Why is the publishing industry still being conceptualised as about to go up in flames?

I often peruse the news in search of any articles about books. Partly because it’s something I’m interested in and always happy to read about, but also because it’s a section of the news that is pretty guaranteed not to ruin my mood. New books are always exciting. And let’s face it, the news doesn’t tend to report the raindrops on roses, or whiskers on kittens.

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(Maria doesn’t mention books explicitly in the song, but we know what’s in the brown paper packages tied up with string.)

So comparatively, the books section is nearly always a source of the good. But in perusing recently I was struck by the way a few different articles all engaged, on some level, with a dialogue that seems to dominate how we think about books and the publishing industry in general. And it was a theme that actually, when I thought about it, wasn’t rosy at all. My bubble of happiness was burst. Let me explain my dilemma. 

The first article I read is about a new regional 24-hour library. It reports that a rural community in the Central West, called Tullamore, has recently been trialling a system where the library can be accessed 24 hours a day, you just need to sign up for a membership and become a key holder. Prior to this new arrangement, the library was only open a few hours a week, which made it very difficult for residents to take out and return books. Now that the changes have been made, significant increases have been shown in borrowing. Compared to the last financial year, borrowing is up 80%. A pretty substantial increase. The article quotes residents who are delighted with the changes, local Pam Mortimer calling the upgrade a “new freedom” for the area. While before books and borrowing them was unpopular and inconvenient, the library barely serving its purpose, now it seems the tables have drastically turned.

The second article is about a new, and very different type of novel, which comes in eBook form.  Richard Lea explains that the book, A Universe Explodes by Tea Uglow, requires you to add one word and remove two from each page. Only after making these changes to the novel can you then pass it on to it’s next owner. And thus a process of transfiguration is enacted. Lea notes that while at first the experience is strange and uncomfortable, it becomes a very interesting project as each new reader contributes new aspects to this ever-evolving work. The idea is intriguing and engaging. It forces you to be a part of the development of the novel itself, something you can’t achieve in the same way with traditional press. Again innovations and changes have been made to encourage reader engagement. An important element to note about the idea and how it was conceived is that this experimental type of reading was not, as you would assume, for the sake of being experimental. Actually, as Uglow explains, the drive behind the idea was making eBook’s more similar to their printed counterpart. By making this eBook more physically accessible, changeable and personal, it becomes more like the beat up novel in your bag and less like the digital novel you can only own the licence to read. So in doing something quite different to the traditional book, Uglow is actually striving to replicate the traditional reading experience. 

The third article I read is about the resurgence of consumer preference for printed books over eBooks. Much like my last blog post, Alex Preston looks at the change in the market and consumer choices and why this could have happened. He similarly notes the beauty and intricacy of printed covers and the importance of appreciating cover art. Cheers for backing me up 😉

knew ir

At first these three article seem to be quite different. They look at distinct and separate news-worthy things that are happening in publishing and reading communities, one as simple as giving keys to borrowers, another totally transforming the very process of reading itself. But despite their differences the major similarity between them, that I couldn’t help but notice, was the sense that these changes and new ideas were necessary, even crucial, developments that were needed to keep the industry functioning and to keep books being read.

The library changed it’s hours so that people would actually engage with the neglected books in their library. The strange structure of the eBook A Universe Explodes aims to bring something new to the reading experience, to jazz it up and encourage interest, but also to mimic the new demand for traditional print. And the conversation about eBook versus traditional printing is hinged on discovering how to get and keep consumer interest. All these areas are tapping into the idea that we must keep frantically striving to achieve interest in books. What underpins all these articles is the knowledge of potential failure without adaption. The idea seems to run through the back of your mind while reading, that this is yet another attempt to curb the the loses of the industry. 

