Calibre is one of the only good open-source options for managing your e-book collection, but we all know it’s notoriously user-unfriendly. On one of the mailing lists I follow, I’ve heard from Becca Price, who is trying to do something about that. She is compiling a help file for Calibre as part of a class she was taking on how to develop help files.

Becca notes that this is an entirely unofficial project, and “isn’t even quite a beta draft.” And the sound file on the “About Calibre” topic does not work reliably (apparently it works on Macs but not PCs) has since been removed. And if the site is down when you try to access it, it is because she is replacing the old file with a new one, which takes about half an hour, so try back later.

She would appreciate any comments or feedback about what is helpful, what is not, and what still needs to be added.

(Bumped for more attention Monday morning.)


  1. Feedback: There is big error at the very beginning of the post.
    Calibre isn’t notoriously user-unfiendly. There are many of us that think that Calibre is extremely user friendly. So the sentence “… but we all know it’s notoriously user-unfriendly.” is wrong on several levels.

    Calibre interface is very intuitive and lets you do quite complicated things without having to consult the manual. For the vast majority of things that a beginner might want to do, there is easy intuitive graphical interface. There are lots of things that automated and automagicaly set with a very reasonable defaults.
    Calibre also lets you do very, VERY advanced things, like use Regular Expressions, define metadata plugboards, compound columns, it lets you define “save to disk”, or “import from file” templates using many, many fancy regular expressions, custom columns computed from metadata and other things.

    • You find it intuitive, but I suspect you’re already a pretty advanced computer user.

      “User-friendly” means that people who don’t know where the “any” key is are able to figure out how to use it. And looking at it from the perspective of such an ordinary user, I stand by what I wrote.

  2. You do know that the “any key” business is pretty much just a joke? It plays off the significant difference between pressing “any key” and pressing “the any key”. It’s humor.

    I’ve worked with a lot of computer newbies and nobody has ever squinted at their keyboard in search of a specific key labeled “any”.

    Calibre is a remarkably powerful and relatively easy to use program. Anybody who has spent any time at all with any program beyond a web browser should be able to puzzle out how to load books, tag them, convert them and then search for them.

    I’m baffled by the concept that calibre is “hard to use”.

  3. I did a fair amount of user research before starting my help file. What I found is, that while Calibre by itself isn’t all that hard to use, it’s so powerful that people who are not high-level compute users can feel daunted by some of the options (what’s a recipe and why would I want to use one? what’s a heuristic? All I want to do is convert my files!).

  4. Dear Chris.

    Please read what I wrote.
    I didn’t say that there aren’t any people that consider Calibre difficult. I personally know people that aren’t able to send an SMS from their own, very simple mobile phone. So there are bound to be people that find Calibre difficult. On the other hand, there are people that find Calibre very easy and user friendly.

    So your sentence “but we *all* know it’s *notoriously* user-unfriendly” is still wrong on several levels.

  5. Howard – this is exactly the kind of feedback I need. What terminology needs further defining?

    I agree that some of the stuff (adding books, etc) is overly-simplistic. I think that, if there is any value to this, it comes in the tweaks and reading list sections. As I said, this is a file for beginners. I’ve patterned the procedures off what I’ve seen friends need as I introduce them to calibre and ebooks for the first time.

  6. becca that would take too much time and work.

    You need to read through it as you write it, and put yourself in the shoes of someone who is getting into eBooks but is not a computer person. Imagine they are a real person, say a women who works in Walmart and who has a PC at home where all she does is browse and send email. Imagine they are sitting next to you.
    To look at one case .. the section on ‘converting’. What on earth does ‘converting’ mean on it’s own ? Nothing. It should be ‘converting from one format to another’ …. because …. formats are important ? ……
    You assume too much knowledge by the reader, which is understandable because you have that knowledge.

  7. As a Mac user of many years I would describe Calibre as very user unfriendly. It falls far short of most good mac software, perhaps PC users have a lower level of expectation.
    If they spent more time working on their interface and less on their obsessive biweekly updates, it would be a much better app.

  8. The help seems to be, at the moment, more like a skeleton for writing manual waiting to be fleshed out. For the most items is simply lists options as they appear in the menu.

    Let’s have a look at “Adding books”
    There are three primary ways to add multiple books at one time:

    From a single directory
    From multiple directories within a single higher-level directory, where there is only one book per lower-level directory
    From multiple directories within a single higher-level directory, where there are several book per lower-level directory
    So, what exactly has user learned here, apart from the fact that there are three choices, that should be obvious from a look at the menu?
    I would expect a description of each item, with an example of book listing.
    For choice 2 and 3 I would expect to learn that if there is an *.opf file that carries the info about book metadata and Calibre and that Calibre will try to import that data. I would expect to learn that user can configure Calibre to read metadata from the inside of ebook file or from the file name.
    You can also describe that this is the way a part of the library from other installation of Calibre could be imported.
    You can also describe that there is a powerful plugin that lets you choose between several templates for parsing the file name called “quick preferences”. You should definitely touch topic of templates for reading the metadata from filename, including a few choice Regular Expressions with templates, such as
    (?P.+) – (?P[^_]+)
    or even
    – analysis of the above RE is well out of scope of this manual, I think, but you might want to explain where to find more info and that there is a configuration panel where user can play and test various options.

