The book industry vs book readers

Australia’s literati think that we owe them a living. In the Weekend Australian today, author Michael Wilding complains that

Through the years Australian governments have consistently disadvantaged books and writers,

but what he really means is that Australian governments have become less inclined to advantage book publishers, sellers and writers, at the expense of readers and taxpayers.

Wilding’s criticisms aren’t even consistent. He starts by complaining that the GST made books more expensive, yet his very next complaint is about the abolition of retail price maintenance – which prevented booksellers from discounting to make books cheaper!

He says relaxation of copyright rules, so that booksellers could bring in foreign books not published by local copyright holders within 30 days, undermined the importation business he used to maintain his small Australian publishing firm. Unless he was being very inefficient I am not sure why. He could still overcharge provided he did it quickly.

The cutural protectionists want to own copyright in foreign works, both to generate direct profits from high prices and to make Australian books more price competitive (Wilding complains about printing costs in Australia compared to elsewhere).

On balance I am in favour of copyright law, but I am not convinced that the Australian government needs to protect a local copyright holder rather than the original copyright holder overseas. This seems to me to permit overcharging Australian book readers without greatly changing the incentives for foreign content creators, who could still receive profits from direct sales into the Australian market without separate Australian copyright.

Perhaps these days the main losers from this arrangement are booksellers, as many book readers just go straight to Amazon or other online booksellers. But Australian readers would benefit from better integration into the North American book market particularly. The US publishing industry manages to produce many good books at very reasonable prices, which get only patchy and often expensive releases here.

I’m not (obviously) against Australian books. But their publication should not be propped up by denying Australian readers quick access to books published elsewhere.

12 thoughts on “The book industry vs book readers

  1. One argument I have heard from local booksellers is that books coming from Amazon are able to escape Australia’s GST, and so the local sellers immediately get a 10% disadvantage.

    But I am not entirely convinced.

    Although I haven’t got the figures immediately to hand, a while ago I did a few price comparisons on books that interested me. They were, admittedly, Information Technology books, not blockbuster popular fiction. But what I found was that even when you included the cost of the postage (on the Amazon side) and factored in the 20% discount that my favorite Angus and Roberton used to offer (on the local side) the Amazon books usually still managed to come out a few dollars cheaper. In other words, take away the local shop’s discount, and Amazon had a >20% price advantage.

    Of course, apart from GST, the local suppliers have to factor in local distribution costs. And my hunch is that it is the inefficiency of the local publishing industry’s supply chain that is the real source of their woes.

    The last time I placed a special order with a local bookshop (BTW, one of Melbourne’s best) the book took something like 2-3 months to arrive, and in the meantime the bookshop could tell me NOTHING about the progress of the order.

    By way of comparison, my experience with Amazon over several years has been that — even at Christmas time — they have usually delivered my orders within around 3 weeks on the cheapest surface mail postage option. And their web site will show whether the order is stuck in their warehouse, or whether it has been shipped.

    I should have known better than to use a local store. When I ordered a political philosophy book via Oxford in South Melbourne, in the mid-1990s, it took over 3 months to arrive.

    So it looks like the local distributors have not put any investment into improving their own service levels over the last 15 years — despite the arrival of extra competition from Amazon during that time.

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  2. Yeah I’m in a similiar situation to what Alan described waiting for a book from a local bookstore at the moment. It’s been over two months and for some reason they can’t tell me anything about its progress. The biggest problem for me is, though, that I was originally told it would be around two weeks.

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  3. My sums usually work out the same way as Alan’s: even if 10% was added to the total Amazon cost, they are still cheaper. But it’s not just a price issue. I usually decide to buy a US book based on online reports there on publication, and go straight to Amazon, rather than wait to see whether any of my local bookstores (which are well above average in quality) end up putting it into stock.

    A book from a foreign publisher should never be ordered from an Australian bookstore.

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  4. Amazon have been eating everyone’s lunch for years; and now that the AUD is almost at parity with the USD it’s just getting more dramatic.

    For example, I just ordered my textbooks for next semester from Amazon. It works out nearly $100 cheaper than buying it from the co-op bookshop at the university.

    Smart publishers and the like should instead be trying to win the local franchise for Amazon. Australia is not a very big market, but big enough to sustain two retail chains and a handful of large publishing houses. Throw in the Kindle (god I want one of those so badly) and you could see a real revival.

    And to me this is all just a set of symptoms of statist parasitism. If you depend on the state your imagination is stunted. Everything becomes about what you can suck out of the public tit and defending this or that program. All energy and ingenuity that could have been used to serve customers better.

