2011-12-19

No Australians Allowed: the joys of ebook-buying online

(originally published on Oz Ebooks)

No Australians Allowed

The joys of ebook-buying online



(Thankyou to Darryl for his invitation to post on Oz Ebooks!)

As anyone reading my previous (and possibly acerbic) posts and comments will know, I get pretty steamed about geographic limitations on buying ebooks.
They're like a weird DVD-zoning system which assumes Australians can't read.
We're half the U.K. book-buying market, despite our much smaller population, so it should be evident to even the most confused publisher that not only can we read, but that we read a lot.
We're good customers.

Good customers get...

...shafted. In the days of loyalty programs and reward points, this comes as a bit of a shock. It would shock an accountant even more. "What, you have all these customers who want to buy your ebooks, and you won't let them? What are you, an idiot?"
It's a good question. For those of you not yet familiar with the geolims saga, I'm going to explain it briefly before going on. Geolims veterans may skip the next section.

Barbed Wire on the Internet

Up until a couple of years ago, you could buy ebooks from anywhere online. The Internet is a worldwide network, and we've all found that amazingly convenient when it comes to finding the things we want to buy or know. The Internet has removed the national boundaries which kept us all apart.
Apparently, this freedom to communicate has made corporations/governments nervous. They have less control over what we see and do. So they try to impose various kinds of censorship. In Australia, for example, our government is still threatening to censor and monitor everything we do online.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:
"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

so Internet censorship specifically violates our rights.
It's also massively inconvenient. Nowadays, can you buy electronic media online? Or is it "limited" by "geographic location"?
In effect, the media "industry" decided to put up barbed-wire fences on the Internet. They divided us back into different countries again. Music, movies, TV shows, audio and ebooks are "available" (or not) according to where you live.
For ebooks, this means Australians are "not allowed" to buy most of the ebooks produced by the "Big 6" or "Agency" publishers. These companies own nearly all of the popular authors. So how do you get the titles you want?

Dodging the Prickles

I'd really like to see a good guide for navigating the ebook-buying maze if you happen to be one of the majority of English-speakers who don't live in the U.S. Meanwhile, here's mine. ;)

1. Use an ebook search engine

I use Inkmesh. You'll notice that its home page has links to a range of free ebooks and specific genres. Plug your book title and/or author into the search field, and you get a fast and accurate result. I used to spend hours trying to find ebooks via Google: Inkmesh takes you right to the ebook retailers. You get a list of titles matching your search, and the one you want is usually at the top. Click on that, and you get a much shorter list: the retailers who are actually selling that ebook.
Inkmesh provides results for a number of the major ebook retailers, including W. H. Smith in the U.K. They told me some time ago that they would add Borders Australia. They seem willing to provide more country-specific sites for those of us locked out by the main U.S.-based publishers.

2. Watch out for geolims

Inkmesh results usually include excellent ebook sites like Fictionwise, Diesel Ebooks, BooksOnBoard and Amazon. If you live in the U.S., you can click on the link and immediately buy that book. If you don't (and especially if you live in Australia or NZ), you can save browsing time and attempted-buying time by watching out for the signs saying effectively "Not For You, Mate".
Amazon gives the best and clearest warning. Every time I curse at them for not allowing me to buy the ebook I want, I also reluctantly acknowledge that they didn't lead me on. ;) On the RHS, where I normally see the brightly-coloured "Buy with 1-click" and "Deliver to Clytie's iPhone" choices, I see the green-only box saying "This title is not available to customers from: Australia".
Fictionwise and Kobo will simply not show you a title if you aren't allowed to buy it. In some ways this is kinder (not dangling a much-wanted book in front of your nose), but it sometimes gives you the impression there isn't much there. In over two years of checking Kobo results from Inkmesh, I've never found a title I wanted to buy. I'm told Kobo has a great range, but evidently it's not so great if you live in Australia. Fictionwise has been bought out and systematically strangled by its competitor Barnes and Noble, so it's not the one-stop-ebook-shop it used to be. However, it does still have its advantages, as I mention further on.
Diesel eBooks shows an "Allowed Countries (Hover)" link in red, under the book description and Buy/Wishlist buttons. When I hopefully "hover" my mouse cursor over that link, it inevitably says "US". Before Diesel added this info, I used to get all the way to Checkout with a stack of great books, only to find I wasn't allowed to buy them. Early warnings do save us time, even if they continue to frustrate us as legitimate customers.
BooksOnBoard won't show a price for a title if you're not allowed to buy it. If you click the Buy link anyway, a popup window will tell you you're not allowed to buy that title because you live where you do.
Retailers could also play a raspberry sound as well. "Hey, April Fool! We let you think you could buy this book, but you can't. LMFAO!!!" :S