    In “Customizing the user interface” chapter you should mention that icon bar (that many find strange) can be replaced with a menu, by going to Preferences, Interface, Toolbar, removing of all icons from “The main toolbar” and putting items to “The menubar”

    The structure of the manual is great, if you plan expanding each section to take up at least a few screenfuls of text. If you wish to keep chapters short, you should consider putting it as one long text with hyperlinked TOC at the left. When I read an user manual – and I *love* reading manuals – it quickly becomes very tiring to click on the new link for a few new lines of text.
    At least give the user a chance to download the entire thing as one long text for printing out, or putting into a reading device.

    I will comment more later

  9. It’s a balancing act. You’re writing for people like “(name) required” here who reads manuals for fun, but you’re also writing for task-based readers who just want to get to a section, figure out how to perform an action, and get out again. They don’t need a treatise, they need to solve a problem. Technical writing is about conveying depth using brevity.

    You’ve taken on an ambitious, highly useful project Becca. Thanks for your hard work, and good luck! Remember, you’re never going to please everybody.

  10. Name (required), are you willing to contact me off-list and discuss your ideas further? I’ve made some of the changes you suggested, but I’m confused about the template for reading data from the filename stuff you talk about, and templates. Are these things a casual (not power) user would need to know about?

    Preston, you’re right – This is a Caliber for Beginners document, and the intention is to provide simple, task-based procedures for people who don’t care particularly about the in-depth “whys and hows” (there’s plenty of good documentation for them) but just want to get some useful things done.

  11. The simple “user friendly” term is IMHO misleading. Whilst I have made PCs, populated them with softwares and O.S’s Calibre isn’t a progra mI understand. All I want to do with it is manage authors and their many books in a series. IE. Elizabeth Moon’s paksinerrian series. The whole series I’d like to call the Deed of Paks. With a sublevel with three entries:
    The Deed of Paksenarrion
    The Legacy of Gird
    Paladin’s Legacy
    Each of these sub levels have individual entries that are comprised of the books in them. I’ve completely hosed a couple of installs trying to follow the help file in creating them but to no avail. I’d like a help file that would present
    1.the information that is being used, 2. the way to manage that information and an example of each… The help file uses the term that are consistent with the software but who’s terminology is also used outside the application and may/not be the same. At anyrate I “grade” my self as a user that’s almost got a grip at managing/creating tags and assigning sublevels to them and then loading books,,, almost. When I try the method given by the help file, it blows up in my face… 🙂 regular expression sounds like programming to me but I don’t know how or why to impliment them,,,

  12. By looking at page: I get the feeling that IF I want a list of ONLY Elizabeth Moons, or Terry Brooks, or Stephen R. Donaldsons’ series, I need to come up with a unique GENRE so I can implement their being in their OWN list by major series, sub series and the individual books within. I could alternatively REMOVE the applicable tags from ALL OTHER books so that the available books I want to belong to the series is only comprised of the series/genre tags applied. Really??? there should be a way to resort the books I want in a list by series, subseries, and the books contained there in… So in essence I’m one of the “get in, get done, get out” kind of users. I don’t want to learn SQ L, or Python, or any other programming language to be able to sort in a hierarchical manner. To that end your book could cover those of us like me. Or better yet, make a book that would cover the simple stuff (like what I want) and then would have a link to the more complicated stuff that others want. In the meantime, feel free to contact me by e-mail if you want more info…

  13. :Absolute Frustration:
    Any productive advice much needed. I know from reading so many forums about Calibre that there are so many people who are absolute Calibre purists and eagerly criticise anyone who challenges Calibres file structuring principles. (I understand what they are saying though). So therefore, it would be refreshing to get a purely pragmatic response.
    I really like Calibre and I like the fact that it is a brilliantly capable piece of productive software, but I can’t seem to handle certain things that it does. These are: –
    1/ Store a copy of the book in a centralised program area,
    2/ Rename ebooks in a limited and unwanted way,
    3/ Create sub-folders with a preference for author metadata.
    4/ Create further files i.e. individual jpegs and metadata files.

    I know, you want to say that I shouldn’t be even bothered about Calibre’s extra file structure but let me explain. I have a vast collection of ebooks (mainly PDF, epubs and mobi) we’re talking around 5,000 individual titles, and I have put in a lot of time structuring the files into classification sub-folders and with title specific file names. My collection is mostly non-fiction so file-naming by author isn’t a priority.
    There’s all that, but there is another concern and that is I don’t want to have two copies of each book, file space is a concern and also my collection is in my Dropbox account folder.

    Thanks for reading, I’ve got a feeling that I’m missing a few fundamental things that I should be doing within Calibre to not make this an issue??

    Any advice would by a blessing, be gentle with me lol.

  14. Calibre is such an enigma. It’s an inescapable truth that a great many users can’t handle it. Yet I never had the first problem with it, though I’m not that technical. I think this points up the fact that e-books have reached a great many of those people who are very, very basic in their computer use, and who don’t really want to take the time to “curate” their collection in a meaningful way. If they did, I think the Calibre features would fall into place for them. On the other hand, I’ve noticed people want highly specialized things out of Calibre, such as the “series sub-sets” that John Jensen here seems to think should be a standard thing. This is why there are so many updates to Calibre–attempts to meet as many of those requests as possible. I’ve personally found Calibre to be outstanding and essential, particularly in the plug-ins available for it. I commend Becca for what’s she’s doing, and yet I wonder if many of the impatient would-be users will take time to look at a help file; part of the problem is we demand too much too quickly.

  15. I am looking for where I can find help with install problems. I don’t use mobile and social media. I rely on the internet and web sites. So far I have not found a way to contact the programmers to tell them about the install issues.

    Any suggestions?

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