Author: Elliot Page
Elliot Page hasn't written a profile yet. That's ruddy mysterious...
Kindle, Nook, Kobo
Let’s start with the 800lb gorilla, shall we? Amazon’s Kindle is perhaps the widest known name when it comes to eBooks, although arguably its pre-eminence has been chipped away over time and now it it not quite the overbearing force it once was. The Kindle has been selling digital manga for a long time at this point, from initial stuttering experiments (which were highly variable in quality) to a more established, mature ecosystem.
The most obvious benefit of the Kindle is that with few exceptions and no matter your device, there is a an app that Amazon have created to serve the Kindle reader and (arguably more importantly for Amazon) store to you. It also helps that the service syncs your progress in a book across all apps, which is nice and the sort of feature you only notice when it stops working. However, these applications can be obscured by the nightmare of navigation that lurks within the depths of the Amazon site.
The Amazon store on PC is a massive sprawling hulk, combining lots of ways of filtering and sorting (of varying use) with a massive catalogue of titles (of varying relevance). The key thing to do is to limit your search or browsing to the Kindle store else things gets messy fast and you end up looking at saucepans as opposed to Naruto volume 94. It also helps that the sub-categories for digital manga are much better constructed than the oddball categories in the physical manga store. One nice thing is that entries for physical books also link to their Kindle versions (if available) which saves hunting around the store for confirmation of digital availability.
Kindle has a dedicated site for its web based reader, which is bizarrely well hidden and I had no idea it existed for several years until a stray Google search highlighted it. When you first access the site it offers you the ability to set up offline reading and links you to the relevant browser add-on or extension to enable this functionality.
The cloud reader has a nice clean interface, with a few well laid out options and the ability to easily navigate and search within your library. One slight kink is that when downloading books for offline reading it locks the tab so you can’t do anything else but watch it download - I assume this was made with text-based e-books in mind, where the progress bar would barely have time to appear as you have to let it complete before the book is available. One additional note is how the site indicates that “We also automatically download recently opened books until space is needed” but there is curiously no way to investigate or adjust these settings.
The reader itself provides clean two-page spreads automatically sized to the window, and a suite of unobtrusive controls. It feels responsive and easy to navigate - you get the odd imperceptible load as pages are streamed into the reader, which it does to prevent showing you a blank image. Reading a book online has a mild initial load, the length of which depends on your connection. While reading the site caches in background and if you “outrun it” you get loads, again, dependent on your connection. Overall, the reader is a good experience.
Bizarrely, the Kindle store is much better in the Android application - it loads faster, is less cluttered, has more ways of splitting and recommending you content, and has the full digital catalog visible within it. The search engine is also very swift and generally on point. One annoyance of the in-app store is that category navigation is at the foot of each page; I feel this is perhaps intentional to make you look at the carousels of recommendations as you go.
The app surfaces your library in a rolling carousel view by default, which I found very fiddly to interact with. Changing the view allows you to view titles in a better laid-out flat view. The app is also keen to provide recommendations whenever it can find space and a data connection, which are usually spookily spot on and that you can thankfully turn off in the settings.
To read books in the app you must download them first, which makes the sluggishness I experienced in the reader rather puzzling. After a page turn the next page needs to load in so you get a blank image for a brief moment until it “pops in”, the length of time depending on the individual book. The app also doesn't cache many pages at a time so if you move with any speed you hit a lot of blank pages which can get rather disruptive, especially when you are in landscape mode and it has to load 2-page spreads. The reader is overall a good experience even with this caveat.
As well as the web-based reader, Amazon also has a desktop application for both PC and Mac. Curiously it is a lesser experience with both fewer options combined with a less intuitive layout and a noticeable lack of responsiveness, especially when downloading books. You will need to do this as well, as the app requires you download purchases before reading.
I attempted to read my manga purchases on a physical Kindle for the purposes of this article but sadly my basic 4th gen Kindle is locked out - all manga I tried to download onto it comes up with a “not compatable with this device” error so I cannot comment further. Let us know if you have a Kindle that does work with manga and your experience with it!
