Manage your Ebook Library with Calibre
Today I want to take a look at Calibre, a free, open source ebook library system that comes very close to the experience of owning printed books on a shelf in your home.
What is Calibre?
Calibre1 is an ebook management tool that was developed by Kovid Goyal, starting in 2006. Being an open source tool, many developers have contributed to the project over the years.
The website's 'Usage statistics' page boasts nearly 3 million active installs at the time of writing, which are counted as at least one active start in the last two months. This is the only data point Calibre collects:
Every calibre installation has a randomly generated ID, this ID remains unchanged by upgrades and even an uninstall/re-install. This ID is used to collect usage statistics. Only this ID is stored, no other identifying information is collected. And no collected information is ever shared with any third party.
Calibre works on all platforms. Windows has the most users by far. The interface is not flashy or modern, but functional and clear, similar to the type of graphical interfaces Linux users might be familiar with.
Calibre enables a user to save their ebook collection to a library, stored locally. It is also relatively simple,2 to share that library with your other devices via a local or even public server.
DRM, and how I found Calibre
I began looking for alternatives to Amazon's 'walled garden' ebook system a few years ago, when I decided to disentangle my online persona from Big Tech as much as possible.
I have always loved reading, and had found a nearly perfect piece of hardware in my Kindle Paper White, the soft backlight of which allowed me to access all my books for reading just about anywhere, anytime.
While you may have bought your ebooks, with Amazon you never fully own them. It is not possible to extract the book from the Amazon environment, for example, to store or loan to a friend.3 This is where the walled garden metaphor comes into play: it's all very nice and works beautifully, as long as you are happy to stay within Amazon's confines. If Amazon were to go bankrupt, or discontinue the service, readers could lose their entire collections.
DRM, or Digital Rights Management (or, as some have argued, 'Digital Restrictions Management) is a piece of code embedded into each Amazon-sold ebook that locks the book into the system and blocks you from reading the book outside of Amazon controlled platforms.
DRM seems, at first thought, a system that is fair to the author and their copyright in the battle against illegal downloads or sales. But Amazon's use of DRM is not fair to the customer who has paid for the book.
If I buy an item (rather than pay a monthly subscription to access a full library, such as is the case with Netflix), then surely it's up to me what I do with that purchase, whether it is printed or digital. This is where Amazon misuses the technology and overreaches their control.
The customer may feel conflicted between concerns about the legality of attempting to remove the DRM code from their books on the one hand, and their intuitions about the incorrectness of Amazon's overreach. (I'll provide some reading links below). Just because the technology enables a company to continue to manage and control a product after sale, that doesn't mean they should, and doing so shows a patronising lack of trust in the customer.
I'll be honest here - I found Calibre because I was looking into options for stripping the DRM code from the books I'd already purchased from Amazon. I felt quite strongly that I should own the books I paid for.
There is a way to strip the DRM code from Amazon-bough books using Calibre. This involves an extra plug in, downloading your ebooks from the Amazon website using their 'download & transfer via USB' tool4...one at a time... and importing these into Calibre — sounds tedious!
I am no longer an Amazon customer nor interested in stripping DRM from ebooks. Readers who want to find work-arounds, might have to do their own research. I don't know if it is even possible to strip DRM from ebooks at this point. A word of warning: the Internet is littered with terribly written, fake, spammy blog posts on this topic.
I did discover Calibre is a fantastic tool for ebook management! The software is versatile and fast, and continues to be developed for free. The experience of managing your ebooks in Calibre is much closer to having books on your bookshelf, as you can annotate them, photocopy pages from them and loan or give your books to your friends.
I will wrap this article with my experiences using Calibre's features.
Calibre in use
- Ebook management and editing
Calibre's editing tools feel magically empowering after the limitations with Kindle. You can convert your ebooks into various reader formats, and also to PDF. You can edit a book's metadata, and there is an online search tool to find missing covers. You can edit the books or copy portions of text, for example, for annotation in a classroom (which is normally allowed within copyright restrictions).
I had a book on my ereader that was missing a cover and the author's name. I downloaded it to Calibre, fixed these issues, deleted the original version, and sent it back to the to the reader.
- Sending books to your ereader
When you first start up Calibre, it asks you to select your ereader from a list of commonly used ones. Sending and receiving books works well via USB cable. Once plugged in, two new icons 'Device' and 'Send to device' appear in the graphical interface.
(Interestingly, when I plugged in my Kindle just now, a warning message popped up:
Amazon has broken display of covers for books sent to Kindle by USB cable
followed by several suggested work-arounds.)
Calibre's interface displays a clear overview of your library, with a green tick next to titles currently duplicated on your device.
