Saturday, May 30, 2009
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
The book arose from the extraordinarily negative reaction he received from his 2007 op-ed piece in the New York Times which proposed an extension of the term of copyright beyond the current 70 years after the death of the author. Within a week the article had received 750,000 angry comments. He was shocked by the 'breathtaking sense of entitlement' demonstrated by the commenters, and 'appalled by the breadth, speed, and illogic of their responses'.
Helprin writes beautifully and angrily, like a poet on heat. I found myself re-reading paragraphs over and over, savouring the rhythm and balance of the phrasing, and the frequently electric similes and metaphors.
Here's a few examples:
'The saving graces and the fragile institutions of humanity depend upon our humanity itself , which in turn depends absolutely on the discipline or rejection of certain appetites. We have many a resolution that separates us from the other animals, many a custom, practice, tradition, and taboo, and if we do away with these in the pursuit of power, the worship of reason, or the imitation of time-and-space-flouting divinity, we will become a portion for foxes'. (p.16)
'The entries in the bloggy-type wikis are often so quick, careless, and primitive that they are analogous to spitting on the street. Their authors write the way Popeye speaks, though with less polish. This is because there is no investment, risk, or accountability, and thus no matching labor or probity.' (p. 65).
'It would be one thing if such a [digital] revolution produced Mozarts, Einsteins, or Raphaels, but it doesn't. It produces mouth-breathing morons in backwards baseball caps and pants that fall down; Slurpee-sucking geeks who seldom see daylight; pretentious and earnest hipsters who want you to wear bamboo socks so the world won't end; women who have lizard tatoos winding from the navel to the nape of the neck; beer-drinking dufuses who pay to watch noisy cars driving around in a circle for eight hours at a stretch; and an entire race of females, now entering middle age, that speaks in North American Chipmunk and seldom makes a statement without, like, a question at the end?' (p.57).
That last quote, however, is telling. Helprin writes from the top of the mountain, distant from the realities and dynamics and sheer ordinariness of contemporary society. There is a strong whiff of elitism, and a palpable disdain for the cut-and-thrust of young lives lived in our technology-infused culture.
He has nothing to say, for instance, about the power of publishing and music conglomerates, and their copyright wars against innocent, innocuous and quite reasonable consumption. He vigorously defends their rights as owners, but stops well short of critiquing their frequently appalling behaviour.
Having no sympathy for the young or their technologies, Helprin's arguments in the end descend to eccentricity and quaintness, the mad rantings of an old notable whose comfortable world is long gone.
This is a pity, as the book is stimulating, immensely literate, highly enjoyable and well worth reading. One thing is for sure though: anybody under 30 won't touch it with a barge pole!
Monday, May 11, 2009
If they hold a marathon or charity run or bike ride, which they do every other weekend seemingly, half the bloody population gets involved and half the city streets are closed!
Attendances at outdoor events are enormous and legendary. Melburnians love being outdoors and love doing it together. Any old cafe on a windswept street will have outdoor tables and chairs, choc-a-bloc full of young and old. It could be freezing, with a ball-tearing southerly blowing in from the Antarctic and reversing all notions of adverse climate change - but there are our Melburnians, together again!
They huddle, that's what they do!
The Age had an article on the weekend about a group of people of influence in Melbourne wishing to start a new...wait for it...club. Intellectuals, corporates, sporting administrators, politicians, celebrities - all coming together. A provincial clubbiness is part of the way of life. We'll be members, we'll be insiders, we'll all think and do much the same thing. Can you imagine such an event in Sydney or Brisbane? The robust cry would be - join the bloody RSL or RAC clubs, for god's sake! Get over it! We know the Melbourne and Atheneum clubs are prehistoric in their anti Semitic and anti women attitudes, but starting a new club? Where does that impulse come from?
This is my calm and temperate (for me) reply, which hopefully will be published tomorrow:
It's a pity that Jason Steger has swallowed hook, line and sinker all the illogical and misinformed arguments of publishers and authors against introducing a greater level of competition into the Australian book industry.
The reforms will inhibit overpricing and underservicing in the local market, and plenty of that happens now. This issue has nothing whatsoever to do with the retention of territorial copyright, much less copyright in general, as Jason blithely maintains.
Dymocks' propositions are sound and sensible, and will contribute to a more dynamic and healthier industry. Hardly 'madness', Jason.
Retired Managing Director of publisher John Wiley.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Therefore we can comprehensively ignore all but about 10 of the 552 submissions received by the Commission, including all the publishers' and all the authors'. These were universally off the point.
Easily the best submission, apart from my own of course, was Dymock's. It actually focused on the real issue and had some interesting things to say. Since Dymocks is currently about as popular in the trade as the Taliban, I happily rise to its defence.
Underpinning the logic of those who think territorial copyright would cease to exist is the presumption that booksellers would widely and at every opportunity import direct from overseas and bypass the local supplier.
Here's what Dymocks has to say about that:
'The volume of books brought in under the new arrangements direct by
booksellers may increase in the short term but over the long term will be
roughly consistent with what it is today. It is likely booksellers will
continue to buy the majority of their stock from local publishers and
distributors if their prices, service and stockholding is competitive. It is
simply easier to do so. As publishers adapt to the new conditions they will
be competitive and will ensure they continue to hold the market shares
they have today.
As has been the case in New Zealand, individual publishers will offer lower supply prices and strong marketing support to retailers in return for exclusive supply. Lower prices on international titles will enable all booksellers to be better able to compete with international online sellers such as Amazon. Independent booksellers particularly will have the opportunity to differentiate their stockholdings with more flexibility on international purchases therefore offering a wider range to customers.
Multinational Publishers and Distributors will be forced to re-evaluate the way they do business in this market. As was the case in New Zealand, it will be likely to lead to improved customer service, more timely publishing of new books and better stockholding, knowing that the bookseller has alternatives if they do not.
International publishers will be less able to double dip on profits in getting titles to the market and will reduce their prices. Again, as has been the case in New Zealand, although it has been threatened, none will reduce their operation size, promotion of international or domestic titles, or commitment to local publishing. Most, if not all, will continue to perform profitably'.
Since this is the central issue you would think that the follow up submissions would have addressed it. Wrong. Not one. Not even the teeniest of references!Therefore my advice to the Commission would be to survey the booksellers and ask them the following questions:
1. If you import now, why do you do it, and in what volume?
2. If the PIRs were abolished, how would your importing behaviour change?
3. What trading terms do you get from the overseas wholesalers (discount, freight, returns, etc)?
4. How do you arrive at an Australian retail price for the import? What factors do you take into account? Would this price be normally lower than that of the local edition? How much lower?
5. What are the problems with importing (eg. foreign exchange exposure, inventory management, etc)?
6. What do you think the local supplier could do to effectively compete?
Then the Commission should conduct follow-up interviews with a dozen or so major booksellers - chains, department stores, independents - to tease out any nuances that may not have emerged from the written survey.
The information obtained from this exercise would be the most valuable contribution to the industry that would have been undertaken for many years.
The ABA should have done this in any case. This should have been the guts of their submission. Regrettably they failed dismally to offer the Commission anything of substance that would have informed its deliberations. This is why the Commission now has to do it itself.
You can bet your bottom dollar that Dymocks' observations, quoted above, will be borne out.
Hence, problem solved. Open market...bring it on! Territorial copyright...no change!