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.


“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 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.


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).


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…


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:

Click to access Ad_Rem_Scenario_Planning.pdf

Click to access Ad_-Rem_Value_Chain_Analysis.pdf


10 Examples of Cold War Nostalgia: We Can’t Get Enough Of It…

I don’t know if any historian, politician or media commentator has ever said it publicly, but someone must have coined the phrase, “You knew where you stood during the Cold War”.


There was some strange comfort to be had in knowing exactly where the geo-political lines were drawn in the days before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution of 1979* – events which could be argued to have brought about the dismantling of the Iron Curtain, but also heralded an era of constant challenge to American hegemony.

35 years after those momentous events of 1979, numerous books, TV series and films continue to feed our appetite for Cold War nostalgia. Here is a (highly subjective and selective) list of 10 such contributions from recent years:

  1. “Stasiland” (2003) – While not strictly speaking about the Cold War, Anna Funder’s  contemporary work of non-fiction on East Germany’s surveillance regime is a powerful account of her investigation into the activities of secret police operatives and their victims, and what has become of them since the Berlin Wall collapsed and the re-unification of Germany
  2. “The Lives of Others” (2006) – This film, set in 1984, is a somewhat romanticized look at events described in Funder’s “Stasiland”, but still manages to convey the numbing effects of life behind the Iron Curtain
  3. “Equals” (2014) – The year will not be allowed to pass without SOME sort of reference/homage/pastiche/exhumation/sequel to George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984”, which was published 65 years ago, and set 35 years in the future of the titular year itself. While not exactly a Cold War novel, it’s seen as an allegory for life in the Soviet Union under Stalin, and a veiled warning to the rest of us about the threat of a totalitarian regime. Upcoming movie “Equals” is supposed to be a romantic interpretation of “1984”….
  4. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011) – A movie adaptation of John Le Carre’s spy novel (itself published 40 years ago, and first dramatised for TV 35 years ago when the Cold War was very much alive and kicking).
  5. “Foyle’s War” (2000-2013) – The latest episodes in this long-running TV detective series show our hero transitioning from investigating crime during war-time to the new world of espionage, counter-intelligence and Cold War intrigue.
  6. “The Hour” (2012-13) – This short-lived TV drama series was ostensibly a behind-the-scenes look at a 1950’s news and current affairs programme, but uses the Cold War events like the Hungary uprising and the Suez Crisis as a backdrop (along with a healthy dose of “reds under the bed” which implicitly references the Soviet agent scandals that rocked the British establishment during the 1950’s and 1960’s and beyond – Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt et al).
  7. “Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK” (2013) – Geoffrey Robertson delves into the truth behind the criminal prosecution and media castigation of a bit-player in the so-called Profumo Affair, which likely contributed to Ward’s suicide in 1963. The Profumo Affair of 1961 had it all – prostitution, Cold War politics and Soviet agents. And even though it led to the resignation of the UK’s War Minister, it has been suggested that the Establishment demanded scapegoats, and Ward was seen as a suitable victim.
  8. “Solo: A James Bond Novel” (2013) – William Boyd is the latest novelist to be invited to add to the Bond canon (original Bond author, Ian Fleming died 50 years ago), and chose to set the story in 1969 with a strong Cold War context. Boyd is, of course, no stranger to this genre – nearly all of his recent novels (“Any Human Heart”, “Restless”, “Waiting for Sunrise” and “Ordinary Thunderstorms”) incorporate elements of war-time espionage, betrayal, double agents and industrial sabotage that span the 20th century.
  9. “Sweet Tooth” (2013) – Ian McEwan uses the Cold War politics of the early 1970’s as the setting for his novel about love, trust, (self-)deception, “official” propaganda and bureaucratic betrayal.
  10. “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (2014) – Finally, bang up to date with a film version of the Tom Clancy novel. Clancy, who died only a few months ago, was a veritable Cold War warrior of the fiction world, and this latest addition to the Jack Ryan saga includes some (reassuring) Russian elements. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m sure it will satisfy my appetite for Cold War nostalgia.

* The events of the 1979 US embassy hostage crisis in Tehran, of course, were recently dramatised to great effect in “Argo” (2012). And just this month, The Atlantic described current US-Iran relations in Cold War terms.

Amazon finally comes to Australia; local retailers still want government action on sales tax

A short (and seasonal) post this week, as everyone starts easing off for the holidays.

It may just be coincidence, but about the same time Amazon launched their new Australian website local retailers renewed their campaign to lower the $1,000 sales-tax exemption for online purchases from overseas retailers. And both events came at the start of the Christmas shopping season….

Obviously too early to say which way this will go, but here are a few personal observations:

First, the local Amazon site is limited to e-books, games and Android apps. So, no access to music, television or film content (digital or physical), no sales of print books and no Amazon marketplace. For these products and services, customers are directed to the US site. (Previously, the dormant domain name referred customers to the UK site.)

[Note: neither the US nor the UK sites allow overseas customers to buy mp3 content, but they can download digital music via Amazon’s AutoRip service when purchasing physical goods – confused? Me too….]

Second, prices for e-books on Amazon’s Australian site appear to be comparable to the US store, and presumably include local sales tax (GST) to keep on-side of the local real world and online retailers (as well as the ATO, of course).

Third, the general consensus is that if the $1,000 threshold was lowered or even abolished, the amount of sales tax to be collected would be more than outweighed by the additional costs of processing, administration and remittance (which would likely be passed on to local consumers at a “cost-plus” rate by overseas online retailers).

Fourth, many local retailers who voice their opposition to the $1,000 tax-free exemption fail to understand some of the reasons why local shoppers prefer to buy from overseas online retailers:

1. Price – even if overseas sales attract the 10% GST, in some cases this would still be cheaper than buying locally (especially so when the A$ was above parity with the US$). For example, from time to time, Amazon’s UK store offers free shipping on physical goods to Australia….

2. Choice – many products available from overseas online stores just aren’t available in Australia. This is primarily due to geo-blocking, confusion over local distribution rights, and simple lack of interest in stocking some items for the local market

3. Service – from recent personal experience, buying from a local online retailer took much longer than buying the same product from an overseas site, because the supply chain logistics were woefully inept.

[Note: As a separate but related example, I recently ordered a new iPhone 5S direct from Apple’s local website, and received it within 3 days, including a weekend; whereas my telco provider – which prides itself on its on-line business model and customer service standards – took more than 2 weeks to send me a new nano SIM card….. I had also been told by a couple of local Apple re-sellers that it would take 3-4 weeks to order the new phone, unless I took out a new mobile plan with them – which may say more about Apple’s trading policies than the resellers’ business operations.]

My advice to local bricks and mortar and even some online retailers is to look at their own limitations before insisting that the government amend the GST-free threshold on overseas online purchases.

As for Amazon, I wish them well in developing their local service. Much has been made of the stated intention to focus on Australian titles, and the opportunity for local authors to self-publish via Amazon. But already there have been some rumblings that this new site may cannibalize Kindle sales made via some of Amazon’s local retail channel partners.

10 Rules for Effective Blogging

Here are 10 useful rules for effective blogging. These are my personal rules, and they work for me. Yours may differ, but that’s OK:

  1. Maintain a regular publishing schedule
  2. Say what you mean …. and mean what you say
  3. Use opinion to establish your argument
  4. Deploy relevant facts to support your case
  5. Draw on personal experience to make it real
  6. Credit your sources
  7. Sometimes, less is more
  8. Declare any vested interest
  9. Find your own voice
  10. Keep it interesting and original

Note: This post is a tribute to the late Elmore Leonard, whose recent passing has prompted many writers to revisit his 10 Rules of Writing