Thursday, September 5, 2013

'A Fundamental Cultural Change is Necessary': The Book Industry Collaborative Council's Final Report.

From day one I was cynical about Industry Minister Kim Carr's initiative in 2010 to set up the Book Industry Strategy Group (BISG) to make recommendations to industry bodies and to government about how they could help the book industry grapple with the disruptive, global, technology-led challenges it was confronting. (See my blog post here).

Predictably the Group pleaded for vast sums of money ($50 million or so) to help it along, and even more predictably, the government declined. The government did set up, however, a new temporary body called the Book Industry Collaborative Council, with membership from all sectors of the industry, whose task was to identify strategies and priorities for industry development and reform.

Frankly, I yawned.

But now that I've read the Final Report, released this week, I've changed my mind. Although it's long (250 pages of dense type), it's worth reading very carefully. It could well be the first major report into the Australian book industry that effectively grapples with most of the deep-rooted structural issues besetting it in these times of profound change.

Here's a taste: 'The Council's most significant conclusion is that a fundamental cultural change is necessary right across the supply chain - a change that will allow the industry to prepare for active transformation and to be open to the opportunities that such transformation will bring'.

The transformation is being propelled by 'consumer preferences' and 'technological imperatives', with 'consumers choosing to access and read books in new and rapidly changing ways, expecting speedy delivery and competitive pricing, and using technology to work around territorial systems which restrict access to books in other markets'.

The focus is constantly on the centrality of the consumer, and the need for the industry to adapt. We've never heard this sort of talk before in this generally timid, protection loving industry where we're so ready to adopt a victim posture. 'The way forward for the industry is to be consumer focused - this emphasis is a necessary shift in the industry's outlook'. 'As the forces of globalisation intensify, the Australian industry can no longer rely on the protections previously afforded to it by geographical and territorial boundaries'.

'Bookshops have no choice but to compete with global online retailers'. 'Publishers must adapt their business models to encompass new and evolving format types and routes to market; and libraries are obliged to provide access to electronic as well as print resources'.

I suspect the generally positive, optimistic, reformist and wholly refreshing tone of this report comes from the far wider membership of the Council beyond the usual suspects of publishers, authors and booksellers. Membership included academics, librarians, a lawyer, a telecommunications expert, unions and bureaucrats, and Professor David Throsby, a respected arts industry economist, who chaired. The disruptive changes upturning the industry are identified and described, but never lamented. Traditional hard line publisher and author views, most recently in evidence on the ALRC's copyright reform proposals, have obviously been tempered by more grounded perspectives.

Of course there are things in this comprehensive report I disagree with. For mine it far too frequently refuses to tease out the ramifications of its observations and assessments, but simply surveys the landscape and passes on. (Libraries and ebook lending for example - motherhood 'principles' is all we get.) Perhaps that's because such a diverse group could rarely be expected to agree on fundamental and painful industry-reform recommendations. 

Nevertheless some of the surveys are excellent and very informative, the scholarly publishing one a standout. Also the export one, particularly the specific examples of success. The distribution Expert Reference Group's report is well worth reading if you've not time to read anything else. It grapples with the essence of the supply problem.

There are other parts however that are simply lame, built on hope and aspiration and little else (Industry data collection for example, which used to be called 'statistics'!). 'Roundtables' are a frequent recommendation.

The final and important recommendation to set up a new over-arching body called the Book Industry Council of Australia (re-named by the government this week the Book Industry Innovation Council) to oversee and direct all the implementation plans identified, is simply not going to get off the ground in my humble view. A CEO, a Research/Administrator and a small Secretariat is an expensive step too far. Without any government funding it won't be affordable by participating industry bodies.

A far better way to proceed would be for the APA to appoint a new CEO who had the smarts, the vision and the authority to move its publishing members beyond their traditional mindset - to get the cultural change going - and to take a leadership role across the industry generally, with booksellers and authors, and also libraries and government. It's been many years since the APA has had such a leader, but it is long overdue. Like so many industry associations in this country the official APA voice has reflected the lowest common denominator of its membership. This period has to end.

One final quote I found revolutionary, but it outlines the vision now necessary:

'Ultimately, failure to meet consumer expectations will totally compromise overall commercial viability. To be internationally competitive, Australian firms must be able to match offshore retailers across  three core criteria:

  • Speed to market - access to books at a comparable time to when they are available from offshore providers.
  • Availability - access to the books consumers want.
  • Value - access to books at a price that is comparable to the price they can access them from offshore providers.'

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