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The Past | The Previous

After the Snapshot, Part One.

About half way through the insanity of last week, I realised what was fucking over the small press in Australia, and that is that there is no centralised distribution point.

In the real world, it's difficult to find some of the small press stuff. It's not impossible, but it's not just going to be there, either, for you to impulse purchase. For example: I've never seen a copy of Borderlands in a Sydney store. Not once. Now, might be that a few copies arrive, then disappear in a day, but I've only ever seen actual hard copy prints of the magazine in Canberra, last year, in the booksellers room at Conflux. And this isn't limited to just Borderlands. I've never seen a copy of Potato Monkey in my life (though it has been described to me), likewise for the Visions anthology that came out of Brisbane a few years back, and the last issue of Aurealis is so elusive that I couldn't actually find the cover online with a logo on it, much less a functioning website.

That's a problem, especially since I'm not talking about it from the point of view of a person here who doesn't go into specialty bookstores, and who doesn't exist in this little world. I do. Sure, I'm not the top of the range prowler of these stores, but I know them, and I figure if I can't find this stuff in Galaxy and Infinitas, then there's a problem.

But the bigger problem exists online. There is no central place to buy Australian Small Press online and that, I figure, is a larger problem than in the real world.

It might be that there is an online store I can buy from, but it doesn't appear in search engines and hides itself well, if that's the case. In addition, if you're a small press, it's not enough to have a website from which you can buy this shit. It just isn't. Firstly, from a business point of view, it brings in hardly any browsing traffic, and what it does bring in is primarily authors searchf or guidelines. The result of this is that most of your purchasing audience is made up of people who already know know you from the closed in community that exists. That means you can't expand in any great numbers and your audience will, thus, either grow or shrink in tiny numbers that are drawn from your existing audience. That translates into isolation, which is ridiculous for so many reasons, but lets just focus on reaching a new audience.

My example for this entry, I suppose, is Borderlands, so I'll continue using that. To buy Borderlands you go to the site and you toss up ten bucks. Fine, but that only brings in the audience who know about the site, and who read the limited reviews that exist on the web. You won't find the magazine in a casual search of the web, because the name has a generic quality to it that results in an online journal based out of Adelaide, a science centre, an encyclopedia, and a used book store, just to note to first four in google. But that's not so much of a problem, really, just pointing out how difficult it will be to stumble across it. Still, with its covers alone, Borderlands could be appealing to a different browsing audience, such as the one that purchases Voiceworks. (If you think it's shallow of me to suggest people would buy a magazine based off a cover, you're not really thinking it through. When people purchase something they have no history with, they're motivated by the physical pleasure of the object, a quick scan of its contents, and reviews. When they're right in front of something unknown, covers are important. They tip the hesitant one way or the other.)

Voiceworks, if you haven't heard of it, is a quarterly youth orientated mag out of Melbourne that publishes authors under the age of twenty five. It's currently sitting at issue sixty, which is about supporting independent bookshops, and if you sell a story to it, you'll get a hundred bucks (maybe more now). The other thing worth noting is that it gets funding from the Victorian Government under supporting youth activities or some shit, and when I last saw it, it had a couple of pages in the back dedicated to new markets for new authors, from print mags to little zines and anthologies. Now, Voiceworks brings in a young audience, and it's not an audience I'm that far removed from. If I was going to impulse purchase a magazine off the back of Voiceworks, it would be Borderlands, for whatever that means.

Binding Voiceworks and Borderlands together like this isn't incidental. I'm using it as an example to show you how a localised purchasing point of small press mags could potentially expand your audience. For a magazine like Borderlands that means there is a potential to reach people who are not part of the regular crowd of science fiction conventions, which, lets face it, has a tendency to be a shit load of authors and publishers and editors and the people who want to be one of those three.

But, moving outside the potential new audience you could reach (and that you might not), what the small press needs is a public hub from where you can buy books, just for the audience that does exist. The truth is, if it's difficult to buy something, people won't buy it. Project Pulp is great if you want to buy small press out of the States, but the idea that I can only buy a copy of something made in Australia from America is not what you would call a good choice, so there really does need to be something in Australia, and it has to have a larger visibility than Slow Glass Books, and avoid the vanity inspired bookstore that Donna Hanson runs at Australian Speculative Fiction. (If Donna is reading this: the website is ugly, but the biggest problem is the promotion of yourself through it. It gives the impression that when I purchase through there I am not purchasing through a store, but I am purchasing through Donna Hanson, and that everything bought there goes to help Donna Hanson and Donna Hanson's projects, the most public of these being the Australian Speculative Fiction Project and the Canberra Speculative Fiction Group. That puts me off. There's no nice way to say it. It puts me off.) I'm not sure if you can actually purchase things from the Queensland run Visions group zine or whatever, but it's affiliation to the Brisbane writing circle would work much the same way as Donna Hanson's site does. Any small press website needs to be free from the group affiliations in Australia, and run as a straight business to work.

