New developments in Reading Commercial eBooks

The past few months have been eventful in terms of access to commercial eBooks, and most of the changes are positive.

Secure Adobe eBooks Don’t Work

I’ll get the bad news out of the way first. Secure PDF eBooks — some of which were accessible using Adobe Reader 7 and earlier versions — are completely unusable by a blind person using Adobe Reader 8 or 9. IF you have one of the later versions of Adobe Reader, you must read secure pDF eBooks using a program called Digital Editions. For sighted users, this program has nice features, such as the ability to transfer secure eBooks to more computers than before, including mobile devices. However, no portion of Digital Editions talks, not even the installation or registration dialog boxes. Even using a screen reader’s mouse cursor, I can’t read anything — no menus, no buttons, no dialogs, and no text of a secure eBook. I tried the betas of JAWS 10 and Window-Eyes 7 to no avail. I sent a message to access at adobe.com to see whether anyone had any suggestions, but my message bounced twice. Customer service was particularly unhelpful, giving me inaccessible links to pages with videos describing how to open a web case to ask for help. I finally opened a web case, to no avail. So though Accessibility is the first link on the Adobe site, I am forced to conclude that for now, at least, accessibility is a low priority with Adobe.

MP3 Books available from OverDrive

Fortunately, there is excellent news on other fronts. OverDrive has started offering some of its audible eBooks as MP3 files. These are the books you can download from many public library systems. In the past, all OverDrive audiobooks were in protected WMA format, which limited the number of players the books would work with. Books in MP3 format, on the other hand, work with virtually all portable MP3 players. As with WMA eBooks, you can only play these audiobooks on your PC during the lending period — which is typically two or three weeks — and you must agree to delete copies on a portable player after the lending period is over.

Unfortunately, not all libraries using OverDrive offer MP3 books. To find out whether yours does, visit the main page for audiobooks and search for “mp3” using your screen reader’s Find command. You can also examine the combo box where you choose a book format to see whether MP3 is one of the options.

Since I live in a state that offers MP3 eBooks, I tried out the service today. I was able to transfer a six-part book to my Victor Stream with no problems. To do this, create a folder within the $VROtherBooks folder on your Stream, and choose to transfer the book to that folder. You make this choice in OverDrive Media Console (the software used to download OverDrive books, burn them to CD, and transfer them to portable devices). On the screen where you choose which parts to transfer, press the advanced button; you will be on a screen where you can choose the folder you want to use. The great thing about reading an OverDrive book on the Victor Stream is that your place is saved even if you listen to other files. And since all the files are treated as part of one audiobook, assuming you put them in one folder within $VROtherBooks, you don’t have to remember which part you were listening to; you simply select the book and resume where you were last reading.

PAC Mate’s Reader Mode Increases Accessibility of EReader, PDF, and other Formats

Another great development in eBook accessibility is Reader Mode in version 6.1 of the PAC Mate. Reader Mode lets you read using typical word processor commands in document-reading programs where you would ordinarily need to use the JAWS cursor, such as EReader and PDF Reader Mobile by Orneta. In the past, if you wanted to use such a program, you had to switch to the JAWS cursor, read a page, give the command to go to the next page (which often involved switching to the PC cursor, giving the command, and returning to the JAWS cursor), and moving to the top of the screen in order to read it. Using Reader Mode, you still have to give a command to switch pages, but one of the options for Reader Mode is “On with auto top of screen.” When this feature works well, as it does with both programs I mentioned, you read a screen, give the command to go to the next one, read that screen, etc., making reading much easier than before. Here are details of using Reader Mode with the PAC Mate Omni BX and QX. You must be running version 6.1 to use this mode.

EReader allows you to read books in protected and unprotected Palm format. A wide selection is available on both the EReader website and at Fictionwise. Click the EReader pro link and choose the version for “Windows Mobile Smartphone and PocketPC 2003 or Later.” The download is a zip file that includes the EReader software, a program for installing eBooks on your PAC Mate, and a Readme file. Be sure to read the Readme, as it walks you through the installation process in detail.

Once the program and at least one book are installed, open EReader and select a book. It’s best to install only one book to start with because the initial dialog where you select a book doesn’t speak well. If the book is in a secure format, you will need to unlock it with your name and the credit card number you used to purchase it. The dialog for doing this is very accessible. Then the book opens, and you can start reading. The next time you open EReader, you will automatically be focused on the page you were reading when you closed it. There are also menu commands for going to the next page, the first page, the page of your choice, etc.

Orneta’s PDF Reader Mobile does not let you read the secure PDF eBooks discussed above, PDF files that contain only images, or files with certain security restrictions. It does let you read standard PDF documents, however, such as product manuals and company newsletters. It costs about $20, and there is a demo you can try. During the purchase process, I was asked to choose which Smartphone I planned to install it on. I chose one of the HP IPAQ models, but was told by Maria Cristic on the PAC Mate mailing list that it doesn’t matter which device you choose. I had to use the PC to install the version I downloaded, but it is also possible to download a CAB file that you can install directly on the PAC Mate.

A nice feature of this program is that you don’t have to wait for an entire PDF to load before you start reading it; you can read a page as soon as it has been loaded. Depending how much memory is available on your PAC Mate, the program can handle quite long documents. It choked on the 297-page cell phone manual I tried, but was able to handle the 80-page iPod manual. It includes a Save to Text option on the File menu, which can be handy if you plan to use a long file frequently, as the text version will be smaller and will load faster. Like EReader, this program includes commands that let you choose the page you want to read.

Converting PDF to text or HTML on PAC Mate and PC

If you have an earlier version of the PAC Mate, you want a free option, or you want to convert PDF files to text or HTML and don’t care about reading them in PDF format, try PDFMate, created by Ken Parry from Blinksoft. It works with the PAC Mate Omni as well as earlier versions and can handle the same types of PDF files as PDF Reader Mobile. When you open the program, you are in a list of all the pDF documents on your computer. Press Enter, work through the save As dialog, press Enter on the Save button, and the new file is created. I was impressed with how quickly PDFMate converted my 80-page iPod manual to text. I found that for that manual, at least, Jamal Mazrui’s PDF2TXT program for the PC did a much better job organizing the manual in a logical way than either PDFMate or PDF Reader Mobile. So if you have access to a PC, I would recommend this program; it’s simple to use, extremely fast, and good at figuring out the structure of most documents. But if you need to read a PDF and don’t have a PC handy, either of the PAC Mate options is a good choice.

In short, it’s wonderful to see the number and type of reading materials available expand. I hope the trend continues.

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