By renowned Travel Author, Sam Manicom
When Andy sent out his email asking for articles for the BM Riders Club newsletter, 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 Iíd have a bit of a natter about the process and much of whatís involved. After all, e-books are a giant change, or at least, they have the potential to be.
The thing is, Iím 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. Thereís something about the weight of the thing that matters to me. Mind you, Iím not a fan of hardbacks Ė 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 Iíve got left to enjoy. Or if itís a library book, how much Iíve got to make reading time for before the due back by date! And yes, Iím completely disrespectful. When I own the book, I like to have the page corners to turn over to mark where Iíve 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. ĎEveryoneí advised me to get them put into e-book format. ďKindle is the go.Ē I was told by many who are considered to be in the Ďknowí. And, quite a few readers kept nudging me towards them tooÖ
Iíd not really considered this prospect before so perhaps, Iíd thought, itís 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 donít we. Thereís also the issue of theft to take into account. I donít 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.
Thereís another thing I have to mention. When Iím travelling I really like looking for books to swop. In fact, itís 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 Iíd 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 Iíve met only because they have a book to swop. And sometimes Iíve even got on so well with the person that weíve 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 possibleÖ I really surprised myself when I was given a Kindle to play with. They are not a book. Itís 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 Ė 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? Thatís 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. Itís 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, itís because it isnít 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. Thatís natural eh. Itís also in part because e-book hosts have a virtual stranglehold on book publishers and authors Ė 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 donít 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 thereís another significant issue to take into account here. Paper books donít carry VAT, and thatís quite right I think. Anything that can be done to encourage people to read has to be a good idea doesnít it. However, legislation hasnít 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? Iím 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 wonít make any money on a first book. Their stats say that if they are lucky they will break even on the second, but it wonít be until an authorís 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 isnít possible, so they donít 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 doesnít 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. Itís also a bonus for the author that they donít 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. Thatís great for them, but also a huge bonus for the author. They havenít 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 dayÖ
But Iíve shot off at a tangent havenít I. Sorry, I do tend to do that. I like to think itís enthusiasm for a topic, but suspect Iíll 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 wasnít 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 whatís the point in doing anything thatís not as good as it can be.
So itís 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 Ė after Christmas I suspect that few with friends overseas will be unaware of how expensive parcel posting can be. 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 itís for all the above reasons that e-books are here to stay. Iím not sure if they will ever take over from hard copies but thereís 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. Iíve not found a down side yet, though they donít 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 tripÖ And turning the page corner? Amazingly, you can do this, virtually, in an e-book. Now whoíd have thought of that?!
Sam Manicom is the author of 4 adventure motorcycle travel books. He is a freelance travel writer for magazines in the UK and the USA. His books are all available, in hard copy, from www.sam-manicom.com, from Waterstones, Stanfords and other good travel bookshops.
You can also download his books from Amazon Kindle http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sam-Manicom/e/B0034PDX52 and later in the spring an enhanced e-book version of Into Africa will be available from the Apple store. You heard that first here!