Don’t tell me you paid for that

So I’ve got my iPad. This remarkable piece of equipment which I’m not really terribly sure what to do with – I mean it is unquestionably beautiful, mysteriously functional, with an exquisite resizing screen and thousands of apps – but in all honesty I can’t see what I might do on the thing that I don’t already do on my laptop.

Except, of course, read books.

The problem being that in Australia you can’t get any. You log into iBooks and there are no books for sale. Apple is yet to sign an agreement with Australian publishers which will allow you to access them. Apparently no framework has been developed which protects the rights of authors and publishers. It’s not just Australia; Apple is concentrating on the American market and has yet to finalise agreements with the EU or the UK; we’re a long way down the list. Well, that’s the story according to the Australian Publishers’ Association.

You can buy electronic format books online, of course. There are several different stores, Kindle, Stanza, Borders, for example, all of which work on the iPad. But not iBooks, the Apple Application for which most people buy the thing in the first place.

The strange thing about this is how – I’m struggling for a word here, trying to avoid the one that springs to mind, but no, here it is – how unbelievably stupid this is.

We’ve already seen the problems the music industry had with this issue. We’ve watched the issue re-hashed for television and film (the purblind refusal by our television stations to acknowledge that we have instant access to American television shows here through bittorrent. The belief we should politely wait until our betters give them to us, sometimes years later). We’ve had at least ten years warning that we needed to sort this out. I myself sat in workshops and panel sessions at booksellers’ conferences seven years ago discussing the imminent arrival of the e-book. Now it’s here and we still don’t have the mechanism to provide instant cheap copies of electronic books to readers who want to buy them. Except we know exactly what happens when that capacity is absent, don’t we?

Customers will not wait around for corporations to get their act together. They will access the content for themselves in other ways, most often for free, and with no concession to international borders. And once they have started thinking that they can get content for free it will be hard to get them back to the idea of paying.

A good friend also has an iPad. He showed me his library, all stacked neatly on iBooks’s virtual shelves. It already contains literally thousands of books, only some of which he paid for.

‘I would gladly have bought them,’ he said. ‘I love books.’ (He does, he has shelves and shelves of them at home, I’ve seen them.) ‘But if I’m not allowed to buy them I’m going to get them elsewhere.’

He’s not alone. Apple hopes to sell 100 million devices across the world by Christmas. Some of those customers might even want to read my books. Some of them might even be prepared to pay for them. Why can’t they get them?

I don’t mean to be facetious. I can see that there are huge problems associated with this. Not just for writers, booksellers and publishers – there’s an interesting take on the debate as it relates to newspapers and paywalls here from David Mitchell at the Guardian (which winningly begins by opining that Rupert Murdoch is ‘a monstrous arsehole who wants to ruin everything for everyone’ and goes on to consider the pros of what he’s attempting with the Times) – but the longer those who hold the rights to content delay delivering it at a reasonable price, the more customers we’re all going to lose. The real and present problem is that the technology is already freely available. If we don’t use it, others will, and they won’t pay us for it.

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