PIR – What is it and why should you care?

What the? you ask. This doesn’t sound very Christmassy. That’s because it’s not, really. But it is bookish and certainly something you should think about as you ponder over those last mSaving Aussie Books Againinute literary Christmas gifts.

There’s a sinister little acronym doing the rounds again, which deserves your attention, PIR. Parallel Importation Restrictions, is not a simple concept to grasp in 60 seconds but worth trying to understand.

It means the restriction of massive numbers of remaindered or unsold books published overseas, often to an inferior, unfaithful quality to their original Australian counterparts into our marketplace and thereby destroying consumer choice, suffocating the Australian publishing industry and most devastatingly of all, crippling the Australian literary scene by altering and stifling authentic Aussie voice and language. (Told you this wasn’t straightforward!)

Peter Carnavas PIREssentially, if you love stories, love books, and love reading, then the removal of these importation restrictions can and will affect you. Children’s author illustrator, Peter Carnavas describes the impact on the children’s literary scene in a recent blog post issued by Saving Aussie Books AGAIN. His words reverberate similar sentiments held by many in the Kids’ Lit world.

‘As a children’s author/illustrator, I know the huge impact that my books and other Australian books have on children, inspiring them to develop a love of reading.

If PIRs are removed, so many Australians will lose out – authors, illustrators, publishers, independent booksellers, teachers, librarians, parents and, most of all, children. It is a move that will only disadvantage these stakeholders and weaken Australian culture.

I am just one of hundreds of Australian children’s book creators that would be forced to reconsider the viability of making children’s literature.

We already receive minimal earnings, dedicating ourselves to what we do through our passion for promoting literature and stories to children.

This decision would cripple our efforts to put wonderful stories into the hands of Australian kids.’

Sheryl GwytherThis battle, vehemently fought and won back in 2009 continues, as Sheryl Gwyther, seasoned author for children and staunch advocate against parallel imports states, ‘the war rages on!’

‘The surest way anything positive happens is through People Power, and that means you, me and everyone in our industry who cares about Australian children’s books and young readers.

Lifting the Restrictions against Parallel Import threatens all those Australian publishers who took the risk of publishing the books in the first place and who invested in the development, editing and publication of the books.

There have been massive cutbacks to our industry – this will add so many more difficulties and restrictions. Less money means less books published, less new authors, less risks taken at all levels of authorhood.

‘The most insidious threat from Parallel Imports is how Australian children’s picture books and novels that have been Americanised would be allowed into this country and sold in competition with the Australian versions.’

Boomerang Books banner-boomerSo what, you may be asking. Story is story. If you have the option to buy a cheaper ‘version’ of the same story, why not? Sure, many books are sourced online nowadays but there are still sites, such as this one, Boomerang Books which are Australian owned and operated and offer original Australian content and titles at discounted prices.

Opting for the severely discounted, ‘altered’ overseas versions of our Australian stories found in discount chain stores further depletes a uniquely faceted yet delicate culture already challenged by a gamut of Americanisms. Of course, it’s the Z Generation that concerns writers and illustrators for children most. Children risk further literacy confusion. Parents will not be able to identify imported copies from the ‘real deal’ with ease and confidence. Essential settings, sense of place and character idioms will disappear from our language and when that happens, a people as a whole alter inextricably.

‘Books written in our country give Australian children insights into our unique culture; those books speak our language, colloquialisms, our English-Australian spelling, even common words (like Mum instead of Mom; pavement instead of sidewalk; tap instead of faucet, and so many more), our Aussie humour that Australians ‘get’, but is mostly misunderstood overseas, and most of all a subtleties in picture books that I have seen changed in Australian books to suit the American market.PIR sign the petition logo

We can’t influence those adaptations in another country nor would we have the right to, but we can stop the remaindered copies that failed to sell in the US being dumped into the Australian market and sold cheaply in bookshops, ‘masquerading’ as the authentic versions.’

If the repeal to drop current restrictions on parallel imports is successful, the effect for Australian readers, let alone those whose livelihoods revolve around producing those reads, will be knee-breakingly devastating. To petition this very real threat to (y)our reading-way-of life, please take a moment to consider the impact by reading through Saving Aussie Books AGAIN. Visit the petition site, here. Support our beautifully diverse, colourful reading culture and all those whose dreams and stories create it by signing on-line. And please, please, do it before it’s too late.

Excerpts, quotes and images included from Saving Aussie Books and Saving Aussie Books AGAIN used with permission.

The views represented in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of Boomerang Books

 

What the Failure of REDgroup Means for Ebooks in Australia

Anyone who follows book news cannot have failed to hear about the collapse of REDgroup’s Borders and Angus & Robertson bookchains last week. But what does this mean for ebooks? Depending on who you listen to ebooks are one of the causes of REDgroup’s slide into administration. But is this true? Are ebooks destroying the common dead tree bookseller? And did video kill the radio star? Read on to find out more.

