Thursday, July 9, 2009

Mark Seymour, Bob Carr, Louise Adler, Phillip Adams and the new world of downloads

(Above: isn't death a laugh? Another sooooh funny splash by News Corp, showing all the wit and humor of a funeral director in a morgue. Laugh, I've never laughed so hard - until I realized someone might be bugging my cell phone. Time for a pay wall yet? Another in my News Corp inspired illustrations with nothing to do with the text below).

By golly, they play it tough in the book trade. All your mental images of genteel persons munching  on cucumber sandwiches should be parked at the door and replaced by violent brawling souls inclined to thump on the table to make a point (some day soon I'm expecting the Balmain boys to get out the baseball bats):

It seems only yesterday that Bob Carr, the man who can claim to have singlehandedly presided over the demolition of the once grand state of NSW and Louise Adler, CEO of Melbourne University Publishing, engaged in a slanging match on Phillip Adams' radio program Late Night Live (in fact it was only June 29th and it can be found here for listening and downloading under the header An open market for books?)

Carr, in his best pugnacious bully boy manner was whipping himself up into a frothing and a foaming when suddenly there was dead silence at the other end of the debate. Poor Adams - confused much of the time, but here doubly confused - seemed to think that she'd upped and walked out of the studio under the assault of the heavy hitter Carr. He then wrapped it up quick time in a welter of confusion.

Normally listening to the radio with Adams is a soporific affair, ideally suited to nodding off a minute after he starts speaking over his guests to insist on his understanding of the world, but this was jolly good stuff. It makes me think that a ritual kneecapping somewhere in each of the hours would bring better ratings.

Anyway, the next night Adams felt compelled to issue a clarification for the confusion at the end of the boxing match:

... last night Bob seemed to confuse the program, which he knows very well, with a faction fight at a local branch meeting. So he got very grumpy and very loud and poor Louise sort of almost vanished, well she literally vanished at the end and I want to make it clear that she did not flounce out of the studio in a hissy fit. She didn't, she stuck it out, the kid's got guts but the um microphone went down and it's not my fault, it was a problem in the Tardis in Melbourne. I wrote to Bob today and I said Bob, sent him a couple of emails, said Bob um you really do know this  program well, you've been on it often enough, but whatever the merits of your argument, you lost the argument because you lost the audience. Thanks for all the emails, fascinating response ...

(You can get that program by downloading the program for Tuesday 30th June, but be warned if you play it in your iTunes, the ABC thinks it's a spiffing idea to provide an image of Adams with the mp4, so that he glowers at you from the screen).

Phew, that's a relief, Louise Adler going dead quiet and apparently storming out just sounded like a hissy fit.

As for Carr, he was - in his usual overbearing way - totally irritating, and at the same time hopelessly compromised by being a board member of Dymocks, which is heading the charge to change to local publishing. That said, he's right, if not quite for all the reasons he enunciated while acting like a twelve bore shotgun.

And while this squabble was strictly in Adams' teacup, it's a nice intro to the folly of the proponents for a restricted Australian book market - most lately provided by Mark Seymour, one time of the Hunters and Collectors, in The book price row rings too sadly familiar.

Now I love Hunters and Collectors, and over the years have probably paid off at least a couple of bricks in the home inhabited by Mark Seymour, assuming he owns a home and didn't splurge my offerings on a wild Melbourne lifestyle (and can it get racy in Melbourne ...)

But he doesn't open well with his argument with this flourish: 

This championing of the rights of the consumer is grasping self-interest.

Eer, actually, generally and specifically, the championing of the rights of the consumer is championing the rights of the consumer, unless of course it's the consumer championing the rights of the consumer, in which case it might well be called grasping self-interest. Which is hardly a stirring insight, since consumers generally act on the basis of grasping self-interest.

You see consumers are generally canny, and they know when they're being ripped, and right now it's cheaper for us to buy books from Amazon, in modest bulk so that the freight cost is amortized, and a few weeks later they land in the post box, and we've made small but real savings which - like junkies - keeps us coming back for more. (I can remember doing the same way back when Blackwell offered a mail order service to the colony for books you couldn't get, or if you could, only for a stern colonial  price).

Mark Seymour proceeds in his column to relive the famous CD wars of the nineties, offering up a few more classic lines:

Our case was doomed from the start for no other reason than because we presented a commercial argument.

Indeed and no doubt in much the same way as Woollies  presented a wonderful commercial argument in its 'we will bury you' stoush with Choice magazine in the debate over providing consumers with pricing information. Well not quite the same:

Most journalists at the media conference appeared to believe that to be artistically true there has to be fundamental antipathy between the artist and the record company. Otherwise, all the artist is doing is playing into the hands of base commercialism. This view demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding as to how the music industry worked. In the end the controversy boiled down to one simple question. How dare we defend the status quo in the face of a black-and-white and entirely theoretical proposition?

