Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Maximising Opportunities: Adelaide

I'll be presenting a session on rights and writing on 27 November at this four-day workshop in Adelaide organised as a joint professional development program by the SA Writers Centre and the ASA.
I'll also being speaking on the state of Australian literature at a dinner that evening.

Second Person Narrative Voice

I'll be presenting a paper on this topic on Friday 28 November at the Australian Association of Writing Programs conference at the University of Technology Sydney. An abstract of the paper is available here. The paper is published in full in the Proceedings of the conference.
I'll be discussing Peter Kocan's The Treatment and G.M. Glaskin's (writing as Neville Jackson) No end to the way.

Little Disturbances launch: UTS

Friday November 28 from 5.30-7.00, UTS Gallery Courtyard. Southerly Launch – Little Disturbances edited by Debra Adelaide and John Dale. Launched by Louis Nowra.
Selected Readings (including from me) and drinks. Part of the Australian Association of Writing Programs conference.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Parallel importation: Cheap books, but at what price?

My book Perfect Timing is about to be published in a Vietnamese translation. It will sell for 20,000 Dong, about A$1.45. I’ll receive 5% of that price on each copy, a princely seven cents, so I’m not about to retire.
But what this makes clear is that books are much cheaper in Vietnam than Australia. I could buy 15 copies of my Vietnamese edition for the price of an average Australian paperback. So, why is the book cheaper? The paper and print quality will be lower than the Australian edition for one. Another is there’ll be several more thousand copies printed in Vietnam than were ever printed in Australia, but the book will still be a tiny blip in a market of over 80 million readers. And those readers are much poorer than readers in Australia. To them, spending 20,000 Dong on a book is a luxury purchase.
So the price of books is relative from one country to another. The return to me from sales in Vietnam will be small financially, but large in the sense that I will have many more readers. I’m assisting with a tiny bit of cultural exchange as well. These are immeasureable benefits with no financial value.
But they’d still be there if I was lucky enough to sell US rights to my book, although the financial implications would be very different. I’d actually make some money – again, not enough to retire on, but enough perhaps for a new computer or new car.
As an author, I can trade my rights in different markets for different reasons. Trading of rights is the commercial basis for life as an author. We can sell Australian publishing rights, rights for translation into Vietnamese or rights to an American edition. This is intrinsic to our continued livelihood. Quite a few authors have different publishers in different markets. Australia, in line with most major book markets in the world, including the United States and United Kingdom, is currently a “closed “ market. Books can only be published here by the entity who holds the rights to the Australian territory. These rights are saleable parts of the bundle of rights that make up an author’s copyright. For example, popular author Jodi Picoult is published by Allen & Unwin in Australia, but by Hachette in the UK and Atria in the USA.
However, there are moves afoot to take some of these rights away from us. The moves are being led by booksellers, particularly, Don Grover of Dymocks (Sydney Morning Herald, September 4, 2008). Booksellers are usually an author's best friends, but not Don at the moment.
Why? Don wants an open market. He wants to take away the right of Australian authors to transact their rights in different markets. His argument is driven by the profit motive of course. Don claims the wholesale price of books is cheaper in the United States through competition. And there is undoubtedly more competition in the US in the book industry than there is in Australia. The US book market is more than 10 times the size of Australia. Don also says books are expensive in Australia because the Australian publishing industry is artificially protected from competition. This is his subtle reference to our Copyright Act and the protection it gives to rightsholders – like authors.
But the US is by no means an open market. Nor should it be. Both the United States and Australia are separate copyright territories, and books are licensed into each territory by their rightsholders. Few Australian books receive much attention in the US. The Australian market is far more competitive than the US market because Australian books have to compete with those from the US and the UK. Under our law as it currently stands, all books published outside Australia must be made available in Australia within 30 days of their publication, or the rightsholder loses their exclusive licence to publish the book in Australia.
Grover’s suggestion is for those rightsholders to lose their right. The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) announced at the end of July that it had asked the Productivity Commission to review Australia’s copyright laws so far as they related to the parallel importation of books. Grover is pushing hard to destroy Australia as a distinct publishing territory. In his argument, he ignores the fact that the US and UK are closed markets. He also ignores the fact that book prices in open market territories such as New Zealand and Singapore are equal to or greater than those in so-called closed markets.
His fallacious argument is designed merely to increase Dymock’s profit margins, not to make books cheaper. Dymocks could make book prices cheaper in their stores overnight, if that was their real interest. How? Dymocks receives a minimum 40% discount on the Recommended Retail Price (RRP) on books it buys from publishers so they have nearly half the price of the book to play with in -- and often more when they negotiate bigger discounts. We don’t know how much of the 40% of the price of a book is Dymocks profit, but the company appears to be doing well. And it’s not as if Dymocks is a risky business, like drilling for oil. Their purchases from publishers are on a sale or return basis. What they haven’t moved off the floor after six weeks gets sent back to the publisher for credit.
In contrast, life is bit tougher for the publisher, and much more so for the poor author. When a book is sold by Dymocks, the publisher gets about 12% (at least ABS statistics from 2004, the most recently available, show that) and the author generally receives 10%.
What’s clear from this is Dymocks is in the best position to immediately reduce the price of books by passing on part of its discount to consumers. No need to change our copyright laws. No need to destroy the livelihood of Australian authors and their ability to transact their rights both here and internationally for whatever those markets will pay.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A pencil needs no electricity