For those who don’t know, Kobo is a Canadian ebook platform that partnered with Borders in the United States, and Borders/A&R in Australia. As I said back at Christmas, it may not have been the brightest move on Kobo’s part to tie themselves so closely to Borders, but they did. And that means that even though Kobo is not REDgroup, they will suffer some of the consequences of the collapse, including the withdrawal of books by some publishers from their joint library.

Although I’ve complained about the Kobo ereader and their flaky platform before, they were the only real competitor to Amazon’s Kindle ecosystem and Apple’s iBookstore. They were unique in Australia because their partnership with Borders brought them mainstream, nationwide legitimacy and a physical retail presence – something neither Apple nor Amazon can compete with. From all reports this partnership has been relatively successful – it was one of the few areas of their business that REDgroup wasn’t entirely bungling. This is part of the reason why ebooks cannot be blamed for the collapse: like it or not ebooks are still only about 1% of the industry here in Australia – and REDgroup had already carved themselves a healthy chunk of that 1%. While that number is growing very fast, ebooks are not putting booksellers out of business just yet.

No, what destroyed REDgroup was incompetence and greed. While various pundits have tried to blame parallel importation, the GST, and even the internet as a whole – the fact of the matter is that REDgroup are the only Australian bookseller currently under administration. And while plenty of booksellers are struggling, they haven’t had fraught relationships with suppliers for the last twelve months, and they haven’t been jacking the prices of their books up over RRP. And they haven’t been selling barbecues instead of books.

Regardless of the outcome of REDgroup’s period under administration, the Borders brand has been seriously tarnished by this collapse, and that’s only going to get worse with issues like the recent decision not to honour customer book vouchers. You can safely predict that Kobo’s ascendancy in Australia will be slowed for a while to come.

So where does that leave ebook buyers and readers? Or rather – where does it leave readers who don’t want to submit to the Amazon or Apple gulag platforms? Well, with the recent news that Google are looking to partner with groups of retailers rather than individual booksellers, things on the indie front appear to look a bit bleak. But it’s not all doom and gloom. The annual post-Christmas survey in Bookseller+Publisher demonstrated that while the dead tree book industry is trembling under the threat of a shrinking market – ebook readers and ebook sales are healthy and growing. Not only that, but 40% of booksellers not already selling ebooks are planning to do so in the next year. This is great news for readers – with the freeze of Borders/Kobo, there is a lot of room for new growth. And new growth in books can only be a good thing.

As a culture, we’re currently undergoing one of the largest paradigm shifts in cultural consumption ever. It is now more than any other time that we cannot afford to have dead weight like REDgroup dragging the rest of us down. So I say the king is dead – long live the king.

Where in the World is Lisbeth Salander Pt 2

In my last post I wrote about the issues facing ebook distribution in Australia as it pertains to territorial copyright and parallel importation. To recap: the current situation is that if I want to buy an ebook that is published by a US or UK publisher in Australia it is more than likely impossible. I can buy the Australian version of that ebook where it is available, but I cannot (except in the very rare case where the overseas publisher owns worldwide digital rights) buy the overseas version, even when that ebook is not published electronically by an Australian publisher. Even when the ebook’s Australian rights have not been purchased at all, it is still more than likely impossible to buy that book in Australia. This all despite the fact that I can buy any paper book from any publisher anywhere in the world and have it posted to my front door.

It’s a very complicated issue that faces all publishers worldwide. In fact, it is an ongoing issue with all producers of digital content. Digital TV streamed overseas through services like Hulu and the BBC’s iPlayer are not available in Australia at any cost. Music services like Spotify and Pandora are also not available here due to territorial copyright restrictions. There is no obvious solution to this problem, but in this post I’ll cover some of the reasons why this occurs.

The main reason ebook availability is so patchy at the moment is time. When Amazon (the biggest seller of ebooks in the world, and the first mainstream ebook retailer to enter the market in this country) first made the Kindle available to Australians in November 2009, they had not approached any Australian publishers to organise the distribution of ebook files and organise sales contracts. They did not, in fact, begin speaking to Australian publishers about terms until well into 2010. Concurrently, Amazon’s agreements with US publishers specified what copyright territories they were allowed to sell to – and most of these did not include Australia. Amazon decided not to mess with territorial copyright law (which, as I pointed out in the last post, are a legal grey area when it comes to ebooks) and honoured territorial copyright.

