How to get the most out of library e-books via the right gadget, text to speech, and otherwise

FireVergeWant to hear text to speech from free library books on your 50-mile commute? Even if you own an Android machine and the usual OverDrive app can’t do “read-aloud” unless audiobooks count?

Also, what if you haven’t even bought an e-reading gizmo for library use, but want to? Which model to go with?

In those cases and others, the guidance here is for you. Most tips will work even with low-cost, no-name tablets. But let’s pay special attention to the new Kindle Fire HDXes. They are among the top choices if you care more about reading than about tech and can stomach Amazon’s oft-proprietary ways.

Written for both library staffers and patrons who are passionate about e-books, this document has four parts:

1. An outrageously simplified e-buying guide for book-loving library patrons, although you should Google around for other perspectives. If you are cash-strapped, Nate’s Tablet Reviews is a good source of information and opinions on econo-tablets and e-readers, including those available second-hand for a pittance on eBay or Craigslist. Here, let’s play up the major brands of tablets, best for novices who want good tech support and don’t mind spending more. My seven-inch HDX arrived October 12—a personal purchase, not a review unit—and I’ve already enjoyed my share of hands-on, which some of the pointers ahead will reflect.

2. “Tips on getting the most out of e-books from OverDrive, the main source of public library e-books.”

3. “Psst! Other secrets for Android users: How to enjoy text to speech on ePub library books from OverDrive.”

4. “The 3M Cloud Library app—usable on the Fire and other Android-related machines.” Not just Apple devices and Nooks.

Part One: LibraryCity’s outrageously simplified e-buying guide for book-loving library patrons

Text to speech is missing, as we know, from even the latest Paperwhite E Ink e-readers. Shame on Amazon, given the minor cost of adding “read-aloud.” Doesn’t anyone there care about the Paperwhite’s AWOL aural benefits for commuters, joggers, other exercise fans and people with disabilities, including elderly library patrons with bad eyes?

But the Fire HDX, available now as a $229 seven-inch model in the basic configuration and soon as an 8.9-incher priced at $379 and up, is finally doing read-aloud in style. Since this is a mini guide, let’s prioritize and focus on the HDXes because they are new and hot and likely to please many book-oriented people even if the devices also have fancy multimedia capabilities.

The HDX line’s positives

English-language users can choose from several built-in voices, including the alluring UK-accented “Amy” voice from the Amazon-owned Ivona (audio samples here).

You are no longer stuck with the somewhat juvenile-sounding “Salli” voice. NonEnglish-language users also will like the expanded selection of voices. What’s more, Amazon is offering voiceover features for blind users.

Now throw in a faster processing chip and a somewhat speedier and better-designed Silk Web browser and other amenities—including a screen even sharper than the earlier Kindle Fire HDs—and the seven-inch model looks like a good bet for many library users.

That is especially true of people already wired into Amazon’s e-bookstore, which sells not just books in text but also Audible talking books with human voices (tips here for HDX owners using Audible). Also, the size is just right for reflowable text like the usual Kindle formats even thought the 8.9-inch might might be better for those reading a lot of PDFs or relying on the HDX for Web browsing.

Furthermore, while the HDX prices may scare many library patrons, they may drop; and less advanced Kindle Fires now go for as little as $139 new. What’s more, your library just might lend out e-readers of one brand or another, as is the case with the new Bexar County BiblioTech library in the San Antonio area. Possibly you’ll find that  the HDXes’ screens, tinted a very light vanilla when displaying text in many programs, are a bit more comfortable to read from than the screens of the Nexus machines.

Yes, of course, you can adjust the background colors of reading apps. But you still might appreciate the HDXes’ tint even though  Amazon needs to let users change its exact shade.