Sure the publishing industry has had it’s fair share of challenges. The last article was the most outright in its recognition of this background consciousness of failure. Alex Preston writes, “the appearance of e-readers seemed to flummox a publishing industry reeling from the financial crisis and Amazon’s rampant colonisation of the market.” He lists the issues the industry has had to face in recent years so that they’re there for us to see, blatant and unquestionable. And with this knowledge now in the forefront of my mind, all these different attempts to promote reading that are discussed in the articles, became tinged with desperation. Like the end of the industry is nigh. Like there’s a real possibility it could all go up in flames. 

bern and manny

Suddenly, all these changes seem to come off not as art evolving, or creative people trying new creative outlets, or simply extending library opening hours, but more like a lifeline, a defibrillator for the heart of publishing, willing readership back to life. All industries change and develop over time, it’s the nature of society, the nature of creativity, the nature of humanity. So why then does the publishing industry seem to be painted with the sense of it’s imminent death? A paranoia of possible failure seems to loom over us. I think it’s about time that the bleak, outdated fallacy is rejected for what it is, and that we come to celebrate the tenacity of an industry that will always survive. After all, it’s an industry of invention, of imagination, of introspection, of observation, of originality. Of course it’s going to change, and of course it’s going to survive.

 

 

 

A Matter of Unparalleled Import

Last week, the Government announced it would support a recommendation to remove the Parallel Importation Restrictions (PIRs) that are applied to books by the Copyright Act, last proposed by the Productivity Commission in 2009. This is a serious issue for anyone interested in the book industry, as PIRs are a vital financial foundation of Australian publishing. As the Productivity Commission stated in their 2009 report,

“Parallel Import Restrictions (PIRs) provide territorial protection for the publication of many books in Australia, preventing booksellers from sourcing cheaper or better value-for-money editions of those titles from world markets.”

The report goes on to suggest that PIRs place upward pressure on book prices to the benefit of publishers and authors and detriment of consumers. What it does not state are the benefits to the consumer from the PIR regime, namely access to a higher quality product and greater opportunity to read and discover local authors.

Certain commentators have been dismissive of these benefits and the affect of PIR on them. They have argued that the removal of PIRs will have virtually no effect, as the industry is much stronger and competitive than it claims, or should become so as an effect of the changes. They haven’t offered any real evidence to these claims.

One complainant has even objected to the use of colourful language, to which I say: This is the business of words, why would they not be used for effect? And distinctions of the colour of the language aside, the result of this recommendation would be disastrous, so let’s not waste time critiquing the semantics.

If we must discuss the language, then let’s talk about the buzzword that all economic reform in this country now hinges upon: innovation. Let’s be clear, destroying territorial copyright is not innovative, it’s destructive. For this economy to succeed through innovation, it’s about making Australian product and industry innovative, not “innovating” policy to allow world markets to crowd Australian book producers out. That’s not the creation of competition. It’s the end of competition.

The Australian publishing industry is a diverse and competitive place. The proof of this is in the success of Independent Publishing, which is thriving in this country, in large part due to innovation. To hollow out the value of the market by flooding it with cheap international titles will destroy the conditions by which this innovation and competition is possible.

Why invest in local books when the risk of a return is made even more untenable? We already function as an extremely high-risk industry, and all this policy does is diminish the reward.

As a result of of removing PIRs, investment in Australian publishing and writing will be down, which means jobs will be cut and the voices of many local authors will not be heard here or overseas.

So how do we address this and stop it from occurring?

I had considered an open letter to the Prime Minister and Treasurer, but respected authors Richard Flanagan, Peter Carey and Tom Keneally beat me to it. Their letter was fantastic and covered many of the same areas I wanted to cover. But I absolutely wanted to reiterate some of those concerns and add my voice to this debate, because without vocal opposition, this policy could very well come to pass.

The Australian publishing industry employs some 20,000 people, and is worth around $2 billion. Territorial copyright is a pivotal financial plank of the industry. One of the counter arguments to this is that most of this money is made by Australian branches of multinational companies. But this naively ignores the various economic and cultural benefits that those companies bring to the Australian publishing industry. To see the vacuum that could be created by diminishing this input, one only needs to look to New Zealand.

