Who’s to Blame?
by Joel Naoum - April 7th, 2010
I was going to spend this post systematically going through all of Louise Adler’s terrible arguments against ebooks in this weekend’s National Times, or perhaps manufacture some kind of conspiracy theory because the comments on her post were closed after only three hours … but I’ve decided I’ve done enough immature ranting and name calling when it comes to the anachronistic dinosaurs of the publishing industry.
Instead I’d like to focus on a point that Ms Adler raised that I think is quite valid. That is: the range of books available to ebook buyers in Australia. Adler was specifically referring to the Kindle’s range, but it can be almost guaranteed that the same problems will plague Apple’s iPad when it launches in Australia later this month.
The catalogue is insular and American. Its vast catalogue is composed of obscure backlists and out-of-copyright titles and a disturbingly comprehensive list of self-published authors. Despite the belated local release of the device, no Australian titles are available in the Kindle “store”.
Aside from the fact that Adler is technically incorrect here (there are plenty of Australian titles available in the Kindle store), her frustration is understandable when you compare the Australian offering (less than 300,000 titles, a big chunk of which are out of copyright) with the fully fledged US Kindle Store (of over 450,000 titles). So who’s to blame for this situation?
I’ve read a lot of Australian commentary on the topic, and people (especially anonymous blog commenters) really like to say ‘they’. You know what I mean. ‘They really need to sort this out before they lose customers’. The slightly more informed split their contempt between Amazon and Australian publishers. Says one commenter on the tech blog, Gizmodo, ‘Amazon wants everyone to buy ebooks from them, so it’s obviously the publishers that are causing the problem.’ And another, responding to the same article: ‘Amazon does need to drag its rear into being global if it wants happy customers.’
The truth is that the situation has more than one side. Amazon can be given a pretty healthy portion of the blame for launching an ‘international’ Kindle without planning their relationships with local publishers first. Most of the publishing people I know in Australia knew about the release of the Kindle in Australia at the same time as the average punter who wanted to buy one. Amazon rushed in with half a Kindle store, and then sat back as Kindle buyers blamed publishing companies for the lack of content.
Publishers, on the other hand, do not get off scot free. In Australia, the importation of books by bookstores is restricted by parallel importation laws. Your local bookshop cannot buy a hundred crate-loads of Wilbur Smith books from the UK and then sell them on to you. However, there’s nothing stopping you from buying Assegai yourself from the US or the UK when you want it and at the cheapest price you can get it. This arrangement protects Australian publishers’ profits (the bulk of which comes from bookshops), and to some extent gives them the money to invest in publishing local Australian authors. It is territorial copyright backed up with legal import restrictions. However, this does not apply to ebooks. At all. There is currently no law stopping you from buying ebooks from international ebookstores, including the Kindle store. Nonetheless, almost all of these stores restrict people from buying books outside the copyright territory of their home country anyway.
Why? I don’t know for sure. It’s likely a combination of pressure from big international publishing corporations, and self-regulation to avoid legal import restrictions on ebooks. To an ordinary book buyer, however, this situation must seem absolutely absurd. Why should the format of the book (electronic or paper) determine whether or not you can legally buy it from Australia over the internet? The answer is that it shouldn’t. But it does. Doesn’t this go against the very idea of ebooks (and as Louise Adler so deftly put it – the ‘democratisation of knowledge’)? Probably, yes.
What this issue comes down to is the same question that fuelled the parallel importation debate that was getting publishers and booksellers all riled up last year. Do Australian publishers need protection, and if so, should they be protected? What is more important – cheap, convenient access to books, or the future viability of unique Australian stories (not to mention the jobs of editors, printers, typesetters and authors in this country)? There are no clear cut answers to these questions, but thinking about them is a lot more interesting than just shaking your fist at ‘them’ and pointing the finger.