Archive for August, 2007|Monthly archive page

Angus and Robertson update

It’s been a couple of weeks has passed since the infamous Angus and Robertson letters were published. Saturday’s Herald reported that the warring parties have come to the table, and are talking through their differences, but the saga still simmers away.
The past few weeks saw the debate gain traction. Alex Mitchell in New Matilda summarises the letter war here. And in an Undercover Blog posting entitled Books aren’t Bricks, The Sydney Morning Herald details the international reaction including a mention on Boing Boing . At the Undercover blog, the general reader reaction was horror at the A&R approach. The consensus seemed to be that books are special, and can’t be ‘treated like bricks.’

But the Angus and Robertson saga merely demonstrates how difficult it is to make money from selling books. Ultimately, the decision to stock items is up to the retailer in question. As Australian Newsagency blogger, Mark Fletcher suggests, “ It is not up to A&R to prop up under performing titles.” Ultimately, retailers will decide what they stock, and they have the absolute right to refuse unprofitable items.

Of course, Tower MD, Michael Rukusin (the people’s hero in the saga) questions why A&R can’t turn a profit on his books, when his other customers can. I’m in no position to directly answer that question, but most people wouldn’t expect a subtitled arthouse movie to do as well in Pagewood as it does in Paddington. Maybe A&R sells to a different demographic than some of Tower’s other customers.

I’m not an A&R apologist. I think that their approach was arrogant and wrong. But it does acknowledge the wider reality that being a bookseller in 2007 is not necessarily the most comfortable place to be. Whilst not quite as uncomfortable as being a CD shop in an increasingly iTunes dominated musical world, the writing (as it were) is on the wall. This saga, as I’ve blogged before, is just the latest nail in the coffin.

And the publishers are far from blameless. As well as selling direct and privileging KMart style discounters, some big publishers today operate under a market-driven regime just as insensitive as big booksellers. As one Australian publisher said in an article in the Australian last year: “We are a business. We can’t be any more sentimental than a business that is selling ice cream or clothes.”

The trouble with books is that we would like them to be special (given their cultural value). But at the level of mass production, they’re not special at all. Making and shipping objects called books is no different from making and shipping barbie dolls. Well, actually there is a difference; there may be a hundred or so different types of barbies and accessories, but there are hundreds of thousands of different books that are vying for shelf space and sales. So making and selling books is harder.

And there is another difference. Books aren’t barbies (or bricks). Barbies and bricks need to be made and physically shipped around the planet. Books, on the other hand could be constructed of (in the Negroponte phrase) bits not atoms. It’s what’s inside the book that ultimately matters, and discarding the object and refocussing on texts would entirely shift the economics of bookselling. Of course, a parallel shift is dramatically changing everything in the audio and video realms – CD and DVD objects are giving way to digital downloads.

Chapter and Verse

So, Lonely Planet has launched what it calls ‘pick and mix’; which allows users to download single pdf chapters and compile a guidebook that suits their exact requirements. It’s kind of like the old ‘tear out the bits of the guidebook you need’ trick, but far more cost effective – you only pay for the chapters you actually need. This should work really well for guidebooks; I’d be keen to use it for things like wine guides as well. Provided the format works on the device I actually end up carrying in my pocket all of the time.

I suspect, though, that LP expects most people to print out a copy and carry that around. DIY POD as it were.

What with an interesting venture into PSP titles, it’s good to see a publisher explore delivery options beyond print.

Via Publishers Weekly

My Broken Brain

I blame the lateness of the hour and a nasty head cold, but Philip Adams on Late Night Live last night stumped me with a question about the proportion of book sales that were Australian as opposed to imported. I had the data at hand, and then promptly forgot it, which made for great radio. Not.

Anyhow, the ABS data suggests that Australian book publishers earned $1.35 billion in 2003-04, of which $541 million came from imported titles. Of course (as I failed to explain properly on LNL), the breakdown is pretty rough and ready – and doesn’t properly distinguish Australian authored books as opposed to Australian editions of overseas titles.

Adding to the data points is the APA’s bestsellers list (pdf link) which shows that for 2005, 2 of the top 10 fiction best-sellers and 5 of the top 10 non-fiction best sellers were Australian authored.

