Changing Times and Turning Pages

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A friend recently sent out an email asking for articles for the BM Riders newsletter, and when he did so he started me thinking about a topic that has popped up a lot in conversations over the past year. Are e-books a good thing, and are they in fact a very good thing for motorcyclists? I thought I’d have a bit of a natter about the process and much of what’s involved. After all, e-books are a giant change, or at least, they have the potential to be.

The thing is, I’m a bit of a traditionalist, which is perhaps, one of the reasons I still stick with my old R80GS. As I like oil and grease on my fingers, I really like the feel of a book in my hands. There’s something about the weight of the thing that matters to me. Mind you, I’m not a fan of hardbacks – too much weight with those! I like the feeling of turning a page, and I like knowing at a glance how much more of the book I’ve got left to enjoy. Or if it’s a library book, how much I’ve got to make reading time for before the due back by date! And yes, I’m completely disrespectful. When I own the book, I like to have the page corners to turn over to mark where I’ve got to, and I even like the way the paper in each book smells different!

Within past conversations, the flow sooner or later turned in the direction of my own books. ‘Everyone’ advised me to get them put into e-book format. “Kindle is the go.” I was told by many who are considered to be in the ‘know’. And, quite a few readers kept nudging me towards them too…

I’d not really considered this prospect before so perhaps, I’d thought, it’s time to start investigating, but oh goodness, yet another form of technology to learn how to use. And I started to wonder what environmental issues were likely to be involved? After all, just about everything we petrol heads do nowadays should take that into account. We do need to think about ways to balance out the effects of our grin factor on the environment don’t we. There’s also the issue of theft to take into account. I don’t mind if I forget or have a book stolen, but an expensive bit of kit with the value of all the downloaded books on board? Another ball game eh.

There’s another thing I have to mention. When I’m travelling I really like looking for books to swop. In fact, it’s not only the oddball books I end up with that are the main importance to me, though would I have ever read a science fiction book? Or would I have ever read Animal Farm again? The last time I’d read it was at school. Years on I actually understood the thing! I never did aged 13.

The main value of book swopping to me is the human interaction. All sorts of conversations have started up with someone I’ve met only because they have a book to swop. And sometimes I’ve even got on so well with the person that we’ve ended up travelling together for a while. Would I like to miss out on this?

And anyway, are e-books any good? Being a positive-minded sceptic, (if there can be such a thing) I tried to approach the subject with as open a mind as possible… I really surprised myself when I was given a Kindle to play with. They are not a book. It’s a simple as that. I suppose we can liken them to the difference between instant coffee and fresh ground. Or even, a BMW and a Royal Enfield – both bikes, but very different things.

When I found out I could store around 3,000 books on a Kindle, and those purchases recorded in case of theft, I started to be sold on the idea. They fit into the hand really rather nicely and they are lighter than a paperback, which actually is a bonus after all. And, though I still like the idea and feel of a paperback, being able to carry so many books for so little weight and space made the motorcyclist in me grin. I can take a big selection of books on every trip. That means I can pick out the one to read that I feel in the mood for at the time. I can also read the latest guidebook, look at maps, hunt out camping sites and hotels, work my way through my repair manual, and I can escape into a great read at any time.

In amongst the learning curve I also had the chance to answer some other questions. Why is it possible for there to be so many free downloads for Kindles and the like? That’s a simple one. Many of the titles are out of print, or the market was so saturated by the titles that no one would spend any real money on them. They are considered to be a draw by Amazon, Apple, Kobo and others, just to get us all to buy and use the equipment. But why not! Everyone is a winner. Even the author, whose books have passed their sell by date, wins with regards to any new titles they may have on the way. It’s a profile maintaining and raising thing.

