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manybooksnet Today TeleRead talks to Matthew McClintock, the spirit behind manybooks.net. Matt is the Director of Web Services for Columbia College, Chicago, the largest arts and media college in the U.S.; manybooks is one of his private interests.

Q. Can you please tell us about the genesis of manybooks.net? Does it have anything to do with “satisfying both my nostalgia and my burning desire to become a total geek,” to cut ‘n’ paste a line from your personal Web site?

Loves gizmos, e-reading—and well-organized collections

A. My reasons for starting may be different from the various reasons I have for continuing, but the short answer is that I love reading; I like gadgets; and it’s hard to browse collections of etexts in the way you browse a library or bookstore, if you’re surrounded by unfamiliar authors and titles.

It would be interesting to run a poll and discover what visitors to manybooks.net find most useful, but I can tell you what I’ve tried to add to the texts made available by Project Gutenberg and others: categorization, special formats, and some links between books of a series. I’ve also tried to make the individual files seem more like books, with cover art and publication dates.

How Matt started

So, how did I get started? I read P.G.’s Mirroring How-To then downloaded the DVD, eventually figured out rsync, and … well, it’s an ongoing process. Suffice it to say I became enmeshed in figuring out how to convert text files into a variety of different formats for different devices, so that folks who weren’t inclined (or who couldn’t figure it out) could read a book or two.

The first thing I did was set up a few Palm PDA formats, since that was what I used at the time. Doc, iSilo, Plucker, each with their own requirements and display capabilities. I’ve added new formats over time, most of which I’ve used myself, at least for a little while. I like having a variety of things to read with me at all times. That’s a big motivator – the huge selection of different kinds of fiction that I can carry with me; I’ll never be bored again (if the battery holds out!).

PHPH, MySQL among other draws

This feels like we’re getting further and further away from an answer to your question – I keep finding myself back at “I like to read” and “Gutenberg was hard to browse”, but that seems unnecessarily critical of the wonderful PG, and it doesn’t touch on what really got manybooks rolling. I liked the challenge, it was easy to mess about with PHP, and MySQL, and rsync, it didn’t cost anything, and I could learn a little. All good stuff. Plus I might help folks out a bit – both readers and authors, once I learned about Creative Commons.

Insurance against censorship

Q. It’s intriguing that information technology has reached the point where a single Mac Mini in a private house can deliver thousands upon thousands of books to readers all over the world. The Web has blown all our notions about conventional publishing, and the dissemination of knowledge, to smithereens. Once someone has downloaded a file from Project Gutenberg, or indeed from manybooks, there is no knowing how many further copies are made and read. That’s got to be a good thing for everybody. The more informed and educated the populace, the less chance there is of it being tyrannized. Do you have any ideological motives for manybooks, or does it just appeal to your sympathies for the Open Source movement?

A. I haven’t thought about it in that way – but each copy of a file is insurance against its suppression. The public domain is a valuable resource that is protected by being disseminated as widely as possible.

Perhaps my esteem for Open Source programmers stems from their acknowledgement that they’re “standing on the shoulders of giants” – that software, like fiction or scholarship, isn’t created in a vacuum, and without the work of our predecessors we wouldn’t have the building blocks that have gone into current works. The public domain is, in some ways, the common source code for our contemporary fiction, etc.

Software and books: ‘Some sympathies in common’

There’s no exact parallel between software and books, public domain and open source, but they have some sympathies in common.

So, bringing things back down to earth, I hope to make e-books more easily browsed, discovered and enjoyed on a variety of devices, and that those books will be passed along and preserved; and that they’ll always be available as inspiration for our contemporaries.

The eBabel question

Q. What do you feel about the current “rats’-nest” of e-book formats? Do you plan to add epub to your format options?

A. Frankly, as a reader I find the “rats’-nest” completely ridiculous. I’d like to be able to buy a book and read it – from paper, on my phone, on my iLiad – without having to consider whether the “thing” I’m purchasing (an eReader file, a PDF, a paperback, a CD, a digital-license to perform, etc.) can be converted/copied/interpreted. I’d like to be able to read, without wrestling with multiple applications, conversion routines, licenses, and myriad restrictions.

HOWEVER: I’ve found that wrestling to be kind of fun, at least at first, while running manybooks. It’s a puzzle. If, by figuring out some of the puzzle I help someone else read a bit without the aforementioned hassle, that’s great.

I’m not for or against any particular format, and I’m happy to consider epub or any other new format that shows up. The best formats are those with wide support on the reader side, and formats with open/free tools are the easiest to work with. Right now epub is a little light on the reader side – FBReader has partial support, I think, Mobipocket converter can import it but the actual reader can’t handle it on its own, and Adobe’s Digital Editions is desktop only (and I’m partial to portable/mobile devices). But it is an open standard, and shouldn’t require any specific conversion tools, which is really appealing. Maybe someday I’ll be able to read an epub document on my iPhone, my desktop computer, etc. – after buying the physical version from Amazon.com.

[Moderator's note: FBReader works great with .epub from Feedbooks.net despite the app's lack of CSS support. May Matt add .epub soon! - David.]

Will let manybooks.net evolve at its own speed

Q. Do you have any solid plans for manybooks? Or are you just happy to let it evolve at its own speed?

A. I don’t have any solid plans, aside from keeping manybooks going and trying to make it useful, and the books available in as many formats as possible. I’d like to add some way for folks to keep a bookshelf of their favorite books, perhaps keep a log of their reviews/thoughts on each text that they could share with the world.

There are still bugs and unfinished bits (I’ve got to get the custom HTML page to store settings for the next visit, for example), and the overall design could be nicer, etc.

Q. Well, if we may say so we think the design is pretty neat already: clean, open, easy to navigate. Thank you, Matt, for sharing your thoughts with TeleRead, and thank you for manybooks.net. An army of readers has cause to be grateful for your labors and your enthusiasm. Long may manybooks continue to thrive!

[Moderator: Amen!]

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