The best ways to buy and read books on iPhone and iPad
1st Jul 2012 | 07:00
A guided tour of the options you have for reading books on iOS
How to buy books for iPhone and iPad
Your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch can let you video chat with someone on the other side of the world, identify and then tell you all about each pinprick of light in the night sky, and create astonishing works of art; and so we sometimes forget that you can use it to read books.
And that's a shame, because an iOS device is a wonderful thing to read on, whether you're snatching a few paragraphs of a trashy page-turner on the Tube (shhh; no-one has to know!), finally getting round to reading some classic Dickens or settling down with a sense of joyful anticipation to devour the latest novel by your favourite writer.
Here, we'll take you on a guided tour of the options you have for reading books on iOS, making sure you spend your money wisely, and helping you discover great places from which to stock your virtual shelves. We'll make sure you understand the different formats, how to take advantage of reading ebooks, and give you tips on getting the most from your reading, wherever you are.
We'll be concentrating mostly on the big apps and stores: iBooks from Apple, Amazon's Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook app. But there's some great stuff in smaller apps too, so we're not going to ignore them.
Pick the best store
On one hand, it doesn't really matter on any practical level; all three stores have apps that run on iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, and so it's easy to pay a few quid/bucks and be reading a few seconds later.
There are, though, things you should think about when choosing your store; the decision is an important one, since you're buying into a whole ecosystem; especially in the case of the Kindle and Nook platforms, which have their own dedicated e-readers; not just some holiday reading.
Sure, you can mix and match, there's no harm in having iBooks, Kindle and Nook installed on all your devices for you to jump between as you read, but knowing what we're about to tell you will help you make good decisions for now and in the future.
One decision might be made for you; unless you're in the US, there's currently no practical way to buy books for the Barnes & Noble Nook. You could muck about with proxies or vouchers or a willing stooge in the States, but we don't really think it's worth the hassle. The Nook is likely to come to the UK this year, but until then, those of us outside the US should buy from Apple and Amazon.
An obvious differentiator is price. Even if, by the end of this page, you've decided to buy most of your books for Amazon Kindle, say, you should still have a shop around to see where a book you want is cheapest.
Overall, it's been our experience that Apple is the most expensive of the big three stores and Amazon the cheapest, but the difference is often negligible; at the time of writing, a selection of 10 books from the New York Times best-seller list in total cost $13.23 more on iBooks than on Kindle, a difference of only 15%.
That said, we've seen much, much bigger differences in price with some individual titles, so do take a minute to see if buying from another store will save you a decent chunk of change.
Amazon also has the handy Deal of the Day, where there are some gems, but mostly it's not the best sellers.
The Apple way
Apple's iBookstore has two advantages over its rivals. One is that it's a little simpler to buy from.
Because Apple insists on taking a 30% cut from anything sold inside apps (and doesn't even allow, say, the Kindle app a button that says "Buy books" that launches its online store in Safari), on most reading apps on iOS you have to buy books through a web browser; this unlocks them for your account and then you download and read them through an app.
Apple, of course, can do things a bit differently, and there's a Store button right at the top of your bookshelf. This makes it just a little simpler to buy from, you do it all from inside one app; but it would be shortsighted to opt for iBooks as a platform just because it took a couple of taps fewer to buy a new book.
iBooks' second advantage is that publishers can create much richer books, with videos, interactivity and more, using Apple's free iBooks Author app, and you can only read these in the iBooks app; there are relatively few such books around, but they're likely to become more common.
Think about the supported devices too. Sure, since you're reading Tap!, you probably care most about compatibility with iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, and all three stores have Universal apps that work on all devices, but because every store wraps their books in Digital Rights Management gunk that means you can only read them on officially sanctioned devices, it's wise to plump for a store that has as broad a range of apps and services as possible.
The big loser here is iBooks. It only has apps for iOS; you can't even read your books on a Mac. In the middle is Barnes & Noble, which makes apps for Android, Mac and PC as well as iOS and its own hardware readers. Amazon gets it most right. As well as supporting everything that Barnes & Noble does, it also has apps for Blackberry and Windows Phone, and you can even go to read.amazon.com to access your library through a web browser.
Admittedly, the list of supported web browsers is comparatively small: Firefox 6+, Chrome 11+, Safari 5+ on Mac/PC, and iPad; but while other things might get in the way, we like the idea of buying a book for our iPad, say, and then being able to snatch a few chapters on your office PC over lunch even if you've forgotten to bring you iPad in with you.