Hope that clears things up 🙂

Angus and Robertson responds

Angus and Robertson has responded to the debate of the last couple of days. Whilst regretting the tone of the correspondence in question, Dave Fenlon, Chief Operating Officer of A&R basically makes the point that business is business. It’s all over on Crikey.

The State of the eBook

Today’s New York Times has an article (login required) which summarises the current ebook scene. It’s a bit light on but canvasses the major reading devices and ebook outlets quite well.

Some points worth noting from my reading of the piece:

1. E-book sales in Q2/2007 were $8.1 million, up from $4 million year-on-year (IDPF).

This sounds pretty good, but the base is still very low. Eight million bucks a quarter for an entire industry is not very much.

2. Ebooks are too expensive. The examples suggest that there is barely any difference between p-book and e-book prices. Until that changes, I suspect the market will remain small (see point 1).

3. It’s all a bit geeky. The range of hardware and software options, with their competing stores and formats makes it all too hard for most people. Yes, people like me will jump through the hoops required to download novels to their Treos. But people like me only add up to a small market (see point 1).

It all feels a bit like the mp3 market pre-iPod.

More on the A & R story

Some followup on yesterday’s Angus and Robertson story at Lavartus Prodeo. The gist of the discussion seems to be that A & R’s attitude should be punished and booklovers need to buy their books from independent booksellers. Which is a noble sentiment, and viable if one happens to live near good bookshops. Unfortunately, the independent bookseller is being squeezed by the other end of the industry. There was a report a few weeks ago that Gleebooks could buy the latest Harry Potter title from KMart at a better price than from the publisher. Marginalising independents is global – and from all reports, in many countries it’s resulting in their demise.

So it seems that big booksellers are squeezing small publishers and big publishers are squeezing small booksellers. As usual, readers (and authors) are the ones caught right in the middle of all that squeezing.

Another nail…

The problem with books, I keep arguing in the book, is that shipping and selling printed objects is very expensive. And sometimes it’s hard to justify particular investments. Today’s news that Australian bookstore chain Angus and Robertson is “demanding a payment (from publishers and distributors) if they want their books to be sold by the company’s 180 bookstores around the country” comes as no real surprise. More details in the Sydney Morning Herald story, but the bottom line is that one of the nation’s largest bookstore chains will probably no longer stock this year’s Miles Franklin winner.

Wikipedia on Britannica

The ongoing dispute between wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica came to a head with Nature’s 2005 article in which the author’s asserted that there was not much difference in accuracy between the two publications – drawing the ire of traditionalists everywhere.

Wikipedia users, of course, continued the debate in the only way they know how, by creating and updating a page which catalogued errors discovered in Britannica – that had been corrected on wikipedia. Check it out here.

As my colleague Graham Meikle suggests: “There’s something so profoundly *Internet* about that — the level of geekiness, the pedantry, the trivial pop culture (Frank or Francis Zappa?) crossed with point-scoring grad-student-concerns
(what nationality does Castells travel under?) and high-level Maths/African anthropology.”

An interesting page regardless.

Killer Device vs Killer App

It is common wisdom that technologies are often chosen because of so-called killer applications. At the dawn of the personal computer, the killer app that made the Apple 2 palatable to those who could afford them was Visicalc, arguably the first spreadsheet. Pagemaker did the same thing for the Macintosh, as did Office for the Windows PC. And of course, porn was the killer app for every video playing device known to man, and the internet.

So, part of the too-short musings of Mike Shatzkin, Nury Vittachi and myself on The Book Show (or as a podcast) was a brief foray about the problem of standards and e-book takeup. The market, of course, will decide. But we couldn’t agree on what would cause the tipping point into mass-market acceptance of e-books. I’ve always though we’re waiting for a killer device (or screen actually); Mike made a compelling argument against a single killer device and Nuri thought that a killer app (he seemed to suggest some kind of narrative driven game) would be the Visicalc equivalent.

Unfortunately, we ran out of time – but Mike and I had a longer chat in the studio afterwards. For lovers of print, it probably seems a totally weird conversation to have – after all, paper is paper is paper. But for some of us, it’s one of the key discussions.