That's right, in this particular case, it seems the artists and the record companies were the love in, and the consumers, while much loved, could just stump up the cash. Seymour broods over the parallels and the lost opportunities and how the fat cow turned into the plucked chicken:

Today there are remarkable parallels to be drawn between the 1991 CD controversy and the current draft proposals of the Productivity Commission regarding the price of books.

There is the same level of hysteria driven in large part by "the coalition for cheaper books", a cartel of the retail mega-chains — Woolworths, Coles, Kmart, Big W and Target. The "coalition" has been lobbying the commission hard, with a similar argument. Books cost too much and it's the publishers' fault. Its major spokesman, former NSW premier Bob Carr, has famously demanded we "bring Aussie publishers to book", as though there is something darkly underhand going on.

But as was the case for the music industry, these big retail chains are the only sector who stand to gain anything from reform. What appears to be an altruistic championing of the rights of the consumer is in fact nothing more than a repeat of the grasping self-interest on display in 1991.

Okay, let's concede a few points. It's unlikely that the changes in book importation will bring prices down substantially - the effect in relation to CDs was marginal when it mattered. And book dumping has always been a feature of local retailing - there once was, for example, a retailer that specialized in setting up companies in the Philippines to buy books in bulk and then dump them in Australia (with the Philippines company then liquidated for a measly cost).

Seymour then goes on to hit at least one nail on the head:

The reality is that the Australian music industry is in deep trouble. It has halved in size in the past five to seven years and the fall in the price of CDs is directly attributable to a spectacular decline in demand as a result of digital downloading and copying — it has nothing to do with the removal of import regulations.

Quite simply there is no money in selling CDs, which is why successful vendors, such as JB Hi-Fi, have diversified so heavily. In fact, there's very little money in the business overall. Those of us who've survived the past 10 years have done so by adapting. Margins are down. Audiences likewise. Australian radio has retreated even further from Australian content. The rot was already well set in around the time of the reforms, which is why you'll often hear the '80s referred to as the golden era in Australian popular music.

And precisely the same is about the happen to the book trade. I know there's a special mystique about a book - the smell, the heaviness in the hand, the portability, the entrancing history, the sharing of minds, the tradition going back to Gutenberg - which strangely enough never affected the CD (or VHS), though it did somehow invest in LPs. I've shared in the mystic nonsense, and can still get excited by the tang of opening a freshly minted book (but then I can get the same effect from sniffing a wine not decorked but poured from a screwcap bottle).

But after his insight about digital downloading, does Seymour make the imaginative leap, as the book publishing business will shortly have to do? Unfortunately he's still stuck somewhere back in the nineties, fighting the beastly giant retailers:

The truth is the Productivity Commission's drive for market reform in bookselling has been hijacked by the coalition of giant retailers. If the giant retailers are allowed to import books as soon as they become available from overseas then they will simply demand discounts for the same titles from local publishers or buy overseas. And there will be no legal compulsion to pass the savings on to the consumer.

Of course, they can only do this because size matters. The independents would not have the same clout simply because they could never buy in sufficient quantities to have any effect, as the margins would be infinitesimal. As to the price of books? That's not what this controversy is about. In the end, it's all about selling a free-market line to the tabloids.

The truth is, when the next generation or two of book readers hits the market, the revolution the book trade will face will be of the same kind as the CD faced when the mp3 came into the world, and spread digitally across the intertubes like a free virus.

Right now there's a huge business in the free distribution of education texts in pdf and other formats, and Project Gutenberg has a vast range of out of copyright books available in digitized form. The only thing that has stopped a proliferation of digitized texts has been the reader, which still awaits its iPod.

But that'll come and more quickly than local publishers expect, and then if they think young early adopters will be interested in maintaining a love affair with the world of books, they should check out how many actually still play the better sounding LP as opposed to the hopelessly lossy mp3.

Currently Australian publishers are defending a wall, and even if they win their current storm in a teacup feud, they will find that soon enough the wall will become irrelevant. They will have fought for the Maginot line, and the digitized young will already be in Paris.

That Seymour gets it - technology change did over the music business - and doesn't get it - books will be somehow immune from the impact of technology - is one of the more poignant aspects of the current debate.

Amazon is the first brick in the argument to fall, and that's what the traders know. And as we all know once you step out of the Garden of Eden it's gone for good. Here's Seymour mourning the lost world of music:

Like the publishing industry, the music industry is a complex chain of commercial interests all inextricably linked by small margins. It is a labyrinth of agents, promoters, record companies, publishers, radio stations and, at the pointy end of the food chain, the retailer. We've all been affected by downloading. Carr's glib observations about how the Australian music industry has flourished despite reform are — to use his language — "absolute rubbish".

