History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

02 March 2012

Research: To Ebook or Not to Ebook, That is The Question:

Okay, I admit it: I have thirty two bookcases. There are times when I’d like to have fewer, like when I’m dusting. On the other hand, a big, fat reference book with tons of illustrations is heaven on earth for a historical author.

What’s an author to do? E-readers and e-reading applications – like Kindle, Nook, and iBooks – aren’t known for their ability to showcase illustrations or complex tables, comparing multiple factors. They simply wrap text around the screen, no matter how large the letters or the screen are. Over and over again, until the book reaches the end of its tale.

This means that I read fiction as ebooks but almost no research books in that format. Other people feel the same way: for example, this week’s top ten bestsellers in print were non-fiction while fiction ruled the digital bestsellers.

But I’d love to do research in a digital book and do so whenever I get the chance. For example, biographies are often delightful.

A friend gave me Adrian Goldsworthy’s Antony and Cleopatra. It’s a scholarly examination of their lives, which focuses more on them as political allies than lovers. The prose is so smooth that it reads faster than many novels and one can skip over the maps.

And then there are the classic research tomes – books like Brian Lavery’s Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men, and Organisation, 1793-1815. It saved me more than once when I wrote “Caught by the Tides,” my Regency novella in Beyond the Dark. That story hinges on the naval nuts-and-bolts Napoleon needed to pull off his invasion of England in 1803.

Lavery’s Nelson’s Navy has 350 pages on everything anybody ever wanted to know about anybody’s navy during that era. It’s packed with tons of illustrations, both period and modern recreations, all carefully annotated with their source. Plus, it comes with a full bibliography, footnotes, and index. The only possible complaint is that some of the illustrations could be in color. Oh, and that it might weigh less than four pounds. (Yes, the phrase “door stop” has been used for it.)

But it’s wonderful. I just wish it were an ebook. Then I could zoom it on some of the illustrations – like the photo of the naval cook stove, with the two integrated kettles on top and the oven in the side. (Just how did people use all those handles coming off in all those directions?) Plus, I could carry it with me to read anywhere I went – and never dust it again. (Oh, happy day!)

If I was truly lucky, somebody would turn it into an application for iPads or other tablets. Then it could include videos or animation for some of the drawings, like how a warship’s sails worked. But that’s expensive with a capital E and unlikely to happen for every reference book.

At least Brian Lavery provided a condensed introduction to naval warfare during the Napoleonic era in Life in Nelson’s Navy. At ninety pages long and with no illustrations, it’s available in both paper – and digital.

Thank heaven options are starting to appear.

Reader, do you like your research books in print or ebooks? What would you like your ereader to do better for your research?

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Blogger Meg McNulty said...

When I got my kindle I did buy reference books but I found it quite unusable. Too hard to skip to the relevant bit, to skim and make notes. So kindle is exclusively for fiction except for (like you say) biographies and autobiographies which I would read more like a novel. The big exception is audiobooks on kindle. All my audiobooks are history books. Listening to something like the Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England on audiobook has got me through dull commutes, housework and doing my account.

I like using google books for reference though - because I can search inside which is handy and also e-periodicals from the library.

Everything else is print - and if I really love an audiobook and think it would make a useful reference book for research, I'd buy a print copy!

I wish I had 35 bookshelves - my books are two deep which I hate. Imagine the heating bills you are saving on with all that insulation!

3:01 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

REAL books, 11100000% of the way! At any given point, I have a half dozen research books open on my desk, plus photocopies of articles from other books, plus printouts of web articles, because I need to have my WIP on the screen and can't jump from manuscript screen to a screen where I might have research material, unless I'm quickly looking up a single factoid or two at a given moment. It's just too distracting. Plus, most of the books I need for my research are out of print, and/or are probably not even available in ebook format. If I have multiple sources on my desk, all referencing the same event, how could that possibly work if all the books were on an e-reader? I wouldn't be able to review all of them simultaneously in order to be able to incorporate the info I need.

I have a zillion books, too, and every time I write another nonfiction "royal" book, I seem to purchase dozens more, because it's more convenient for my research needs to buy used copies rather than try to find what I need from a library, especially now that I live in a rural area. Even with interlibrary loans, they want me to pay the postage; plus I'd have to read the book in the short loan time of 3 weeks and, well, research takes more time than that! I've already run out of bookshelf space even though we've been living here for 2 years and I had the shelves built in my library to my specs!

5:57 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

PAPER! I've become addicted to ordering paper copies of historic books from Google Books archives. I like being able to flag things, have multiple books open at once. In fact, I’m working on a post about doing this (first I’m testing all the options for having them printed so I say which one I like best and why).

8:05 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

If it's a new book, I might buy it for my NOOK, but most of the research books that I use for the blog are out of print, or my library only has them in the research section, which means that I have to go back, and sit in the research library if I want to check something. Although I'm drowning in a sea of research books, I would rather have them at my fingertips, full of sticky notes and underlining than on my Nook, where as Leslie pointed out, you can't open more than one book at a time.

Fiction I definitely read on my NOOK.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Charitybloggirl - I'd forgotten about using Google Books's search feature. That saved me once for a courtroom scene. I was only interested in one decade and all the books covered centuries. Ugh.

Audiobooks are awesome. Great thought!

10:13 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Leslie -I want to see your office AND your desk. All those books? Wow!

And I thought I kept a lot of books open at one time while writing...

10:14 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Isobel - I too love being able to flag interesting points. You should my reference books for my westerns!

I'm just a little worried about what happens when I replace the carpet in my office. The thought of packing up all those books is scary. Doable, but scary.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Elizabeth - I think that authors would be lost without sticky notes. No wonder they were invented during a church service; divine inspiration was certainly present. LOL

10:19 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

My research books are definitely all paper! And some of them are so old they are wrapped in tissue and sealed in a ziplock bag until I need them. I haven't counted my bookshelves lately, but as they are in every room in the house the number is rather large.

And like Leslie I have research books open on a long work table next to my desk at all times. I have my printed copies of research articles from the web in sheet protectors in binders sorted by subject i.e. I have every workshop handout, web post and article Isobel has ever done on Regency clothing in volume one of my Regency Clothing Notebook. And I have separate notebooks for men's and women's clothing. In fact I recently made copies of a number of my notebooks for a fellow Regency writer as a Christmas present. That's was all she wanted for Christmas!

I do use my Kindle to read fiction, but for research I too prefer the book in hand approach!

2:22 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Oh, Louisa - I think there's a bunch of authors who'd love to have copies of your Regency notebooks!

I did pull together a notebook about medieval Spanish influences on Texas cattle ranching. Lots of articles, gathered from many different places. It's so much fun to do that kind of research.

5:47 PM  
Blogger Renee said...

I do love my Kindle but not for research. I can't sticky note where I want and find it easily. Let's face it, when I read research, I tend to remember where in the book I need to look for a specific item but can't seem to find it again in an ebook. I also can't seem to make notes and doodles and things in the margin. Maybe I'm old fashioned but research is best done with paper books.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Alison said...


8:29 AM  

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