Calibre: A free, open source ebook management solution that truly delivers

Donovan Colbert highlights Calibre's ability to scour web sites and compile documents that rival pay-per-view digital distributions.

One of the problems facing readers of digital content has been a lack of compelling models for delivery of digital magazines, newspapers, and other media outlets — as well as an uneven platform distribution of those titles that have successfully made the transition to digital formats. Wired was one of the first big technology magazines to embrace distribution on Apple, and they were also a pioneer in making the digital subscription free to all print subscribers. Unfortunately, they achieved this milestone after I had already dumped the iPad for an Android platform ASUS Transformer.

With the release of the Kindle Fire, Wired finally arrived for Android — sort of. It's more appropriate to say that Wired has arrived for the Kindle Fire. A long promised Android edition remains forthcoming and conspicuously absent. Driven by this ongoing disappointment, I searched for and found a pretty decent alternative. As a bonus, it delivers content from my favorite sites in a magazine-type format for free. If you haven't heard of Calibre, read on and find out if this solution might also work for you.

Calibre is a free, open source ebook management solution for Mac, Windows, and Linux. As an e-reader, it isn't much to write home about, mostly because the desktop OS platforms aren't well suited to e-reading. But Calibre has a trick up its sleeve. It's a surprisingly well kept secret that Calibre can scour web sites and compile versions that rival the pay-per-view digital distributions of the print periodicals published by these sites. Additionally, Calibre can be used to convert documents from and to various formats, allowing you to turn .epub documents into Kindle .mobi format documents, for example. These features work for a number of devices, including e-Ink readers, tablets, smartphones, and any other portable digital device you might want to read edocuments on.

Now, this isn't perfect. I've noticed that when I pull down USA Today by this method, I'll have stories in the table of contents that don't actually appear in my digital copy of the newspaper. Wired doesn't seem to update their web site in direct correlation with their print magazine, so I sometimes find stale and outdated articles. However, the price is right, and in the example of Wired, Calibre is really the only option that most Android users presently have available.

I Calibre on a "server" running Ubuntu 10 desktop that is always on. I've also tested it on Windows and Mac machines, and it runs virtually the same, regardless of the OS platform. When you first run Calibre, a Welcome Wizard appears (you can run this Wizard again later from the Preferences button on the main menu bar in the application). Here you will enter your language, the location of your library, the mobile device for your default reader platform, email addresses for documents delivery, and account information for your SMTP server.

To crawl web sites to create periodicals, use the "Fetch News" function along the top bar of Calibre (see Figure 1). Figure 1

Clicking the Fetch News button brings up a dialog that displays a list of pre-configured "recipes" that connect to selected web sites, along with tables of contents that links to articles from those sites. Type the name of a media outlet into the search dialog, click the "Go" button, and Calibre will return a list of all relevant recipes sorted by language and outlet.

Figure 2

In Figure 2 above, I searched for "Time," and Calibre opened up the 19 results in English to display all the recipes that come pre-bundled for media outlets that match the requestor Time. At this point, you simply highlight the periodical you want to create, and a tab appears that allows you to schedule the polling days and times for your digital magazine or paper. You can also click the "Download Now" button to immediately fetch the document (see Figure 3). Figure 3

The document that's created is frequently very complete and polished. It will generally include a cover, if available, and a table of contents that link to individual articles. In the case of USA Today, it creates a master table of content as well as individual table of contents by section (Top News, Technology, Health, Sports, etc.).

Of course, you can always choose to read your periodical on Calibre on your desktop or notebook (see Figure 4), but the real magic comes in your ability to transfer it to your mobile device to read offline later at your leisure. Figure 4

The document can be automatically sent to the destination you've selected during the initial setup wizard. If you have a Kindle, documents will be sent to your Kindle account on Amazon. Your final step is to go to Amazon, log into your Kindle Management page, and send the uploaded document from Amazon's servers to your Kindle device.

With Android, you send the document to your email account, open the email on your Android device, save the attachment, and copy it into your Kindle folder (assuming the document was created in .mobi format and you want to use Kindle to read it, because you can select the format and reader you prefer). It isn't a perfectly automated process, but once you get the hang of it, it's fairly simple to get the document to your device.

You can also choose to hook your Kindle or other device directly to the PC running Calibre and transfer the document via USB. To access delivery preferences, click the Preferences button in the main menu bar (refer to Figure 1). This will bring up a Preferences screen (see Figure 5). Figure 5

From the Preferences screen, in the "Sharing" section, click on "Sharing books by email." Another window will open up where you can select or deselect "auto-send," add or remove destination email address, and edit your mail account information (see Figure 6). Figure 6

If your favorite news site is not already in the list of news sources, you can even create your own recipe that will crawl that site and produce a custom e-document. This is really just the tip of the iceberg of Calibre's capabilities. A Google search for "Calibre Kindle News" will return a wealth of sites offering detailed advice and instructions on how to fully utilize the features I touch on here, and I encourage readers to fully explore those resources to get the most out of this application.

Calibre is probably the most polished, reliable, and useful example of Free and Open Source Software I've ever encountered, and it really delivers the goods it promises. The quality and convenience of paid subscription services generally exceeds what you'll experience doing it "on the cheap" with Calibre (it won't help you get around pay-walls), but if you're willing to put up with a few hassles and extra steps, Calibre can open up your device to a whole new world of self-generated, customized, and very inexpensive content.

Have you used Calibre or other ereading alternatives? Share your experiences, advice, and questions with us in the forums.


Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...

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