12 November 2012

Cyberspace December 2012

Cyberspace is published in the Journal of the Law Society of New South Wales, and online at http://blog.calvin.it

Online textbooks

As someone who’s been doing a bit of study lately, I’ve been buying books. There are advantages to paper books, such as being quick to open, easy to festoon with post-it notes and jottings, and can be read anywhere. However, as a Nexus 7 (Google Android tablet) and iPad owner I am interested in having books available electronically. I recently bought the Lonely Planet Guide for Singapore (in PDF format) from their website, and the CCH Australian Competition and Consumer Law 2011 from Google Play. But do they make sense?

Sadly the CCH book was a bit of a dud. Having 1,940 pages on a 7” tablet was pretty neat, but it cost around $65 and is just a scan of the pages of the book. The text has been made searchable, but you don’t have the ability  to resize the text (to fit more on a page, or make it bigger for the hard of eyesight), nor the other benefits of e-books such changing the font or making the screen white on black (easier on the eyes). Despite purchasing in September 2012, it was an old edition consolidated to 1 January 2011, had around 50 pages of commentary at the front, then just the Act, Regulations and associated legislation. Paying that sort of money for that content made a lot of sense when buying all that legislation in hard copy or printing it yourself was fairly expensive, but in the age of portable document readers it doesn’t really add up anymore. There are much cheaper ways of achieving the same result.

I returned to my former method of using legislation: download the PDFs from the government web sites (found using http://legify.com.au), put them into Dropbox (www.dropbox.com)  insert bookmarks and add markup using my PDF editor (Foxit, or Acrobat standard), all at no cost (assuming you have the software). GoodReader on the iPad is also great for marking up PDFs directly on the device.

Lessons learned

The lesson I learned (because this isn’t meant to be a dig at CCH, nor is it Apple v Android) is that electronic books vary a lot, and you need to watch out for certain characteristics of the book you’re buying. If you want all the benefits of an e-book, then you want flowing, resizeable text. If you want versatility, note that iBooks (Apple format) can’t be read on a PC or Mac, whereas PDFs and books on Google Play can appear on many device types. If you just want access on your PC then a PDF will be fine, but it may not display well on a tablet or phone. There are a number of ebook formats, and not all work on every device. The best advice is to download free books or sample titles and test them on your device. Just watch out for the other “gotchas” mentioned above. There are many eReaders available on Android and iOS platforms that suit both tablets and phones - you may need several depending on the books you acquire - and don’t forget the dedicated readers such as Kindle.

Are there Australian legal e-books out there? Yes, but it’s a select few, they’re hard to find, and a lot are superseded. Few of them actually make use of e-book features. One example, the CCH Australian Business Law by Paul Latimer (31st Ed 2012) has flowing text, and internal hyperlinks to help you move around the book. Not everything that could be hyperlinked is actually hyperlinked (eg cases or legislation) but that might be a product of the book’s intended readership. Checks on a number of other titles showed old editions, no flowing text, or general irrelevance. (My apologies to those excellent books out there that I didn’t find!)

LexisNexis has a few books available in eBook format, but they note (possibly to ensure that no law firm buys them) that an eBook cannot be moved from one device to another. On the other hand, a physical book is pretty easily shared.

© 2012 Andrew Calvin, Sydney, Australia