Kim Carr’s eBook working group is a joke


opinion I couldn’t help but laugh when I read the list of industry luminaries who have earned a spot on Industry Minister Kim Carr’s illustrious strategy group to solve all of Australia’s electronic book problems.

That’s because none of the members of the panel appear to be doing much in the eBook sphere at all.

Can someone please explain to me what incentive Philip Anderson, chief executive officer of the Australian Printing Industries Association, or Lorraine Cassin, printing division secretary of the Australian Workers Union, have to help to move Australia’s archaic book industry into the new digital millennium?

After all, the businesses and workers they represent are likely to face severe job cuts and loss of business as a result of the inevitable transition away from paper books and towards the incoming wave of e-readers such as the Amazon Kindle and the Apple iPad.

It’s a similar situation when you examine other members on the panel. I love Gleebooks, but can anyone imagine that co-owner David Gaunt is not aware that more efficient digital distribution methods have the potential to put his fantastic bookstore out of business?

Or what about Ross Gibb, the managing director of Macmillan Australia — the local division of one of the world’s largest paper book publishers?

With most in the industry agreeing that it’s not the technology holding back digital distribution of books, but archaic publishing agreements specific to certain geographies, does anyone believe that Gibb will simply sit back and advise the Book Industry Strategy Group that eBooks should be made available to anyone in any geography?

Then there’s the presence of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance on the panel — the journalists’ union, which in my experience has paid very little attention to the massive growth in Australian new media over the past few years. Newspapers, yo. That’s where journalists work.

Give me a break.

There is an enormous amount of effort going on in the Australian technology community and the book publishing industry as both sides of the game work out how to transition to the new digital reality — as Delimiter’s recent feature article on the topic made clear.

Take Central Book Services, which has launched its ECO Reader device in Australia to stimulate demand, or the recent launch of the BeBook readers.

Amazon doesn’t have much representation in Australia apart from its public relations agency, but its Kindle device launched several months ago locally, and is being snapped up in droves by Australian readers, as it’s currently the best e-reader in the market, with far and away the biggest catalogue.

And last but not least, Apple has already demonstrated a significant commitment to dragging the publishers by the neck into the Australian scene with the launch of its iPad and the imminent appointment of a dedicated iBooks manager for the Asia-Pacific region. And stacks of people have already started reading books on their iPhones or Android mobiles on the way to work. Because it’s convenient.

But none of this activity has been reflected in the Book Industry Strategy Group set up by Carr. Instead of focusing on current events, the panel appears focused on the past.

There are a couple of rays of hope — the appointment of gaming industry luminary Tom Crago of Tantalus Media to the panel, and a representative from the universities, which have been very active in the digital switch due to its potential to serve students better. But it would have been better to have a university librarian rather than someone from a university publisher (Melbourne University Press).

And of course there is the obligatory nod to authors with the presence of Angelo Loukakis, the executive director of the Australian Society of Authors.

But to be honest, I believe such rays of sunshine will be swamped by the rest of the panel.

Most of the real innovation in Australia’s book industry is going to come from technology companies like Amazon and Apple over the next few years. Don’t expect Kim Carr’s panel to produce any meaningful progress. As a reader, you can safely ignore it. And most of the existing book industry certainly will.

Image credit: Ivan Vicencio, royalty free


  1. I have been having discussions with a independent book retailer and says Australia is years behind the US in ebooks.

    He believes there is a role for old school retail, and is excited about reader software which allows retailers to serve as a value add to the ebook model.

    I have done research on ebook online retailsers, and the scene is depressingly bad.

    • It’s true — we are behind (as usual), despite all the interest in the world. I think the publishers are too used to their cosy little scene.

  2. Isn’t this kinda like horse-and-cart manufacturers forming an automobile strategy group?

    (posted from iPhone on a bouncy bus. Seriously, this was hard.)

