Saturday, September 18, 2010

E-books, books and the pain of being Australian

Let me introduce myself. My name is Darryl Adams, and I am a frustrated writer. It is only by accident that I discovered that I can write about technology in general and e-books in particular, so logically I find myself writing in a blog full of writers that are way better than me.

A famous joke (and yes it is funnier if you’re an Aussie and not a Queenslander) is an airline pilot telling his passengers “Welcome to Queensland. Turn your clocks back 1 hour and your mind back 20 years”. That, in a nutshell, is the Australian book marketplace.

We are a book colony of the United Kingdom. I have been told anecdotally that we represent about 50% of the book sales for the UK publishing houses. The Aussie publishers (generally owned by British publishers) own the distribution system. As a result, book prices are high, and local retailers are low on the totem pole compared to the big retailers.

The small independent book retailers are in a world of hurt. One side is the high book prices and poor supply fulfilment of the locally supplied books, and other is the mail order book retailers like Amazon and Book Depository who can sell and mail a book and still offer a price half the local book price.

E-books are another issue. The Kindle has only been available for about a year (when the Kindle was released internationally), and the Amazon bookstore is only a small subset of books available to the US public and are more expensive in comparison.

The other local e-book retailers (ebooks.com, ebookbop.com and readwithoutpaper.com) again have many books unavailable for Aussie readers. Price wise the local e-book retails are more expensive, with some books approaching paperback prices.

The Apple ibook platform for iPhone and iPad only offer Public Domain books. Apple has advertised for a local book manager, but it will take time for Apple to negotiate agreements with the publishing houses.

The only bright spot in the marketplace is Borders and Whitcoull (under the REDGroup banner). They have partnered with Kobo to release a reader and are slowly working to have a robust range of books for sale. The Kobo reader is a good reader, but is currently way overpriced (A$199 and NZ$250) as we are not seeing the massive price drops that that US is seeing at the moment.

Other readers are slowly being released, from the impressive Kogan reader to a range of disappointing LCD and e-ink readers that lack the DRM systems required to use locally purchased e-books.

For me, books are content. Either paper or e-ink, the words are still the same, it is just the delivery system that is different. I bought a copy of Dave Freer’s (and I believe Mercedes Lackey and Eric Flint may have supplied the pens) Much Fall of Blood in both ARC e-book and hardcover. Mainly because I wanted it now! And when I reread it, I ont have to think hard what format I want to read it in. What I don’t want is to have the choices of how I read a book taken away from me, and DRM, format lock-in, poor pricing, bad delivery mechanisms (wither in the real world or digitally) and propriety applications/devices/software actively do this. Or to say it simply, almost all of Australian book market is against me. It as if the WANT me to buy foreign sourced books.

And if the publishers, distributors, authors and retails finally work this out and get their act together in the United States or United Kingdom, odds on it will be 20 years before the Antipodes see it…..

Links:
www.borders.com.au (Borders AU)
www.whitcoull.co.nz (Whotcoull NZ)
www.koboreader.com (Kobo reader)
http://www.kogan.com.au/shop/category/ebook-readers/ (The Kogan Reader)
http://www.officeworks.com.au/retail/products/Technology/Ebooks-and-
Digital-Pens/Ebooks
(Some of the less than impressive e-book readers available.)
www.baen.com (Nuff said)

You can find more of Darryl's thoughts about e-books and publishing in general at http://oz-e-books.com/

13 comments:

Brendan said...

Although I like seeing Australian editions, and I believe there is a place for maintaining editorial standards that are particular to our shores, it is I am afraid a lost cause.

Fewer and fewer books are getting an Aussie print run(especially genre) and sometimes even when they are, apart from the publishers info in the first few pages nothing is changed. I bought a David Brin's "Kiln People" and they didn't even bother running it through a spell check to change color to colour.

Especially for e-books the system is an anachronism, and when you consider how fast the e-book market is growing, there are a lot of industry people who need to pull their fingers out and get to work.

Kate said...

I feel your pain - being a transplanted Aussie living in the USA I remember all too well the limited availability of just about anything interesting in Oz.

Of course, having just got back from the major odyssey of Worldcon plus visit to the Freer Adventure (http://flindersfreer.blogspot.com) plus visit to family in Brisbane, I'm not exactly 100% coherent, to say the least.

The most positive thing I can offer is that sooner or later the international carving out of virtual territory will go away because it's not supportable. Unfortunately before it does it's going to get very ugly and hurt a lot of people.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

AH!Walk a mile in my shoes. In Portugal, growing up, the taxes on foreign books were SO bad I used to troll the big downtown hotels for the books people discarded after reading.

I think e books will be a good thing for everyone. And that you're just a couple of years behind us. We've moved faster than I could hope on the readers.

MataPam said...

I could hope Australia could catchup by skipping some intermediate steps involving propriatory formats and excessive DRM and non-compatable readers and . . .

But it never happens that way.

voradams said...

