Thursday, January 29, 2009

Books I've read recently

I tried to read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz when it came out last year but got so damned annoyed by the lousy printing of the British edition (I bought it in the UK) I gave up after 50 pages. The only way you could get the thing to stay open was by applying massive amounts of force using both hands and occasionally your freekin feet! Not really practical on public transport or on a plane. It was a disgrace.

Recently, however, I ordered the cheap US paperback edition from Amazon and it was a sheer joy to handle as well as read. A quality production.

If you like lively, wild, scorching, invigorating prose; wonderfully rich, larger than life, immensely likable characters; a savage political critique of a rotten state; and a heartbreaking family story, then you'll absolutely love this book. It's superb. It won the Pulitzer prize last year and no wonder. Do yourself a favor you young people and read it.

Albert Camus' The Outsider was featured on the ABC's First Tuesday Book Club late last year and received a rave review from Brendan Cowell, the young and immensely talented Australian actor, playwright and director ('it changed my life') so I decided to re-read it. Like Cowell I first read it when a mere callow youth. It didn't do much for me then and, re-reading it forty years later, it doesn't do much for me again.

A.A.Gill has just released Paper View, a collection of his TV criticism from his columns in Britain's Sunday Times. Perhaps not quite as good as last year's superb food book, nevertheless if you like Gill's writing - who the hell doesn't? - you'll enjoy this outing. No-one in Australia comes anywhere near close to Gill's talent and ferocity. Here's an excerpt:

'It must be said of Rolf Harris that he's a difficult man to hate, though that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. He was born nerdily embarrassing. Time and exposure have not awarded him a scintilla of gravitas, sagacity or dress sense. All his long life, Rolf has walked into rooms in the sure and certain knowledge that, on every level, he will be the least fashionable person there. His great and unnerving quality is the reverse Midas effect: everything he touches turns to dross. Aim his panting enthusiasm at a subject, however culturally impregnable, and his grunting, mewing excitement will reduce it to a car-boot sale. Harris is the neutron bomb of kitsch.'

Sweet Poison: Why Sugar Makes Us Fat, by Australian, and ex-obese person, David Gillespie, is the only diet/health book you need to read - ever! It is so good. It's not your normal fad diet book, as it goes into a huge amount of detail about your body's biochemistry and how, basically, the whole food thing works. It is also an exceptionally well researched history of food and diet trends and movements, written in a very lucid prose style.

I was waiting for the clincher, the death rattle: what you shouldn't be eating or know the list: no alcohol, no pasta, no cheese, nothing enjoyable, nothing like a bloody monk, etc etc. BUT IT NEVER CAME! It turns out that eating healthily is pretty darned easy. Just give up fruit juices, sweet wines/liqueurs and sugar! Easy as! I'm onto it.

I'd never read any of Dennis Lehane's stuff. He wrote Gone, Baby, Gone, and Mystic River, among others. So I picked up his latest The Given Day and was absolutely blown away by it. It is set in Boston around 1918 when the Irish and the Italians dominated American life, Bolshevik sympathisers had a taste for unionisation and revolution, terrorism was pretty rampart, and niggers were niggers and well and truly kept in their place.

It's a solid read - 700 pages long - but I guarantee you'll be hooked and miss dinner, lectures, dates and all your appointments.

Peter Carey goes troppo!

One thing that's been quite embarrassing about the whole feverish debate on parallel importation currently consuming the Australian book industry has been the performance from many of our well known authors. Individual authors seem to have fallen over themselves in some absurd contest to contribute the most appalling drivel to the opinion pages of the nation's press.

It's been a race to the bottom.

Today, however, we must surely acknowledge the winner - Peter Carey. His article in today's Age is a gem. As an exercise in fantasy and farce it is without peer! It's good because it is sooo bad.

Seriously, in my twenty years of following and contributing to this never-ending debate I have never read anything as brilliantly comic.

However, the good side is probably this: Carey's descent into farce has surely pulled the debate back from the brink. We probably won't get any more of these frequent, drunken, fantastical meanderings from any other authors. Intelligence and good old-fashioned common sense might start to re-emerge as debate touchstones.

Boy, how refreshing would that be!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

What's wrong with the ABA's 7/7 compromise?

I've been asked this question, so let me go through it in a bit of detail.

Basically, it contravenes Berne.

The Berne Convention has a clear principle known as the National Treatment principle. The point of this principle is to ensure governments do not privilege their own nationally published titles against titles published by signatory countries overseas. Berne is a global copyright treaty which most governments who respect copyright around the world are party to, including Australia.

The current 30 day provision does not breach Berne, as it is possible to fly in titles published overseas and publish them 'simultaneously' in Australia within that time frame. Our Copyright Act, like those of Berne signatories, defines simultaneous publication as 'within 30 days', reflecting the commonly used and understood concept of the 'month of publication'.

No Australian government, or in fact the government of any signatory country, could adopt a seven day time frame, as this would effectively work against granting copyright protection to imported titles. It would favor titles printed within the country - originals and local editions of overseas titles - over titles first published overseas.

A seven day replenishment time frame just compounds the problem. Of course those titles published and printed by an Australian publisher, and sitting in the warehouse, are going to be able to meet the seven day benchmark (just!), but there is no way inventory can be brought in from overseas in that time frame if the title is out of stock on receipt of an order.

When the 30 day time frame was adopted by the Australian government almost twenty years ago, it was clearly explained to the APA and the ABA at the time, by the Attorney General's department (I was there), that the industry's preference to protect only 'the Australian edition' breached our treaty obligations and could therefore never be incorporated into Australian law.

