Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Essay: Publishing Favors the West

As a writer--and reader--living in the Philippines, I want to talk about publishing, and how it favors the West (i.e. the US/UK).


Right now, print is the dominant form of publishing. For a lot of people, it's not a "book" if it's not printed, even if it's self-published. So it's important that I first tackle this topic.

First, there's the "Big Six" publishers. Guess where they're based and who their primary audience is?

They're able to leverage the English language--right now it's probably the closest we have to a universal language--and that would seem like it's a two-way commitment but that's not the case. US- and UK-published books finds its way to bookstores elsewhere: India, Asia, Australia, etc. The reverse isn't necessarily true, even if Indians, Singaporeans, and Filipinos write in English. Don't even get me started with translation (or at least the proportion of work that gets translated from English, as opposed to English).

This, in turn, feeds the cost-effectiveness of offset printing: because bigger publishers have a larger base of readers, they can also afford to do large print runs, which in turn means lower-per-unit costs. A lot of US-published books, for example, are cheaper when compared to locally-published books using the same material, dimensions, and number of pages. (If you're wondering why local publishers don't have Advanced Reader Copies or ARCs, it's because they can't afford to do a separate print run.)

There's print-on-demand, but as far as my experiences with local print-on-demand services go, they're not as flexible as their US counterparts. It's nothing compared to the services provided by Lulu or Lightning Source. One of our prominent local Print-On-Demand companies for example is Central Books, and their packages start at a minimum of 50 copies.

There's the issue of the price of the book: for US/UK retailers, they might pay for shipping (depending on their agreement with their distributor), but they're certainly not paying to ship it across an ocean. And yet, at least here in the Philippines, local bookstores manage to sell import books lower than their US/UK Suggested Retail Price (SRP). Objectively, import books are cheaper here, but relatively, they're not. Minimum wage is around $8.00/day. You can do the math on the discrepancy there, and how much it's really costing a Filipino to invest in a book. (Sadly, the reverse isn't true: books from the Philippines sent to the US isn't cheaper but more expensive.)

It can also lead to a problem of public perception. Import books get their own diverse shelf categorization: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Romance, Horror, Science Fiction, etc. Local books get one shelf: Filipiniana. I can tell you now which shelves tend to be visited by Filipino customers, and which are less frequented.

Oh, and guess what, a lot of countries don't have their own Amazon store. We can forget about free shipping. And have to deal with, uh, expensive shipping costs. (The books might get taxed, but that's a policy of individual countries.) And forget about 2-3 days of receiving the book, or even a week. It takes a month to order a book, at least using conventional means and without costing you an arm and a leg. Americans cite Amazon as one of the most popular online bookstores. The rest of the world uses Book Depository, because it gives the illusion of free shipping (my only qualm with Book Depository is the huge carbon footprint it leaves, mailing you packages one book at a time).


Now for a lot of people, they'll see what I've written above and think that eBooks are the solution. After all, the problem of print is its geographical logistics and its associated costs.

But you're mistaken, at least if we're talking about the major publishers. (Independent publishers can do their own thing such as sell books on their own website, but there's honestly a huge disproportion to people who shop for eBooks at individual authors and publishers vs. a huge retailer like Amazon or iTunes.)

First off, there's the affordability of eReaders. Remember what I said about $8.00/day minimum wage?

Second, even if I could afford an eReader, is it available locally? There are no problems obtaining an iPad here (but remember, the latest model gets released later than the US) but it gets trickier if you're aiming for a Kindle or a Sony Reader.

I won't even mention the dilemma of figuring out how to use the device. But figuring out a way to legally purchase a book is. Not everyone has a credit card or PayPal account.

Or better yet, the major retailers won't sell to me.

For example, here's what the US iTunes store looks like (click to zoom in):

Here's what the Philippines iTunes store looks like (click to zoom in):

Even if the author and publisher wanted to sell me books, they can't, unless it's an App. Because Apple won't allow it. At least not without the workaround of obtaining a valid US billing address, credit card, and using prepaid iTunes cards to make purchases.

But readers should rejoice right? I mean previously, only the US, UK, France, Germany, Australia, and Canada had access to Books. Last week, Apple opened it to 26 new countries in Europe. The world has an estimated 196 countries.

Amazon has different kind of problems. As a consumer, I have to deal with the ambiguous $1.99 international Whispernet surcharge (you're still paying it if you download it from your computer). Granted, this doesn't apply to each and every country outside of the US (Australia isn't affected by this anymore for example), but it's there.

As a publisher, I have an entirely different set of problems. There's taxes for example. But a bigger concern is their tiered pricing that, well, favors the West.

You see Amazon has two tiers for pricing of eBooks: you can get 70% royalties if the book is priced between $2.99 and $9.99. Otherwise, it's 35%.

Except even if the book is priced between $2.99 and $9.99, you won't be getting 70%, because:

Basically, your buyers need to be in one of the following countries in order to receive 70% royalties:
  • Austria
  • Canada
  • Germany
  • Liechtenstein
  • Luxembourg
  • Switzerland
  • United Kingdom
  • United States

Otherwise, it's good old 35%.

Which is great if all my customers are from the US or the UK. But if you're a Filipino buyer? So not only am I being charged $1.99 extra, the publisher's royalties are halved just because I don't reside in a first-world country?

So will eBooks be the great equalizer? They could be. Just not in the ecosystem of Apple or Amazon, unless majority of my customers reside in the US/UK.


Mel u said...

As to Filipino retailers being able to sell books sometimes cheaper than they can be bought for in the USA, I think-based on six years of experience in Manila and decades in the USA, that American publishers make cheaper smaller print books for export trade.

Many E books, 1000 and 1000s, can be found free online-just google something like "free kindle books"-many are classics but what is wrong with that!-you can read a life time for free on your PC or other device-I will not pay a special fee to amazon or anyone else based on where I live-The Book Depository is great-the fact that Amazon has now bought them makes me nervous!

Sean Wright said...

I hear you Charles. What begins to annoy me is the eBook evangelits saying how authors should drop traditional publishing deals and reap the benefits via Amazon, forgetting of course that the world is larger than just the US and that the deal outside is not as rosy.

Unknown said...

This post saddened and depressed me but I think it is very relevant to the spec fic fans in the Philippines.

For all what western civilization touts for freedom and equality, they don't really focus on making their written works accessible at a reasonable price for those who can read it but are outside what they deem to be their traditional market.

True they aren't all to blame. International trade has many rules, created by many vested interests. And these vested interests are best placated with money. Hence the high costs of international trade.

So until some smart entrepreneur figures out "Hey there's a huge market of English readers outside the English speaking countries..." and finds a way around all these global trade bottlenecks, we're stuck with this western bias in publishing... for now. :)

Ellen Whyte said...

Exactly! I'm trying to publish some ebooks and it's impossible to get into any of the Western systems. Guess they can't stand the competition.