One additional vector for reading Kindle purchases is on Comixology, who Amazon purchased in 2014. This is covered later on in the “Comixology” section of this article.
The Kindle store has come on a long way in the case of manga - its various readers used to have massive issues with manga, in particular how it handled borders and artificially shrunk the page on your screen. The reading experience is now a lot better across the board and can be recommended without qualification - the only thing Amazon could stand to do is to improve the accessibility and transparency of their sprawling catalogue of titles.
Nook was a service that I was once personally quite fond of, although it has not always repaid that love and has now spurned me in the most complete way by announcing its closure. The store closure will take effect on the 15th of March 2016, and the service will entirely shut at the end of May 2016. You can see full details in our news story here.
As part of the shutdown process user accounts will be transferred to Sainsbury's Entertainment on Demand, an eBook storefront who do not offer manga or any graphic novels at all, and so missed out on full inclusion in this article. if this changes, I will of course evaluate and add them!
Despite the impending shutdown, I am maintaining Nook’s place in this article as 1) they have not strictly shut down yet, although their attractiveness is greatly diminished as a result and 2) as a record of their existence as a digital manga storefront to the UK, for the sake of completeness.
Nook sits high in this article as it was a once a storefront that offered its own physical eReaders as well as an eBook storefront, and is owned by the US bookstore chain Barnes and Noble. In an earlier version of this article (written 2014) it stood out as an exceptional digital manga storefront, however time has dulled its shine as other stores have stepped up their game.
The Nook store has a robust, if at times flawed catalogue. There is a good range of publishers and titles represented, and you can easily navigate these and arrange the available titles/search results in multiple ways. You can easily navigate by author and publisher, and one nice thing is that you get a decent number of results on the page as it infinite scrolls rather than making you click through to new pages all the time. An issue with this is if you move too quickly and reach the footer of the page the page will cease loading and cut you off! It also sensibly links series together so you can jump from volume to volume easily.
The previously mentioned flaws are the bizarre gaps in series that exist in the storefront, and the arbitrary delays that sometimes exist in series appearing on the service. An example of the former is the lack of the first volume of One Billion Needles when volumes two to four are present. In the case of the latter, volumes of Genshiken have always showed up later on Nook than other services - at the time of writing Second Season Volume 7 is still not available on the store despite already being available on multiple other services. In both cases I have contacted both Nook and the publisher and they have passed the buck back and forth between them. These issues are especially annoying when the titles in question are on the US Barnes and Noble e-book store but you cannot buy them! I also have to note that the Nook website can at times be somewhat buggy - in the course of writing this article the search engine has crashed multiple times and as I write this it hangs when I attempt to log in!
The Nook mobile application received a massive overhaul in the not too distant past which greatly improved the interface overall. It has a number of nice touches - clean menus and text, volumes from the same series are organised together in your library, and as an extra bonus it no longer crashes my devices as soon as I tried to read anything!
Sadly, the reader is not well adjusted for reading right-to-left - while swipes work well for changing pages, tapping the sides of the screen changes the page in the opposite direction. Between this and other issues you feel like you must fight with the application to make it work properly. That being said it loads quickly, and both swift page turns and/or jumping around a book does not faze it in the slightest. The books themselves are also of a nice hefty file size and as a result have a solid level of image quality.
I cannot comment on the Nook tablets themselves as I do not own one, and the Desktop Apps are in a grey area of possible support. The PC application I do have access to will not allow manga to be loaded from the library so is useless for the purposes of this article. One thing the service could sorely do with is a web-based reader of some kind. Even previews have to be requested, added to your library, and synced to an app or reader to view.
As mentioned, I personally like the Nook storefront although looking back at what I have written I am not entirely sure why. Part of this may be the magic of the sunk cost fallacy - for a while the Nook store was cheaper than its competitors so I bought new volumes of series I was reading there, but now the prices are basically in line with other stores I struggle to praise it without caveat.