We'd recommend Kindle or Nook as well because each platform has its own standalone readers, ones that use E-Ink. Now, you know we love the iPad and iPhone, but there are times when an E-Ink device such as the £89 Kindle or $99 Nook Simple Touch is just better for reading. They're light, robust, have batteries that last for many days or weeks depending on how much you use them, and best of all are easy to read in sunlight.
In fact, because their E-Ink screens look (disconcertingly at first!) like a printed page, the brighter the light, the clearer the page looks. iOS devices are much more flexible, rich and capable devices overall, but if you're heading to the beach for a holiday, throwing a full-charged Kindle in your bag would be a good move; it's great that you can buy a book once, and read it on your iPhone, your PC, your Kindle and much more.
Ultimately, then, our recommendation is to go with Amazon. The choice is superb, prices competitive, and there's scarcely a device around on which you cannot read its books. Yes, ideally, books would be completely free of DRM and the latter reasons wouldn't figure in any decision, but that's not the situation we're in now!
Apps compared: Kindle vs iBooks vs Nook
The Amazon Kindle app isn't as pretty as iBooks, but we love it because of the option to share snippets on social networks.
Found a witty line or want to mark an important line in an academic textbook? Tap and hold on a word in the text then drag the blue handles to select the text you want, then tap Highlight.
If you want to add notes to your book, select a relevant bit of text using the technique described in 01 then tap Note in the pop-up; write in your note, which will be synced to all your Kindle apps and devices.
Tap and hold on just one word and a definition pops up on the screen. If you don't have a dictionary installed, the app will prompt you to download one for free, and we recommend you do.
You can tap on the centre of the screen to show or hide a range of icons and controls 'Äì such as this one that shows you how far through a book you are. You can grab this little slider to move forward or back.
05. Go to
Tapping this icon brings up options for navigating around the book. You can go to the cover, the beginning, a table of contents, and the option of jumping directly to a page-number-like Location.
One of the great things about digital books is that you can search them. Can't remember quite where a fact was or when a character said something in particular? Tap and search!
07. Display options
Tap this icon and you can change the size of the text, the colour of the text and the paper, how bright the screen is and, when you're in landscape, whether text is shown in one or two columns.
If you read something you think your friends and followers would enjoy, highlight it here and then you can share it on Twitter and Facebook. Once you start doing this you'll love this feature!
iBooks is certainly the prettiest of the ebook apps; check out out that lovely analogue feel that the highlighter pen has.
If there are passages that you especially enjoy, tap and hold then drag the blue handles to select it, then tap Highlight in the pop-up. Uniquely, you can pick from five colours for highlights, and also underline.
Notes work similarly to highlights. Select your text and then tap Note to scribble down an annotation. To see it again, either tap the highlight ; which can be the same or a different colour to straight highlights, and then tap the note icon in the pop up, or tap the note icon in the margin.
Tap and hold on a word in the text, and iBooks will either slide up (iPhone) or pop up (iPad) a definition for you from iOS' built-in dictionary.
This line at the bottom of the page (which you hide and show, along with other icons on the screen, by tapping in the centre of the screen) shows you how far through a book you are; you can grab the little handle to skip forwards or back.
This button takes you to the contents listing for your book, and also lets you see a list of all the Notes and Highlights you've made in it, plus a list of any bookmarks you've added.
Even with turned-down pages and a rainbow of highlighters, it can be easy, with a real book, to lose important bits of a book. Happily, you can search through an ebook in a blink of an eye; tap this icon!
07. Display options
iBooks offers the most options for changing the font your book is displayed in. As well as system defaults such as Georgia and Times New Roman, there are some very elegant serifs and Seravek, a fresh sans-serif. Here you can also change the visual theme, the size of the text and the screen brightness.
The Nook app isn't particularly pretty, but you can configure your own colour themes if you don't like the defaults.
If you've found a bit of your book that you want to be able to find again later, highlight it just like you would with a fluorescent marker. Tap and hold on a word and then drag the blue handles at either end to select the text you want to highlight, then tap the icon in the pop-up.
Sometimes, a highlight isn't enough, and you want to do the equivalent of scribbling a note in the margin; that's what notes are for. Select your text as in 01, then tap Notes and write in what you want.
If you come across an unfamiliar word, don't reach for your dictionary, just tap and hold on it and then tap Define. As with iBooks, you can also chose to search that word on Wikipedia or the web.