  3. One of the issues is that Australia is dominated by UK publishing houses, so a lot of the buzz from ebooks in America is not helping our market. Amazon shows this with the limited book range, as the UK publishing houses control distribution here via Aussie branches

  4. Interesting take. So essentially the committee is a volunteer Sunday School group.
    What suprises me is that you are suprised.
    This is always how Politicians reward their loyal voters, sorry, campaign contributors.
    It’s an election year. The coffers are empty.
    Let’s not worry about whether Australian youth will have any access via their chosen access device to any of the great literary works (or in fact their required reading books).
    Let’s ignore the fact 950,000 Sydneysiders catch trains every morning with nary a newspaper in sight.
    Let’s not consider how the GDP of the country would increase if every student had unlimited electronic access to all of their course work and research text and subsequentely passed with honours AND got a better job…..
    Let’s forget tommorrows Generation……
    Let’s just nudge nudge, wink wink and the public will KNOW we’ve done the best that we can, under the circumstances. Did I mention it’s an election year…..

    Oh – I forgot to mention one teeny-tiny thing….. its these kids that will paying contributions for your retirement pension drawings in the future and if they fail to graduate…. benefits will reduce…… well, it can get cold in the Blue Mountains in July….. without any coal.

    • Heh I guess I’m not really that surprised Tom — more annoyed or something like that. I personally want real eBook progress in this country, and this committee is going to do nothing about it. I agree with all of your points here.

  5. If you look, you’ll find that Macmillan is a big player in e-books – as Jeff Bezos found to his chagrin a few months ago.

    The other members of the group have less credibility in this area.

  6. ‘Then there’s the presence of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance on the panel — the journalists’ union, which in my experience has paid very little attention to the massive growth in Australian new media over the past few years. Newspapers, yo. That’s where journalists work.’

    You haven’t been looking very hard. MEAA has been sponsoring ‘Future of Journalism’ conferences and recently released a report on journalism and technology:

    • Hey Tim,

      as a long-time online journo, I believe I speak for most online journos when I say the MEAA is almost invisible in the new media scene.



  7. That’s a special interest group, not a think tank which will provide for out of the box solutions.

    Bottom line, I’ll continue to buy US iTunes cards and use a US Postal Address for Amazon and get the content I want at the price I want to pay.

    This industry is dead in Australia – no GST, no jobs, nothing. Amazon isn’t going to setup a “digital warehouse” and sell from here so KRudd can get some GST money, that ship has sailed.

    The thing with technology and breakthroughs is you want to be ahead of the wave when you’re a small country like Australia. Five years ago if someone had read the tealeaves and picked eBooks were on the horizon they could have offered Jeff Bezos some kind of deal to serve Kindle Books for South East Asia out of Australian data centres. Instead, Amazon is setting up data centres in Singapore and Hong Kong (two of the most land poor places in the world) where Australians will be serviced from not just for books but for the massive Cloud Services that Amazon are one of the leaders in.

    Now, our data will live offshore (unless we make more stupid laws about that) and we’ll be net consumers rather than net producers of online services. That’s what backwards protectionist laws do to you.

    • I agree with your point about staying ahead if you’re a small country, Sean, but it also is risky — if a country like Australia makes the wrong technology choice, we could end up being even more behind.

      And all the government studies in the world aren’t going to be able to pick a winner — it has to be done by small groups of individuals with deep insight into the industry they are making decisions about.

      I suspect Australians are more or less going to be in the situation you describe forever — individuals making do with what we can scrounge on our own initiative from overseas etc :)

  8. Interesting Sean,

    I too have a Box in Reno, a US VOIP line and a redirector instruction on my mail box.
    As well as Proxy redirects for US IP number recognition so Amazon doesnt give me the “Sorry, this product is not available outside of the USA.”.

    I have a theory about adoption for ideas worhtwhile adopting ….

    1st year – 4%
    2nd Year – 11%
    3rd year – 21%
    4th year mainstream at 36-39%.

    If everyone in Australia gets a US mail drop address, then the digital sales in Oz will disappear within 3 x 4 or 12 years (but actually its 8 because the last 30% never convert, “Glass Ceiling effect”).

    Let me see the GST on 60% of AU E-Commerce sales equals about 390 million. Probably not worthwhile bothering about.

    What galls me is that e-commerce leakage does in fact affect the economy of our country yet the Government seem more interested in implementing ridiculous filter type projects than addressing parlays with the overseas ecom providers.

