Brian Rudman
Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: Lost for words at 'great' ebook site

The retail prices for NZ ebooks are much higher than US ebooks. Photo / Thinkstock
The retail prices for NZ ebooks are much higher than US ebooks. Photo / Thinkstock

The United States Justice Department is threatening to sue Apple and five of the biggest US publishers for colluding over the price of ebooks.

It dates back to early 2010 before the launch of the original iPad when a deal was struck that the publishers would set a fixed retail sale price for a book and Apple would take a 30 per cent cut.

Apple also demanded that the publishers not let rival retailers sell the same book for a lower price.

A cruise through retail sites such as Amazon suggests American readers don't know how well off they are, even with a bit of collusion behind the scenes. Huge swags of enovels are available for instant download around the $12 mark.

For anyone seeking a New Zealand-published ebook it's a very different story. Despite generous subsidies from Creative New Zealand and Copyright Licensing to cover the costs of converting local books into digital format, retail prices for New Zealand ebooks are much higher.

Just over a year ago, the government arts funding body and the organisation administering authors fees announced "a unique opportunity" for local publishers and authors, to have their old titles "converted into ebooks and made available to readers in New Zealand and throughout the world".

They announced a $100,000 conversion fund and called for nominations. The application form declared "we are committed to titles of literary merit and cultural importance". It was stated that the average 275-page novel would cost around $125 to convert and a 225-page non-fiction title, $250.

For me, it was just what I needed. A chance to play catch-up. Over the years, my book-reading had become very erratic. Maybe it was to do with working with words all day and preferring to throw a CD or a DVD into the machine to relax in front of in the evenings. Whatever, my book buying had slipped to airport shops on the way out of town. That's until I bought a new toy a couple of years back - an ereader - and was instantly hooked. The promise of 400 to 500 recent New Zealand titles of literary and cultural significance was just what I was looking for. And so I waited. And waited. Just before last Christmas a press release dangled the promise of books to download for the holiday season from the specially constructed website. But in the end I gave up waiting for Santa and downloaded a couple of Aussie novels from Whitcoulls and a digital library book from the public library.

But I didn't surrender all hope and when I checked recently, there were signs of activity at the website, including links to assorted books.

Naturally enough I clicked on New Releases. There was just one - What a Ride, Mate, Phil Gifford's two-year-old biography of the Mad Butcher. Phil's always had a great way with words, so I'm not going to query his literary credentials, and Peter Leitch is a celebrity and a generous philanthropist, so has cultural significance. What left me gasping was the price of $45.26, marked down on the Kobo eshop to which you are channelled, to $32.59.

Perhaps if it was hot off the presses and hard-back this pricing would be reasonable. But for publishers HarperCollins to take the subsidy, then recycle an old title in electronic form with none of the costs of printing and distribution to cover, at a price more akin to a ye olde new book, seems wrong on all sorts of fronts. Not least the commercial reality that who in their right mind would buy it when a trip down to The Warehouse would probably find it for $5 in the remainder bin.

The Gifford page directed me to other books "you might like also". Top of that list was Native Mice and Rats, by Bill Breed and Fred Ford, a Kiwi classic I'd obviously missed, published by Australian Government scientific publishers CSIRO back in 2007, and marked down from $32.64 to $20.29.

The site's search engine was on the blink, but on the first page or two I spotted such great literary and cultural gems as pop-psychologist Nigel Latta's Mothers Raising Sons, another HarperCollins snip, marked down from $28.91 to $20.89 and Michael Irwin's Educating Boys from the same publishing stable, at $25.39.

I searched under C. K. Stead, to be told he was "one of New Zealand's foremost literary figures" but that "there are no books by this author". It was something of a relief to flee to the Whitcoulls site and discover five Stead novels in ebook format, at either $12.95 or $15.95. I'm guessing he's part of his publisher's international stable of authors so is not caught up in the exorbitant local pricing regime.

In a recent article in Publishing Perspectives, Paula Browning, chief executive of Copyright Licensing, says Great NZ Ebooks is "a digital publishing collective that is a one-stop shop for conversion, distribution, management and sales", owned jointly by the NZ Society of Authors and Publishers Association of New Zealand. Shame the readers weren't included.

Ms Browning tells me that pricing "resides with the publisher" and that as "ebooks are so new here, I expect it will take a little time for pricing to settle down".

The truth is, the big publishers have been gouging New Zealand book buyers for years. It would seem they're now going to see how deep they can dig into our pockets with locally produced ebooks, as though nothing has changed, starting with recycled old titles that you and I have helped pay to convert into digital format.

And the Americans think they're hard done by.

- NZ Herald

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