computer geek and an avid reader of ebooks. I understand the criticisms that many have of whether you "own" an ebook or not and I certainly don't like digital rights management (DRM) combined with ebooks. That said, I also own more than 8,000 physical books. I have half of them in boxes in the garage at this point. The rest are scattered in overflowing bookshelves throughout my house and I really don't have room for many more books.

I do own a Kindle DX, on which I have been reading ebooks for the last year. It has gotten to the point that for any popular novels that I want to read, I'll always check to see if the publisher makes an ebook version of it. If they don't, I stop and ask myself if I really want to read it. If it is one of the authors that I always read, I bite the bullet and get a paper book but that is really a less valuable option for me at this point.

One problem that I've had is that while this works for fiction, this does not work so well for Buddhist books. Almost all interesting new Buddhist books, as well as older titles, are only available in paper. Only Snow Lion has made a lot of their books available as ebooks. They've only done that on the Kindle in the proprietary topaz format (not even the normal mobi format that most Kindle books use). As far as I know, they aren't doing anything in the ePub format which is actually a decent standard at this point. Because of this, I have actively avoided purchasing Snow Lion's ebooks.

For myself, I prefer open formats or at least ones not tied to one device. For fiction, I actually prefer going to places like Webscriptions.net to purchase mobi or ePub format books because I can get them without DRM. This means when the Kindle dies or is superceded, I will be able to take those same books to another device as long as it can read mobi or ePub formatted books. If I can't get those two formats, I'll often go for PDF, which are not resolution independent (they all assume a certain size of book) but are fairly well supported on any platform. I can read PDF books on anything. It is important to think about the longer term, not just the next year or two, when we talk about the conversion from analog to digital media.

Shambhala Publications announced today that they are going to make a certain selection of their books available, focusing on big authors for them like Chögyam Trunga and Pema Chodron. Then they are going to offer their back catalog. In conversation on twitter, I was told that they would support multiple formats and that DRM wouldn't be an issue. The announcement on Publishers Lunch states:

Shambhala Publications will work with Open Road as their exclusive digital marketing partner. Open Road's digital entertainment evp Luke Parker Bowles will produce marketing videos about Shambhala's authors, books, "and the worlds and ideas that they explore," focusing initially on four authors--Pema Chodron, Natalie Goldberg, David Richo, and Chögyam Trungpa--as their titles release in ebook versions. Shambhala expects to have the bulk of its backlist converted to and available as ebooks by the end of the year, and will publish its frontlist simultaneously in print and ebook form starting in September.

"Open Road" here is "Open Road Integrated Media," from what I can tell. They have a rather bare site up at http://openroadmedia.com but there was a New York Times article on them last October.

I'm hoping that this is the beginning of a shift in the Buddhist publishing world that will herald the availability of Buddhist texts, both old and current, as electronic books. For example, I would love to have a good readable translation of the Pali Canon, such as the one that Wisdom Publications has done (see here for one volume of this). That would make study so much easier given the size of many of these books or Mahayana sutras like the Avatamsaka Sutra, which is over 1,300 pages long in translation.