Monday, October 11, 2010

Kindle Surprise



The other day I was walking into town and bumped into a friend of my sister's, who happens to be an avid reader and she always asks how my writing's going and from there – not least because she always has a book in hand - we usually end up talking about what we've been reading lately. On this occasion I answered that I was reading some Jules Verne (Mysterious Island – seen the film, never read it before) and showed her my shiny new Kindle, on which said work resided along with two or three other e-books that represented my earliest purchases from the Kindle store.

Whereupon this lady, who is really funny in all the best possible ways, backed away and held up her fingers in the sign of a cross and, like a true exorcist, urged me to return to the world of real books.

I laughed, discreetly tucked the offending device away in my pocket and promised I'd still read proper books as well.

The funny thing is, it probably wouldn't have been all that long ago that I might have reacted like her. Call me a literary Luddite, but when it comes to reading there's no real substitute for the feel of a paper book in your hand and anyway, after my experiences of so much proofreading of other people's work on authonomy, I think I'd rather have gouged my eyes out than read another document off a computer screen. Add to that my lifelong dreams of publication and an e-book just doesn't cut it from an author's perspective either.

When I think of the trees that have died to bring us the works of Katie Price and others, well, my material's worth many a rainforest next to that, damn it. But setting those green sentiments aside, nothing beats seeing your books on the shelves and I've always looked forward to the day when I could add volumes of my original works next to my previous Doctor Who output and so on that currently have their own little shelf at home.

So when others recommended I publish one of my own works on Kindle, I stopped short of making the sign of the cross, but was sceptical and resistant to say the least. But after a prolonged period of coming up against similarly resistant publishers and agents – the two worst forms of writers' block – you owe it to yourself to investigate alternatives.

These same agents and publishers were, after all, telling me that my work was “excellent”, “colourful, imaginative, well-written” etc and declaring that as an author I should be encouraged. All the while, in spite of those endorsements, acting as barriers between my books and potential readers. Nervous because of the state of the industry, ridiculously high advances paid to a select few (like the Katie Prices) whose books end up immediately discounted in the windows of WHSmith and the inevitable reservations when met with anything original. (Wot no Teen Vampires?)

Now if I'd had the resources, I might have set up as an independent publisher, but at the end of the day I'm a writer and I was cautioned by an independent publishing friend that basically I'd end up with little or no time left for writing. Not good. On top of which, I doubt I would have been able to produce books at a comparably affordable price to compete with the mass marketed slush pile known as popular fiction.

Time then for me to embrace the 21st Century. (In a purely Platonic way, you understand.)

Me being me, if I was going to publish some work of mine on Kindle, I was going to treat myself to a Kindle gadget.

Now I do like gadgets, it's true. And you might suppose a certain bias on my part, since I have now made one of my books available on the device, but this is not a sales pitch – you don't need a Kindle to enjoy my book, you can download the software free to your PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad and what have you – no, it's more just a shared revelation, in that I can't quite believe how quickly a staunch paperback traditionalist like me has become a convert to the e-reading experience.

Admittedly, it's still early days and any toy has a degree of novelty value, so maybe my current enthusiasm will wear off. Allowing for that then, I am impressed.

The Kindle is a good deal slimmer and lighter weight than I'd expected and, especially for something grey and rectangular, it's an elegant design. First and foremost though, it's the reading experience that won me over. There's no screen glare, it's as easy on the eye as reading a cleanly printed page and the refresh rate means the delay between pages is no more than you get from physically turning a paper page.

Obviously it scores in the portability department over a paperback and I'm not entirely sure how many books you can store on it, but I'm pretty sure it's more than my entire collection. (And I have too many books for our shelf space at home.) Plus you can 'archive' books that you've read and they're removed from the device but available to re-download at the touch of a button. The downloads, by the way, are very fast and the range of titles available (now including Evil UnLtd folks ;-) ) is , well, what you'd expect from Amazon really. It's tempting to spend more time browsing than reading, almost too easy with its one-touch purchasing, and you could spend a fortune on books without feeling it at all. Luckily I confined myself initially to the 'FREE' list – and even though some titles on the list will cost you £0.49 for example it's been a great way to catch up on some classics without breaking the bank. Meanwhile there are plenty of other titles I already have my eye on and it has genuinely reawakened my reading habit, which can only be a good thing.

