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Monday, September 5, 2011

Bmag September 6th 2011 - E-Books smell good too!

I’m not sure how serious he was, or whether he regrets saying it out loud, let alone on radio, but according to Brisbane author John Birmingham, the place where you’ll find writers at a writers’ festival is the green room – partly to avoid the punters but mainly to pick others’ brains about tax minimisation! It’s perhaps devilish of me to have memorised that quote from Richard Fidler’s Conversations program, not to mention repeating it here, but it guarantees that whenever the Brisbane Writers’ Festival comes around – this year from 7 to 11 September – I always think of Birmo! Coincidently, John Birmingham has just joined 612 ABC Brisbane for a month, filling in for Richard Fidler!

Aside from tax minimisation, the other hotbutton topic at this year’s Brisbane Writers Festival is sure to be e-books. This year, e-readers have taken the giant leap from earlyadopter fanboi technology to widespread realisation that they really are the future. I’ll admit I’m still old-school. I prefer to spread out the newspaper, flick through my hand-delivered copy of bmag, browse my CDs and DVDs, and get my hands on a good book. Preferably one I’ve bought rather than borrowed from the library. And it goes without saying that books smell good!

I will admit that when Geoff Cavanagh from 612’s promos department thrust an e-reader into my hands a few months ago, I could see the appeal straight away. I learned that the screen doesn’t hurt your eyes like a computer monitor. That you can store thousands of books on your reader, and countless more on your computer. That you can look up definitions, check something on the internet, and even switch to audio-book mode (handy if you’re involved in a real page-turner but have to drive somewhere, or cook, or do the ironing!) Feeling somewhat conspicuous lying on the floor of Geoff ’s office, I felt how light it was to hold an e-reader above your head as if in bed. And finally, to my great surprise, I learned that Geoff ’s e-reader, with its leather case, smelled good! Not the same smell as a book but an appealing, comforting smell nonetheless.

Guess what I bought my wife for her next birthday? She hasn’t looked back. In fact, when Nikki decided to re-read George Orwell’s 1984, she chose to pay the – brace yourself – 99 cents for the e-book instead of reading the dog-eared hardcopy that’s been sitting in our bookshelves for years! Yes, she is an instant and complete convert. It takes a critical number of converts for new technology to take off but that is what has happened with e-books and e-readers in 2011. At least one online retailer recently announced it now sells more e-books than physical books.

Hence, as literary types gather for the Brisbane Writers Festival, talk will turn to e-book opportunities and challenges. Brisbane author Nick Earls – appearing at this year’s festival – shared some of his thoughts with me during a recent visit to the 612 ABC studios. Nick says he will still make his $3 a book whether a novel is sold in a shop or downloaded as a file. But without printing and transportation costs, the e-book version can be sold for much less. I could have paid just $17 for Nick’s latest (The Fix) as an e-book. Instead, to feed my need for another trophy with the rest of my Nick Earls collection, I parted with $32.95. Nick points out that in the e-book future, that back-catalogue of his will always be available. Books will never go “out of print”. Nick is already thinking about tapping into the next big development, the e-novella. Longer than a short story, not quite the full novel, Nick says they will be the perfect length for a flight, selling for just a few dollars.

Of course, the role of publishers in all this has yet to be established but Nick says there will always be a need for editors “to tell me what I need to be told”! And then there are the bookshops, which recently marked the inaugural National Bookshop Day to promote the value of a wellinformed, well-read specialist bookseller. For now, they will continue to appeal to those, like me, who enjoy a physical browse, but you have to wonder about their long-term future.

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