It is easy to send PDFs to your reader, but when I tried this with the free-to-download copy of Mastering Monero by Serhack, I found the print too small to read, so it's best here to stick with reading on your monitor.5
I have not explored sharing books via email or over WiFi.
There is a neat news reader feature built into Calibre. The idea is that your blog or news feeds are turned into ebooks at regular intervals, which then get transferred to your ereader when you connect it. I have not had any success with this, not even when trying out the Calibre blog link suggested as demo in their handbook. It's a great concept, but in my case it all shows up as illegible, html-ridden nonsense.
- Buying ebooks
I have gone back to buying printed books from physical bookstores, but I can say the 'Get books' function does a good job of providing a lists of all digital shops for your search. It also clearly displays which versions are DRM free by showing an icon of a green, opened lock. Project Gutenberg is also a great place to find ebooks.
- Creating your own ebook server
The server option works really well...provided you have some experience and comfort with firewall settings and IP addresses. For users with no interest in IT, the server may be a non-starter, despite the excellent and detailed explanations in the manual. I set up a Calibre library server in my home and was really impressed with the attractiveness of the interface and overall smoothness of the download experience.
- Calibre support
Support is really excellent, but some of the documentation is over ten years old! The website really provides lots of help getting started, but one of the video tutorials I watched was 13 years old, displaying a very different looking Calibre interface. There apparently is a blog, but I could not access it. This mixture or relevant and outdated help creates a little bit of mistrust. I followed the 'adding your favourite news site' tutorial in the manual, for example, and was disappointed to discover literary nothing worked as described there, even the recommended demo link to their own news feed. All of this needs updating.
However, the avenues for help are extensive and thoroughly, clearly explained. The manual is undoubtedly a labour of love, as was evident in the instructions for setting up a library server with Calibre. Lastly, the help forum is relevant, up-to-date and well-organised .
The simplest way to disentangle from Big Tech services is to stop using them. While I have returned to printed books (I just prefer them for browsing, and also reading at night, getting away from yet another screen), I do still use my ereader for collecting and reading articles and books on the topic of privacy for this blog.
If you are looking for an ebook management system that is privacy-preserving, free and just easy to use, I can't think of a better recommendation than Calibre.
Amazon apparently has made changes to the DRM in books published after 3 January 2023, which could affect DRM stripping via Calibre. I've added some links to articles below.
Someone on r/ereader wrote helpful feedback about reading PDFs on ereaders:
PDF is not optimized for small screens. Standard PDF is A4 format, 210mm x 297mm (8.5" x 11"). A 10" or 13" eReader or tablet would be a better option for this, or if you had an alternative reader such as Boox, you'd be able to reflow the document. The smallest device I've used for PDFs is my 7.8" Boox Nova 2, and even on that PDF is cramped. You could use something like Briss to crop margins to help a bit.
Calibre website, including a demo and well-written user manual
Get involved with Calibre
(Video tutorial) Calibre | Free e-Book Software. Getting Started. This guy has great recommendations and tutorials on his website, by the way!
If you want to use Calibre's Connect & share' to set up a home library server on Linux, you will need to either disable your firewall or enter an exception for port 8080:
sudo ufw allow '8080/tcp'
Also remember to type 'http' (without the s) to access your library from another device in the home.
What Is Big Tech?
Amazon Has Disabled Downloading Kindle Unlimited Titles for USB Transfer
2014: It's Perfectly Legal to Tell People How to Remove DRM
2015: The Weird Rules Governing What We Download
2019: Telling people how to remove DRM isn't illegal
2022 (StackExchange): Is it legal to format shift / strip DRM in the UK?
Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure
Changes in Amazon DRM in 2023
Mobileread forum discussion
How to Remove Amazon Kindle Ebook DRM in 2023: LATEST UPDATE
Get your free PDF copy of Serhack's Mastering Monero here!
Example of an ebook sold online without DRM: Firewalls Don't Stop Dragons
Discussion on r/ereader
-----Discuss on Reddit-----
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It seems I have been mispronouncing it as Calibre all these years. According to developer Kovid Goyal, it should be pronounced Calibre.↩
...for users familiar with firewall settings and IP addresses, I should add.↩
The 'download & transfer via USB' tool only works on regular ebooks in your Amazon library. A Redditor pointed out it won't work with "sample, library loan, Kindle Unlimited or Prime Reading books."↩
To be fair, Amazon has shared family library option, which has worked well for us in the past, but you're limited in who you can share books with outside your family.↩
I reached out to Serhack about the sale of his book on Amazon only (he offers a free PDF too). By the sound of it, he would like to find alternative ways to sell the book, and doesn't love the DRM limitations that come with Amazon.↩