Multifunction machines

Remember the fax? Remember how amazing it was that you could expect an answer from someone anywhere in the country (let alone overseas) within 24 hours? Wow.

Who owns a fax now? Talk about instant obsolescence. I haven’t sent a fax in years, and if I ever have, it’s been from my desktop PC or from a machine that is really a printer and photocopier.

I have an ereader. An early model Kobo. It doesn’t do anything fancy. You just read stuff.

When I say “early model”, I mean it’s about three years old. Maybe four. And it’s already gone the way of the fax machine, because almost immediately after it came out, the new ranges of ereaders and the tablets appeared, on which you can not only read stuff but also highlight, annotate, flick pages, interact, play music, and make toast. Well, maybe not the toast, but that’s not far off.

I should get a new ereader or a tablet, I know. But I waver between early adopter and conservative purchaser. I like that my Kobo isn’t backlit, because after a day of staring at a screen it gives my eyes a rest. I also have a little netbook instead of a tablet, because what I mostly do is type, and there are things about an iPad that don’t suit me and my needs. Yet.

It’s clear to me that the tablets, ereaders and netbooks are in a transitional phase, and as a poverty-stricken writer (well, not quite, but I’m only on a part-time wage) I don’t upgrade my hardware every year or so just to keep up.

So I’m happy to wait for the next round of devices that bring those elements together properly. It’s not far away. Just this week, Kobo has announced a partnership with Google Play to provide access to apps and games though its Vox tablet. And Microsoft is expected to announce a deal with Barnes and Noble melding the Xbox and an ereader/tablet. There are already millions of book and literacy apps for iPad/iPhone and Android that explore new territories in interactive reading and gaming.

But apart from the reading devices and platforms, one of the issues that I think is huge for publishing and for writers is the issue of territorial rights in the  digital era. The sector has been (rightly) banging on endlessly about royalty percentages and the impact of digital on what is often more about printing – not publishing as such. I’ve long thought that the real impact on publishing models would be on rights.

Traditionally, a publisher buys the rights to a book for specific regions such as the US, UK, or Australia/New Zealand – or world rights, with translations into languages other than the original being dealt with separately. But digital publishing makes a nonsense of territories. Who cares what rights you’ve bought or sold, when readers can order your ebook from any retailer they prefer, based anywhere in the world?

And now one of my publishers, HarperCollins, has announced a new venture called HarperCollins360, which aims to “make each HC title available in all English-language markets, when the necessary rights are held”.

I don’t know yet what the business model is, what it means for existing contracts. I don’t know how much will be based on POD (print on demand) and ebooks, which could threaten some authors’ deals for territories other than their own. Every transnational publisher must be thinking along similar lines, and that may hold implications for smaller local publishers which work the international rights deals. So there will be many issues to thrash out in the industry, and I’m sure the Australian Society of Authors, agents, SPUNC and others will be right in there.

But I do know I’ve been held back in the past from being distributed in some key markets because of territorial rights – the Swashbuckler books, for example, couldn’t be sold in Malta, where they are set, because Malta is technically part of the UK territory, and HarperCollins UK didn’t have rights to publish them. I’ve always wondered whether India and the many Asian countries with large English-speaking populations are under-developed markets for Australian writers. Everyone gets so focused on selling into the US and UK – but what about Canada and South Africa? I can see great possibilities in a more global approach. It makes sense, and also helps break down all those subconscious post-colonial obsessions with approval from the mother country or the Americans. Haven’t made it unless you’ve got a review in the New York Times? How about the Times of India?

So, as with ereaders, I’ll be watching and reading and talking and keeping up to date – and possibly waiting for the dust to settle. Will I be an early adopter or a conservative? We’ll see.

What do you think?

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