Grand Bazaar, Istanbul
Shopping for an ebook reader platform (Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This post is born of frustration: it is the good sort of frustration however. You know – that feeling of being overwhelmed by choice in a sea of options, and all seem like good ways to go.

So it is with ebook readers. There are so many out there, and many of them are good, if not downright fantastic. But, there are variations in how they work, and the features they provide, so I will describe a few of these and some of their pros and cons. No doubt I will miss some good options – so apologies up front for that – but perhaps I will make it up to you with good discussion.

When thinking about ebooks, there are a number of key business drivers to have in mind. Are you concerned with selling collections of ebooks to institutions? Are you looking to provide a mechanism for individual sale of ebooks to your customers directly through an app? Do you have any special needs around your content? For example, here at the American Mathematical Society, authors create in LaTeX. We want ePub3, which means we can use MathML. We would love to deploy MathJax, but we also need to provide high quality MathML, and are in fact close to solving this puzzle. Where are ebook readers on rendering MathML? What about good old PDFs? How do you sell your ebooks? What kind of ecommerce do you need? Are you concerned about applying DRM, or not?

That was a whole paragraph of questions, which does not even begin to address comparing the effectiveness of each platform, along with their associated costs.

So let’s take a look some options:


With Kindle, you are of course a part of the Amazon jungle. You can find Kindle everywhere – a brand known to anyone interested in ebooks. You can access the platform through Amazon’s own Kindle devices, or on any other device through a Kindle App. When you join Kindle you know that you will receive built in emarketing. Sometimes irritating, sometimes plain brilliant, you know that if you buy a book, a plethora of similar books will be suggested to you for possible follow-up purchase from an enormous library of options. Kindle does not really cost to join, but boy do those discounts hurt publishers. Technically speaking, Kindle is somewhat anachronistic. You have to convert to their format, and that process is not always smooth. Just try running PDFs through on the Kindle – an awful result. And forget about math content. Feature-wise, Kindle is superb, with syncing of your place in the book across devices you may be using, and other reader friendly tools that are now perhaps the benchmark for the industry. Kindle is also providing accessibility features to enable use of the reader by visually impaired or blind customers.

Bluefire Reader

Bluefire is an interesting and evolving company. They specialize in providing ebooks for all platforms in both EPB and PDF formats. They also work hand in hand with Adobe Content Server 4 digital rights management (DRM), so if you are interested in DRM protection they are worth a shot. They are technologically forward thinking, though not yet able to render math content. Feature-wise, Bluefire is top-notch. It supports such things as location synchronization, reading brightness, font size management, night mode and so on, all designed for an enhanced reading experience. They are not inexpensive to set up – though this is an area of confusion as there seems to be a lack of consistency on what represents good value for money in this arena. is perhaps less visible, but nevertheless as effective as, say, Kindle and Bluefire combined. They have a bookstore, with multiple publishers available, and appear to be active in a range of academic disciplines, though perhaps somewhat more focused than Kindle. The reader is available for the full range of device operating systems as well as online. They are good with PDF and EPUB, and there are plentiful features for the reader. You can do all the things that you can with Kindle or Bluefire that I mentioned above and, like Bluefire, DRM can be applied through Adobe software. You can keep your bookshelf across platforms, which is one of the things that is so good about Kindle – not having to fuss with going through your iTunes Library first.

iPublish Central

This is a reader from Impelsys, Inc. iPublish Central is flexible in terms how you can organize content as a publisher, with collections for institutions in one portal with COUNTER 4 compliance and a suite of analytics tools, and sales to individuals via an app across devices. They have proprietary DRM if required, and synchronization across devices available when online. They are forward thinking, and while not yet handling complex math, are investigating possible avenues toward math rendering. For an academic publisher looking to manage both institutional and individual sales from a central approach, iPublishCentral looks like an intriguing option.


Tizra is possibly the most interesting of the options out there. While much of the emphasis on ebooks is in the dedicated ereader app, there is also a case for considering the use of ebooks via a web browser. Tizra is web based, and allows for a publisher to build its presence across different types of community, like iPublish Central. You get design control, and a significant degree of technological flexibility, for example turning your content into granular chapters or other customs products. The whole approach is to flexible downloading of content with access rules that the publisher applies. As a publisher, I find it appealing to think that by delivering books through a browser, I may avoid the pitfalls of “walled gardens”. It may be easier to have your content discovered, rather than buried in an app store. Of course, as we can see above, every ereader app is different. In principle web based publishing allows readers to look across all their content using a familiar web browser. A solution like Tizra also holds out the possibility of working with complex content such as math, allowing for the use of MathJax for rendering MathML in an online environment. Of course, all of this means you have to be connected, and are we really there yet?

