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Wednesday
Mar092011

Borders without customers, Part II

Myth number 3: Book prices are expensive in Australia because publishers are evil money-grabbing, faceless conglomerates who want to take over the world.

This is a complicated one to unpack. Firstly, there’s the issue that a lot of book prices are left over from a twenty year-old economy where the Australian dollar was 40 or 50 cents to the American greenback. The book industry is also one of those rare, strange beasts where the identical product that was released twenty years ago is still being made and put out into the market, and the truth which everyone knows but few people have been willing to articulate is, well, things never really ever get cheaper. Which leads me to my second point: things have never really been cheap in Australia. We’re isolated, so we have to factor freight costs onto everything we import, and our population is tiny, which means we can’t produce in bulk and get the same wholesale discounts as the other bigger consumers. Our food, rent, and wages are all three times, if not more, than the dollar-equivalent in the US, another as a relic of that 1990s economy, though I’ve heard time and again the comment that the quality of things here is better, which could all be placebo effect, but the quality – the physical quality – of books certainly is. So many of my imported books are either printed on clumsy, public toilet paper-esque pages, or the thinnest Bible paper. I understand this may not factor in for a lot of people – they’re not buying a book for the paper stock, after all, but for the words and ideas contained therein – but it’s definitely a factor as to why locally produced and printed books cost more.

Thirdly, we are one of the only countries in the world to tax our books. The GST, that deceptaively doe-eyed 10%, knocked the wind out of the bookselling industry for years. Yeah, I know, anticlimax, but people never seem to factor this in either.

Remember when there was this whole movement about buying Australian products because even though they might be a more expensive, you were supporting local industry and jobs and your own economy, yadda yadda yadda? I must be getting old …

Myth number 4: The music industry went digital, survived piracy and hasn’t completely died, so what the fuck are you guys afraid of?

The music industry has “survived” thus far in that it has rolled with the punches (or been forced to) and evolved. But its battle with piracy and the digitsation isn’t really comparable to the one the book industries are facing right now. It’s a combination of the fact that digital text is a much smaller data size than music, and that we have faster internet speeds; you could potentially download entire libraries in an hour. When music piracy was starting out, there was an “effort barrier” – a single song, if you could find it  - could take you a while. It’s not really the same cultural or technological moment anymore.

I also suspect that, while music is much more freely or cheaply available to most people now and that the canon of popular musicians has expanded, the median yearly income of most musicians from their music has declined – some more than others obviously. Not only do consumers now have access to a lot of free music online, but they also have the option to purchase a single song off an album, spending perhaps two or three dollars in lieu of buying the whole album for twenty-something. Good for them, but less sustainable for the artist. Musicians can make money from performing and from ticket sales, etc. but no one wants to watch a writer write live on a stage. Author talks are about the closest you can get to a publishing equivalent, but it’s not really an option for lesser, unknown or emerging writers. Few people are interested in paying to see a writer they’ve never heard of, or who has never had a book published. The internet is changing this, and blogging platforms are becoming the writers’ performance space but it is not quite on the same scale.

Myth number 5: The death of the paper book is niiiiiigh.

So they say, and have been saying for some time. I think books will probably become more niche, and more of a luxury, which is unfortunate, but there are genres of books that will never go electronic, like children’s books (particularly educational titles) and a lot of nonfiction genres, like architecture portfolios and things where production value and physical form matter. I also think that the act of reading books is a multisensory experience – tactile and, if you believe certain people, olfactory, as well as visual – senses which we’ve not yet digitised, though the thought of it summons in me an image of near future cyborg humans with brain implants that can be triggered to create those experiences. Sounds like something out of science fiction … oh wait.

Brick-and-mortar bookshops on the other hand, are at a much higher risk of extinction, but only because so many of them are dinosaurs. It seems to me that the main advantage that brick-and-mortars have over internet retails is, and fundamentally always will be, the ability to provide instantly – so a bookstore with an on-the-ball buyer will go far. Even as physical books become more niche, I think, there will be always be a place for a well-targeted bookstore – technical and nonfiction stores, for example, or genre or cult bookstores that can generate and maintain a dedicated community.

As a last aside: I’m not hugely pro- or anti-parallel importation restriction, but I do think it’s hugely anachronistic. In Australia, we still have a charming law that dictates that if a local publisher does not release a book within 30 days of its overseas publication date, retailers are allowed to import it via international wholesalers. If it is to be released within 30 days, then they must wait. It’s essentially a law that is supposed to be protecting local industry – except that there is no such rule preventing consumers from buying from directly from international retailers if they don’t want to wait that 30 days, thus cutting out the middle man, which in turns cuts revenue from the publisher. So, if PIR stays in place, the retailers are hurt and publishers are hurt. If it goes, local publishers lose out, which affects local retail industry less directly but in the semi-long run will probably see the crippling of both. It’s not the law that’s the issue, though; it’s the model.

Finally, if you want to know what’s happening, or what’s going to happen, listen to what some of the industry professionals are saying. Read articles like this (except maybe skip Bob Carr’s insert; I get the impression that he’s slightly wacked). And don’t ever, little children, take what journalists say at face value. If there’s another industry that has not quite recovered from the digital revolution, it’s them.

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