Ebooks and Ereaders

How to read ebooks, 2015 edition, Part 1: iOS

A while back I did a series of posts about how to read ebooks. But this is a fast-moving technology, and a lot of what I said in those posts is now no longer precisely true. So since digital books continue to be highly relevant to my interests (because hi, yeah, Victory of the Hawk and Bone Walker are both now available in digital form!), I wanted to do some newer posts to reflect my updated understanding of your options if you want to read books in digital form.

This post will focus on reading on iOS. Subsequent posts will cover Android, desktop computers, what your current options are for dedicated ereading devices, ebook subscription services, and checking ebooks out from the library. I’ll add other topics by request or as I think of them.

And this post is long, so most of it will go behind a fold!

If your device is new enough to run iBooks

If you’ve got a reasonably new phone or iPad, chances are high you’ve got the iBooks app on it. This will in some ways be the easiest way for you to read books on your device–but there are a couple of caveats.


  • iBooks will let you buy ebooks directly from the iBooks store, and if your device is connected to the Net, you can buy a book and get it onto your device in pretty short order.
  • If your computer is a Mac running Mavericks or Yosemite, you’ll also have iBooks on your computer, and anything you add to iBooks there will sync to your phone or iPad. Also, any DRM-free EPUBs or PDFs you buy from other sources besides the iBooks store can be manually added to iBooks on your computer, and those books will sync to your device.


  • Apple has its own proprietary DRM. So if you’re inclined to organize your library outside any vendor-specific apps, such as in Calibre, be aware that you won’t be able to read any DRMed titles from the iBooks store outside iBooks. (This would be why I limit my purchases in the iBooks store to known DRM-free publishers, such as Carina or Tor or Angry Robot.)

If your device and/or computer is not new enough to run iBooks

Before Apple deployed the iBooks app, you could use iTunes itself to handle books. If you’re running an older Mac, or if your phone or iPad is older than iOS 8 (which is when they integrated iBooks into the OS), this is what you’ll need to do in order to sync books down to your device. You can manually add EPUBs and PDFs to iTunes on older systems, similarly to how you do it in iBooks on newer ones.

I’m a big, big fan of Calibre and generally recommend it for all your ebook managing needs–but it can be daunting to new users. If you’re feeling ambitious, though, instructions on how to get your Calibre install to talk to iTunes are here. Note that this is really only an option for Windows machines running Vista or later, OR Macs running OS X builds older than Mavericks.

If your computer is a Windows computer

If you’re not actually a Mac user, and you want to sync books down to your iPhone or iPad, you can also use the Windows build of iTunes to do this–similarly to how older Macs do it.

See previous commentary re: Calibre, though. If you’re on a Windows system, you can still use Calibre to talk to iTunes if you don’t want to go through iTunes yourself.

If you don’t want to use iTunes or iBooks to manage your books

If you want to read on your iPad or iPhone and you don’t want to use iBooks at all, you do have a couple of other options.

Goodreader is a PDF-reading app with a decent history. And while Stanza used to be the go-to iOS app for reading ebooks, it basically imploded when Amazon bought them. Marvin is what I keep hearing about as a spiritual successor to Stanza, so you might check Marvin out as a possible means of managing your books on your device, particularly if you have Calibre on your computer.

Other vendors that have apps you can use on iOS

There are of course several other major ebook vendors that have iOS apps, and you can use those as well as a possible means of reading ebooks. It just depends on who you want to buy your ebooks from. But as with the iBooks store, if you commit to buying from one specific vendor, you’re pretty much locked into buying all your ebooks from that vendor unless you’re willing to go through the necessary trouble to manage your books outside their ecosystems.

If you don’t want to go to that trouble, though, Amazon, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble all do have apps that run on iOS. They are your top contenders for ways to read ebooks on those devices with reasonably little effort on your part.

The main issue in this scenario is if you happen to buy any books outside those ecosystems–for example, if you buy any books directly from indie authors, or directly from publishers. You’ll want to figure out how to get those books into your apps.

Amazon has a nifty Send to Kindle app that you can use to send files to an actual physical Kindle–OR to Kindle apps running on iOS, if you’ve got one registered on your iOS device. The Mac build of Send to Kindle is here. The PC build is here. (Note: before you use Send to Kindle, you may need to convert a book to MOBI format first. I’ve had it refuse to send EPUBs. But as long as the file is DRM-free, Calibre can take care of converting it for you.)

However, iTunes can also come into play here for sideloading directly into any of these apps. Try this:

  1. Plug your device into a USB port on your computer so iTunes can see it.
  2. When iTunes sees the device, click on it.
  3. Go to the Apps list for your device.
  4. Scroll down–you should see a File Sharing area.
  5. On the left is a list of apps that are allowed to share files with your device, and on the right, an area where you can drag and drop files, or use the Add button to add files.
  6. On my devices I have the Kindle, Nook, and Kobo apps all available–but your mileage may vary depending on what you have installed.
  7. You should be able to send the target file types to the Kindle, Nook, or Kobo apps. Kindle will be happiest with MOBI, while the Nook and Kobo apps should happily talk to EPUB. You may wish to experiment with all three if some of your ebooks are PDFs.

My overall recommendations

If you’re primarily an iOS user, by far the easiest thing for you to do would be to just buy your ebooks from the iBooks store. Apple’s got iBooks talking to countries worldwide, so chances are good you can just jump right into the iBooks store wherever you may be.

If you also happen to own a dedicated ereader in addition to whatever iOS device you have, you’ll probably want to install the appropriate app on your iOS device and use that. If you have a Kindle, install the Kindle app. If you have a Nook, install the Nook app. If you have a Kobo device, install the Kobo app. The advantage here will be that you can easily keep the app synchronized with the files on your device. This will be almost as easy as dealing with iBooks, and you can still manage your library via one app on your iOS device.

If you don’t want to restrict yourself to buying from one store, though–particularly if you buy from indie authors or from digital publishers that can sell files directly to you–then I recommend you use either iBooks or Calibre to manage your library on your computer. If your only mobile device is an iOS device, you can probably get by with just using iBooks, since iBooks cheerfully talks both EPUB and PDF.

But if you’re likely to need to deal with MOBI as well, get Calibre and use that.

Let me know if you have any questions!

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