So in my last post I tried to start a blog fight between me and JD of Book Bee. I even got Darryl from Oz E-Books to chime in. And JD responded. It would be easy to frame my response here as flogging a dead horse (or milking a cash cow), but I do think many of the points from these two worthy gentlemen are worth responding to.
First of all, there are two distinct issues here that are generally related (in that they are about books in Australia) but not fundamentally connected. These are basically: Why are books so expensive in Australia and why are we so behind the US in terms of ebooks availability?
I’ve discussed the parallel importation issue in other posts before, so I won’t go into a massive amount of detail here about it. But it should be mentioned here for the record that the economies of scale, when it comes to dead tree publishing and distribution, are vastly different to the UK and the US. Books are more expensive here because it is more expensive to make books and get them into stores. Both of those countries have Australia’s population several times over and relative to this have a much smaller amount of area to spread their distribution networks. They also have healthier competition between retailers than Australia, where the vast majority of our books are sold through a couple of chain stores and department stores. Despite this we do have a healthy publishing industry, and unlike many other small countries have a stable of homegrown authors who make their living from writing books. The decision of whether to end the protection of Australian publishing is a complex one, and I don’t pretend to be an authority on it. But it is not intimately connected to the ebook issue JD originally posted about, and it does not mean there is an Australian publishing conspiracy.
JD contends that his theory (that publishing companies have strategically stopped the rise of ebooks in Australia in order to skim profits from the dying paper book industry) has been confirmed by his publishing insider. Not only do I think that a single insider is not in a position to confirm an industry-wide practice that basically amounts to a price fixing cartel, I have asked multiple people in the industry since this discussion began and all have denied it and are utterly confused by the accusation in the first place. Quite aside from that, it’s just common sense. Publishing companies are businesses and are constantly seeking new revenue streams. People can argue all they like that publishers are slow to the ebook party, but there is not a conspiracy against ebooks in order to retain the ‘cash cow’ of paper book publishing. There is no cash cow. Book profits in Australia are just enough to retain a local industry, whether or not you think books are overpriced. Publishers would never ignore a potential revenue stream. There isn’t enough money in the industry for them to ignore ebooks, but there also isn’t enough money in ebooks for them to have invested heavily in it.
That’s right – there’s no money in ebooks right now, and Australian publishers are not on the raggedy edge of the worldwide ebook frontier. Most Australian publishers only employ one or two people to work on the digital side of their business. They could have invested more a lot earlier, but, for the same reason that our books are more expensive, the economies of scale here in Australia are different. No Australian retailer invented an ereader or pushed it to consumers like Amazon did with the Kindle in the US. Sony still doesn’t distribute their first-to-the-party ereader in this country. Publishers may be slow to change and slow to embrace new technologies, but they need to have a foundation on which to build. Despite the assertions of early adopters like JD, there is no massive grassroots demand for ebooks that has been ignored wholesale by the publishing industry. Until last November, when the Kindle arrived here, there was not even a device that more than a handful of people actually owned. Many Australian publishers have made their books available digitally to the book buying public for years, but they have barely sold a single copy, even through ebook stores that have been open for years (like Dymocks and Ebooks.com). That’s because there are not enough people out there buying ebooks – and there have not been devices to read them on. Until this year, the vast majority of ebooks sold in Australia to Australians were read on laptops. And that was a vanishingly small number.
So to summarise – chill out. The world is changing. It’s just not changing fast enough for some of us. But that’s OK. Ebooks are taking off in a big way, and everyone in the industry realises this. Those who haven’t moved fast enough up until now will fail. There is no need – or grounds – to blame any single group for how things are. We can look forward to a day in the very near future where we will be able to buy in seconds virtually any book ever written electronically. That is enough of an achievement for a very short decade.