As you read through your book, your progress is shown in this bar at the bottom, and you can quickly slide to a different part of the book by grabbing this little slider.
Tap here to see a full table of contents for your book, plus a basic list of all the bookmarks and annotations you've added as you've gone along.
We love how easy it is to search ebooks rather than frustrated flicking through pages of a real book. Just tap this magnifying glass and type in the thing you're looking for.
07. Display options
Nook actually offer you lots of options for the layout of your book. As well as a range of fonts and sizes, you can set line spacing, margins and the theme. If you don't like the preset themes, you can create and save your own.
Other places to get books for iOS devices
Of course, you're not limited to Apple, Amazon and Barnes & Noble when you want to get books. There are many dozens of other stores, and in lots of cases you can buy directly from favourite publishers too. (Romance giant Mills & Boon, for example, is enjoying huge success with ebooks; they're cheap, people read lots of them and we suspect they're attracting a new audience that likes not having to display a bodice-ripping cover to fellow commuters!)
Many stores have a section of free books; most are the same selection of public-domain works whose copyrights have expired, but that's a great opportunity to catch up with some classics. (Plus, don't spend money you don't need to; the complete Sherlock Holmes could cost you as much as £15.99 on Amazon's website but you can legally get it for free.)
Don't assume that you'll be able to read ebooks purchased even from big-name stores on your device, though. They'll be wrapped in DRM, and not all systems are compatible. Waterstones, for example, says that its ebooks aren't compatible with iOS at all.
Here, though, are just a few of the places you should check out:
The Kobo system is similar to the Nook and Kindle: a store selling books for its dedicated E-Ink and Android-powered readers, with apps for iOS, Android and Blackberry. It partners with WHSmith in the UK, though, so if you want to comfort of a known brand, it's worth considering.
With a web view and dedicated Universal app for iOS, Google Play lets you buy commercial books and grab lots of public domain books for free. We like that it can translate on the fly too.
The daddy of public domain works. Stuff your device with Bronte, Dickens, Conan Doyle and more without spending a penny.
A slew of public libraries have joined a project to let you borrow ebooks for free. Grab the Universal, free OverDrive Media Console app and sign in with a free Adobe ID to see if any libraries near you are part of the scheme.
One notable omission from all stores is the Harry Potter series. If you want to read the adventures of the boy wizard, you need to go direct to this new J.K. Rowling website.
And there are loads of independent publishers and ebook stores too, and some of them sell books without DRM; iBooks, for example, can read anything in DRM-free EPUB. The stores are everything from big independents such as diesel-ebooks.com to self-publishing platforms such as smashwords.com.
More great reading apps
Works with: iPhone, iPod touch, iPad
The Opuss app actually sits in the Social Networking category of the App Store, and that's because it really is closer to, say, a long-form Twitter client than a book.
The idea is that, as a writer, you can write little stories, journal entries, poems or indeed pretty much anything you like, assign it to a category, and push it out to your community of followers. Of course, what this means for you as a reader is the opportunity to browse and snack on short-form literature.
Well, that may be making it sound grander than it actually is, but if you can right the right people to follow, Opuss could be a really rewarding network. It might sound a little too much like Twitter to bother with, but it does have editing tools that you don't get with Twitter or any of its varied clients for iOS devices.
Malcolm Tucker: The Missing iPhone
Works with: iPhone, iPod touch
The Missing iPhone is a glorious interpretation of what a book could be on an entirely new platform. While some books evolve the format by adding interactive elements and multimedia content, this throws the idea of media placed on nice, finite, browsable pages out entirely, and creates something wonderful.
Of course, it helps if you already know the characters and backstory from the sweary BBC series The Thick Of It, but anyone can appreciate the innovative narrative structure.
The conceit is that you've found the phone of government spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker, and through exploring emails, documents, and voicemails voiced by the original cast pinging onto your iPhone as the story unfolds, you're given a glorious, immersive experience like no other.
Works with: iPhone, iPod touch
Movellas is similar to Opuss - though nowhere near as lovingly crafted - but here the emphasis is squarely on sharing and reading stories by aspiring authors.
Of course, you run the risk of exposing yourself to some frankly turgid writing, not to mention embarrassing teen fiction, hopeless fan fiction and other vagaries of the internet world. But there are gems too, and there's something to be said for the delight of finding exciting, touching, fresh and - above all - original stories from authors who haven't yet broken into the publishing world proper.