In the June issue of Australian Bookseller & Publisher, retiring Wiley MD Peter Donoughue wrote a swansong article claiming the ASA knew next to nothing about educational publishing and rubbishing our research in the area. Donoughue was so pleased with his opus he rushed up to me at the Australian Industry Book Awards to ask if I had read it. I have now, and I can only say it’s fortunate Peter is retiring. Another educational publisher, Peter Debus, offers a more balanced view of educational publishing in the August 2008 issue of the Author. Debus accepts that the ASA is right in its assessment that the educational publishing sector is in its death throes. He doesn’t maintain Donoughue’s “head in the sand” position.
Yet the ASA, Debus and Donoughue are all describing the same elephant. How can we diverge so much in our descriptions?
The answer lies in judicious use of the facts. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on 25 July that federal public servants were involved in a systematic revision of Wikipedia entries about federal politicians. The parliamentary librarian was reported to have emailed instructions on how to alter Wikipedia entries to ensure the entries displayed only favourable information.
We can be sure that the practice is not unique to Canberra. It goes on all over the world. Why? Because it can. Wikipedia is open to all. It claims that this is its great strength. It says it can collect a massive amount of facts. And it does. You can read biographies of porn stars alongside entries about Australian politicians as well as overlong essays on arcane musicians and brief entries on Australian poets.
I even rate a mention. And that’s just a few of the reasons why Wikipedia’s authority should never be trusted.
The trouble with a freely available and editable source of information like Wikipedia, or the entire internet, is that it is so easily manipulable. And believable. That’s why politicians in the UK, US and Australia increasingly use YouTube and internet communications in elections. And it’s also why governments in China, Vietnam and Burma attempt to restrict access to the internet, or at least try to control content. Even a lovefest like the Olympics was not enough for Chinese authorities to release their grip on internet communications. And maybe we have to ask if they are right when our own politicians use the internet for their own nefarious propaganda purposes.
Wikipedia makes some claims to informational authority. Because of this, or perhaps because journalists like anyone else prefer the easy option, Wikipedia seems to have replaced a number of journalistic research skills. Students also relay on its immediacy and convenience. I’m not averse to it myself. I will often check for information there. However, and I am thankful for my editorial training for this, I don’t take Wikipedia information as the ultimate authority. Goodness, I’ll even consult some fossil reference source such as a book.
I admit I may be too much of a cynic, but these days I don’t trust any source of information unless I can verify the information there with at least two independent sources. Such rules used to be de rigeur for editors and journalists, although there were some sources we accepted.
In times past I would have trusted the Australian Encyclopaedia, for whose fourth edition I created the index, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Both of these publications had in place sound editorial polices and practices that ensured any errors were kept to a bare minimum. Were they error-free? No, but they had the gravitas of both peer review and editorial rigour.
What do I mean by editorial rigour? This is best answered with an example. As the literary heir of our Founding President Dal Stivens, recently the ASA received a number of his files and manuscripts. Included in these is the original copy-edited manuscript of Dal’s children’s book The Bushranger (Collins, 1978), the corrected galley-proofs and a letter from Miss Margaret R. Jones, the copy-editor. Among other queries, all guided by the purpose of making the book as accurate as possible for young readers, Miss Jones asks Dal to check his references to “pines”. She notes that Pinus radiata was not introduced into Victoria until 1857, leading her to question his usage since the book is set at an earlier time. Miss Jones was relying only on print sources, but I wonder whether anyone would even think to query such a point today.
I understand that the creators and editors of Wikipedia claim their data has a level of accuracy similar to the old print encyclopaedias, but the only research I have been able to uncover to validate those claims considers scientific articles. Wikipedia articles, contributed by over 13,000 volunteers, vary in quality, style and accuracy. They haven’t been subjected to a rigorous editorial audit.
Still, that doesn’t alter the fact that printed encyclopaedias have passed on, victims of the instant “authority” of the internet and Wikipedia. The skills involved in their production are being forgotten in the rush to accept instant information. But is that information any use? It is not the amount of information we can access that is fundamentally important, but what we do with it, which is why the governments of China, Vietnam and Burma have a much better understanding of the power of knowledge than do the politicians of the UK, US and Australia.
Knowledge is power.
I could lament the good old days. But again why? What was good about a reference book so heavy that it could cause a hernia? Or door-to-door salesmen hustling working class families into over-priced payment schemes for a rapidly aging set of books?
Even when I was doing my bit for the sum of knowledge about Australia in 1983, we were aware the encyclopaedia had a limited life. We had no idea of the internet, though. At that time, the IT specialists advised us that printed information would all flow onto CD-ROMs and these would be what people would use to access reference works. Hence part of my indexing brief was to ensure my index comprised logical indicators for both print and electronic formats.
But as we know the CD-ROM revolution never happened. And now we have the internet and DVDs to play with. So much so that many children these days gain almost all their information over the web, using a computer keyboard and mouse. On 28 July 2008 the Herald reported that some students preparing for the NSW Higher School Certificate needed to learn handwriting to be able to sit the written exams, which restrict typing to disabled students.
It shocks me that students could reach adulthood and lack the ability to write words. I imagine there will be some who would argue that this is just the way of the world, another sign of “progress”, another change to the way we live life.
These people would argue that life changes because technology changes. And I agree that the wheel was only invented because it made life easier than dragging things along the ground. But I worry that our current dependence on technology puts us a precarious position because the technology we rely on is dependent upon the provision of energy, particularly electrical energy, and in creating that energy we threaten our very existence.
We need to keep some skills that do not require any more energy than picking up a pencil. We need to be able to check our facts and, a very old skill, sort the wheat from the chaff, even in our assessment of the state of educational publishing. Otherwise we trust only new technology, turn to our plasma screens and burn down the future.
But what’s the point in going faster if we are merely going to crash into a brick wall sooner?

Copyright © 2008 Australian Society of Authors and Jeremy Fisher

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Garden wins prizes: Happy Day

We entered our garden in the recent community garden competition and we won four prizes, one first, two seconds and a third.These pictures show some of the garden. It was open for viewing on 2 November 2008.