In addition, you can email your own documents (Word, PDF) to the device, and make notes on them, so potentially ideal for proofreading. I'm aiming to put that to the test on Evil Vol 2 and a new YA fiction idea I'm developing, I'll let you know how that goes. Supposedly there's also an MP3 player on there, but I've yet to put that through its paces. It's not crucial, and I honestly would be happy with it as a dedicated e-reader.

The downsides? The keyboard is serviceable for the little I've needed it so far, although numerical digits are only accessible via a 'Symbol' key and that can be a minor nuisance. Far more grating, I gave the speaking book feature a whirl and frankly it made a hash of it. It struggles with pace and intonation, 'just a bit'. The words were discernible, but – no offence – unless you relish the prospect of Stephen Hawking reading you your book at bedtime, I wouldn't bother. (Although listening to it read the first page of Evil UnLtd last night did provide some entertainment value.) Maybe technology will allow for a voice of your chosing – Holly Hunter or Emily Procter would get my vote. Or, for Evil, Stephen Fry, Richard E Grant or Benedict Cumberbatch could do a worthy Dexter Snide, I think. Yeah, a voice to suit the work, that'd be the way to go.

Since I don't need that feature, it's not a real gripe. So my only proper grumbles arise from an author's viewpoint. It's not the uploading of your work that's a problem, that's as easy as pie. But, and I appreciate I'm a learner here, while the conversion process from PDF (or Word) to Kindle is a breeze, there are formatting issues and I had to download the resulting HTML and edit that in order to polish my processed MS to presentable standard. (This after the original doc – and hence the PDF – had been polished and smartened to the nth degree.) It wasn't anything major, but I did have to go through and check every line break and scene break etc, and then each time changes were made and I uploaded the altered document, it could take anything up to another 48 hours before the book was 'live' again on the Amazon Kindle site.

So, a bit fiddly in that respect, but that's the process for the author, rather than the device. And as I say, I'm a learner, and I'll know by the time it comes to uploading Evil Vol 2 (this time next year, Evil fans!) to attend to all the relevant formatting changes in one go before re-uploading. Also, once I'd finished smartening up the document, I had some trouble downloading the updated version, since the device still retained the old version in its archive. Happily, the Kindle support people were prompt and helpful and emailed the updated version direct to my Kindle. Sorted.

And I have to say, all bias aside, it looks the business. (Obligatory plug here: take a look – you can download a sample for free. Also available on Amazon.com, for readers across the Atlantic.)

It's true that I still aim to see Evil UnLtd – and other works from yours truly – in paper form, a nice collection of spines all in a row on the bookshelf. Luverly. But in the meantime I'm at least happy that now some of my work is out there and available to readers because, well, that's the whole point, isn't it.

But the biggest turnaround for me – and the biggest surprise – is how readily I've become a convert to the electronic age of reading. I love it. Just don't tell my sister's friend that. She'll likely drive a wooden stake through my heart and chop off my head.

1 comment:

iCowboy said...

The only thing wrong with Kindle is that it puts Amazon in the position of being both the hardware manufacturer and the sole distributor of the software (the books). This is not generally good either for the health of the market or the customer as it will eventually squeeze competition out and leave Amazon with a stranglehold on the whole book market.

And I don't know if Amazon are a bit more rigorous on checking eBooks before they are put on their site than Waterstone's (who handle the Sony operation in the UK), but a serious number of books are shoddily converted (I'm sure yours is just perfect). Bizarrely, a number of them appear to have been converted from print to eText by optical scanning - it's the only way to explain some the bizarre characters that appear in the eBooks.

The Kindle is a very nice bit of kit - even if it's not quite as well screwed together as the Sony Readers it has an unbeatable business model. Want a book? One click and it is yours - which turns into a very, very expensive habit if you're as fickle reader as me. And then there's the borderline spooky syncing of books across devices - read a book on one machine and pick up another Kindle compatible device? It's there, 'open' at the page you left off.

The lovely bit about both of them is that the batteries just keep going. My Sony has just dropped to 50% charge after a week involving some serious hanging around reading at various airports, hotels and coffee shops. You can literally take one on holiday (erm - on a business trip) and not worry about needing to charge it. Brilliant.

BTW. You can put content on to your Kindle without going via Amazon. Documents already in Kindle or Mobipocket format can be dumped on the machine using a USB cable. And that might get you more free titles whose copyrights have expired outside the UK. Project Gutenberg has a good selection:

http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page