Sitting in the comfort of the kitchen in the basement of the Victorian terraced house which doubles as home and workplace, John Hatt explains how he came to be both a writer and publisher of travel books. It happened by accident. "I worked at one time as a publisher's rep, selling books around the country and doing some editing work. At one point I decided to take a sabbatical, and spent some months in Asia, Africa, and the US. I have always had this compulsion to give advice and a publisher friend of mine asked if I would do a chapter of a book of advice for travellers -The Tropical Traveller. Then he commissioned me to write the whole book." That led to requests from the odd magazine for travel articles. "But it has been an entire accident because I have always disliked writing." While writing the book, Hatt discovered that there were many travel books out of print which he felt should be republished, "I started a company to bring some superb books of travel literature back to life. My misjudgment was not to hoover them all up at once, as I was immediately copied by about twelve other publishers."
The company he started was called Eland, and initially consisted only of Hatt himself and an assistant. It has, however, grown "organically" over the years.
"It began as travel literature, but I have branched out, mainly because I was determined to publish really good books - readable books from beginning to end. I follow my own enthusiasms."
Hatt has been described as a traditionalist, and believes in good literature. But this does not preclude an interest in the medium of the Internet, on which his company has its own home page, which boldly states "If you don't like any Eland title, please send it back to us, and we will refund the purchase price." What was attractive to him about the world of electronic publishing?
This was another accident, but one which has led to his conversion. "I'm a sort of 'born again' publisher", he remarks. An American magazine approached Hatt to write for it for 'a very large sum of money'. He agreed, and to his delight was then offered more money if he was prepared to write for the magazine online - providing a traveller's agony column. Clueless as to what 'online' and 'the Internet' meant, but intrigued and lured by the money on offer, Hatt hired a computer guru. There followed a period of "absolute misery" for someone whose primary delight was in discovering old books and publishing new ones. "Everything was on this steep learning curve. Unfortunately you are not learning about one thing only, you are learning about newsgroups, e-mail, and so on. I must say that it caused my assistant and myself a great deal of distress."
The online magazine folded after only one session, but by then Hatt had undergone his conversion and was madly enthusiastic about the Internet. He agrees that there is huge amount of useless information published on it, but feels that this is irrelevant because of the small percentage of good material out there, and the potential of the medium as a whole. "It's absolutely mind-blowing. I'm quite Messianic about it, I think there are so many aspects of the Internet that will be beneficial. The employment of disabled people in their homes springs immediately to mind - but there are thousands of other ways in which society will benefit."
The Eland pages have been live for two or three months only. Hatt admits that he has not sold many books over the Internet, but he is excited by the interest which has been shown by people who would not otherwise have bought, or even looked at, the books he publishes. It seems there is a great deal of potential for passing trade on the Net.
Drawing on his business instincts and his new-found zeal for networking, Hatt has recently set up another business entirely on the Internet. Cheap Flights provides a travel information resource. Flight prices are advertised for the different airlines and agents, together with links to sites giving information about the various destinations. The site generates income by taking advertising from the various airline companies and agents.
Advertising, at present is the only realistic way to make money out of the Net. Hatt's next plan is to publish The Tropical Traveller online, chapter by chapter. It, too, would include advertising, thus generating revenue to offset income lost to book sales.
Fine, but is an online book still a book? Hatt is a great believer in the book as object d'art. His are published only on good quality, acid-free, cream-coloured paper. The bindings are sewn as well as glued, providing wider gutter margins which improve the page appearance as well as making the book much stronger. "No - of course you cannot translate the pleasure of handling a beautiful book to the Internet. But you can still deliver the content. It's a lesser experience, but very convenient for all that." He feels that the format of his book lends itself to electronic publishing, as it is designed to be dipped into. "I can't imagine anyone would conceivably want to print the whole thing out, but they may want to print out the page on malaria for example, or on buying flight tickets ... The screen really is not a nice medium for reading, in any sort of a way. There is no danger whatsoever for a good book."
A bigger danger, for Eland as a recreational publisher, is that the reading habit among the general population has decreased because of television, video and now the Internet. Nevertheless, the Net provides undreamt of possibilities for marketing books. Millions of Internet users are now potential Eland customers (provided they have their credit cards to hand), and browsers of Net resources, who happen to share Hatt's esoteric interests, stumble across his books through the use of search engines. "It gives our books a whole new lease of life".
My final question involves a spot of map-reading, with the help of the professional travel writer. Any advice for the traveller about to embark on the jungle of the UK rail network? "Take a good book."