Monday musings on Australian literature: Thoughts on Australian e-publishing

I wasn’t sure whether to call this “an Australian’s thoughts on e-publishing” or “thoughts on e-publishing in Australia” or the title I ended up choosing. There are subtle differences but almost too subtle for me to tease out here, so I decided to use the shortest title.

I was inspired to write this post by Nigel Featherstone’s blog post a week or so ago about a special offer for his novella, Fall on me (my review). The deal is that you can buy the e-book version and “pay whatever you like”! Apparently, as some of you probably know, Radiohead tried something similar many years ago – and 60% chose to pay nothing. I certainly hope that’s not what happens to Nigel Featherstone and his publisher, Blemish Books. Featherstone writes of the Radiohead experiment that:

At the time, Radiohead’s approach was considered ground-breaking, but over the years there’s been debate about its impact on the music industry in general; even Thom Yorke, the band’s free-thinking frontman, said that the strategy may have been a mistake, as it played into the prevailing internet culture that everything should be free.

I certainly don’t think everything on the internet should be free. After all, everyone has to eat and if the internet is the best way to distribute the results of one’s work then one should get paid. And yet, when I first acquired my Kindle around three years ago now, my idea was that I’d only use it for free classics (such as those from Project Gutenberg)!  I wasn’t, I thought, going to spend real money on a virtual book!

But, with experience has come some change of mind. Here is what I do now:

  • Pride and Prejudice book covers

    Reading the classics

    Classics: I will still acquire free classics if that’s the only way I can acquire them but if, as with say Jane Austen’s novels, they can be bought I will pay for them. This is because, really, “you get what you pay for”. With a bought classic you can usually choose a version with an introduction by an academic or critic you respect or want to read, and the edition is less likely to have editing/proofreading errors and other conniptions (as my last free classic did – it just seized up at a certain chapter and that was it. I could have investigated – re-downloaded perhaps – but it was easier to pay a couple of dollars for a commercially published edition).

  • Journals: I have discovered that I quite like reading literary journals on my Kindle. I do miss the lovely physicality of many journals – some are just gorgeous (like Kill Your Darlings) and some contain pictorial content that aren’t easily reproduced (like Griffith Review) – but journal articles are perfect for spare moments when I’m out and about, and e-versions are convenient.
  • Newspapers: I also like to read the newspaper in e-format, particularly since my app also supports crosswords! So far our local newspaper app is free, as they are still ironing out bugs etc, but at the prices being charged for other metropolitan newspaper apps, I’d be happy to pay for ours here in e-format, when they decide to charge. It’s so easy to select the articles I want to read, and I can read it when travelling.
  • Contemporary literature: I have finally started acquiring contemporary literature – both fiction and non-fiction – on my Kindle. I still prefer print versions for this sort of reading but am teaching myself to enjoy e-versions. It is lovely to hear of a book, decide you want it right away, and be able to get it – particularly when it isn’t immediately available in my favourite bookshop (as I discovered recently with Courtney Collins’ The burial. “We can order it for you”, the salesperson helpfully said, but that can take two weeks or more and, being a child of the twenty-first century, I wanted it now!). I want to pay less for an e-version, but there are costs – including payment to the author – that are independent of the publishing platform, so we have to pay something. Right?

So, how reflective are my reading habits of e-publishing in Australia? Clearly, journals and newspapers are actively moving into e-formats. I don’t know how readers are responding to this, but anecdotal evidence tells me that people are increasingly interested in receiving their newspapers and journals electronically. However, the situation seems to me to be a little different when it comes to books. Again speaking anecdotally, there’s some resistance among my literary fiction cohorts to reading “whole” books electronically, with most still preferring print, even where, like me, they have e-book devices. I think there might be a bigger uptake among genre readers?

An article in The Australian earlier this year suggests that e-Books represent about 10% of book purchases here, which is less than in the US (20%) and the UK (16%). Publishers recognise that the e-book is here to stay but also believe that print will continue side-by-side (for some time to come, anyhow). Sensibly, publishers are starting to look more carefully at what they publish in what format when. Digital-first and digital-only publishing is now part of the business model. Penguin Australia, for example, has introduced its digital only Penguin Specials collection, with wonderful sounding fiction and non-fiction titles by the likes of Elizabeth Jolley, Gideon Haigh, and Orhan Pamuk. Ooh, I want to read them …

Also in The Australian article, the HarperCollins spokesperson said that:

Fiction readers, in particular, have responded enthusiastically to the e-reading experience and we have seen a significant upsurge of sales of backlist titles as people ‘discover’ a new author and then buy all previous books by them.

Great, eh? The Blemish Books initiative which inspired this post is, really, about backlist. I hope it goes well. It isn’t easy being a small publisher – or one of its authors!

14 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Thoughts on Australian e-publishing

  1. For classic crime titles, you can’t beat the kindle. Some titles are not available at all, or if they are, you’re paying big bucks for a 60+ year old, frail copy. Many old titles are popping up for 99c each.