With that in mind, how can it be that some titles carry e-book prices very close to their hard copy price? For some, it’s because it isn’t expected that many copies will sell. It may be a technical book for example. So the publisher and author want to gather what they can, when they can. That’s natural eh. It’s also in part because e-book hosts have a virtual stranglehold on book publishers and authors – they dictate, to a major extent, how much a book should be, and of course they take a significant percentage of the sale price. You don’t want to know how much! A publisher or author also has to take into account the time and costs of converting a manuscript into e-book format. Each company has their own preferred format!

But there’s another significant issue to take into account here. Paper books don’t carry VAT, and that’s quite right I think. Anything that can be done to encourage people to read has to be a good idea doesn’t it. However, legislation hasn’t kept up with technological advances and e-books carry VAT. So, when you look at an e book cover price you need to take the 20% tax into account.

Another question – who else publishes their books in e-book format? I’m rather excited about some. Motorcycle and motorcycle travel books are incredibly difficult to get a mainstream publisher to take on board. The big publishing houses only want to make money and that means they have to know that they will get a big return for their investment of time and money. Many professionally published authors will have a team of 10 or more experts working for them behind the scenes. Publishers know that unless an author is a very well known media personality, they won’t make any money on a first book. Their stats say that if they are lucky they will break even on the second, but it won’t be until an author’s third book that they start to make a profit.

To make a living in real terms, an author has to write a new book every year, at least. For most travel authors that simply isn’t possible, so they don’t get published. Or they go the self-publish route; itself a great new adventure. However, the author has to stump up all the costs of design, layout, printing, editing, marketing and so on. This, if done properly, is really expensive and therefore a huge gamble. Even more so for a first-time author who doesn’t even know if they really can write something worth reading. So, e-books are the answer.

Though many of the expenses are exactly the same, they cost less to produce as you have no up-front print costs, and you have no storage or transportation costs. This in part answers my question about the effects on the environment. It’s also a bonus for the author that they don’t have to spend time on packaging books, post office runs and dealing with buyer queries. You have almost no physical marketing costs and so I could go on.

For we readers, this is brilliant. Many great books that would never make it into print can do so in e-book format. In fact, the whole changing times aspect has got quite a few experienced authors rethinking how they go about getting published. Many are electing not to go the traditional published route and are now only publishing e-books. A strange side quirk of this is that publishers are watching sales of e-books. When one sells well, they jump in with freshly printed contracts in hand. That’s great for them, but also a huge bonus for the author. They haven’t got lost in the thousands of manuscripts that are presented to publishing houses every year by first time authors. Many never see the light of day…

But I’ve shot off at a tangent haven’t I. Sorry, I do tend to do that. I like to think it’s enthusiasm for a topic, but suspect I’ll get worse as I carry on aging!

My fears about learning the new technology were unfounded. Why? Because the systems work simply and clearly. As far as my own books are concerned, I got an expert to deal with setting it all up for me. Yes I had to pay for that and no, it wasn’t chickening out. It simply seems to me that if I am going to publish anything, then it has to be done as best as possible. I am up against the big boys you know, and what’s the point in doing anything that’s not as good as it can be.

So it’s done. My books are now all in e-book format on Kindle and to my still slightly sceptical surprise they are selling rather well. A bonus is that e-books have given a format that people overseas can use. To buy hard copies costs them a fortune as they are printed in the UK. This advantage to all of us works the other way around too. Via e-books we have the chance to read books that, for example, are only available in the US. I think it’s for all the above reasons that e-books are here to stay. I’m not sure if they will ever take over from hard copies but there’s no doubt in my mind that they have their place.

So, am I an e-book convert? Of course. As a motorcyclist they make infinite sense. I’ve not found a down side yet, though they don’t smell so interesting… Will I stop buying paperbacks? No, I still like to read them, and as most of our bookshelves are on outside walls, our paperbacks double up as excellent wall insulation! Also, on the long road I do like the idea of book-swopping connections, but on a normal trip… And turning the page corner? Amazingly, you can do this, virtually, in an e-book. Now who’d have thought of that?!

You can also download Sam’s books for the Amazon Kindle, and in the spring of 2012 an enhanced e-book version of Into Africa will be available from the Apple store.

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