It could be the literary equivalent of being into a band long before they were famous: "Yeah, I was there at the opening of the first chapter, actually…"
Ladybird Classic Me Books
Works with: iPhone, iPod touch, iPad
We've steered away from kids' books and comics in this issue, but there was one that we just couldn't skip over. For those of us of a certain age, the paintings that brighten up Ladybird books, and the (sometimes odd and old-fashioned, to modern eyes) stories that they tell are incredibly resonant. Now they can come to life even more with Ladybird Classics.
Kids can either read the books on their own, have them read-aloud by a narrator, or parents can record themselves reading the stories; all the kids have to do is tap on the text. Even better, you can draw tap zones on the picture and record sounds for them too, making the three little piggies squeal, for example!
The pages have all been scanned in from old copies to to give them a real vintage feel!
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Works with: iPad
Take one part children's book, one part Pixar adventure, mix well, and what you get is The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. Designed by an ex-Pixar illustrator and animator with his colleagues at Moonbot Studios, it's a lovely example of what books might be in the future.
Each page has some fun interactive elements that you can play with and the whole experience is charming.
Works with: iPhone, iPod touch
Sure, all Free Books really does is gather together works that you could get online for free from places like Project Gutenberg and stuff them into an app, but the interface is polished, though, irritatingly, the typography and layout of the actual books could use some love and it makes it easy to browse by genre, author and more.
It can also quickly and easily import books in EPUB format; it hooks into Dropbox, so it's a simple matter to drop files into the Dropbox folder on your computer and read them here. There's a sister £1.49 app for free audiobooks, however.
Al Gore - Our Choice
Works with: iPhone, iPod touch, iPad
Built on a platform created by some superb designers Al Gore - Our Choice has interactive info graphics, videos and more. And of course, the subject matter of dealing with man-made climate change is important too.
Works with: iPhone, iPod touch, iPad
You can't - well, shouldn't - read books when you're driving, so an app like this one is a great idea. Now, you can of course buy audiobooks from places such as iTunes, but here you can get audiobooks without spending a penny.
The idea is that volunteers all over the world record stories that are in the public domain, such as Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island and the Sherlock Holmes stories, then release those recordings into the public domain.
The quality is surprisingly high, and though the selection is limited to a little over 3,500 classic works, it's still worth exploring. Of course, you can always contribute yourself, too - just put on your best speaking voice.
Ebook formats explained
It's easy to forget, since they're essentially just big text files, that ebooks come in certain formats just like movies or photos, and that you need to understand them to make sure you don't get a book you can't read.
The most popular ebook format at the moment is EPUB. EPUB is essentially just an agreed-on set of rules that uses a flavour of HTML to style and structure a book. It's an open standard, but that doesn't mean that an EPUB book bought from, say, Apple (the standard format for its iBooks app), could be opened on a Sony eReader.
And that's in part because books sold now are usually wrapped in DRM. Lots of stores use Adobe Digital Editions as a middleman to deal with DRM, but there's no native support on iOS. Some apps such as OverDrive, implement it themselves.
The upshot is that while you can load a non-DRM'd EPUB into an app such as iBooks, you're safest to open books in their store's dedicated reader. But while Nook and iBooks use DRM'd EPUB, Amazon uses a variant of Mobipocket called AZW.
Often, sites such as Project Gutenberg that allow you to download books in a range of formats. For more detail about which formats are supported on your device take a look at the table on Wikipedia.
Syncing and sharing
Unless you're reading along with a child, reading is usually a solitary pursuit; you immerse yourself in the world the writer has created, and wander it alone, watching the characters and places through just your eyes.
But if you've enjoyed a book, you want to share it with others, either by actually loaning them the whole book, or by telling them about it. So we'll show you how it's possible to do all this!
All the big three apps allow you to do four basic, but pretty awesome things: highlight passages you like, add notes and bookmarks and have all these sync in that book across all your devices.
Additionally, without you doing anything, Kindle, iBooks and Nook will sync where you are in your book across all your devices too, so that if you stop reading a book on your Kindle before you go to sleep, for example, and then head out the door for work the next morning with your iPhone, you'll be at the same place in the Kindle app on your iPhone as you were on your Kindle. (Caveat: you need an active data connection to sync your place, so if your commute means you'll be out of range of a mobile or Wi-Fi signal, open the app once on your device while you still have a connection to the internet.)
