Friday, August 8, 2014

The Death of the Printed Automotive Service Manual

As someone who has relied on printed automotive service manuals for many years, both as a do-it-yourselfer and as a former bookseller, the fact that printed manuals are—slowly but surely—suffering a slow death, became even more obvious a few days ago when the multi-function switch (MFS) that runs the turn-signals, windshield washer, and wipers on my 2006 Dodge Ram 1500, started to act up.

My first reaction was to take the truck to the local Dodge dealer and let them fix the problem, but the miser in me decided to wait until my next salvage yard excursion to try to locate a used one, for a fraction of the price.

A couple of weeks went by as the MFS continued to run the windshield wipers whenever it wanted to—while annoying the heck outta me—so I had to find a solution.

I searched online with hopes to find a working replacement MFS but instead—and totally by accident—I landed on a forum page where a member explained with words and clear photos, how to fix the existing switch.

So I walked out to the garage and followed the directions on how to remove the MFS from the steering column, then took it apart, cleaned it and applied fresh dielectric grease, reassembled the unit, and installed it back in my truck. A quick test proved that—for a total investment of approximately 20 minutes—I had solved the problem and saved a ton of time and money in the process.

I've also used similar forums and websites to learn how to replace, fix, or restore parts and components for my 1989 Turbo Trans Am, even though I own copies of Haynes and Chilton manuals, as well as the factory service manual supplement.

My point is: Are printed service manuals necessary any longer?

I totally get the "you don't need electricity to read a paper manual" argument; then again, you don't need electricity to search for answers online either, as long as you are using a smart phone or tablet, which—by the way—is how over 50% of online searches are conducted.

Not to mention that, if you happen to need a specific part, you can copy the description or part number, then go to Amazon, eBay, AutoZone, etc., and get the item ordered in a matter of seconds. Last time I checked, printed media does not allow for that.

But before you start throwing your old service manuals in the recycling bin, they do come in handy, especially factory manuals that include Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) part numbers, how many of those parts are required, torque specifications, and more. So I am sure that next time you rebuild your truck or car's engine, for example, you will want to have the factory manual handy.

Even cheaper alternatives, such as aftermarket repair manuals, can be helpful to a certain degree. I can attest to that fact. After all, I restored a 1975 Norton Commando 850 motorcycle back in the early '80s with the help of a printed DIY book.

Yes, there was no World Wide Web at the time so my options were limited to a black-and-white Clymer manual and the Haynes equivalent, but I was able to do the job following the step-by-step instructions and carefully studying the photos, exploded views, and diagrams. So I am not an anti-printed-DIY-literature zealot.

But that was 30-plus years ago, and today, manuals can be found in PDF format (some legit, the rest pirated) for a few bucks, plus the hundreds or—in some cases—thousands of detailed tutorials (both in text and video formats), carefully edited by hobbyists, enthusiasts, and even auto parts resellers, all over the planet, which are free of charge.

The other factor that, I believe, spells trouble for printed automotive DIY media, is speed.

This may be more applicable to aftermarket publishers instead of vehicle manufacturers, but the point is that enthusiast media channels will always have the upper hand as far as timeliness, not to mention the ability to provide video coverage on how to perform specific repairs, which put old printed repair manuals to shame.

Traditional automotive repair literature publishers will have to adapt or they may end up going the way of the buggy whip, vinyl record, or VHS tape, to name a few technologies that had they time in the limelight, only to be discarded the moment something better appeared.

I talked to an automotive DIY print media about two years ago and asked him about strategies his company was pursuing to maintain and grow their market share. His reply was that they were working on making all their printed manuals available online.

I guess that's a start, but his statement reminded me of a few large record companies trying to force consumers to purchase complete albums years ago, when people wanted to buy just one song. It took them a while to figure things out, and luckily for them, their industry is quite different than the DIY publishing industry, where talent is not necessarily a prerequisite for success and sales.