Kindle: has the time for law ebooks arrived?

It has taken a while, but with the release of the latest version of the Kindle, Kindle 3, Amazon has let UK residents get their hands on the ebook reader and a dedicated UK Kindle store for the first time, and at just £109 for the wifi only version, it suddenly looks like a tempting option for those curious about e-reading.

First, let’s get some things out of the way. This is not an iPad; despite the inclusion of an experimental web browser, you are never going to use this device to surf the web or send email. It is a device for reading ebooks. That’s it, end of story. The Kindle is not trying to be all things to all men. It does not have a touch screen. What you get instead are buttons, a keypad, and a 5-way controller. As a result it seems retro. But wait.

The Kindle reading experience

What’s it like to read an ebook on the Kindle 3? In short, a joy. The 6-inch reading area is surprising adequate and fit for purpose: the text is crisp against the grey screen background and the page changes, via forward/back buttons on either edge, are so swift as to be as good as instantaneous.

The device comes with a choice of eight font sizes, three typefaces (regular, condensed and san serif – I’d like to see more added), line spacing and words per line options. There is also a text to speech option where, publisher permitting, a Stephen Hawking or Mrs Stephen Hawking-style electronic voice will read the text to you.

Books can be accessed via the home screen and grouped into collections – essential as your collection begins to grow.

When you are actually reading a book further options present themselves, such as: search, adding a bookmark, note, highlight, go to and sync to furthest page. The latter is useful if reading an item on the Kindle and another device such as mobile phone, as it gives you the option to move to furthest page read on either device. (This only works for ebooks bought from the Amazon Kindle Store.) Additionally, placing the cursor before any word will display a dictionary entry for the word.

If you choose to highlight a passage and or add a note to a page, the Kindle stores these in a My Clippings folder on the home screen, it also backs these up online (by default). Whilst this is a great idea, your clipping folder doesn’t separate highlights from notes (unless you open them in desktop version of Kindle reader software), nor does it allow you to read your annotations in context – it will tell you the note location, but no more. (Tip – highlight and then add note to help keep the relevance in context.) If you have this function turned on (or if you don’t turn it off) you will find as you read that passages are underlined, as they have been highlighted/commented on by other Amazon readers. Personally this feels to me like someone else has been writing on my book, so I’m not a fan, although if you could limit it to certain friends or fellow book club members, for example, I can see where it might potentially come in useful.

I suspect that to prevent excessive clipping – for fear of sharing (you can copy and past your clipped text from the online kindle service) – ebook publishers will probably set a limit on the amount of text that can be clipped from a book. A student or lawyer, for example, might want to clip a lot of parts of a book, so this functionality may become of limited use.

Kindle (and other) ebook formats

Books in the Amazon Kindle store are in its proprietary azw format, which is based on the Mobipocket mobi open standard ebook format, but the device will let you read other formats.

The Kindle 3 supports pdf, including word search and highlight and comment in pdf. You can’t do much with font size though, except using zoom to increase size, but depending on how pdf is done, this may or may not help you view the text satisfactorily.

If you want to read something that is in another format altogether such as the most popular open ebook format epub, then this can be done easily using one of a number of free ebook management tools/converters, such as Calibre.

Law ebooks available

There have been a number of popular law books for consumers and students available as ebooks for a couple of years now. Just search the UK Kindle store for “law” to see the range.

But we are only now seeing the big name law publishers start to take the format seriously. In the US both West and LexisNexis have issued ebooks and in the UK both Sweet & Maxwell and LexisNexis Butterworth are in the process of launching their first titles in the format. LexisNexis, for example, has thirteen titles already available, including Butterworth’s Employment Law Handbook, Tolley’s Company Law Handbook and Tolley’s Tax Cases, with twelve more titles becoming available by the end of 2010. (Note that the LexisNexis titles are in epub format so you will need to convert them to read on the Kindle.)

What this means for practising lawyers in the UK, is that for the first time key legal texts are becoming available, and with it the opportunity for the lawyer of the not too distant future to have all the legal journals and legal texts he or she wanted – displayed as they would be in a “traditional” print run – all on one device (but potentially accessible from more) that they could keep on their desk or take with them to client meetings, to court etc.

Do we need ebooks?

But, with legal texts already available for years on CD and online or as downloadable PDFs that can be viewed on a normal computer or laptop (and so can already be taken anywhere by a lawyer), is there really a great need for or any use for ebooks and e-readers?

The answer, for me, is an emphatic yes. One of the main reasons people like actual physical books is that they are perfectly designed for their purpose, and this is doubly so for more reference-like materials which enable a user to quickly flick through the index and then explore the actual pages references quickly to find that nuggets of information they are looking for. CDs and online versions of texts etc don’t let you do this. However, with ebook readers, suddenly this behaviour can not only be replicated, but it can be replicated – in theory at least – with every text you are ever likely to need available in a small hand-held device.

The device of choice for law books?

The Kindle 3 is by far the current best in class with regards to ebook reading experience for “linear” content. If you want to read a novel, a biography etc, there truly is nothing better.

But if you want to read or access reference books or other texts that you’ll never read cover-to-cover, as is the case with most key legal texts, then the Kindle doesn’t cut the mustard. Why? Simply because the only way to replicate the true book experience is through touch and the lack of touch screen means that for these types of texts the device is much too slow to navigate, even using the very good search facility.

This fault is, however, with the device, not the Kindle reader software, as if you have, for example, an iPhone, Android Phone or iPad with the Kindle app loaded, you can flick through and navigate texts as you really need to be able to do – although the speed taken for pages to load is much slower than on the Kindle. You need to be able to quickly navigate the table of contents and index of books for these texts to flourish on an e-reader and the Kindle just doesn’t allow you to do this.

In the next issue I’ll look at the range of law ebooks becoming available from all the leading law publishers and put a few of them through their paces on Kindle and other platforms.

Scott Vine is Senior Information Officer, Communications, Media and Technology Group, Clifford Chance, LLP.


One thought on “Kindle: has the time for law ebooks arrived?”

Comments are closed.