One thing that these recommendations don’t seem to understand is this: Booksellers cannot compete with Amazon on price. The removal of PIRs may bring a temporary breath of cool air to booksellers, allowing them to drop prices, but they know as we all do, that Amazon cannot be beaten in a price war and nor should we want that. Not only would it signal the further deterioration of the perceived value of the book, it would diminish us as a book industry.

It’s a flight of fantasy that books cost too much. In Australia, the standard price of a paperback has dropped by around 20% since 2009. This fact alone shows that the Harper recommendation doesn’t understand or comprehend the mechanics of this industry. Yes, PIRs may place upward pressure on book prices, but local competition, as well as competition with overseas online retailers, places downward pressure on book prices. Competition from online retailers is not going to decrease in the future, so if anything the PIRs are vital to sustaining some upward pressure to keep publishing both profitable and able to employ the 20,000 or so people that it does.

I’d like to ask the Government this: if they are intent on removing PIRs on books, then they should first commission a review of the Book Industry by a panel that understands that this stunning practice of culture and commerce is an altogether different beast. As it stands, the removal of PIRs for the reasons stated in the recommendation is shortsighted and based on a poor understanding of the economics of the book trade. In short, it’s moronic.

I’d love to fight with people in the comments. I love doing that. So please, have a crack.

As a wrap I would suggest the following for further reading on the subject (not all of which I agree with):

Black Inc. and Hachette: how the removal of PIR will affect our business, from Books + Publishing

The Productivity Commission Report on Copyright Restrictions on the Parallel Importation of Books

Jason Ensor, Read it and weep: the book trade needs more than parallel import restrictions at The Conversation

A resurrected debate with the same old dead language, Peter Donoughue Pub Date Critical

 

Live From Book Expo: Opportunity!

Live from Book Expo Australia!

Hello there! Today, one half of the team is enjoying a trip to Sydney to tackle Book Expo Australia. That’s me! Brendan. I know I promised that I would deliver an immersive worlds blog this week but something has come up. Odyssey author Tracy Joyce is delivering a talk today and tomorrow at Book Expo called Fantasy Worlds. Now, Tracy’s been writing some fairly scary torture scenes lately, so I don’t want her to think I may have some information that she needs.

Instead, let’s talk about networking opportunities for getting work in the publishing industry. Jen has covered this in relation to pitching to publishers from the author’s perspective, but I want to touch on the non-authors.

Getting a start in the industry is not an easy thing. Unfortunately, you cannot open a book and be given a job (as wonderful and ridiculous as that sounds). The key is events and internships. At events, you meet publishers, editors etc. In your internships, you work hard and do cool stuff. These are the simple building blocks to begin creating a network in the industry. It gets more complicated, especially when figuring out which events to go to.

For example, Writer’s Festivals are not a great time to meet a publisher if you’re looking for publishing work, as, obviously, they are focused on the writers.

The best events at which to meet publishers for those wanting to work in the industry have to be Book Expos, Cons and Industry Conferences (Independent Publishing Conference is coming up in November!) These are the events where a lot of networking is done. On this note, I’ll say, if you love books and want to work in publishing, (and happen to be in Sydney), why not swing by Book Expo and meet some people. We at Odyssey Books are a friendly bunch and will definitely have a chat. We may try to sell you a book, but that’s all part of the parcel.

Other ways in which to network involve taking advantage of social media, especially platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn. There is no shame in this kind of self-promotion. Everybody does it. You have to do it. And sometimes, good things come from it.

So:

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I understand that many of us bookish people can be quite shy and introverted, and that’s unfortunate for those wanting to put this advice into practice. But the truth is that sometimes you have to be uncomfortable just so that people think you’re a normal human person who wants a job, like other more extroverted normal human persons. (Yes, it totally sucks that “extrovert” is the norm. Give me a quiet room and a book any day.)

