Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Parallel Universe? Book Industry Strategy Group's (BSIG): Final Report.

Unlike most industry observers, I was very cynical about Industry Minister Kim Carr's establishment of the Book Industry Strategy Group when he announced it in February 2010. 

The Group's final report to government has just been released.

It's 100 pages long and is in two parts. Part 1 regurgitates the awful PwC report I reviewed here, and Jenny Lee's excellent summary of the industry's progress in going digital. (Both of these reports are on the BISG's official website here). So don't read this first part. You'll be put off, particularly as you'll have to read all of the Group's final recommendations without the benefit of the full context and background information which is the only way they make sense.

Part 2 starts at page 45 and is well worth reading. Surprisingly, for a document like this, which must have had so many inputs, it is generally well written and it pretty much sticks to the facts. Titled Transforming the Industry, it's obviously rather bold and visionary, but manages to stay calm and unemotional. Is it naive? Probably. Optimistic? Certainly. Unrealistic? Undoubtedly. But in its rationality I found it persuasive. An ambitious agenda, spelt out clearly and in detail. 

It's mainly concerned with establishing the rationale for the 21 recommendations. The first, and probably most important, is to establish a Book Industry Collaborative Council with membership from all sectors of the industry. This council would be charged with articulating and implementing the ambitious reform agenda envisaged by the BSIG, and would have a direct line to government. Nowhere was there any hint as to how this Soviet beast would be funded. Presumably it would have a full time director, with some support staff, but that's not clear. Perhaps Carr's department will fund it through one of its programs, because it will surely be all form and no substance otherwise. 

However, philosophically, it's hard to get beyond the elemental fact that industries change and develop through market forces and competitive pressures, not by the determinations of councils, committees and bureaucrats, no matter how supreme or benevolent. And we're mostly talking about a global publishing industry now. It's been a long time since those industry dynamics in Australia were mainly determined by Australian management. 

The next two recommendations advocate abolishing the GST on books (or the $1000 GST-free threshold on imports), and fixing the high parcel postage rates for deliveries within Australia. I guess we had to expect this sort of stuff.

Then comes an interesting one: reduce the 30/90 day rule to 14/14. This is obviously a win for the booksellers who argued in their submission for 7/14 days. To get the publishers to go along with this looks like quite a victory. The APA recommended the 30/90 provisions be extended to ebooks, a category mistake if ever there was one.

Of course the 14/14 change is akin to the familiar Arab Despot manoeuvre: throw some democratic tidbits at the angry mob in order to protect the regime. As the report insinuates time and time again, high Australian prices, set by publishers and unrelated to the high dollar, are the root cause of the retail uncompetitiveness problem. It's the elephant in the room but the BSIG is content to ignore it. The same old conceptual confusion about what constructs territorial copyright is there in all its glory.

The booksellers had another win in their push for a thorough-going reform of publishers' distribution practices. Recommendation 6 wants the industry to establish a goal of 48 hours from order to store (it's currently 3-5 days if you're lucky!), and have the Soviet BICC tasked with the necessary 'rationalisation, standardisation and consolidation'. How on earth this body can do this without having a mandate to be able to dictate to private companies is anyone's guess: 'Close your pathetic little warehouse and go through UBD or ADS'! Can't see it. Only intense competition can make things like this happen. 

The appalling lack of regular, comprehensive, up-to-date industry stats is confronted, with a recommendation that the ABS and the industry jointly fund regular compilations, beginning in 2012/3. Will the industry be able to raise about $200k per time? Yes, in my view, and the money should come from CAL. 

There's quite an odd recommendation to resurrect the old National Book Council to source additional funds from private sources to support Australian publishing. Someone on the committee should have thrown a bucket of cold water over whoever suggested this!

The government is being asked for quite a bit of money, $50 million or so, which is hard to take seriously, even as an ambit claim: 

- $5 million for TitlePage stage 2;
- $10 million (matched by $6 million from universities) to subsidise the publishing of scholarly monographs;
- About $1 million for the ABS for the collection of statistics;
- $30 million for schools to be able to purchase digital learning resources for the National Curriculum;
- $5 million for a grants program for academics to encourage textbook authorship;
- $1.5 million to double the existing Literature Board grants;
- Close to $500k, I suspect, in making all author prize money tax exempt;
- Plus sundry smaller amounts for small business development grants, printing industry transition, support packages for displaced printing industry employees, and additional miscellaneous funds for writers.

Despite the fact that the rationale for all this funding might make a great deal of sense theoretically, and that the arguments are well marshalled, and that the recommendations (mostly) are worthy, everyone knows that only a very small part, if anything, of what is being asked for will be forthcoming. Piddling stuff that bureaucrats can give a nod to, under the political radar. There'll be no large grants or government funded initiatives. We don't live in that sweet mendicant universe any more.

You can make a case that the industry has been conned, or that we're so out of touch politically and economically that we ought to be embarrassed for even countenancing a submission like this to government. We are not a charity. We should have asked for just $3 million and left it at that - for the ABS stats collection; for doubling the Lit Board grants; and for making author prizes tax free. 

But whatever becomes of it, it does seem that the whole BISG project was worth it, if only to get all parties around the table and bang heads about the current and emerging challenges of our common future.

For there is a great future. No doubt about it. But it's one the industry will have to construct almost entirely on its own. And that's the way it should be.