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  5. It’s not just books and it’s not just the government either — there are evidentally many distributors who are willing to abuse their monopolies in Australia — bike parts and camping gear, for example, ordered from almost anywhere else in the world costs about 60% of the Australian price (even less now thanks to the dollar). You can buy stuff from overseas, add postage and foreign currency conversion charges, and the prices you pay are still less than the wholesale prices of stores. It’s crazy.

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  6. You can buy stuff from overseas, add postage and foreign currency conversion charges, and the prices you pay are still less than the wholesale prices of stores. It’s crazy.

    No , it’s not crazy. It’s actually quite rational expected behavior from human beings. My wife has been buying most of her clothes off the web overseas and receives a ” double discount” when she’s buying at the end of the northern season discounts.

    funny, how markets work, hey?

    I’m not (obviously) against Australian books. But their publication should not be propped up by denying Australian readers quick access to books published elsewhere.

    And what a disgusting scam it was too. One of the first things I experienced living in the US was just how cheap books were over there at the time… more than 1/2 for the most part.

    Perhaps these days the main losers from this arrangement are booksellers, as many book readers just go straight to Amazon or other online booksellers.

    Those that don’t specialize or have their wits about them deserve to go under. There are plenty of books stores I see that seem to be doing well. Those that a close to coffee shops that promote impulsive buys. There are aso books stores that seem to specialize in those sorts of books that are harder to buy on line as you want to see them.

    I would bet that on a per cap basis there are far more books being sold now in Australia than there before. The writers and books stores simply need to know how to compete.

    In fact the on line world ought to make it far easier for writers to find bigger markets so I don’t understand what this guy is after other than sticking his hand in the taxpayers pocket to write books nobody wants to read.

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  7. I like to try and support my local independent bookshops (two of them plus a superior second hand shop- I’m lucky) but it is increasingly difficult.

    With Amazon, even before the dollar was about equal, the convenience, cost and quick service was impressive. I can hear about a book, order it at midnight friday and 90% of the time it will land on my doorstep (and I mean literally on my doorstep – so I don’t have to drive or walk to the post office) by the next friday.

    The 10% GST would not make enough difference on any of my purchases to worry about it.

    A month or so back I was able to pre-order the latest James Lee Burke novel. It will arrive, in hardback, around 3 months before it is available in Australia. It will arrive on my doorstep cheaper including postage, and 3 months quicker than I can buy the paperback in Oz. My local bookshops just cannot offer anything remotely like this. ( the local bookshops seem to be technophobes – they don’t even seem to have data bases of purchases or email notices or any online presence.)

    I also send books as presents from Amazon to relatives overseas – direct from Amazon. I had a $250 order to overseas go astray somehow. Amazon replaced the $ in my credit card after 2 months. No hassle, no accusations of me being dodgy. Naturally I re-ordered the books – this time they arrrived 4 weeks later. Every one happy.

    I order lots of stuff from overseas bike parts, bike clothes etc.

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  8. To an extent the money I save buying books from USA I spend buying local Australian authors I wouldn’t normally buy.

    Part of the overseas shipment that went astray was the Australian Kylie Kwong’s My China: A Feast for All the Senses (Hardcover). In my local bookshop its au$80+ . At Amazon it is ~$32. Postage here would have cost me another $12 or more plus packaging. Amazon posts and packages for about $10.

    Maybe Kwong doesn’t qualify as an Australian author if we are talking fiction. I find it hard to see how she was disadvantaged by my buying in USA as I wouldn’t have purchased the book at au$80 here anyway.

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  9. There’s a curious irony in that piece in that Wilding claims that the easing of competition restrictions and the opening of the market have resulted in fewer choices for both publishers and readers, but he speaks entirely from his limited experience in the publishing industry. His argument, in the opening of that article, that what should be called for are local content regulations, similar to those on film and television, is bizarre.

    He seems to expect the latest Australian kid writer from Toowoomba to compete with decidedly unlocal writers like Homer, Aristophanes, Euripides, Shakespeare, Virgil, Goethe, (etc, etc), or, on a lower level, the Dan Browns and Harold Robbins of the international scene. That’s just rubbish. Where a writer is born shouldn’t matter, but the quality of their writing does – the readers of Australia know this, and Government should stay well away from any attempts to direct the reading decisions of Australians.

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  10. My only gripe with Amazon is that they continue to do business with DHL, whose agents in Darwin and now Perth have unceasingly managed to find new and original ways to shaft me.

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  11. It’s really important to have good local bookshops and a flourishing local writing scene – but I don’t think Wilding’s lament is necessary. I usually try my local independent booksellers first, and if they don’t have a particular book I want I order from Amazon. The bookshops I go to have been in business for 30 years and seem to be doing OK.

    Local writing does need some support but it can come from things like Premier’s Prizes and from public and school libraries – libraries look out for any local books that have attracted good reviews and library buying can amount to hundreds and hundreds of sales, which is a pretty good start.

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