But however I look at it, there needs to be a central hub to buy this stuff. A public entity that people can find easily. The small press is cutting itself off at the knees by not having one... and if one exists, it needs better advertising. I just spent a week crawling through the web for images and sites you can buy this shit from, and I couldn't find one.

Comments

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strangedave
Apr. 20th, 2005 02:54 am (UTC)
You are completely correct, I have been very aware of this problem for a while now. I think the rest of the small press feel it too.

We need proper distribution for Australian independent bookstores, we need something a major can at least consider and not feel icky (a major might get an issue or two of a bunch of stuff if it can all be one account), we need a single distributor who can talk to the big US independent stores.

(though *I* have seen Borderlands in Galaxy, our distribution isn't quite that bad - though I think Galaxy might be the only place with it currently in Sydney, though)

So, why hasn't anyone done anything about it? Its a big dull project that is hard to do write, and to make it work well it really needs someone who is good at *selling* books, rather than just writing or editing them, to be involved - all for a project that will bring in basically minimal income and be an ongoing pain to run. Hopefully it will happen soon - distribution is certainly the major issue I want Borderlands to deal with this year.
benpeek
Apr. 20th, 2005 03:21 am (UTC)
i've been aware of the problem, like everyone else, but i didn't realise how big a problem it had become. how much it needs to be addressed in the next year. i mean, really, by the time 2006 rolls round, there should be a solid hub in place, or otherwise we're going to kick along like this for years to come.

the most shocking thing for me was the complete inability to find a place to buy the latest aurealis. just amazing. it's technically suppose to be the scene's longest running, best being mag, but the huge last issue can't be found anywhere.

but, you're right about the job being a thankless one.

if you follow jon hodges' blog for project pulp (blindsidepubs) you'll see just how thankless it is, and how you hard you got to work to live from month to month, just getting buy.
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i_ate_my_crusts
Apr. 20th, 2005 03:26 am (UTC)
I agree, but I'm not sure it's a viable business. The Australian market is small, the Australian market for SF is smaller. The market for small press SF ... smaller again. Lots of pain...

One of the things I've thought about, especially after hearing some of the US small press and magazine folk speak at Worldcon, is that getting your mag/antho/whatever published in the US is an option to consider.

There, the market is large enough that there are distribution chains that specialise in small presses (2-3 books per year, print runs up to 2000, etc), and are affiliated with the big guys: Ingrams and the like. Small Beer press have posted some interesting stuff about how they've handled distribution, and there are bound to be others who are willing to share experience.

There's been discussion about having a single "brand" for all the small presses to umbrella under, too, to make distribution easier in the Australian market. Harder to organise, and makes it harder to distinguish your product.

One of the things we've been exploring at ASIM is some of the larger institutional book distributors, too.
benpeek
Apr. 20th, 2005 03:32 am (UTC)
putting everything under one brand simply won't work. seperate entities won't want to come together, and why should they?

but whether it's a viable business or not, it's what needs to be done if you want the scene to grow. it's a simple as that. in australia, i suspect the answer is not to be a 'spec fic small press' seller, but a small press seller, full stop. no genre lines.
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benpeek
Apr. 20th, 2005 04:26 am (UTC)
very much so.

btw, hi, and welcome to the blogness. *waves*
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ashamel
Apr. 20th, 2005 04:11 am (UTC)
Good analysis.

The comics scene has the same basic problem, and to solve it Aaron Burgess put put together a store at http://www.comicsaustralia.com/ which stocked a whole lot of stuff (along with his regular news from the scene).

I believe it did quite well (though I never asked Aaron about numbers), but now it's gone. I'd suggest that sort of thing is too difficult to maintain by one guy, especially if they want to do their own writing or editing. And if they don't, why would they be sufficiently interested?

I guess you'd need someone like me, who was a supporter of Aus comics yet never actually had the urge to make them -- but without the writing in other areas, and with a lot more expertise in finance and salesmanship.
benpeek
Apr. 20th, 2005 04:28 am (UTC)
yeah, that's the kind of person needed. or someone with an existing bookshop or business, who could run it on the side, without taking to much of a loss or something.

at any rate, it's not something i can do.
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jonathanstrahan
Apr. 20th, 2005 05:09 am (UTC)
This may have been suggested elsewhere, and it may be a dumb idea, but here goes. Print-on-demand publishing gets a justifiably bad rap, but it may be able to help with this kind of situation.

Consider, the problems faced by small press are:

1) cost
2) distribution
3) access to retail outlets
4) price to both retail outlets and customers.

