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Tips on managing your eBook collection

If you read a lot of eBooks, chances are that your virtual storage spaces are just as sloppy and disorganised as your real-world bookshelves. You could try to mimic the intensely structured system of a professional library, but this is your personal collection of reading material, and really, the best way to organise it is the way that makes the most sense to you. Do you think about your books as being simply read and unread? Do you categorise based on when you plan to read your books, such as while on vacation, or while commuting? In this article, we'll explore some suggestions and ideas for how to manage a collection of eBooks.

Database and Metatags

I'm not much of an eReader, to be perfectly honest. I prefer podcasts, and my strategy there is to listen and toss. Some people use this same strategy with their eBooks: The purchase history is usually stored in the cloud, and they'll download a book to a device only when they want to read it (and then delete it when done).

Book collectors are different, returning to their favourite titles again and again. So I asked someone who has more books and eBooks than anyone else I know how he manages them all.

"How I organise eBooks is probably overkill for most people, because very few have as many eBooks as I do: Well over 10,000 titles," says Dennis R. Cohen, an author and avid reader of both physical books and eBooks. I met Cohen when he was writing his most recent title, iPhone 5 Kickstart. I was the book's technical editor, and I first learned about his massive collection while working on a chapter about using iBooks. So I asked Cohen how he manages all those titles.

It starts with a FileMaker database. "My process is hierarchical: Genre, author, title, format, and everything is referenced in a relational database that also tracks when I bought or received it, as well as whether I also own print copies, with a binary field for read/unread," says Cohen. According to that data, he's read an impressive 92 per cent of his books.

"The reason I organise in this manner is that it parallels the old database I maintained for print books. I had so many in so many rooms that I couldn't immediately find titles I sought. We have a 12 x 15-foot room in the basement, the walls of which are solid (overflowing) bookshelves, a 12 x 20-foot room upstairs that looks like the stacks in a university library, plus bookcases in the family room, bedroom, and my home office."

The benefit of creating a database is that everything you want to know about your books, which may have been purchased through a variety of different devices and in different online stores, is centralised. But it takes work and upkeep. If your collection is more modest than Cohen's, or if the idea of learning to use FileMaker just to organise your books sounds like too much work, there is a more automated and more lightweight option. Calibre is a software program designed specifically for organising eBooks, keeping them appropriately tagged for easy searching and sorting, with file formatting tools to boot. Calibre works well if you have a bunch of eBooks stored on a computer or external storage device.

Getting books onto a reader

If you only have one device on which you read books, or only tend to buy eBooks from one marketplace, then you won't have any problems physically moving eBooks around. On the other hand, if you started out reading on a Barnes & Noble Nook HD+, then switched to an Amazon Kindle, but now you prefer to read on an Apple iPad, your books are probably all over the place.

Cohen likes to download everything right into Dropbox, rather than manage titles across a variety of platforms and sources. "I use VPN connections to move titles from the network drive to my Dropbox folder hierarchy, and then I access the titles from there on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, as well as the MacBook, where I use Bookle to read them."

Categorising into collections and bookshelves

No matter how you get eBooks onto your eReader, you'll also want to organise them once they're on the device. In other words, you should group your titles into appropriately categorised "collections" or "bookshelves" — the name will depend on which app you use.

"What I do with the iPhone and iPad," says Cohen, "is put books onto them and use the 'Collections' feature to keep the ones I want to read."

"I have collections for Mystery-Adventure (favourite authors like W.E.B. Griffin, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Robert B. Parker, and so on go here), Sci-Fi Universes (pretty much just Honorverse and Star Trek), References, and Random (everything else I consider worth keeping on the device)."

When Cohen has books that he intends to read once and delete from his device, he just leaves them in the generic "Books" collection, one of the defaults on iBooks that cannot be removed or renamed anyhow. "I save everything, even dreck, on the computer, but I'm fastidious about keeping free space available on the devices," he says. Here are some additional ways to set up collections.

One method is to make alphabetised collections that look like this:

  • A-K
  • L-R
  • S-Z

Whether those letters refer to the titles or the authors' surnames is entirely up to you. You can break up the letter ranges based on how many books you have for each set. Try to keep the total number of books in any collection to about two dozen. Having more than that becomes unwieldy.

Another method is to create bookshelves by genre, as Cohen does, such as:

  • Biographies
  • Business and Politics
  • Children's Books
  • Fiction
  • Graphic Novels
  • Humour
  • Reference

And so forth. In trying out these different systems, I found that using iBooks on an iPad, I wanted to keep my collections to about nine (that's nine in addition to the collections that appear by default and that cannot be deleted: Books, Purchased Books, PDFs) so that I could see the list on the screen at once without scrolling.

Yet another way to categorise your eBooks is based on when you plan on reading them, plus one shelf of books called "Read" or "Done," where you place books after you finish them. For example, you might have:

  • At Home
  • Business Travel
  • Commute
  • Done
  • Studying
  • Vacation

Just as with a large physical book collection, better organisation means less time spent messing around trying to find things, and more time spent actually reading on your eBook device of choice.

While you're here, you might also want to check out some of our eReader reviews. There's the Kindle Paperwhite review, Barnes & Noble Nook HD review, Kobo Glo, Kobo Arc, and Nook Simple Touch GlowLight.