Sunday, October 12, 2008

The lamentable state of publishing industry statistics

As part of the industry compensation package negotiated between the federal government and the Australian Democrats after the introduction of the GST in 2000 the government funded four years of statistics gathering by the Austalian Bureau of Statistics. The ABS surveyed publishers and booksellers each year from 2001 to 2004 inclusive.

Prior to that, from 1994 to 2000, the APA had funded the ABS publisher surveys themselves, but at huge expense. Collections were done every two years only.

The detailed picture of the industry that emerged over the ten year period from this endeavour was invaluable. No other serious and authoritative attempt to collect accurate data from the total industry had ever before been attempted. The APA had struggled for years to get its members to submit their annual stats but eventually gave it up as a bad joke. The ABA, as far as I am aware, had no better luck and in fact minimal resources to fund and manage the process.

The ABS charged the government for the years 2000-2004 around $200k each year for each collection. At the end of the period the industry pleaded with the govenment to authorise the ABS to continue the collections as part of its general mandate but no funding was ever forthcoming.

This is a real shame. Not only did the ABS bring a highly professional process to the task, all companies surveyed were obligated under law to provide the data, and on time.

The most valuable aspect of the data was the trends that could be clearly observed over the years. We could see what was happening to sales, margins, expenses, royalties, exports, staff numbers, etc. We could see how local title sales were faring compared to imports. We could see how all parts of the industry - trade, primary, secondary, tertiary, professional, etc, were faring. A fascinating tale was being told of the effect of the GST on sales, and the impact of the plummeting dollar (worth looking up again?).

I've just prepared an overview of the industry for a lecture I'm giving next week at the University of Queensland, and could only quote detailed stats for the 2003-2004 year. Embarassing!

Over the last five years though the APA has been collecting similar sorts of data from a select group of publishers, mainly the largest 20 or so, but these are available (at considerable expense I might add!) only to the participants, which is a crying shame. Retired publisher Bill Mackarell was charged with collecting them, and he did a superb job. Bill's given the game away and someone else (I forget who) has been given the job. However here we are in late 2008 and we still haven't got the 2007 stats! Not good.

These APA stats from 2003 to 2006 show real and interesting trends too. Fundamently that the publishing side of the industry has been doing very well. Sales have grown every year as has profitability. In fact publisher profitabilty is now the highest it's probably ever been. In no small part this can be put down to the recovery and resurgence of the dollar, and.....publishers not lowering their pricing in response. (Not a good place to be, I would have thought, when the Productivity Commission starts examining industry pricing practices as part of their impending enquiry into parallel importation).

The last ABS survey into bookselling, in 2004, found the opposite was happening to bookseller profitability. From 3.6% in 2001-02 to 1.9% in 2002-03 to 1.3% in 2003-04. What is the situation now? Who knows?

So, where does the industry go from here? We can't just do nothing! The Howard government refused to fund any more ABS collections, so let's not hold out any hope Rudd will do any different, especially with the huge strains on the budget likely over the next few years. I think the only realistic way forward is for a joint industry approach to CAL.

CAL is obligated under its charter to put aside 1% of its collections from the educational statutory license for what is loosely defined as 'cultural purposes'. I was ten years on the CAL board and I know that that amount of money is a challenge to spend responsibly. Outlaying $200-300k each year to fund the ABS to collect indispensable industry statistics would seem to me a valuable and justifiable way to spend part of this fund. It would be a significant contribution to the development of the cultural industry of Australian publishing/bookselling, a worthy use of these monies.

The APA and the ABA should get together and prepare a submission to the CAL board. I would expect it to be received sympathetically. What have we got to lose?

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