The Kindle app (and Amazon's range of e-readers) has an extra trick: when you select a chunk of text, you get the option of sharing it on Twitter and Facebook. Friends will be able to see the text you selected, as well as links to the book on Amazon. Sure, you are in some sense acting as a shill for Amazon to sell more books, but there's real value in the act of curating and recommending books to friends.
If you want to share more of a book than just a sentence or two, you have some options; sadly, though, not all of them work in all territories or even for all ebooks.
Barnes & Noble and Amazon let you loan ebooks to friends that you have bought; books transfer to your friend for a fortnight, you cannot read it while they have it, and then return to you after that time.
There are, though, limitations; first, this is US only, and second, books have to have lending enabled, and only a subset do. Publishers control whether or not a book can be loaned. You can get round the first bit if you live outside the States by naughtily adding a US address to your Amazon account, but the second bit is insurmountable without getting your hands dirty in cracking DRM.
Happily, there's a simpler solution, though it's really only suitable for close friends and family. Say you and your partner want to read the same ebooks; it's easy to associate a Kindle or Nook app with just one account on two or more devices, so you can all see the same library. You might want to turn off the syncing-to-the-furthest-place feature, though, if you plan on reading the same book, or you'll be jumping about all over the place!
With iBooks, just associate each device with the same Apple ID (even doing so just temporarily) in Settings > Store, and then you can re-download the same books from that single account. The same goes for apps, by the way!
Read the best of the web on your device
You could spend a lifetime doing nothing but reading books and still not scratch the surface of humanity's accumulated wealth of knowledge and emotion, but sometimes the idea of committing to a whole novel is a daunting one.
And yet you still want quality writing, and to feel the fizz of new ideas and the joy of a well-turned sentence. Happily, the web is here to help. There is an astonishing, gratifying quantity of great writing on the web, writing that can inspire, entertain and delight.
We're not talking about a news snippet here or even the pithiest blog entry there; we're talking about proper, considered journalism. Small essays, treatises, explorations of ideas and context for what's going on in the world.
There are, of course, two problems with this. The first is that as you're pottering around the web while you're working, you rarely have the opportunity to take the time to read these so-called long-form pieces when you come across them or when friends recommend them to you. And the second is that with all the cacophony of the internet, it can be really hard to find this great writing.
One of the most revolutionary ideas on the iPhone and iPad is exemplified by Instapaper. The idea of Instapaper is quite simple: whenever you find an article online that you think you want to read but don't quite have the time for right now, you send that article to Instapaper. Install the apps on your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch and those articles will be saved on your device, you can even read them if you don't have an internet connection, so it's a great way to fill, say, a commute on the Tube with fresh, exciting writing.
What's more, just the text of your article is saved, so you can read free from the distraction of all the other stuff on its webpage.
Insta good reads!
To add articles to Instapaper, you can install a little bookmarklet (there are instructions on how to do this on instapaper.com; it' really simple!) and then click it in your web browser. Alternatively, if you have copied the link on your iOS device, launch Instapaper and it will offer to add it.
Lots of apps such as Twitter clients let you quickly send links to services such as Instapaper too. There are alterantives too, such as Pocket, the renamed app for ReadItLater.
Get the most from reading on iOS
Here's one last bit of reading for you before you snuggle down with your book: our essential tips for reading.
01. Check out Audio books
Don't forget about audiobooks too; load up your device with modern blockbusters, classics you've never gotten round to, and inspirational guides and memoirs, and every jog, every bedtime, every hitherto dull drive to work becomes filled with delight and fasciation.
You can, of course, buy audiobooks on CD and then rip them to your PC or Mac in iTunes, technically still illegal, but bodies such as the BPI, speaking through its chairman, have said: "We will not sue you for filling your iPod with music you have bought yourself, but it's easier to buy them in ready digital formats."
Apple has partnered with Audible, so there's now an audiobooks section in the iTunes Store. You can still buy direct from Audible, however, and we're forever seeing Audible trying to get you to sign up by offering you a free audiobook, so have a search around to see if you can get in on that deal.
Reading in the dark? Try turning your screen's brightness down; go into the Settings. iPad owners can also double-press the Home button and swipe left to right.
03. Invert the screen
Most reader apps offer a dark mode. If yours doesn't, fake it by making a triple-press on the Home button invert the screen in Settings > General > Accessibility.
04. Airplane Mode
Toggle Airplane mode in Settings to ensure you're not interrupted with calls, notifications or the temptation to check Twitter every two minutes!