The 90 days provision could, of course, be shortened to 30 days, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the Rudd government adopt this. (It has that sort of engineered protection-plus-stretch modern industry policy flavor Rudd and his industry minister Kim Carr are attracted to).

It's just disappointing to see the ABA still banging on about protecting just an 'Australian edition'. They're not articulating it this way of course, but their 7/7 recommendation is a back door way of re-introducing it.

Move on please.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The ABA Stabs Itself in the Front. Amazing!

The Australian Booksellers Association has decided to reverse its long-standing policy of supporting the abolition of the 30/90 day rule, which restricts booksellers' ability to parallel import, and has instead opted for an illogical, impractical and risible 'compromise'.

On the one hand it has agreed with the publishers' line that abolition of the restrictions would strangle the local publishing industry.

This is so disappointing. The ABA has always been a voice of sanity in this long running debate, and now it has caved. It's a massive failure of thought and an abject failure of leadership.

Let's imagine for a moment that the publishers' horror scenario does actually unfold, that any distribution agreement or purchased territorial rights become thoroughly subverted: the only way this can happen, the mechanics of it, are for Australia's booksellers, en masse, to source everything from overseas including foreign editions, bypassing the local rights holding publisher at every turn. That is, they would commit commercial suicide by aggressively acting against their own best interests. This is what publishers are implying booksellers would do, that they are economic Visigoths.

Now the ABA comes along and AGREES with them! It says, yes, you're right, our members are so stupid that they would at every opportunity act against their commercial interests and, as a by-product, destroy local literary culture! No matter how reasonable the price of the local edition, no matter how fair the trading terms from the local publisher, no matter how good the distribution and customer care, no matter how beneficial to sales the publisher's marketing and publicity efforts, no matter the excellent personal service from the sales reps, no matter the impossibility of getting anywhere near the same deal from overseas wholesalers like Baker and Taylor.... we're gonna buy around, just because we can!

I'd call that stabbing yourself in the front!

But THEN, on the other hand, the ABA says that the provisions aren't working - they are restricting competition and need reforming! They should be tightened to a 7/7 rule, with a new regulatory regime to stop publishers over-pricing and under-servicing!

Ohmigod.. this is just sooo awful!

Guys, the whole point of the proposed abolition of the provisions is to allow competitive forces to deliver just what you say you want! You can't have it both ways! You either want it or you don't.

Obviously the ABA has been sucker-punched by the mass hysteria of the publishing and author communities...the emotional and unintelligent blah that has reached fever pitch and will brook no rational opposition.

What on earth the Productivity Commission makes of this is anyone's guess. Though I remain confident they won't be fooled.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Peter Matthiessen's Shadow Country

Just after Xmas the US National Book Award judges voted the great American novelist Peter Matthiessen's magnum opus Shadow Country the 2008 winner of its prestigious award.

Writers like Don DeLillo and Richard Ford have raved about this book. Annie Dillard called it 'a masterpiece of world literature..I would give it every prize and award on earth'. The New York Times called it 'as powerful a reading experience as nearly any in our literature'.

When the award was announced I saw a marvellous interview with Matthiessen on Jim Lehrer's Newshour and immediately ordered the book from Amazon. I assumed, as you would, that no Australian bookseller would yet have it and would be waiting for the British edition to eventually find its way to these shores in any case.

I was wrong. Today in the Avenue bookstore in Albert Park there in all its freshly minted glory was a copy of the lavishly printed, hardback, Random House, American edition! At 900 pages this is a big book, carrying a US price of $40.00. Avenue had imported it directly and priced it A$65.00, which is today's exchange rate plus GST, an extremely fair and reasonable price. Well done Chris.

I looked up TitlePage, the industry price and availability service, to see what the local supplier - possibly Random but probably not - had priced it at and what their stock situation was. No information. Nothing. Zip. The database had never heard of it.

That says all you need to know about parallel importation, and why our local industry needs a competitive rod shoved up its arse!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

DRM - at last some enlightenment!

It's taken a while, but the music industry seems at last to be developing a measure of common sense. They are dropping all their restrictive and totally counterproductive DRM controls from recorded music.

They have acknowledged that consumer behavior which everyone, including them, regarded as innocent in the analogue world - such as taping, compiling, lending, etc - is innocent in the digital world as well.

They have recognised that the best and only protection for their investments is to create business models that treat consumers fairly and with respect, and don't bully, cajole, threaten and scare them.

We've been a long time in the throes of the digital transition, as content producers of all types have invariably acted timidly, frozen in the headlights. Technology has shifted the power balance in favor of the consumer, and the full implications of this are still rumbling through the old established empires.

Movie and TV producers still don't get it. Their territorially based international release schedules, for example, are dynasaurian, and are now of course hugely ignored by savvy gen y'ers as they should be.

Book publishers are still struggling with the transition, and still investing far too much money and hope in DRM protections. Those scary consumers just can't be trusted!

In a few years, hopefully, we'll be over these transition pains and living confidently in a content world where consumer choice and satisfaction are once again central and paramount.

For that's the only business paradigm that makes sense in the digital economy - being thoroughly customer-centric, not producer-centric or format-centric. It's a radical change if adopted seriously, and one most established organisations are finding it virtually impossible to accomplish. It requires creative destruction, a path rarely chosen voluntarily.

The headlights are those of a ten ton truck.