Editor’s Note: I am proud to announce that Australian journalist Jason Davis will be contributing a regular column to TeleRead on the state of “e” in Australia and New Zealand. This content will be exclusive to TeleRead. Jason also runs the BookBee and EbookAnt websites. PB.
This is my first official guest post, so I thought I’d start by bringing those who are interested up to speed with the state of play in ebooks in Australia. That Australia is a couple of years behind the rest of the West in ebook uptake is probably not news to many. That much of our publishing industry is unintentionally outsourcing the selling of ebooks to overseas vendors may be. Let me explain – pbook sellers will howl me down, but they do that.
Australians pay too much for books – they want cheaper prices. Australians are legendary gadgeteers – Kindles, iPads, iPhones and their clones are everywhere. The inertial against ebooks has come from the local publishing industry, which is stuck in a protectionist mindset. They want a wall around our territory, rather than smelling the winds of change beyond it.
The great wall of Australia
When last year the Federal Government toyed with the idea of opening up the publishing market here, the industry lobbied the government to maintain our current Parallel Importation Legislation (PIL), which stops retailers from overseas importing and competing in parallel with local booksellers. They cite the “death” of the local industry, but since this restriction was lifted from the music industry in 1998, the price of music dropped and the local music scene has gone from strength to strength.
Australians have spent the best part of a decade paying about $A30 for paperback books (as they once did for CDs). Would you feel ripped off in paying $US27 for a paperback, when you saw those overseas paying less than half that? Thought so.
Booksellers still manage to cry poor, but I still see this as profiteering. A senior publishing insider even confirmed this to me recently, saying big publishing’s plan was/is to bank enough extra profit in the fading years of the pbook to fund the transition to ebooks.
Step 1 went well, but step two largely hasn’t happened yet, and I think most of the industry here is too far behind to catch up to overseas e-tail.
Cracks in the wall
The critical point in all of this may be that Australia’s PIL laws don’t apply to consumers. Booksellers here don’t want people to know this, and many don’t, but consumers can shop anywhere they like, and an increasing number are. Although there are no real numbers on this, I suspect the $1.9b local publishing industry has lost much more revenue to Amazon and co. than it realizes, with or without geographical book restrictions.
In a global market of non-tangible goods like ebooks, price and availability are almost all that matter. You can shop anywhere, and where there’s a will, there’s a way. Most ebook readers I know have multiple Amazon or iBooks (or equivalent) accounts with US addresses to happily access any book they want at “overseas” prices. All correspondence is by email, so what does a fake address matter?
Do you think those giant retailers are going to police this and lose this growing revenue stream? No, neither do I.
Australia’s one dimly shining light is REDgroup Retail, owners of Borders and Angus & Robertson chains in Australia, and Whitcoulls in New Zealand. While they let their run to adopt ebooks till the 11th hour, at least they are now doing something substantial. They have developed the only two major ebooks sites in , www.borders.com.au and www.whitcoulls.co.nz, where we southern types can buy ebooks across any sort of range and at a decent price. They also have partnered with Kobo to offer their own reader and multi-platform app. The Kobo costs $A199 here (about $US180) and ebooks hover around the $A10-15 mark, so in my view prices are still too high (especially with cheap ereaders and their overseas competitors’ recent aggressive ebook pricing). But at least they’re “moving forward”. (Note: it’s Federal Election eve here, and that is a political slogan we’ve had rammed down our throats here for months).
The company could even be doing too much. I spoke to REDgroup’s head of communications Malcolm Neil recently, who said it has been a tough year for them. Sales are down at least 4 per cent across the publishing industry this year (on year) and REDgroup have also invested heavily in ebook
infrastructure and development. They even recently adopted a brave “we’ll beat Amazon’s prices” guarantee. That’s a big call (there must have been a lot of fat in those prices, no?) But they can obviously see the long-term gain past the short-term pain. It’s going to be a global market, so you’d better get used to it.
It’s no wonder the media knives have been out recently, talking up the company’s financial woes. Forward-thinking is generally not the done thing in Australian publishing. This kind of schoolyard mentality sniping of the “different kid” is. But have they left it too late? Time will tell. REDgroup have signed ebook distribution deals with all but one of Australia’s couple of hundred publishers, and I should be able to announce the schedule for this here next week.
However, when your furthest advanced ebook company have yet to start to open the tap (or faucet for those across the Pacific) of local digital releases, you have a problem.
It’s a problem I’m sure the likes of Amazon, Kobo, Google, Apple and Book Depository would gladly solve for us.