3. Shop around: there is inconsistency

Not only do geolims not make any sense from the book-selling or book-buying points of view, they can also be inconsistent. For example, a few months back HarperCollins released the first three titles of Lynsey Sands' Argeneau series. They hadn't previously been available in ebook, so followers of that series (including me) rushed to grab them. Australian readers quickly found out that we were only "allowed" to buy 2 out of the 3 titles. Huh?
As I asked HarperCollins at the time, why would three consecutive ebook titles from the same series by the same author and published simultaneously by the same publisher have different geographic limitations?
I didn't get an answer. Diesel Ebooks also contacted HarperCollins about this inconsistency, receiving the disjointed reply "We haven't turned on any of our ebooks for Australia yet". You get the impression that the publishers don't understand geolims either.
The point of this story is that I actually found different sites blocked a different title out of the three ebooks. God only knows why, but I wasn't about to question my good fortune. This meant I could buy all three titles, with a little ebook-retailer-surfing.
I keep a list of the titles I haven't been allowed to buy (especially those part-way through a series I follow), and recently I also found a single ebook site (which normally blocks me on everything) allowed me to buy not one, but several of my most-wanted titles. Again, I have no idea why that site didn't have the same geolims info as the others: I just bought the books! I've also noticed that sometimes I'm allowed to buy a book in pre-order, and get it, where it's blocked to purchase once the pre-order period is over. All this means it can be worth shopping around.

4. Use Calibre

Calibre is a free cross-platform tool for managing, cataloguing, converting and transferring ebooks. Seriously, this thing rocks. It will convert any non-DRM format, transfer to just about any device, provide a catalogue you can access from a computer or smartphone, allow you to search your catalogue, keep track of what titles/authors you have, keep track of series, import metadata (including cover images, blurb and ISBN) and apply your own tags.Before geolims were imposed, I didn't need Calibre. I bought all my ebooks from Fictionwise, which had an excellent Bookshelf with categories (including your own categories). It was really easy to keep track of which books I had, which ones I'd read (or not), which were in series etc.
After the Electronic Curtain came down, I spent way too much time not only trying to find books I was allowed to buy, but trying to keep track of which books I'd bought from where, in what format, and whether they belonged to series. My collection was all over the place. Instead of series all being in one format from one retailer, they had titles in multiple formats from different retailers. One series of seven books is in five different formats from five different retailers, requiring me to read it in five different apps on my iPhone. I couldn't go on reading some series (because none of the newer books were available to Australians), and other series had missing titles (I could buy all the books in a 9-book series except Book 5? WTF?). I couldn't keep track, and ended up buying some ebooks I already had, and missing the opportunity to buy others I wanted.
Calibre keeps track of all my ebooks now, and some of my hard-copy books (you can add an "empty" record and use it for a hard-copy book, magazine etc.). I imported all my previous ebooks into it, and I drag new ebooks into it as I buy them. Tags and series make it really easy to keep track of which books are from which retailers, which I'm missing, which I've read, which have DRM or not. So what if my ebooks are now scattered across different locations on my hard drive (Digital Editions, My Kindle Content, eReader etc.)? Calibre keeps a copy of each ebook in its own Calibre Library.
Calibre also works seamlessly with Stanza (one of the best e-readers for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch). If you turn on the Calibre Server preference, Stanza immediately sees your Calibre library, and allows you to download titles over a wireless or wired connection. I find this quite a time-saver.
Update: if Amazon (who bought Stanza to stifle competition) breaks the app again, you can also access Calibre from Tomes and several other mobile reading apps.