If the publishing industry thinks it's going to be immune from change, then a harder rain than necessary is going to fall on local publishers and local writers. They need to get real. Perhaps they should try this line for a start:

This championing of the rights of the consumer is in the best interests of publishers and writers ... for without consumers there will be nothing consumed, and nothing to be consumed ... unless of course it comes in the form of a free download for my lovely new eye catching reader.


jjames said...

E-books are coming all right, but that's not the issue here at all. This debate is about whether Australia should continue to assert itself as an independent market when publishing and selling books - whether printed or electronic editions.

Should Australian authors have the right to be paid fairly for their creative work? Of course. Removing the restrictions on parallel importing means that authors who successfully publish their books in Australia and then sell them to other markets around the world can expect to see the foreign editions on sale in Australian bookstores as remainders - for which the authors will be paid little or no royalties. Commercial use without fair compensation is theft. These authors' creative work will effectively have been stolen by a foreign publisher and an Australian bookseller - and we are proposing to legalise this practice??

And why would an Australian publisher invest in publishing a new author and do its best to make his or her book successful, if the price of that success is that the publisher loses the exclusive right to sell the book in Australia? It wouldn't.

The proposal is destructive in so many ways, and it is all based on the unproven assumption that books will be cheaper for consumers. Even if somehow books ARE magically cheaper, does anyone seriously believe that Coles, Dymocks and the rest will not keep the extra margin for themselves? They're in business to make profits, so why wouldn't they keep extra profits?

As a postscript - Dymocks and Borders have yet to explain why it is that they regularly now sell new Australian books ABOVE the publishers' recommended retail prices. Really, the answer is simple - greater profits for them.

dorothy parker said...

Actually the restrictions on parallel importing have already gone. It's called Amazon. And the books are cheaper. Try it some time. In much the same way as I can get a magazine from OS at rapid speed rather than pay double in a local newsagency, and if I don't care about the physical copy, I just read the online service.

I understand the territorial system, it's the way they used to do it in film and television. Territorial restrictions were supposed to be the salvation of the industry. The trouble is that system has also broken down - into same day and date releasing as a stop gap measure - which still hasn't stopped whole new ways of releasing emerging. That's right, it's called Amazon (not to mention bit torrent). Regional zoning doesn't work anymore - unless of course you insisted on having only region four playback on your machine, and told your Chinese manufacturer not to be naughty because anything else would be theft. Tell that to the hand, or better still, the studios.

If you want to read something intelligent on the subject - from the perspective of a consumer rather than a paranoid author - try Elizabeth Farrelly's Judge a book by distance it covers at

The old ways are rapidly changing, and you don't get it but that's okay. But frankly absurd rhetoric about creative work being stolen by foreign publishers and Australian booksellers as legal theft so overstates the case and misses the point that you lose all street cred. Bit torrent is theft, doing a deal to sell your work into a market is just doing a deal. If you get screwed, look to your publisher, not the consumer.

You can stand guard on the Maginot line, and fight to protect a restraint of trade, but soon enough people will be walking around with readers and hundreds of books, magazines, newspapers, whatever on a drive. All of them a heck of a lot easier to get than the thousands of movies currently available for free.

Why on earth do a deal for a foreign edition that involves no royalties? Why fear remainders? If you're that bad an author, why should you get royalties on a remainder? Or why not insist they be pulped?

You mean remainders don't already happen in Australia? All the main players have been playing the remainders game for years. Just because Clouston and Hall is tucked away in Canberra doesn't mean no one knows the game goes on. (And went on ... cf Max Harris at Mary Martins).

Australian authors are peddling the line that we must fear the present and the future ... and maybe fear fear itself ...

But consumers don't have to buy it. Whenever I'm told that the world will likely end tomorrow or the next day or legalized theft is about to befall Australian authors, I know I'm in the hands of a special interest group anxious to protect a patch of turf.

Coziness is not a fact of life in the music, film or television games, or now in newspapers. Why do Australian authors somehow think they will or should be exempt?

And as for NZ, when I was last there, the booksellers were so fush and chup patriotic peddling their locals I almost fainted from the whiff of parochialism. You could develop or maintain that in Australia without screwing consumers to maintain cozy price fixing.

Which is not to say I'm in love with Bob Carr or Dymocks. But business is business and they can already see the hard times blowing in on the intertubes.

As a postscript if you don't like Dymocks and Borders or Coles or Woollies vote with your consumer feet by shopping elsewhere. You might chose your local over priced book store. Pardon me if I say thank the lord for Amazon.

(But if you live in Canberra