I have left out numerous interesting readers that I encourage you to explore. There is Snapplify, Gitden, Calibre, and Kobo – to name a few of the many that are out there.

This is a confusing landscape, but if you are like me, and enjoy shopping, then times are good!

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Robert Harington

Robert Harington

Robert Harington is Chief Publishing Officer at the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Robert has the overall responsibility for publishing at the AMS, including books, journals and electronic products.


8 Thoughts on "Learning to Read: Navigating the Ebook Reader Market"

Robert, thank you for your thoughtful and kind comments on the reader. These are certainly exciting times.

re: “Just try running PDFs through on the Kindle – an awful result. ” This outmoded format is awful well beyond the Kindle, particularly when it is merely a reproduction of a printed page intended for printing on a local printer. STEM publishers once led the way in e-publishing. Now they seem mired in PDF obsolescence.

Native ebook formats customize to the screen and type size and, perhaps more important, encourage hypertext links between text and notes. definitions, and URLs.

What a stark contrast: publisher vis-a-vis reader. Serious readers do two things: 1) remove the DRM (it’s a trivial task) converting to ePub if desired and 2) manage everything via Calibre, a free, cross-platform eBook library app.
Why do they do this? It might be that they don’t trust publishers.

My Mother considers herself a serious reader. She reads on her iPad and has never in her life removed the DRM from anything. I would suspect that the total percentage of eBook readers who remove DRM and manage everything via Calibre adds up to single digits, maybe a single digit at best of the overall population.

It’s also interesting to see that you blame all issues with DRM on publishers when, at least in my view, most eBook DRM schemes are put there by the device manufacturers and sales channels to lock readers in perpetually only buying devices from one company and eBooks from one company. It’s the main reason I haven’t switched from paper books to electronic ones.

Excellent writeup, Robert! I say this not just because of Tizra’s inclusion, but because I am in emphatic personal agreement on the disadvantages of walled gardens for publishers…and in the long run, for anyone but the gardens’ owners. I have seen so many come and go over the years, and so much investment in them lost. And any time I am in doubt, I consult the collection of bubble-era promotional disks from the likes of AOL, Prodigy and MSN I keep in my office as a reminder!

Be sure to visit early and often. This is the next-generation EPUB 3 Support Grid from BISG, developed in collaboration with the IDPF. This successor to the previous static spreadsheet was just released in mid-February and provides a dynamic, web-based view. It is the master, comprehensive, authoritative reference for what EPUB 3 features are currently implemented in what Reading Systems (devices, browser-based implementations, etc.). The new UI lets you compare test results between systems, look at specific features (MathML support, video support, etc.), and it’s all done in a highly programmatic, rigorous way based on software developed by the IDPF and DAISY in collaboration with the BISG. The testing is done/managed by members of the BISG Content Structure Committee; BISG provides the “gatekeeper” function to make sure the tester and testing are reliable. (The system can also be used privately, without the results being made public through BISG, which the reading system developers find invaluable–and which encourages them to get features implemented so they look good in this resource. They also are quick to tell us when they’ve updated their software so we can get the results posted.) Even in the few weeks it has been live it has been updated a number of times, and new reading systems (in various contexts, e.g. iOS vs. Android) are being added all the time.

One problem I’ve run into in my particular humanities niche, and would welcome any input, is that ereaders are not always the best at foreign language support, especially for complex non-Roman characters, like those used in ancient Greek and Semetic languages. While support for complex mathematical equations, whether through LaTeX or MathML, might indicate the possibility of support for complex characters, I’m a little wary of extrapolating from one to the other. Does anyone have any experience in working with epublishing in foreign languages that aren’t commonly supported – especially if it turned out well?

This is a very interesting article. I think the problem is that most of the e-book reader manufacturers, at least the leading names such as Amazon, Kobe, and Barnes and Noble, are catering to the non-academic reader (as far my knowledge goes). Compatibility with Latex formats and rendering MathML will come once the focus shifts to or equal focus is given to the academic reader community.

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