5. Support your local online bookseller

For Australia, that's Borders Online. Despite the ongoing bloodletting within the company, Borders Online is likely to continue. Its costs are low, and its profits should be substantial. OK, its website still sucks (see my recent post), but by and large Borders is a viable Australian ebookstore. Every ebook in its catalogue is available to Australians. Its range is improving, and it does get titles which are otherwise blocked to us. Keep an eye on Borders, and buy ebooks there when you can.
Some local publishers (e.g. Pan Macmillan Australia) and local sites like Read Without Paper are starting to sell ebooks online, so it's also worth looking around for Australian book sites. You may pay more, but at least you may be able to buy the book. That goes literally double for iBooks (iTunes bookstore): you will pay at least twice the U.S. price, but if you can't find a title anywhere else, you might be desperate enough to pay that much.
Otherwise we're left with sites like ebooks.com, a major international ebook retailer located in Perth, Western Australia, which follows the U.S. publishing model and blocks us from most titles. It's hard to see what Australians get out of having this site in our country. Perhaps ebooks.com could start getting ebooks for Australians?

6. Try author sites, indies, self-pub and public domain

Once geolims were imposed, I spent a lot of time trying to find out WTF was going on. (There was no announcement to customers: I just couldn't buy the books I wanted anymore.) Publishers seem to be a dead end: either they don't care, or they are genuinely confused about their job. Some are both, which is a little disturbing. Authors, on the other hand, really want you to read their books. So it's definitely worth visiting author websites (and just about every author has one nowadays). Author websites often offer free stories, directly sell their backlist titles at a much better price and without DRM, and keep you informed about upcoming titles. Most importantly, every author I've contacted is shocked and upset that Australians can't buy his or her ebooks. Most have said numbly, "But I insisted on world rights for ebooks". Telling an author that you're blocked from buying his or her ebooks is a good way to raise awareness about geolims. The author complains to his or her agent, the agent complains to the publisher, and things may change. You can also contribute to the Lost Book Sales site, to advise publishers when they have lost a sale due to geolims (or ridiculously high prices, bad formatting, dreadful typos etc.).
The Big 6 aren't the only publishers of ebooks. They may have amalgamated all the well-known brand-names, but they don't necessarily have a stranglehold on authors. Due to the much lower cost of publishing ebooks, a number of independent ebook publishers exist now. Each one has its own website and ebookstore, and many of their titles are also available at Fictionwise in Multiformat (a range of non-DRM formats) for considerably less than you pay the Big 6. You can discover some new and entertaining authors from Indie (independent) epublishers. Indie publishers give you more book for your buck. ;)
Ebooks also make it easier for people to self-publish. Authors self-publish their own work: both backlist and new titles, sometimes in response to reader request. In particular, have a look at the websites of long-time professional authors J. K. Konrath and Michael Stackpole. Both have found creative ways to communicate directly with their readers, while charging much lower prices. The great part about self-published authors is that you are directly paying them. Do you know how much an author of your favourite paperback gets when you buy it? As low as 7% of the selling price. If they self-publish on Amazon they get 70%. Smashwords gives them at least that much. Sites like Author Direct also help you buy books straight from the author. Who wants to pay the middleman?
It's also much easier now for a new author to get started. Anyone can self-publish on Amazon or Smashwords. There are several sites dedicated to finding the best of the new ebooks. The Web Fiction Guide focusses on the best free online fiction, and on member reviews of new ebooks. Don't be discouraged by the sheer number of new self-published ebooks, or by the bad quality of some. There are some real gems out there.
Thanks to the sterling work done by Project Gutenberg (named after the inventor of the first printing press), you can also read an amazing range of completely free, non-DRM books which are in the public domain. This is particularly valuable, since the media industry is greedily pushing laws which will ensure nothing ever goes out of copyright again. Make the most of Project Gutenberg's volunteer effort: these books are available from its own site, from your local Project Gutenberg if there's one in your country (e.g. Project Gutenberg Australia, which has some books not available at the main PG site) and from a range of book sites online (like Feedbooks and ManyBooks). Read great stories for free!