Kobo is a bizarre third place entrant in the “Sells e-books and has their own eReaders too!” stakes. If you have had the misfortune to visit high-street fossil W H Smith you will have seen they have a partnership with Kobo to stock their hardware. In recent years the brand was acquired by Rakuten, the same people who picked up media-peddlers Play.com, who appear to have given the service a shot in the arm. Snark aside, it has a not-insignificant manga presence on its store and so deserves a closer look.
The Kobo web store makes a very good first impression - it is very well laid out with clear spacing, nice fonts, and a responsive design. Available books are clearly presented with a lot metadata upfront, including the publisher's synopsis, and there are a fair smattering of subcategories to drill down. Sadly, most of the nearly 8,000 titles in the manga category have a dubious claim to that classification; heck, the number 2 bestseller at the time of writing is House of Leaves? The store has some very handy sorting and filtering options, but with the majority of books available being of dubious interest this can still feel like a chore. An odd kink in the store also pegs the maximum number of pages for results at 99 when there are many more books available.
Thankfully, the Kobo store has a responsive search engine to compensate and recommendations on individual titles. One nice, if unreliable, feature is how series can be joined together so you can easily jump from to volume to volume- but only if the publisher has surfaced that in the metadata (like for Bamboo Blade as an example).
All books in the store also have a free preview available; however Kobo does not have a web-based reader and so the “Save Preview” button adds the preview to your account for later syncing, which feels a little cack-handed.
The service does have a PC/MAC application, Kobo Desktop, which is a rather odd beast. The store within the app is the same as the web version, but with a worse font and sluggish loading. You would be better off just using the site itself rather than a clunky facsimile! Also in the Desktop application is the reader application, which is why you downloaded it in the first place. Syncing your purchases is automatic, and if any errors occur they are thankfully presented with clear instructions on how to resolve them, which is personally appreciated. The download process can be a little on the slow side, and there are less options for controlling the content in your library than in the mobile apps, which is a little confusing.
The reading experience is stripped down but works well - you get a two-page spread of the title you are reading (there is no single-page view), sized to fill out the available window. Also present are a persistent zoom, full-screen mode, and (if supported by the title) a table of contents for quick navigation. When zoomed in you get a nice picture-in-picture of what part of the spread you are currently looking at, which is a nice usability addition. The app itself is bereft of other options, the only one present being a language select for the interface. A final note is on the “Delete from Library” option present within the app, which sounds supremely dangerous and throws a scary error at you if you click it. This removes the book from the app and puts the selected book into a “Trash” section of your Library which is viewable on the website. This whole process is rather scary, and makes for a confusing experience as there is no clear-cut way to “Archive” a book in the app and remove it from your hard drive.
The Kobo mobile app is its best venue - it’s a very clean, elegant application with clear spacing and thin fonts, dressed up in white and light blue. It has a very “human” feeling interface, asking questions in full sentences and with a very intuitive layout across the application. It even asks you if you are still reading books that you have not read for a while, and removes them from the device if not, and has stats if you love numbers! The in-app store is the same as the website but re-arranged to fit the screen size on your device, and works just as well.
The app gives you a lot of options to arrange your content, giving you a “reading list” of books you have downloaded, and the Library also brings in the “series” information from the store to keep these together. You can also make personal collections of books like a music playlist, which is a neat idea but I never found a use for. The in-app reader is really pleasant to use - it feels responsive on page turns, allows you to change between single page/ double page spread/ automatic as you wish, and has the options unobtrusively tucked away. You have to download books fully before reading them in app. The app also has an ePub import feature, if you have DRM-free books you wish to add.
Kobo also offers a reader app for Blackberry 10 devices,which I cannot comment on as I do not know anyone who owns one. The same goes for Kobo’s own brand of e-readers, which on paper look like a decent competitor to the monolithic Kindle.
Kobo feels like a service that is close to greatness, but that is thwarted by a few key issues. The website is good, and houses a lot of content, but it really needs just a few more filtering options to help wade through all of it. The apps are nice - in particular the reading experience - but the lack of a web-reader for both previews and purchases feels like a large omission. Still, what is here is worth a look for sure.