Why no mention of Nooks? Serious questions exist about their future and B&N’s in general. As for Kobo, many e-book-lovers are down on the company right now. Kobo’s tablets and E Ink machines like the Aura HD are interesting, but the Kobo retail collection lacks the selection of books that Amazon has. So is Kobo hoping to rope in more titles? Just the opposite, it seemed for a stretch. Amid a porn scare, the company yanked scads and scads of books entrusted to it by small presses. My nonpornographic D.C. newspaper novel got pulled despite a rave review by a Yale lit grad in the Washington City Paper. To Kobo’s credit, it and many other titles were restored. Great! Better filtering of searches and better-designed options for patrons in other respects would have been the real solutions.  I hope they’re in place now.

The big pluses of the HDX rivals like the Nexus 7

Other HDX rivals such as the just-updated Google Nexus 7 are still worth checking out, particularly since most work with library apps and others from the Google Play store, including the app from 3M Library Systems.  The rivals don’t lock you in as tightly to one company’s content, given the ease of installing apps from many sources.

While Fires can run Android apps from rivals, including B&N, typical owners find it easier to stick with Amazon. Then they needn’t download apps from third-party stores and jump through other hoops.

Beyond the aforementioned devices, the world of iPads, iPhones, iPods and other Apple mobile gadgets beckons.

An iPad or other Apple device running the Voice Dream program—for which my favorite voice is the UK-accented “Peter”—offers more text-to-speech-related capabilities than the Fire HDXes do. For example, you can use a slider to pick the exact speed of the speech, not just choose from preset options. Moreover, Apple gives you far, far more apps to select from. Clearly Fire tablets are hardly the only game in town. Lots of choices out there, even before Apple unveils the new iPad and iPad Mini.

Just the same, I’m still not happy with the status quo for library e-books or e-books in general, and not just because of all the technical and commercial restrictions plaguing the world of e-libraries and e-books. America needs two national digital library systems, one public and one academic, with a common catalog and software that’s much easier for library users than the current variety. Aided by a national digital library endowment, this initiative could multiple the number of library books and smarten us up in ways that LibraryCity has explained in detail. Even the best e-hardware can’t make up for all the missing titles and the current complexities of using libraries’ e-book services.

E Ink readers

The big pros: low prices on the whole, long stretches between recharges and screens that many people find more comfortable to gaze at, hour after hour. You can buy a used Kindle Keyboard model for around $60. Maybe less.

Cons: Most E Ink screens are six inches or less and you can’t take notes or move around as quickly from place to place as you can with a tablet. Besides, for me, at least, E Ink machines as a rule don’t offer enough contrast between text and background.

E Ink tech most likely will get much better. But for now, tablets will make more sense for most buyers, and not just because of or in spite of the fact they can do far more than just display books. On both the Nexus and the HDX machines, videos from sources such as Netflix can be dazzlingly realistic. Yes, the HDX devices work great with the Netflix and HBO apps and presumably will also do justice to video from suppliers of library content.

Part Two: And now the tips on getting the most out of e-books from OverDrive, the main source of public library e-books…

OverDrive, the King Kong of the library e-book world, has made good progress even now, both in technology and the selection of books that libraries can choose. Questions abound about e-book prices and the onerous terms that libraries often face from publishers. But much and perhaps most of this mess is beyond OverDrive’s control. Enjoy what you can from your local public library’s limited digital selection. Truly it’s a waste to own an HDX and not download the OverDrive app from the Kindle store—and the same applies to “pure” Android machines that can download the app from the Google Play store.

So here are some OverDrive tips and other thoughts for HDX fans and other users of Android or more-or-less-Android devices—followed by some  pointers for readers with library systems subscribing to the 3M library service, another major one:

Tip #1: Search here to find libraries near you using OverDrive. Also, see MobileRead’s helpful list of libraries offering OverDrive and other services.

Even if your own library system doesn’t subscribe to such a service, it might have agreements with other systems in near-by cities or counties. In addition, for a fee, some library systems allow out-of-town people to sign up for library cards. Seattle’s charges $85 a year and offers Fire-specific tips. Size of the Seattle e-collection a few years back was several thousand books, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s several times that by now. Bexar County hopes to offer subscriptions to paying out-of-towners, and it already offers 10,000 books, to which it wants to keep adding the same number each year—no substitute for national digital library system, but still a help to those without decent e-choices elsewhere.

