Ebooks finally come to Norway

November 25, 2010, [MD]

I've been waiting for this moment for quite a long time. Living outside of Norway for many years, I've always been interested in technologies that enable me to access Norwegian culture from afar. I enjoy reading Norwegian newspapers online, I listen to a few podcasts from the national radio station, I follow some of the Norwegian intellectuals and academics on Twitter and through blogs, and I still await the time when the national broadcaster begins streaming in a format that works internationally.

I also download Norwegian movies through bittorrent, and also listen to Norwegian audiobooks. As I've begun reading more and more books on my iPod Touch, I've been waiting eagerly for the time when I could access Norwegian books. The Swedes have been much more progressive here, the site elib.se offers thousands of Swedish audiobooks and ebooks for download, with most of them available as watermarked ePub files. They usually sell for around 50 SEK (\$7), and work great with Stanza. I really enjoy reading Swedish crime, and have bought quite a few books through this website - even a few Norwegian books translated to Swedish, since this was the only way I could get them in e-format.

In Norway, the publishers have been moving much more slowly. Partly, they complain that they have to pay VAT on ebooks and not on pbooks (paper books, a term I learnt from my Norwegian colleagues), and that this is unfair. I agree with them, but in Sweden they also have to pay VAT for ebooks, and they have a thriving market. A more likely explanation is that the big publishers also own bookstore chains, and are reluctant to take business away from the brick-and-mortar stores.

I was also worried, because I read that they had all chosen Adobe Digital Editions as their DRM of choice. However, there was not a single app for iOS that could read ADE files, and thus I would be out of luck even in the future. However, two day, two great pieces of news came at once. First of all, Cappelen Damm, one of the largest publishers in Norway, with more than a 1000 new titles per year, have taken over the domain digitalbok.no, and started their own ebook store, without waiting for all the other publishers to get their act together.

They currently offer about 500 Norwegian titles, as well as a selection of English titles. All the books are offered as ePubs protected by ADE. The second piece of good news, is that we now have an ebook reader for iOS that accepts ADE encrypted ePub files! I've been waiting for this, and wondering what the problem was. This means that not only can I buy and read books from the Norwegian store, but a bunch of other stores using ADE, and even libraries that lend out books using ADE, are fair game!

This app is called Bluefire Reader, and has gained a lot of positive press (all the more strange that I never heard about it until today). So I installed the reader, purchased my first Norwegian book, and off I went. The book cost 99 NOK (about \$16), which seems to be a fairly common price. More expensive than the Swedish bookstore, and I would definitively like to see cheaper books, but it's still within the "pain-treshold" (anything more expensive, and I would not buy). When I first tried out the website, I could not register, apparently they had some problems with too many people accessing (anyone who said there was no interest for ebooks in Norway?), but after a day, it worked fine. I bought the book, and had to use Adobe Digital Editions to download. This opened the file up, and I could read on my screen. But of course, I wasn't excited about being able to read the book on my MacBook, I wanted it on my iPod Touch.

So I transferred the file through iTunes, opened it in Bluefire Reader, and it worked perfectly. Yay, after so many years, I am finally sitting in Toronto, reading a Norwegian crime novel on my futuristic little device. Amazing. I read about a third of the book this afternoon at a restaurant, waiting for my food (the writing is actually quite poor, but that is not the fault of the technology!)

However, there are some details that still need to be improved. If you download a scanned pirate version of a book, you don't mind artifacts and poor formatting, but if you are paying exactly the same price as this book would cost as a paperback in Narvesen, you expect quality. The two things I noticed were a lot of words that were split with a space, and footnotes that appear in the middle of the text. Examples below:

problem with spaces in the middle of words:

and problem with footnotes in the middle of the text


As you see, these are relatively minor issues, but I don't think anyone would have accepted it if they appeared in a pbook, and I don't think we should accept them in an ebook.

One interesting question becomes where the error appears - is it a problem with the file, or with the ebook reader. However, right now there is only one ebook reader that accepts ADE on iOS, and this reader is recommended on digitalbok.no's pages, so one should expect the books to work with it. Of course, normally I would have opened up the ePub, done a few search+replace or regexps, and fixed the problem, but that's impossible, since the files are encrypted. This also means that it's impossible for me to see if the file is well formatted, and it's Bluefire Reader's problem, or not.

The reader works fairly well, although it enforces a very wide margin, which might work on the iPad, but takes far too much real estate on the iPod Touch. This doesn't seem to be adaptable through settings, which is peculiar, since it has settings for almost everything else (page transitions, etc).

All in all, a great day, and I look forward to reading much more good Norwegian fiction in the future. Of course, once my Kindle arrives in a month or two (apparently there is a crazy backlog), I'll have to figure out how to break the ADE encryption, so I can put these books on the Kindle. Also, next time I am in Sweden, I have to make sure to get a library card, so I can borrow ebooks, rather than having to buy them!

I hope the site is a success, and that other Norwegian publishers follow suit.


Stian HĂ„klev November 25, 2010 Toronto, Canada
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