    How hard would it be to offer Amazon a tax-free haven for ten years to set-up it’s HQ in Oz?
    Just the arbitrage on the international currency coming into Australia would clear our foreign debt in two shakes of a dogs tail – err, about four months.

    Shame our politicians don’t think outside the square.

    • My experience with most politicians has been that they don’t understand technology well enough to be offering the sort of deals you and Sean are talking about, Tom. They are too worried about the short-term political reality to think about long-term strategy.

  9. Agree Renai,

    Although it would seem that Singapore have already made the Tax Free Zone concession offer to Amazon.

    Darwin in the Northwern Territory tried the Tax Free zone to encourage new business development in the NT. It worked, sorta, but on a small scale.

    We need a Government that has more Kate Lundy’s in it.
    I’m not generally a fan of Pollies, but Kate has been switched onto the Technology since the mid nineties.

    I think if Kate Lundy were Prime Minister, then Australia would already have The Google Master Backup, The Amazon Master Backup, The eBay Master Backup…..

    After that, there isnt anything much else we would ever need.

    Unfortunately the years of Telstra dictating foreign trade policy with their communications bottlenecks have brought Australia to a backwater of international technological capability.

    The NBN on the other hand is a damn fine idea. Maybe, Australia could be the future home to Youtube….. Wouldnt our advertising companies like them apples…

    • Heh well no doubt, Tom, politicians will become much more educated about technology as time goes on, for the simple reason that we will get younger politicians entering parliament who know about it. It seems like at the moment in both major parties, there is a fair degree of knowledge about the internet filter on the backbenches, for example. But it will take a while for that knowledge to filter through to the PM level. And by that stage, of course there will be some other issue the PM-level politicians are ignorant of ;)

  10. Kate Lundy also had something like 133% staff turnover in her office last year – probably not the best people manager on the go. :-)

    Well, I think Renai’s argument about making a bad bet is neither here nor there because if you don’t buy a ticket for the lottery, you never win. I remember back about 10 years ago, Intel were looking for a location for a new Fab Plant – Australia was considered, but none of the states or federal government would pony up from memory.. However, when the F1 rolls around, they’re tripping over themselves because its race cars, an annual photo op with pretty girls and a big party. An Intel Fab Plant is about the safest bet you can make.

    The bigger problem with government is they make stupid and crippling decisions. They’ve done nothing to encourage an Amazon or Microsoft to setup their cloud infrastructure in Australia. The NSW Dept of Education has moved all of their student email to Google (who knows where that’s being stored). Now, you can bet your bottom dollar that at some point in the next 24 months the issue of data privacy and maybe more importantly data RESIDENCY is going to pop up on the radar. Some government department will inevitably want their data kept onshore for “security purposes”. This will now create a situation where the WHOLE WORLD is moving to commodity cloud storage, but some companies providing government software won’t be able to make use of it. Storage will be more expensive and we the taxpayer will get stung. Maybe even worse, one of them will pass a law about data residency and make it very difficult to offshore data for something stupid like privacy concerns.

    You can just see it coming.

    • heh well one exception to this rule is Tasmania — I remember Premier Bartlett inking a fantastic deal for VHA to keep its call centre down there. But yes, most of the states would have no idea.

  11. Of course we’re years behind the US! They’ve had the kindle for years and enough market mass to support an ebook industry. Although I wish we were further ahead, we now have ereaders, smart phones, iphones and soon the iPad – so FINALLY it seems like we have govt interest.

    I have to agree that Ross Gibbs is a good inclusion because from a digital perspective in Australian publishing they HAVE been leading, having launched their online store and ebook store ahead of most others players years ago. They, along with allen & Unwin have been the quiet digital achievers of this country. As for other publishers, as another person noted they are often led by their UK offices if they are international companies and THEY, along with Australia have been waiting for the Kindle, and other readers to penetrate the market.

    It doesn’t mean that meantime a lot of publishers have quietly been converting their titles and 2010 is the year that most of them will launch.

    As for booksellers, I think they do need to be involved. A lot of them are trying to find their place in this digital future. In terms of having Apple and Amazon on the committee – our digital future should be decided by local players.

    Have to agree about a lot of the other inclusions on the working group though!

