Phillip Adams recently had Mark Rubbo from Readings Book Stores and Henry Rosenbloom from Scribe Publications on ABC Radio National talking about the current state of the book industry. It was stated that the Book Industry in Australia is currently “on its knees”. Yes, selling books has been tough this year but retail across the board has been down. Australia may have escaped relatively unscathed from the GFC but the consequence has been that consumers are now more cautious about how they spend their money. The downturn in retail spending has been exasperated by the exchange rate in the last two months as imported goods have become considerably cheaper making shopping online more attractive. I think this, coupled with the interest rate rise in November, has sped up the retail downturn at exactly the wrong time of year!
But this downturn is not book industry related and to say our industry is on its knees is overly pessimistic. In fact the book industry is on the cusp of a new and exciting era. Our whole industry; from writing to publishing to bookselling to reading; is at the start of a massive revolution. Everything we do must change. All the old rules of publishing will be broken. The only thing holding it back is those that are resisting change.
I am of course alluding to eBooks and before some of you let out a collective groan they are a fundamental change to this industry. How we implement this change will be what determines the future success of the industry. At the moment our industry is trying to implement eBooks as if it was another format to sit alongside hardbacks, paperbacks and audio books. It is trying to make them available using the old world notion of territories. And it is treating eBook readers as a group separate from print book readers. Three big mistakes.
eBooks are much more than another format. They are a whole other way of thinking about book production and distribution. And the possibilities are endless. All titles are always available from anywhere (as long as you have a WiFi or 3G connection). There will be no such thing as out of stock, reprinting or out-of-print. Guide books and other non fiction can be instantly updated and integrated with a myriad of other sources of information. Fiction is not limited by the dimensions of a book; a short story can be sold separately and an epic doesn’t have to be cut down or made to look smaller than it is. When books start to be written with this in mind the game will change considerably. As the eBook market gets bigger the need for print books to be sold in multiple formats (hardcover and paperback) will become obsolete.
The traditional method of dividing the world up into geographical territories is also becoming redundant and publishers’ attempts to make eBooks fit into this world is a losing battle. The geo-restrictions currently in place for eBooks have nothing to do with copyright laws and everything to do with originating publishers trying to maximize the sale of territorial rights. This is a complete and utter failure to understand that there are no borders or territories in the digital world and trying to implement them is a futile exercise. Not only is it not very difficult to get around these restrictions but they are in fact counter-productive because they encourage illegal downloading. eBooks are about convenience and the majority of eBooks are currently inconvenient for Australians to buy.
People who read eBooks will also read print books. People who read print books will also read eBooks. And they will all listen to audio books! The sales of eBooks will feed print book sales and vice versa. So why are the people who know how to sell books being locked out of selling eBooks? Brand name authors and media hyped books will always sell themselves so any kind of retailer can and will sell those books. But how do authors become ‘brand names’ and what creates the media hype of a Harry Potter or Steig Larsson? And who will sell the thousands of other fantastic books that are written and published every year? Booksellers. Retailers who specialize in books, who know their market, know their customers and can spot the new trends. Not Apple, not Google, not a supermarket, not a department store and not a soulless web portal.
So while the current state of play is not rosy and things may get worse before they get better the long-term outlook is not doom and gloom. I can’t wait