Tip #2: You can get the OverDrive Media Console for the HDX or other devices by following the links from this page. The Kindle store identifies the Fire app as for the device’s first generation. But it should work on other Fires, including the HDX series. My HDX, at least, apparently had no trouble with the app for first-gen Fires, assuming Amazon didn’t do a second-gen update behind my back. OverDrive’s FAQ for the app is here. Also see another OverDrive page for owners of HDXes and other Androidish machines.

overdriveCloudTip #3: If your library system uses OverDrive, you’ve got several ways of reading an e-book if the publisher allows.

The simplest way in most cases is to pick a book from your library catalog, go to the download page and choose the Kindle option, which sends you to the Amazon site. Familiarize yourself with the Manage Your Kindle page, from which you can direct files to different Amazon tablets and e-readers.

You can also download ePub files of many books from your library’s pages on the OverDrive server and deal with the not-so-easy Adobe DRM. You may need to specify a new password, if you’re an existing user, since hackers cracked the Adobe system. The big problem with Adobe is that it is so, so easy to lose track of passwords as used in your various devices—cellphones, laptops, desktops, tablets, you name it—and in the end the only solution may be to register a new e-mail address.

A third way is to use OverDrive’s cloud-based service, which has been steadily improving but isn’t quite as easy to use as it could be. The cloud service (screenshots) is a useful fall-back if Adobe DRM ruins your life with, say, its limit on how many devices or applications you can use to read your books. Last I knew, the limit was five. You can use OverDrive’s cloud service without Media Console—it works with popular Web browsers on both mobiles and desktops. So you can download a book at your job on a desktop, then read it at home on your HDX or other portable or stationary device.

Tip #4: It’s easy to turn on your HDX’s text to speech, assuming the publisher’s DRM isn’t in the way, while you’re in a book. Tap the center of the screen. Them hit the Aa/view menu and go to More Settings, Including Text to Speech. Make sure TTS is on. Then tap the left-pointing arrow at the bottom of the screen to return to your e-book. Hit the center of the screen. You’ll see the actual TTS menu pop up at the bottom of the screen. For reading basics, go here within the Fire’s Web-based manual on reading, and for a guide to enhancements, including a brief mention of add-on human narration and machine generated text to speech, go here.

Tip #5: You can’t hear the Amy voice and other nondefault ones within the Fire HDX’s built-in e-book app unless you first set up your Kindle for your choice. Swipe down from the top of the screen. Tap Settings, then Device, then Text to Speech, then Download Additional Voices. If you want Amy, tap on the third choice from the top, English (United Kingdom), Amy. Tap the icon at the upper left to return to the previous Text to Speech menu, then go to Default Voice and specify Amy. You’ll also have to make your way back to change the Default Language—to UK English. If you’re using other regional voices different from the one your Fire came with, you’ll have to do similar adjustments within Language. Keep using the left-point arrow at the bottom of the screen to return to the book you were reading.

Tip #6: Not all library books are voice-enabled for the Kindle HDXs, and not all of the read-aloud ones work with all voices, including Amy’s. In fact, none of the particular library books I tested permitted the Amy voice, just a less distinctive male voice. Does she lack a work visa for the States?

An Amazon support rep tells me that the company will be releasing a software upgrade in a month or so without these limitations, which he blamed on licensing arrangements. True? I haven’t verified this.

Tip #7: OverDrive itself offers downloadable nonDRMed public domain books for local public libraries, without any charge or library card needed. if you’re sufficiently technical and want to hear them in the Amy voice or another, you can install  a third-party app to read these books. They are also available, of course, from sites such as Project Gutenberg, Feedbooks, Manybooks.net and the Internet Archive.