Paying the Price

I'd have to say, geolims have changed my reading and purchasing patterns. I used to buy a great many ebooks from Fictionwise (over 2000 in three years), but now I can't buy the ebooks I want, I read more free books, more blogs and websites, and buy more directly from authors. I'm spending less money overall and enjoying my reading. I hope you do, too. :)
The "Agency Six" publication cartel hasn't just severely limited the books we're allowed to buy. It's also set a much higher price than ebook-production justifies. Before geolims, I rarely paid over $5 for a popular ebook, usually paying between $2 and $3. Now, most ebooks I can buy from Amazon cost between $7 and $10. Recently, I finally found a middle-of-the-series previously-missing title in iBooks (iTunes Store Australia), and had to pay $14 for it. This may or may not be a reasonable price for a hard-copy paper book, but it is not reasonable for an ebook.
Update: just before Christmas 2011, Hachette and HarperCollins more than doubled ebook prices specifically for Australians. This means a new-ebook price of over $20, while the new paperback is around $7. Penguin and Macmillan have since followed suit. There is now (2012) a Parliamentary committee investigating extortionate technology prices targeting Australian consumers and business. Have your say. :)
I'm a great P. G. Wodehouse fan, and at times like these I remember him commenting in his stories that publishers always excused the pittance they paid him by saying the "cost of pulp paper" had risen. When questioned on the price of ebooks (and the pittance they give authors), publishers moan about the cost of scanning, proofreading and "promoting" a book. Oddly enough, Project Gutenberg can do all that for free, and at a higher level of quality.
There's no excuse for charging more then $5 for an ebook, and self-published professional authors will tell you the same. All current ebooks would be presented to publishers in electronic form, if not already in ePub (heck, you can produce an ePub file in Pages (OSX) or Word), and I haven't noticed publishers spending any money on proofreading. In a way, you don't mind spending $2.99 on an ebook and finding typos, but you do mind when you spend $14 because the publisher claims that is the cost of quality.
Let's say you pay $9.99 for a new paperback. It had to be printed, stored, transported, stored again, promoted in the shop and eventually sold to you by a human who deserves a living wage. The price of paperbacks also includes "returns", the number of printed copies which won't be sold and will eventually be pulped. It includes the fact that you can keep the book anywhere (not in one particular program), read it in bright daylight, make copious notes and photocopies, give or lend it to friends and family, and eventually sell it to a second-hand bookshop, which will sell it on. A paper book costs a lot more to produce, and provides much greater and longer-lasting value than an ebook.
An ebook at $9.99 doesn't have any of those costs, extra features or ongoing value. I was a bit shocked to find this out, but according to the "sale" contract, we only rent an ebook. We don't actually own it. At most, we should be paying a quarter of the paperback price. Where is the flexibility, the ongoing value of an ebook?
For Australians, and particularly for disabled Australians like me who can't read paper books, access to ebooks is a big issue. Why are we barred from buying ebooks online? How come we are "allowed" to buy any hard-copy book from anywhere in the world, but we're not allowed to buy ebooks?
Australians are probably the biggest customers of U.K. online book retailer The Book Depository. Hard-copy books there, even ones published in Australia then shipped half-way around the world and back, are half the price of books sold locally. Yet ebooks on that site are still blocked to us.
Australians pay what Delimiter refers to as the "Australian technology tax". Everything here is much more expensive, even when it comes directly from overseas. Even when it's a data download like an ebook. So it's good to have Project Gutenberg, independent publishers and self-publishing authors, who evidently consider us part of the wider world.

