With the release of the Forrester Report on ebook futures predicting $3 billion sales by 2015, soaring sales of Kindle books, the discussions that took place at Digital World last month and the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference coming up next week, ebooks are much in the news. The question of rights limitations on books in the online environment has become a hot topic. However, much of this discussion has focused on the USA, UK and Europe, to such an extent that one begins to wonder if the rest of the world exists at all. What is the view of the ebook market as seen from the South and what promise and what frustrations are we seeing?
One of the pleasures of year-end is scanning the ‘books of the year’ lists in the media, in search of good holiday reading for the southern hemisphere summer. This year there was an additional list – the 10 best books from Amazon Kindle in a variety of categories. The particular attraction of a ‘best of Kindle’ list is the opportunity to do some impulse shopping, with current books that can be delivered immediately at a reasonable price, something that up until now has been a remote option for readers living a long way from the major book centres of the global North. It was thus deeply irritating when, one after the other, these books registered on the Amazon screen as ‘This title is not available in your region – Africa’. This was even more frustrating when, for example, a shortlisted author for a major book prize was an African, yet – you guessed it – ‘This title [i.e. Kindle ] is not available to customers in your location – Africa’.
The frustration is aggravated by the fact that such problems of regional supply are a denial of the promise that digital books could offer in overcoming the serious limitations of print distribution ‘in my location – Africa’ (not of course that I have ever thought of Africa as a ‘location’). One limitation of living in Africa that we cannot access to a wide range of internationally published books, because of problems of market size and transport costs in the traditional print model. In the digital world, even with the restrictions on the Kindle list in countries outside the the US and UK, I have been able to buy a good number of books, for pleasure and work, that I would not have readily found in local bookshops.
Ebooks work off mobile networks and Africa is very good at mobile technology, with high connectivity levels. This is therefore a distribution system that could work effectively, right away, in spite of Africa’s broadband connectivity problems.
This matters, because the small size of local reading markets and the thinly-spread population of countries like South Africa, combined with the period of international business consolidation that has been a feature of the communications industries in the last 30 years has led to a flattening of the book market. In South Africa, imported books in the big bookshops tend to be selected according to the dictates of a homogenised middlebrow mass market global publishing industry. With the exception of a few (exceptional) independent booksellers, it can be hard to get specialist or niche market books, or even not-so-specialist books. Nor would you find that much from Nigeria, or Egypt, or India, or even Australia, although the bookshops do try to stock a range of the mainstream internationally-selling African authors. And yes, at least some of the unavailable books could be ordered from Amazon or through local booksellers, but this involves long shipping delays and very high shipping costs, often as much as the book itself.
Another issue is transport costs. The price of books here tends to be very high; a combination of being very far from the major supply centres in the North, high transport costs; high risk levels for local booksellers; and the addition of VAT.
It is telling, though, that right now there are very few African books – not even those by world-famous authors – available on Kindle including very few from South Africa, the biggest publishing presence on the continent. Even Nobel authors like Coetzee and Gordimer and iconic African authors like Chinua Achebe either have one or two or none of their novels available on Kindle. Instead there are lists of translations or critical works by other (Northern) authors. So the thinking about markets is decidedly North-centric.
When it comes to South African companies like Kalahari.net, which offer online sales of digital downloads and ebooks, the titles available appear to be the same kind of titles that are available in the mainstream bookstores and the digital prices look more expensive than print. So, where I would pay $11 for a Kindle book, I might pay $30 for many of the Kalahari titles (and some of these appear to be PDFs, not even ebooks).
I have just discovered a situation of even greater absurdity. The excellent South African weekly, the Mail and Guardian is now available on Kindle, But…. you guessed it! – ‘This title is not available in your location – Africa’.
In spite of my anger about unavailable Kindle books (which is not Amazon’s fault) I am enthusiastic Kindle user and purchaser of the many books that I can buy through Amazon. Amazon has designed a reader, which, although still fairly primitive technology, is low-cost, practical and effectively geared for the role it is intended for – reading books. I do get a substantially expanded range of books that I would otherwise not be able to access and these are delivered instantaneously, at a lower cost than I would pay for a print edition. And no, I do not like Amazon’s DRM model nor the fact that I am tied to one vendor. What Amazon has done, though, which few if any other vendors have, is to take the trouble to work through the thicket of territorial rights arrangements to facilitate sales in a number of world regions. It would be interesting to know the contribution being made by eager readers in these generally under-served regions to the fact that Kindle sales have now overtaken Amazon’s paperback sales (after all, I repeat, we make up more that 80% of the world’s population.
What UK and US publishers seem to be missing is that if they were to recognise the ability of digital delivery to seamlessly transcend geographical boundaries, there could be very real potential in developing world markets, where, after all, more than 80% of the world population lives. Instead of that, we have a world divided by rights regimes inherited from the print world that are often of baroque complexity. Moreover these rights regimes are, I will argue in a follow-up blog, an inheritance of a colonial mentality and are designed to boost the prices and protect the sales of UK and US publishers.
An interesting exception to this pattern would seem to be Bloomsbury Publishing, which is restructuring itself for global markets, structuring the company according to areas of interest rather than regions, and aiming for global and electronic rights for all the books they commission.
From the other end of the telescope, from the perspective of publishing in Africa, by Africans, if ebooks were supplied in a seamless global market, this could offer opportunities for levelling the global playing field, creating the prospect, for example, of bigger markets for African books across Africa and globally. This is important, as cross-African trade is inhibited by tariff barriers and difficult distribution across often arbitrary boundaries, while African publishers are constrained from reaching global markets by a neocolonial territorial rights regime in which Africa – along with other Commonwealth countries – is regarded as a natural part (subject) of the British market. According to UNESCO 2002 statistics, high-income countries accounted for 86.7% of all exports of books, while Africa’s share was 0.3%. I would argue that this is not a matter of natural market forces, but of a manipulated market and as long as this is so, there is a very serious access to knowledge problem in the world.
The question, then is why the world is not taking advantage of the democratic (and business) potential of digital book delivery. Why are we still being constrained by out-of-date business models and unequal market practices?