What’s the best third-party app? I myself like Moon+ Pro Reader, available to Fire owners from independent stores such as AndroidPIT. What’s more, FBReader is another good choice—you can download FBReader from its site. Then if you’re sufficiently technical, you can add a related text to speech module. Also think about Mantano, which also works with TTS. You can get a free version from Good eReader. Alas, the Amazon store carries Mantano but blocks Fires from using it. Come on, Jeff Bezos. Open up! Most people will still favor the Kindle e-reading app, not wishing to bother with anything else, and beyond that, the Fire hardware and Amazon prices are good enough for you to stop playing games with consumers. Now—if only the Kindle reader would do ePub, the a good way to show openness!

FireBoldTip #8: Before you install a third-party app not sold by Amazon—Moon or FBReader, for example—go to your device’s security setting and allow installation of third-party apps. Swipe downward from the top of the screen. Hit Settings, then Applications. Allow installation of apps from unknown sources.

Careful. Not all stores are necessarily safe from infected software, and some gurus would say simply to avoid the third-party ones. Besides AndroidPIT, another possibility is SlideMe.org. No guarantees about SlideMe, either, and with both, you run the risk of some applications getting confused by the eagerness of the Fires at times to direct you to Amazon’s own store. But to me, the odds are good of no infection threats, given the popularity of the two sites. Furthermore, evil software has hit even places like Google Play. On the Kindle Fire HDX, I’m running Antivirus and Mobile Security, a security app from the official Amazon store. OK. You’ve been warned.

Tip #9: If you’re like me and wish that the HDX machines offered optional all-text bolding of e-books for better visibility, then speak up to Amazon’s tech support or email Jeff Bezos personally (or whoever helps handles his correspondence).

The screenshot shows where Amazon could easily add a Bold button that worked with all fonts. Put it above or to the left of “More Settings.” An A button on the same screen could send people to a menu with other “advanced features,” such as variable paragraph spacing. Look, Jeff—I know you want your software kept simple for newcomers. But in time they’ll be experienced and will want more flexible software than the current Kindle variety.

Tip #10: The HDXes’ Quiet Time Mode, reachable from a pull-down menu in Amazon’s newer version of the HDX software, is helpful if you want to focus on a book rather than let email alerts and others distract you.

Fans of E Ink machines have correctly pointed out that these e-reader-only gizmos can help you focus on the book you’re reading. But with the Quiet Mode reaching the HDXes—an equivalent was already on a Kobo tablet, if I recall correctly—this argument isn’t quite as strong as before.

Tip #11: Amazon’s new Mayday feature lets you call up a tech support staffer and even see her or him via video, but keep your expectations realistic.

The Mayday reps I reached didn’t have actual Fire HDXs in front of them and had to pass me on to other people, contactable by phone but not the magic button. On the positive side, Mayday lets Amazon tech reps walk you through screens related to the issues you call about.  Yes, the screens on your own HDX.

An aside: Might this be the future of library reference or library tech support or mixes of the two? And how much of this will happen at the local level and how much at the national one? Imagine a reference librarian moving a cursor on a user’s screen, or drawing a line. Local librarians could become trusted guides to patrons, not only through Mayday features but also personal blogs—with reader advisories—in some cases. Talk about a way for libraries to differentiate themselves from Google and not just help students with searches but also teach them to do a better job of it!

maydayOn-screen appearances would also be good for answering social-services-style queries from patrons who couldn’t make it into the library in person. No substitute for face to face in these situations if possible. But the more of a personal touch, the better—even if it’s from afar.

Amazon potentially could serve as a contractor to help provide the technological infrastructure, but I’d feel better with at least several companies involved to avoid overreliance on one.

Let the selection process, of course, be both transparent and impartial!

Part Three: Psst! Other secrets for Android users: How to enjoy text to speech on ePub library books from OverDrive

If you own a Kindle Fire HDX, you can hear text to speech on many if not most library books. But what if you’re using a “pure” Android machine? People smart and patient enough are still in luck if the books are in ePub.

1. Make sure text to speech is enabled from the settings of your Android operating system. And if you want a voice sounding better than the built-in ones, consider adding the Ivona speech engine and a voice of your choice, such as Amy. For now, at least, they’re free at the Google Play store. I‘ve also enjoyed the Acapela speech engine, with the “Peter” voice, and the Google store offers both brands.