The Good Guys

It's not only the independent publishers and the self-publishers who can provide good books without DRM and at a reasonable price. The real heroes of our story are Baen Books. Very early on in the use of ebooks, Baen decided that DRM was self-defeating and that providing free books was good for business. They have proven that thoroughly over the intervening years.
Baen publish great science fiction (including military and historical) and fantasy. Even if this isn't your thing, have a look at some of the titles in the Baen Free Library. You might be surprised. :)
Why don't the Big 6 publishers follow Baen's example? Beats me. It's worked for Baen, and all the ebook-limitations are doing is pushing legitimate customers to the darknet. Maybe in real life, the people wearing the black hats really don't know they're heading for Tombstone.

More good tools

Once you start cataloguing your ebooks and/or hard-copy books using Calibre, you might be looking for cover images, blurbs or other details. You might want to share your reading experience with other keen readers online, or swap books, or get newsletters on good stuff out there. Here are some excellent sites to help you!
Mobileread
has its own collection of free ebooks for download. It also has a specific forum for each type of e-reader. It's the place to sit down, read a book and chat with friends. Visit the Mobileread café.
Ebook Friendly
is a distraction-free site for browsing ebooks. It's particularly useful if you're sick of overloaded webpages, or if (like me) you have visual or concentration difficulties. It's a peaceful place to find ebooks.
Gnooks
"is a self-adapting community system based on the gnod engine. Discover new writers you will like, travel the map of literature and discuss your favorite books and authors."
LibraryThing
is a site where you can catalogue your whole library, if you want (including importing from Calibre export files). It's also "the world's biggest book club". There are lots of features, and you can easily connect with people who like to read the same books.
FictionDB
provides heaps of information about fiction books, including series, author background and bibliography and a good search across their categories. You can also catalogue your books there.
Password Incorrect
is an ebook site with lots of quick guides and a mobile focus.
Sigil
is a cross-platform editor for ePub ebooks without DRM. It's quite easy to use, and allows you to edit your own ePub books, or fix awful typos and formatting in existing ePubs. I also use it to change the background colour and font type/size in ebooks for which I don't have an accessible ereader app.
Readability
is a terrific tool for distraction-free reading. It provides two bookmarklets you drag into your bookmark bar in your browser: one to Read Later (saving the articles for later) and one to Read Now. This works with Instapaper on your mobile device. Readability also provides a subscription option so you can reward (micropay) the bloggers and websites you read online. Whatever you want to read, Readability will provide it when you want it, on the background you want, with the font size and spacing you want, and most importantly, without distractions. Sick of flashing and cluttered webpages? Use Readability. (Again, it's particularly valuable for people with visual and/or concentration difficulties.) Update: the Safari browser for desktop and mobile devices now includes a "Reader" button in the address bar. Click that for distraction-free reading, and click-and-hold on a link to add it to your Reading List.
Enjoy. :)

4 comments:

  1. I really want my ebooks in libraries. I wouldn't put a limit on how many lends.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I too get very annoyed by the stupid way e-books are handled. As an example I have the complete 'Flinx' series in paperback. Because I enjoy cruising, I thought it would be a good idea to have them in e-book format, even if this meant purchasing them again. I do reread the books I enjoy. I started buying some of them again and downloaded 6 in this format. I then suddenly hit "not available to Australian residents". So they are missing out on extra sales. I have noticed that some of the books are available as audiobooks, at a much dearer price! and wonder if this has an effect. I certainly wouldn't purchase audiobooks, unless I lost the ability to read.

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