If you want to be an editor, and have some idea of what you’re doing, being active online will be important. It’s worth joining writing communities, and the existence and diversity of these communities is one of the great things about the internet. You might just get some freelance contracts, and at the least you’re broadening both your knowledge of writing as a craft and also your understanding of the kind of work that’s out there, both the published and unpublished.

This is all pretty standard advice. The point of me telling you this is simple: there is no magic potion in which these things happen for you. You just have to do whatever you can and hope it works out. Keep your heads up and come say hello!

Demanding Publishing

The place of the print book in an increasingly technological society has been debated again and again, with both sides having a multitude of arguments to put forward. One of the strongest arguments against continuing traditional print books, especially in the volume that we currently do, is due to its environmental impact.

Undeniably, the publishing industry is not one with a major focus on the environment. Publishing takes up A LOT of paper. It’s unavoidable. Not only do books themselves need it, but so does the editing process itself. As Brendan noted in his blog post Give Me Paper or Give Me Death, a few weeks ago, many editors, including us young ones, often prefer to edit on hard copies. Computers may have streamlined the process, and allowed us to create lots of coloured notes all over the manuscript, but there’s really nothing like boldly crossing something out with your plain old red pen (or blue pencil if you’re a traditionalist).

Yet another area of publishing in which our treatment of the environment is less than perfect is in the destruction of books that don’t sell. Arrangements between publishers and bookstores are often such that unsold books can be stripped of their covers and returned to publishers. As they have already demonstrated that they won’t sell, usually these books are discarded and pulped. Although the practice of stripping covers has largely diminished due to the insides being used for bootleg copies, pulping is still practiced, particularly for paperbacks.

The numbers of pulped books can get extremely high, and it’s not something the industry likes to admit. In an effort to combat the problem, smaller print runs are offered to authors who don’t sell well, and sometimes these authors are even dropped altogether.

Particularly in small publishing, businesses can’t afford the losses that come with being forced to destroy so many books. That’s why, in the past, their print runs have been very small.

However, with the advent of digital publishing, comes a development that has changed the industry, in particular for the small presses, taking the focus off print runs. It’s called print-on-demand publishing.

It does exactly what its name suggests it will. Instead of having a set number of copies required to produce the book, you only need to print what you need, when you need it. It was a system I first experienced when I visited the Lightning Source/ Ingram Spark factory (The Cave Where Dreams Are Made). Lightning Source offers such a print-on-demand service, and one that Odyssey, among other small publishing houses, takes advantage of.

The benefits of this are enormous. Smaller publishers, for whom every penny counts, are not burdened with ordering a set number of copies that may never sell. Ordering is simple, when an order for a book is received, it is put through the print-on-demand service, printed, and dispatched to the recipient. This has been enthusiastically taken up by self-publishers as well. For those just getting started in the market, it’s a great way to get your book out on as many websites as possible, without having to worry about being burdened with 500 copies in your garage if your venture never takes off.

For larger publishers, print-on-demand can be a less viable option. When you’re producing print runs of thousands of copies, traditional printing is still more cost effective. But there is scope for them to incorporate it into their production processes. Particularly with books that have been in print for a while, using print on demand allows access to books that may not otherwise get a second or third print run.

The system allows both readers and authors to tailor the publishing production process to more accurately fit their demands. Not only does it provide a future for reducing the environmental impact created by the publishing industry, it makes the book market more accessible. Print-on-demand is just one advent of digital publishing that has allowed the industry to make significant leaps forward.

What’s in a Career? Fear, Excitement…

Returning once more to the intern side of things, I’ve been thinking about my future career a bit lately. What’s the future for jobs in our economy? There are estimates that nearly 40% of jobs currently done now will be gone in the next decade or so. It’s the computers, they are coming for our jobs. It’s like I, Robot but friendlier and with more unemployment payments.

