Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf and the Australian publishing industry

19 September 2011

A couple of weeks ago I attended Book Camp Australia, an unconference held at the Wheeler Centre as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival and put together by if:book - the Institute for the future of the book, based in Brisbane.

I had high hopes for Book Camp.  The theme was to be the future of books and reading, and I imagined interesting discussions with authors, librarians, editors, publishers and readers all bubbling with ideas about how books, story-telling and reading culture might look in a decade or two.

The idea of an unconference is to dispense with the presentation of papers and simply create space for the interesting discussions most people tend to like about conferences.  The big danger with any unconference is that you are at the whim of the attendees, their knowledge, interests and attitudes.  Book Camp ended up being a huge disappointment.

I should say at the outset that this was not because it was badly run.  if:book did a great job of bringing in interesting attendees from the USA, organising the day and bringing it all together.  The problem was that the majority of attendees worked in publishing as editors or in managerial roles and the bulk of the rest were authors who also dabble in editing or other publishing roles to pay the bills.  This gave me an insight into how Australian publishing is approaching the challenges and opportunities of online and digital publishing - a frightening insight.

Here was a group of people, presumably the most energetic and forward-thinking in their organisations, who were entirely focused on how they could maintain the status quo of twenty years ago.  Pre-occupations were how to ensure publishers could make money and who should be allowed to refer to themselves as a publisher. Very little energy was expended talking about how new technologies like the iPad could offer exciting new ways to tell stories.  The one exception was tellingly a session without any publishers in the room (they were all downstairs at another session).

It was profoundly depressing to sit in a room presumably filled with the best and brightest of Melbourne’s publishing houses and hear someone asking “are you talking about ebooks or real books?”  The same closing session included an exchange which really highlighted the dearth of deep thinking in the publishing world.  Someone asked what role publishers might have in ‘the long tail’.  The response was that ‘publishers make most of their money from the long tail’ because the costs for author advances, publishing and marketing are already sunk, so selling backlist copies is the most profitable aspect of the business.  No consideration was given to the alternative (and I suspect intended) meaning of ‘the long tail’ - books that don’t get published at all in a physical publishing world, because projected sales are so low that it isn’t profitable.  Today’s publishers are silent on this question.

Earlier in the day I joined a session where I heard:

  • Australian publishers can’t really make any decisions because they’re all branch offices of UK and US based houses.
  • Authors can’t add up so they need publishers to do the accounts and look after legal issues.
  • Most people in the publishing industry don’t understand the finances and rights breakdowns of ebooks.
  • Publishers are necessary for ‘quality control’
  • Lots of ‘crap’ is being published.

It was at this session (“What is a publisher”) that i really wanted to pose the question “are publishers necessary any more?” - but I chickened out because the mood seemed a little too bitter.  When publishers use an opportunity like Book Camp to talk contradictory nonsense about the absolute need for them to exist and be in control, one has to ask if the publishers doth protest too much.

There’s plenty of ways Australian publishers can become relevant in the new paradigm.  I say ‘become’ rather than ‘remain’ because they are not relevant now.  Being a branch office of a multinational, ‘managing’ instead of innovating, isn’t relevant.  The current industry is heavily dependent on government grants and the largely outdated parallel import laws that force booksellers to buy from ‘Australian’ publishers where possible.

Imagine a tablet publishing industry based in Melbourne, however.  Imagine teams of writers, graphic artists, animators and programmers producing exciting and immersive story experiences - not quite traditional books, not really films, not particularly games, but something else.  Imagine a publishing house app that simply delivers the latest installment of quality storytelling to your phone or tablet device for a monthly fee. Imagine any number of other exciting projects.  That’s what I expected to be talking about, but the Australian publishing industry seems stuck in a sickening torpor.  Like former Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf claiming everything in Baghdad was under control as American tanks rolled into view behind him, Australia’s publishers seem unwilling to admit that they are about to be crushed by the future.