For the most part, that problem has now been fixed, but there was a massive delay in distribution that is still being felt by consumers looking to buy the newest releases for their Kindle or other ereaders even now. Given time, many ebooks that were not available at the launch of your favourite ebook reader or are not available straight after the print release date will eventually be sorted. The same goes for older backlist titles that have not yet had their rights cleared to be published in electronic form in Australia. This is a massive administrative and legal issue that most publishers around the world are slowly and surely dealing with, and it’s not something unique to Australia. Given time and resources, publishers the world over will sort it out and a greater range of titles will be available to everyone.

Having said that, this problem is representative of a larger issue. Why should Australian publishers be scrambling to get territory-specific rights to ebooks and inefficiently doubling (or tripling, or quadrupling) the workload when virtually identical ebook files are being created by their counterparts in the UK and US and they are all being sold from the same international retailer? You can kind of understand how it can be more efficient for publishers to print books in the country they sell them to, and you can understand why Australian publishers would look after the ebook files of Australian authors, but for identical electronic files to be produced and supplied separately to the exact same international retailers? It’s madness.

So why is it happening, and how can the industry as a whole move towards a more global system? And perhaps more importantly, should they? The answers to those questions essentially boil down to the same issue. Australia’s publishing industry is protected by the government with the enforcement of parallel importation restrictions; these restrictions enable Australian publishers to print more books locally, giving jobs to editors, printers, publicists, sales representatives, typesetters and, of course, authors. If we are moving towards a system in which a significant proportion of the books sold are electronic, and we give up on that protection of the industry, it will inevitably shrink. If Australian publishers make less money, they will likely publish fewer Australian authors, and fewer Australians will be employed in the publishing industry as a whole.

As a person employed by the publishing industry, my bias is for protection. Nonetheless, I do think consumers have a point when they complain that the US Kindle store has almost twice as much content as the Australian store – a restriction that is purely about protecting revenue streams rather than technical limitations. So if we assume that publishers are going to continue to protect these revenue streams, and that the current system will, for the most part, function as it is – what can be done to make it fairer for ebook readers?

Join me in the thrilling conclusion of this series of posts about ebooks and the fascinating world of territorial copyright, as I uncover some of the potential (and partial) solutions to this problem.

Where in the World is Lisbeth Salander? Pt 1

Those who have dipped their toes into the chilly waters of ebook purchasing have likely done so through an international portal like Amazon. But when you buy an ebook from Amazon, where is your money going? Are you buying that book from an Australian publisher? Or is it going to a big American or British company? And why is it that your mate in the States can buy a copy of Mockingjay from the Kindle store but you can’t? The answer is territorial copyright and parallel importation restrictions.

For those who have no idea what those two phrases mean, allow me to quickly explain. Territorial copyright is the legal licence sold by the owner of a copyrighted work (in this case, the author of a book) to a publisher so that they can reproduce that work for sale in a particular territory. Parallel importation restrictions are the laws that force Australian booksellers to sell the Australian version of a book where it is available (to stop them from importing cheaper versions of the same book from overseas and cutting out Australian publishers). However, this protection of Australian publishers is not absolute. The rule that governs parallel importation in Australia is known as the 30 day rule, which essentially means that so long as an Australian publisher gets a book printed and available for sale within 30 days of its publication overseas, Australian booksellers can only buy the Australian version.

There is another loophole in the parallel importation rules, and that is for single copies of books. Booksellers are allowed to import a single copy of a particular book for a customer, and individuals are allowed to import their own single copies of books from overseas (from stores like Amazon).

So what does this mean for ebooks? At the moment, every copy of an ebook sold is sold as a ‘single copy’. Nonetheless, every major ebook retailer respects parallel importation restrictions and does not allow the sale of ebooks to Australia unless the publisher who is providing the file to the retailer has explicit rights to sell that ebook in Australia. Is this a legal requirement of our parallel importation restrictions? Well, at the moment, nobody is sure. That’s why ebook retailers are playing it safe and keeping Australian publishers happy.

So we’ve ended up in a bizarre situation. I can buy a copy of any book I like from any publisher I like anywhere in the world and have it posted to me here in Australia. But ebooks? No. I can only get a copy of an ebook that has been explicitly produced and given to an ebook vendor by an Australian publisher (unless the overseas publisher owns worldwide digital rights – quite a rare situation). Is this crazy? Yes. Is it fair? Probably not. But the solution? Unsurprisingly, it is not going to be a cakewalk. Tune in to the next blog, folks, and I’ll see if I can make sense of why this is happening and what cleverer people than me think might be done to sort it out.

Closing Arguments: Or How We Will Never Agree

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.

Who’s to Blame?

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.

Snip:

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.’

Jasper Jones, by the Australian author Craig Silvey, is not available from the Australian Kindle store, nor the UK or       US store. It is, for some reason though, available in France. And on Boomerang     in paper.

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.