While I know that there will always be a need for human writers, editors, publishers and designers, I do hesitate to think about what all of this means for my future. I sit in a very precarious position at the start of my career. It’s precarious because I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. I’m sure if I knew where I was going though, I would get lost. I’m happy to go with the flow, but it does worry me from time to time.

As one job comes to an end, I’m wondering how much longer I’ll be doing temporary contracts. Or if I’ll become a slashie, a term for someone who crafts full-time hours out of multiple jobs which tend to be in entirely different careers, i.e. “I’m a such-and-such/this-or-that/third-career-or-job”.

I wouldn’t mind having that sort of career trajectory as my main goal at this stage is do something interesting or meaningful, preferably both.

I think there is also a definite need for people willing to do many different things, sometimes all at once. In 2013, I attended the Independent Publishing Conference hosted by the Small Press Network in Melbourne. It was a fantastic experience for me then, as a student, and one of the key things I took away from those three days was that it’s quite common for people in the publishing industry to have a range of different roles that don’t necessarily correspond with one another. To be someone who “wears many hats”.

These storied careers are fascinating, and show a side of the business which I think is both wonderful and scary. It’s wonderful because I find the prospect of those changes to be inviting. The idea that while your career is on a path, that path is always turning. It’s not a straight ladder.

The scary part of that is the unpredictability or insecurity of it. Just like temporary contracts, you never really know when or where or how things will end.

The publishing industry is a tremendously exciting place with a range of different roles to fill and I think in the future it’s going to be more and more important to be able to fill many of those roles, to be an all-rounder. That excites me, but it does also concern me. I worry that we’ll lose specialists. Many roles have already been taken out of the house and made into freelancer positions. I don’t know if this translates to less people becoming that kind of specialist, or if it means more. I think it’s probably less.

That’s one of the weird effects of digital disruption in a way too. Digital opens up the toolkit of publishing to anyone. So while some jobs may fade away or diminish because of this, other freelancers will be sought by more customers than previously. This adds to the career excitement and the fear, and I think it’s a balancing act that a lot of people at the start of their careers feel. It’s an important one too, I think.

In this blog, I haven’t answered the question that spurred me to write. But I have come to a better way to ask the question:

How can I balance the excitement and the fear, to have an interesting career?

 

Little Books, not a Little Book Council

As an intern beginning my career in publishing, I’m worried about the recent announcement for the Book Council of Australia. I think the idea of a book council is great. We should have a unified group that represents every facet of this industry and that is dedicated to achieving great things for literature in our culture. An organisation that can function as an independent champion for publishers (and the various professions involved in the back end), booksellers, writers and readers.

Unfortunately, it would seem that’s not what the Book Council will be. It will be an advisory board to the Arts Ministry instead, aimed at fostering a culture of reading (because that doesn’t exist apparently). In other words, it will be rather toothless. It also won’t represent large swathes of the industry and it won’t make up for the huge cuts to funding for literary projects which have occurred over the past two years.

This concerns me because I love the little books. The books that may go unmade due to a lack of funding. Books that aren’t commercial enough, or won’t get taken on because no one has ever heard of their debut author. These are the people, and the books, that I worry about. It’s already exceedingly difficult for these books to emerge, and these changes to the way literature is funded, and the way literature is championed, in this country won’t make it any easier. If the Book Council were an independent body, it would have more scope to fight for funding for the literary arts and hence for the little books.

At a time where debut and midlist authors are doing it especially tough, this is not the path I want to see taken.

When I say little books, I’m not intending that in a way that is diminishing of those books. It’s simply a fact, in a broader context, that these books are little in terms of their footprint in a commercial, or marketable, sense. That doesn’t make them less important, simply less known.

