The ABC’s Australia Talks program ran a show this week about the troubles of the Australian book industry. Its starting point was that the local bookselling and book publishing industry is in a heap of trouble. Not for the first time, the program did a deal of hand-wringing about the current state of affairs. On its bad days, at least, it really ought to be called Australia Frets.
Few could argue with this particular show’s basic premise. Online book sales and e-publishing threaten book printing and book publishing. Like many people, I started buying books online in the 1990s – old books, niche books, cheap books. And like many people, I’ve now begun using Amazon’s Kindle e-book system. Amazon has 80 per cent of the e-book market. The Kindle format is annoyingly proprietary and rights-managed but incredibly convenient.
You can see where this is going, for me and others. I have a huge wall of books at home here which I rather like. It saddens me a little, but I will simply not be adding to my collection at such a rate in the future.
But then: so what? Saddle-makers aren’t doing as well as they used to, either. The Australia Talks discussion seemed to hint that the move to digital sales would rob authors of money, but never produced much evidence. Meanwhile, it gave very short shrift to the possibility that electronic publishing might help Australian authors get their ideas and creativity out to the rest of the world. It gave less attention still to the idea that cheaper books might help Australians compete in a global knowledge economy. It gave pretty much no time at all to the notion that an open society and digital technology allow ideas and creativity to flow more freely today than ever before.
This is the same lack of imagination and sheer spinelessness that bedevils the newspaper debate, and that Ian Rogers and I have opposed in our submission to the Independent Media Inquiry. It’s the foolish fear that the moment some familiar artefact disappears – printed book, printed newspaper – people will lose all desire to read, to think, to ask questions about their world. In my experience, people are better and more reliable than that.
The good news is that this as more people use the new technologies and channels, the success stories are piling up. The Australia Talks program’s comments section featured a telling story from an Australian author:
I am the author of 10 books. My books have sold to major foreign publishers and I was able to write full-time. But my disappointment was with the marketing of my work. The covers too were terrible.
In the last year I have converted all my books into e-books and created my own covers that are a huge improvement on those supplied by the major publishers I was originally published by. I am also responsible for my own marketing and feel so much more in control of my own career. I don’t receive opaque royalty statements that even my agent admitted she couldn’t follow. So instead of relying on publishers who are always looking for the ‘next big thing’ instead of developing writers they already have, I can see with one click how my sales are going. – and I’m delighted to say that my career is flying again and I can access huge markets.
I can only say- thank you Amazon.
Update: Charlie Stross nicely describes Amazon’s strategy in book publishing. Summary: Jeff Bezos wants to crush competitors, and he has a strategy for doing it.
(Regardless of what Charlie says, we probably do need some sort of DRM system if authors are to publish ebooks and be paid for their work. As Charlie notes, there is ultimately no foolproof DRM system for books, or anything else. This is why thrillers are usually offered as e-books, while programming and IT titles frequently are not.)