From EPICS to BISG: Trying to save the Australian publishing industry

At the dawn of the century, the Australian government funded a series of research projects on the future of the local book publishing industry, under the Enhanced Printing Industry Competitiveness Scheme (EPICS). Part of that research effort included the Ad Rem Report on “The Australian Book Industry: Challenges and Opportunities”, published in September 2001.

Scenario Planning

Via consultation with publishers, printers, distributors and book sellers, Ad Rem examined a range of possible scenarios the industry would face leading up to 2010.

Using rather quaint titles for each scenario, from utopian to apocalyptic, the report made a strong case for:

  • increased collaboration and consolidation across printing and supply chain logistics;
  • adoption of new technology (including “print on demand”); and
  • increased focus on adding value through improved customer service.

So, under “Paradise Found”, a loose federation of specialist companies would focus on either printing, publishing or distribution services predicated on increased consumer demand for books and content available from multiple outlets, underpinned by happy customers served by a responsive and proactive publishing industry.

More stoically, selfless cooperation and collaboration in the form of “Shoulder to Shoulder” would ensure that despite reduced demand, the industry could become a “national model of supply chain efficiency” by sharing distribution networks and market data, and adopting industry-wide standards.

Conversely, limited cooperation and the lack of a single, dominant business model would result in a “Dog Eat Dog” scenario, with few local winners. Overall consumer demand would diminish, industry participants would seek to operate all along the supply chain (introducing some market inefficiencies), and the industry would end up competing on price alone, and fighting tooth and nail for the next major “blockbuster” title.

Alternatively, if the “Land of the Giants” was to prevail, “highly diversified global companies from outside traditional media industries would come to dominate the Australian book industry.” Demand would be driven and met by technological changes, carried forward by bundled products and services, end-to-end integrated businesses, and “predominantly proprietary industry standards”.

The reality is, we have “Land of the Giants” (as far as global businesses are concerned), while the local players are fighting it out in a “Dog Eat Dog” world.

Technology

“Print on demand” was going to be the answer, because it would minimise the supply chain logistics, improve sales margins for retailers, and enshrine the protectionism afforded local publishers and distributors under the 30-day rule written into the Copyright Act. In addition, increased training and upskilling would help the industry meet the challenges of digital content and the new means of production and distribution. (The publishing industry has traditionally invested very little into structured training – see Jo Bramble writing in “Developing Knowledge Workers In The Printing And Publishing Industries”, Cope & Freeman (Eds.), University Press/Common Ground Publishing (2002))

However, while ebooks were already on the market in 2001 (mainly read on PDAs), and although online content was already widespread, probably nothing could have prepared the industry for what has happened in the past 10 years such as:

  • the growth of ebook readers such as Kindle, Nook and Kobo,
  • the impact of Apple’s iOS/iTunes/iBook/iPad ecosystem,
  • self-publishing solutions from Amazon to Tablo, or
  • controversial online “library” projects like Google Books.

Print-on-demand never came about, partly because the dot.com boom/bust of 2001-2002 put the dampener on many digital initiatives (remember the original push for “e-Government” in Australia?), partly because internet speeds were not up to scratch, but mainly because there was little or no appetite for industry collaboration and common standards.

Retailing

Infamously, Borders came along to shake up the local market, but ended up laying waste to much of Australia’s book selling industry as it imploded under the weight of expectation (and crippling debt). While a couple of national chains remain, many independent and specialist bookshops have managed to survive – some may even be thriving – as they find ways to develop deeper engagement with their customers, and offer a range of value-added services.

However, sales of books in Australia have maintained a steady (if unspectacular) growth rate); online purchases now account for around 12% of all book sales, of which more than half are generated by overseas websites; meanwhile, ebooks have gone from 1.5% of the local market in 2010 to 10%-12% of all book sales in 2013 (of which 90% are made by offshore retailers).

Geo-blocking

Regular readers of this blog will know I have a thing about geo-blocking* – so, while I am an advocate for intellectual property protections such as copyright, I am against territorial restrictions that prevent/impede customers buying content from wherever/whomever they choose just because content owners and/or their distributors have decided to carve up the market to suit themselves. (Piracy is piracy, but parallel importation is about giving customers choice.)

Amazon finally launched its dedicated store in Australia in late 2013, but only for ebooks, and with an initial focus on Australian authors and publishers. So, for print books, local customers still need to go to the US and UK sites. For whatever reason, Amazon feels it necessary to have a local online presence (to counter protectionism? to avoid arguments over collecting local GST on overseas online purchases? to annoy local retailers who have been selling Kindles?)

What came next? Much the same really…

I can’t help thinking that the combination of an apparent lack of cooperation around standards, reluctance to collaborate on supply chain logistics and an inability to read the technology trends have all contributed to a 2-speed publishing industry in Australia: a series of small, specialist and independent print publishers and bookshops trying to compete with the global digital behemoths of Apple, Amazon and Google.

Despite the considerable effort behind the Ad Rem Report, it’s fair to say that nothing of substance materialised.

Fast forward 10 years, and along came the Book Industry Strategy Group (BISG) which reported in September 2011. Among its 21 recommendations were:

  • consolidation/streamlining within and across the supply chain – to create greater efficiencies
  • adjustments to GST – i.e., abolish/reduce the rate on Australian books, or collect GST on sales under $1,000 by overseas websites
  • increased protection(ism)  – via direct and indirect support for the local industry
  • review copyright legislation – in relation to digital content creation and distribution

Fairly predictable stuff, but not much about technology or related innovation…

NOTES:

The original Ad Rem website was decommissioned some time ago. I do have PDF copies of the various reports and working group papers if anyone if interested – although they are the copyright of Accenture, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if I distributed a few copies in the interest of research and commentary. Meanwhile, a couple of papers are still online:

http://library.printnet.com.au/verve/_resources/Ad_Rem_Scenario_Planning.pdf

http://library.printnet.com.au/verve/_resources/Ad_-Rem_Value_Chain_Analysis.pdf

*GEO-BLOCKING REFERENCES:

https://contentincontext.me/2013/04/23/geo-blocking-the-last-digital-frontier/

https://contentincontext.me/2013/08/13/australian-mps-consider-a-ban-on-geo-blocking/

One thought on “From EPICS to BISG: Trying to save the Australian publishing industry

  1. Pingback: Publishers’ Choice: Be a Victim, or Join the Vanguard? | Content in Context

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