2 . Delete the OverDrive application—not the same thing as the service, of course—from your Android machine if it’s already there. Or instead follow Laptop Magazine’s tips for changing default app launches in Android. The idea is to get files downloaded from your public library to open up in a file manager rather than OverDrive. I myself did a simple wipe-out on my Nexus 7, although I may later restore OverDrive. I’m just a bit annoyed that the OverDrive app, despite many improvements, still lacks text to speech (different from the ability to play audiobooks, which the app does have).

3. Install the Astro file manager or an equivalent from the Google Play store. The idea is to get files downloaded from the library to open up in Astro rather than OverDrive.

4. Next install the Mantano application. It offers both text to speech capabilities and the ability to deal with Adobe DRM. Alas, the process can be a bit convoluted. Read the official word from a Mantano support rep, who, however, didn’t have the whole story.

5. Try to stick to the Chrome browser for the actual file downloads. My Boat browser didn’t appear to work.

6. From Chrome’s download directory, use Astro to move the book file to one called BOOKS or whatever your choice is. Somehow a file downloaded directly from your library won’t work, at least probably not. You need to copy or move it or otherwise execute a “save”-style process. Oh, the mysteries of bytes or least of Adobe DRM, Mantano and the rest!

7. Fire up Mantano app and tap on the Explore icon at the bottom of the screen. Then go to the directory with a copy of the file downloaded from your public library—the file name will end with .epub. Click on the file, and the book will appear within Mantano.

Note: It’s also possible that the Nook’s built-in experimental text to speech will work with OverDrive books—I haven’t tested it. But last I knew the speech quality was inferior. You’re better off with Mantano and a decent voice like Amy’s.

Part Four: The 3M Cloud Library app—usable on the Fire and other Android-related machines

Perhaps because of Amazon’s ties with OverDrive, its store doesn’t offer the 3M Library app for the Fire, but you can find it elsewhere.

But first, as in the case of FBReader and other applications not at the Amazon or Google store, be sure your system is set up to nonauthorized apps.

Now—on to the 3M app!

1. Read a 3M page—including a look-up link to see if your public library offers 3M books. HDX and other Fire owners can read 3M’s device-specific information here. Also try Amazon’s forum section on the Fire and 3M. Videos on the 3M app are here.

2. From within your Fire or other Android device, just click here to get the software.  (NonFire users of Android can also download the 3M Cloud app from the Google Play store if their devices let them use the store. Yes, this is another app that Amazon Store has blocked the Kindle Fire from downloading, but the just-given link should work fine.)

3. Look within the  download menu of the Fire’s Silk Browser and click on the just-downloaded file. Do the equivalent on other machines.

4. As a last resort, consider reaching an Amazon rep about the installation of the 3M app. While this isn’t exactly high on Jeff Bezo’s list of corporate priorities, the rep just might take pity and help you, as has happened in at least one instance mentioned in an Amazon Fire forum.

Unclear about something above or think I should tweak anything (very possible since as of mid-October, this post is definitely a “first edition”)? Reach me via dr@librarycity.org or the comment box, and I’ll do my best to respond within the limits of a busy schedule, even if you won’t see me, Mayday style, in a video box on the screen. If I’m not able to get to the question, perhaps other visitors can oblige.

Meanwhile, yes, I know this post is around 3,700 words long, and even if I left off the buying advice, it still would go on forever. Sick of all the complexities here? I am! Let’s think about the need for those two intertwined national digital library systems where librarians, rather than vendors with clashing technical standards, will be in control. I’d like librarians and users to be able to care more about books, art, ideas and entertainment in general—and less about the Tower of eBabel, DRM survival tips, text-to-speech advice and other ugly distractions. Please understand that the headline above the post (“How to get the most out of library e-books…”) refers to technical matters, not actual content ones. To address the latter concerns, we need librarians and teachers able to focus on substance.

Update, January 8: I’ve tweaked this post to reflect Kobo’s restoration of titles that it should never have pulled. Thanks, Kobo!

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