Thanks for the replies!

The people I really feel sorry for are the Canadians. They seem to miss out all the good things despite having a shared border to the powerhouse of content that is the US of A.

I don't know if a world market is feasible, if only for translating costs. And I would hate to see the whole world being forced into reading or speaking english just so they can get access to popular culture.

I do like e-books, but I also like specialty genre bookstores, and the pressures of e-books, high prices and stunningly cheap imports are not helping the independent retailers.

I would be curious to see how Amazon and Book Depository impacts UK and US markets

David Barron said...

Soon enough I'll have amassed enough wealth to run an international e-publishing house. There needs to be some new blood in this stagnant water, the sharks are getting bored.
Luckily, I'm literally full of blood.

It's the Golden Age of Internet Pulp, people. Come with me!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

HI Adam,

I'm seeing more and more people on the train reading e-books, from I take it to mean that your average reader is open to e-books and even swinging in that direction.

Being nosey, I say Hi and ask them about their e-readers. They are always enthusiastic about how many books the e-reader can hold.

I suspect, being dedicated readers, they like the idea of access to 100 or 1000 books in the palm of their hand, without the weight of the books.

Dave Freer said...
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Dave Freer said...
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Dave Freer said...

Hi Darryl - I think there are some positives about the step back twenty years (and my home, it's step back 50 - not all bad either) - and it's exploiting those positives that does so well for the UK publishers -- Australians read. Even at the prices of books here, they read a lot. Compared to South Africans they're book-o-holics. And that is good for the people and the country. The point is reading is a habit (both in the drug use and pattern of behaviour sense). And like most drug habits unless actually a steadily increasing dose required... and if broken, it tends to be replaced (by other habits). Recapturing lost readers is possible, but not easy.

Most people actually have a fixed limit in their book-budget. In the normal course of things they gradually have a little more money to spend as they age, and this budget does expand slowly - however, when working out what people will spend, pick a fixed figure, and that's probably it. Making books more expensive just cuts the number of books bought (oddly making them cheaper often makes people overshoot the budget... because if it's only another 5 bucks... whereas if it's another 25 they'll be strong.) That's actually a SHORT TERM profitable arrangement for publishers, retailers and a small number of authors, to sell as little for as much as possible. Of course long term it's bad for everyone. You'll head into South Africa scenario, where prices have actually come down, whole book-store chains have gone extinct, publishing is a disaster area, and even among people of like education to the average Australian, (and not those who actually couldn't read if they wished to - a great education system SA has) reading is rare. True, those readers do still buy. But it's been a lose-lose-lose situation for everyone.

Being both an addict and producer, and a looking to the future sort of guy, this is not what I want to see in my new country. So as far as I see, the only hope of turning this situation is that e-books become cheap and available - without the excuses that local industry has now (I am not going to say who is guilty - except it's not small indepentent bookstores or small publishing or authors - these are people who take prices, not make prices.) As you say - At the moment they certainly are not riding the wave. I'm not surprised that Australians who read a lot are turning to the Book Depository (at Worldcon everytime I spoke to an Australian reader they told me about how good it was - and how they were spending MORE on books, because of it) or international e-books where they can. The trouble is the industry is losing day-by-day the many who don't find these alternatives. Which is kind of why I keep telling readers about Baen and Naked Reader.

Dave Freer said...

Oh, and by the way, let me add an endorsement for http://oz-e-books.com/ if you are Australian and interested in e-books especially, but also for you blokes that live in the rest of the world.

Chris said...

This same issue has been driving me mad for the past few years. I didn't really notice the massive disparity in pricing between AUS/UK and US prints until I started working in a scifi/fan bookstore... Then I saw the invoices, and was shocked.

Not only does it cost us less to buy US prints and have them express shipped to Melbourne than buy Aussie prints and have them driven over the road... but they arrive faster, too. US distributors are more organised, more courteous, get their product to you ASAP and are happy to refund you any damaged or missing books. Dealing with Aussie distribs, on the other hand, is a nightmare. They ship us important titles weeks after the launch date, send cartons of torn and water damaged stock, and then refuse to do refunds because we're too small of a store. What are we supposed to do with 50 copies of Brisinger that arrive a fortnight AFTER the big midnight launch?

Aussie publishers, with perhaps only one exception, are a lost cause because they're a bloated and slipshod enterprise. They need a serious kick up the pants before they choke on their own ineptitude and die off entirely.

Brendan said...

Chris, I would have hoped the Productivity Commission's recommendations to open Aus to imports would have been a wake up call for publishers but it seems not.

{begin protectionism rant}

Time after time in Aus we see industries use protectionism as an excuse for Business As Usual and that means invariably they become so out of touch retailers and consumers will pay the added cost of importing rather than deal with lazy second rate industries.

In fact, I believe, that the industries with protected status owe us Worlds Best Practice, both as consumers and tax payers. Why should we give a quid if we get no pro quo?