    I’ve also noticed that a few Aussie titles are making it to America on the kindle and no other format. I’ve got to think that in many ways the kindle is a positive advancement (Not if you work in a book shop, obviously).

    • Ah yes, I remember your saying this before Guy. I agree that e-books are great for classics but I hadn’t really thought about fragility of old books – and, to be honest, I’m a bit allergic to old book dust so that would be a strong imperative for me to go “e” for classics.

      That’s great to hear about Aussie books … another good point I think about accessibility of “foreign” literature. So books might be published simultaneously print and electronic in the home country, but just electronic for foreign audiences. That makes sense.

      What it’s saying is that electronic publishing provides for more flexibility … probably more headaches too in trying to work out what to publish where, when, but hopefully the result will be more opportunities for writers to be read?

      • Once we get kindles, I think it takes a while to ‘settle in’ to what exactly we’ll use them for, and which sorts of books we’ll still want to buy.

        Kindle also offers ‘singles’ which are novella length and I’ve bought a couple that don’t seem to be available elsewhere.

        • Yes, you’re right Guy … it is a learning process isn’t it? It will be interesting to see whether a usage pattern develops that publishers can see a way of meeting without having to use a scattergun approach. I have just bought a Penguin Special … I think most of them may be short stories or essays from bigger works but it’s nice to be able to just read the essay/story you want. Of course, I haven’t read the one I bought yet!

  2. I started out with a Kindle for exactly the same purposes as you – free classics. I have a book storage crisis at home and have more or less banned myself from buying new hard copy books unless I *must* have it and it *must* be in hard copy. You can imagine how easy it is to break those rules. 🙂

    You are absolutely right that you get what you pay for. Free ones quite often have bugs and editing weirdness that can be a bit annoying at times. For that reason I have drifted into paying (usually still only a few dollars) for professionally produced classic titles fro the Kindle.

    For my current reading project I’ve also expanded into contemporary fiction in ebook form. I do find them useful for a book I want to review as I can highlight passages, search for specific phrases and count the appearance of particular words, all of which is problematic or impossible in a hard copy version.

    Nothing replaces a real live book in my opinion, but ebooks do have their compensations. And once hubby finishes the new shelves he’s building for me in the hallway, I’ll be able to buy real ones again without guilt!

    • Great to hear your approach Dani … clearly many of us started cautiously and are now branching out. I know what your mean about bookshelves. I have many double-stacked bookshelves all. Over the last year I have been doing some de-cluttering. Very slowly as I find it hard but need to do some – such as the kids ancient history texts that were handed down from my sister and brother. Most of them – except for some hardback primary sources – can go! Slowly weeding the kids’ book area too, to just keep some favourites but get rid of many that are really just of their time. Notice how I haven’t mentioned adult fiction!!

  3. It’s really good to read your thoughts on ebooks. So many vexed questions! I’d like to say a few words in praise of the Australian Society of Authors’ initiative, ‘Authors Unlimited’, which, from my experience at least, has been a friendly and helpful way for Australian authors to have their back-listed or new works converted to ebook formats, and put up for sale.

    • Oh thanks Dorothy. Not being an author, I wasn’t aware of that, but that’s great news. I’ll try to find out more about it … and perhaps post on it in the future. Exciting times really.

  4. I vowed only free classics when I bought my Kindle too. I wanted to funnel as little money to Amazon as I could. I have broken that on just a couple occasions because the book was so inexpensive or only available as an ebook. Have you heard that Stephen King’s newest, Joyland, is not going to be released as an ebook, at least not for several months? King announced he wanted readers to go to a bookstore and buy it. It is well intended, but I wonder how many people are buying the print copy online?

    • No I hadn’t heard that, Stefanie … but you’re right. Just because it’s only print doesn’t ensure that bookshops will be used. We really are in fascinating times aren’t we, in terms of publishing and distribution. If bookshops collapse because we all buy print or e-books online, what effect will that have on reading culture?

      • I shudder to think about that! But yet, I am guilty. I go to Barnes and Nobel intending to buy the book there but they don’t have it, offer to order it for me in which case I might as well order it from their website myself!

  5. Hi Sue, thanks, as always, for your interest and support.

    As to my own e-reading habits: I don’t have a Kindle, though I have a mini iPad and do a lot of online reading on that, but I still prefer my hard-copy books for fiction and poetry. Perhaps that’s because I’m easily distracted and don’t want to find myself wandering off into uncharted territories through an electronic device. Plus, okay, I should just admit it: I’m old-fashioned. I love how reading can be just me, the couch, the dog, a mug of coffee, the fire, and a damn good book…the sort where you have to turn the pages.

    However, as is clear by me agreeing to Blemish Books’ innovative approach to downloading, I also love how books are available in multi-formats (just like music); if it means the story finds its way into more households, I’m all for it.

    • And thanks for doing interesting things that are worth supporting Nigel! I’m pretty much like you – I still prefer the book … but I also love the flexibility e-books offer, particularly if it means I can get something easily, quickly!

      That’s a good point about e-devices tempting you to go wandering off into uncharted territories … pros and cons to that, but the pros are more to do with non-fiction I think.

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