    • One question I have, Anna — what real role is there going to be for local booksellers in the future, when everything can be downloaded globally? I’m thinking here of the way that CD stores (and even DVD stores to an extent) seem to have disappeared from the face of the Earth over the past few years.

      But awesome post apart from that, I agree with most of what you are saying here.

    • Interesting perspective Anna and admittedly, you obviously know far more about the publishing industry in Australia than I do… BUT (that won’t stop me from commenting!)

      Book distributors are dinosaurs. Regional distribution worked when the only way to get books into the hands of readers was to print a bunch and move them around physically. Those days are gone.

      Also, publishers in general are living in an outdated world not too different from the entertainment industry in Hollywood that has just been punished. What kind of stupid business are you running when you pre-pay someone to deliver a work of art (an advance on a book), then you bear all of the manufacturing costs and put them on retail shelves essentially on a consignment basis. That doesn’t make sense.

      The cost of writing a book now is virtually nothing so author’s like startup entrepreneurs should be forced to bootstrap themselves. With electronic distribution publishers could do very small limited runs of dead tree editions of books but make them available electronically at a fraction of the cost instantly around the world. Ultimately you end up charging less for the book and the author probably sells more.

      The issues with copyright law is one of the last forms of protectionism that exists and it needs to change. I just don’t think we need a think tank of people with vested self-interest delaying it.

  12. Renai, I wouldn’t pretend to be an expert in bookselling however I think there is one major difference… for a very long time into the future, and maybe forever, people will still want a physical product. Ok, perhaps when I’m an old(er) lady they will be collectors items, but there are too many people who love the tactile qualities of a book. True, more and more of the sales of books will move over to digitial format.

    For a bookseller this must be a concern. They to my knowledge ARE concerned! That’s why many of them are investing in digital initiatives. Dymocks have their ebook store. Angus & Robertson and Borders and others (part of the REDgroup Retail) have partnered with Kobo to power their ebook retailing AND are now selling the Kobo reader – as of today – very affordable at A$199. Years ago A&R had an (unsuccessful) attempt to find a place in digital future by installing a Print on Demand machine in a Melb store….

    I think that Australia should have jumped in earlier to have a unified approach to battle the A$ that goes to Amazon… but finally retailers and publishers are fighting back on the ebook front at least!

  13. Sean, I’m not sure that I agree that the cost of writing a book is virtually nothing. Often years of research goes into writing so that’s like saying I’d be happy to work for nothing and only get paid for results. Hmm, ok, there may be some merit in that?! But I do agree the advance system is tricky. More importantly I think the ‘sale or return’ basis that booksellers receive is very hard for the publisher who makes all of the investment – whether or not the title sells, whether or not the bookseller takes the amount they originally thought they would.

    Certainly there is a certain volume needed to get national distribution, but more and more the ‘top up’ amounts (reprints) will be digital short runs or, more likely, print on demand. Therefore the risk that the publisher takes of ending up with warehouses full of stock that they need to pulp is reduced. In that way digital is a huge bonus to publishers, although they do need to do work to set those titles up to print in that way so they have to invest in file preparation.

    I agree however that digital distribution will improve matters and I do very much agree that publishing was slow to see the changes occuring, or maybe change was slower to happen in an industry built on centuries of tradition. Certainly most of them were not risk takers, which being an entrepreneur requires.

    But because publishing is full of entwined industries (ie publishers need – or needed – booksellers to sell the titles) then change was resisted.

    Your comment about copyright law I’m not clear exactly what you meant, and do not know enough to comment.

    I was present when this working group was officially announced (The Digital Revolution: Publishing in the 21st Century) and what I do know is that there was concern that the group was comprised of the right people. I’m not sure what the industry feels about the selection but there has to be some concern about the speed and motivation to make change.

  14. Sean, by the way I had a thought todayabout your comment about advances when reading the following post about Jane Friedman’s (ex Harper Collins CEO) buying first book for Open Road.

    “Reiss said he was “totally captivated by the revolutionary idea [Friedman] had to change the publishing industry.”…

    Reiss will receive no advance, but will share 50 percent of the profits, double what traditional publishers usually offer for e-books, a core source of tension with authors and agents who believe that 50 percent should be the standard.”

    So yes, in this new era it seems some publishers are willing to risk changing traditional approaches!

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