And here is the problem. There are so many wonderful books out there that may never get the attention they deserve, and reducing the opportunities for those books to come into existence is not the solution. Perhaps if the Book Council of Australia’s mission was to build more diversity into our reading culture, than it might represent something more worthwhile. In its current form, though, it seems to simply be there to advise the Arts Minister on how we can continue without change. This is a shame.

A good story is a good story, and it should not be limited by the fiscal position of its writer, or editor, or cover designer, or publisher. In fact, the most interesting and unique stories are often those that come from nothing. But they should not be left to return to nothing.

I would like a Book Council of Australia with a vision that is more than this. Represents more than this, and achieves more than this.

 

Disruption Is The Decline of Publi- Shh!

What’s to fear from disruption? More to the point, what is disruption?

Disruption is the use of digital technology to supersede established businesses by newer and leaner competitors. Disruptors are often regarded as “smarter” companies, but the truth is that they are nimble and able to disrupt because they don’t have the existing systems that prevent the established companies from moving quickly (often in ways that hurt their traditional model). Disruption is a creative, yet destructive force.

Publishing companies are among some of the oldest established businesses in the world, and hence stand to lose a lot. Even if they can innovate incrementally, the destructive nature of disruption (literally the removal of parts of their business chain) means that they can never competitively disrupt their own practice to defend against newer and more aggressive competitors.

However, it’s a very big leap to assume that publishing is doomed by disruption. I was reading an article late last week that began with the premise that publishing is in decline. This is a premise that I strongly disagree with. I hope many of you reading this will also disagree. I want to look at this from the perspective of an intern or in a more grandiose (or delusions of grandeur) sense, from the perspective of a young-publisher-to-be.

I can understand the doom and gloom when we get stuck on the Disruption narrative – the Amazon narrative. And boy, what a narrative that was last week! Amazon’s office culture was exposed by the New York Times and then there was a subsequent flood of “surprised” and “concerned” articles that ranged from expressions of disappointment to demands to boycott. I found these particularly bemusing. If you’re expecting a company founded on disruption to be the friendly ideal of the childhood ballpit as opposed to the brutal reality of a childhood ballpit, I cannot understand why.

See what just happened there? I got distracted by the Amazon narrative. This happens very often. It happens to all of us. But books are more than their commodification, as is the publishing industry, despite its critics.

Now, are we in the death throes of this industry? No, no we are not. It’s simply a period of change. Whether that change is ending now, or will drag on for a longer period still remains to be seen. It is clear, however, that the initial panic has faded and things have stabilised. I mean, publishing companies are even hiring bright, young people like me. Or more specifically, slightly brighter, slightly older people kind of like me.

That’s not to say that there are no threats or concerns that arise from disruption by digital technology. But more simply, that the business of publishing books seems to be rolling on, ever on. It’s different now in the details, and probably more competitive, but from a big picture perspective, the game remains largely unchanged.

“Is it a good story? Yes, huzzah, let’s publish it. Will it sell x amount of copies? We’ll hedge a bet, let’s publish it. Is this a book that people need to read? We think so, let’s publish it at a greater risk.”

What can be said is that there are dwindling opportunities for new and midlist authors at the bigger end of town. Conversely, however, there is an abundance of new opportunity at the smaller end of town. The changes we’ve seen in the publishing industry allow small presses to be more competitive and more active than ever before. Digital disruption has increased access to publishing tools and services and transformed self-publishing from a difficult affair into a manageable and potentially profitable model for authors.

It’s the literal meaning of swings-and-roundabouts. Yes, a large corporation is making large inroads in controlling a significant portion of the book trade. Yes, they are disrupting the traditional publishing model, but they aren’t burying it (at least not successfully). None of this is an integral part of the publishing industry: it’s all ephemera. It’s affecting, it squeezes the margins tighter, but at the end of the day they were already pretty tight. As an intern and student, I’ve studied the history of publishing and the industry has survived bind after bind just like this. It’s going to do it again, and I’m going to be there when it does.