A possible solution to this would be to get all of Australia's small press 'zines to agree to a common format that could be produced by a POD publisher. The titles, covers etc would be non-standard, but the actual issues would be physically the same dimensions, cost the same to produce etc. Then what you do is offer retailers the chance to take a package of x copies of x titles. It would reduce their risk, while getting more titles out there. Might work.
benpeek
Apr. 20th, 2005 05:33 am (UTC)
sounds quite reasonable to me. haven't heard it mentioned publically, before, though.

the only problem i reckon with that is getting everyone to work together, or to agree to a standard. i've seen conversations like that fall down pretty quickly.
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ex_benpayne119
Apr. 20th, 2005 06:22 am (UTC)
I think maybe you're writing Donna's sight off too quickly, but, if that doesn't pan out... do you need more than a website that lists all the different titles and has credit card facilities. Then whoever runs the site can forward the money to the relevant magazine, and they can let the magazine know. Theoretically, they wouldn't even have to hold any physical stock...

The key to making it work would be making sure it contained *everything*...
or close to...

As for Potato Monkey... are you sure it *does* exist? or is it just a chinese whisper?


ex_benpayne119
Apr. 20th, 2005 06:26 am (UTC)
that should read "donna's site"... i don't think you were writing her sight off... although maybe you were...

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(Anonymous)
Apr. 20th, 2005 08:55 am (UTC)
As Strangedave points out, Galaxy Bookshop (http://www.galaxybooks.com.au) does carry Borderlands and Andromeda Inflight Space Magazine. I think but am not sure (hey I had consecutive linguistic assignments to kill in the past 2 days) that we also have Orb. As well, we carry most of the anthologies that feature one B. Peek

The problem I see from the bookseller's perspective is they don't come out on a fixed schedule. Whilst it may be monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly, we the retailer and the consumer needs to know when to look out for the next issue of whatever magazine it is. Granted, I understand it's hard for most small publishers to know what's happening 2 issues time when it's hard enough to put out the current issue.

Production wise, most people know and are aware of the difficulties that small press publishers face. Whilst the quality of the design may be poor, as long as it is known that the magazine consistently contains strong stories then that's what people want.

In my opinion Agog is doing the best job with it's magazine and the anthologies it puts out. Whilst it does not have an advertising campaign with it, it does have word of mouth on it's side and that's always the strongest thing you can get. What you've done Ben is bound to immensly help out all the feature presses and authors and for that I congratulate you for.

John
benpeek
Apr. 20th, 2005 12:30 pm (UTC)
yeah, i've seen andromeda in galaxy. and to be fair, galaxy has quite a reasonable in store collection of small press stuff--but to buy it from the website is a different matter. (which i have to say was what most of this post was about. having an online hub from which to operate from.)

of course, you do raise a good point about being consistant. i think that's what has left aurealis with a smaller readership these days. they used to be four times a year, then went to two, then went to one, and no one had much of an idea when that would come out.

anyhow, i hope people do pick up stuff of the listing, but who knows? i just figure people need to talk about it, bash ideas back and forth, and see what happens. that's what is necessary.
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oldcharliebrown
Apr. 20th, 2005 12:53 pm (UTC)
The website itself is relatively easy to run, just like the Prime website, which is actually and completely database-driven (no hard-coding required, generally)). I simply fill in the fields and it generates the webpages automatically.

I don't think it's the website that is the problem, as much as finding someone willing to do the work, in terms of shipping books and magazines out.
oldcharliebrown
Apr. 20th, 2005 12:56 pm (UTC)
Further Comment . . .
Hell, even something like the Prime website can be adapted to look like a store, these days. The database itself is relatively simple to adjust, I suppose, if you know what you're doing, and it is a variant of what is driving Project Pulp's system, currently, I believe. But manpower, that's the problem!
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jack_ryder
Apr. 20th, 2005 10:37 pm (UTC)
New Paradigm
While I think POD can work, I think we need a new paradigm (other than a "traditional" shop-based approach) to deal with the marketing and distribution of small press online.

Online is an entirely new environment, and I don't think we have a stable e-commerce model yet.

For example, it should be possible for Oz small publishers to transmit proofs to printers in the UK and US to service their markets (and vice-versa).

I see web and e-publishing mainly as marketing tools, rather than a way of distributing a finished product. Cory Doctorow has released e-versions of his novels and short stories, and claims it has increased sales of the physical works. But then, people already know who he is.

One of the marketing and promotional tools that's literally under our very noses is the livejournal/blogging scene. Certainly comic book creators have no problem with using their sites to sell their own products, but then, they tend to do it as a part of an affiliate scheme with Amazon.

People should be able to pre-order online. Comics publishers (esp. through Diamond) and some small game companies (like GMT and its P500 program) utilise this. If people like Agog and Borderlands and Fables & Reflections, they should be able to pre-order the next one so they don't miss out.

Anyway, just a few ideas to throw out there.

And, Ben, I think you're doing a fantastic job of sparking valuable and important discussions amongst the local writing community. Keep up the good work (and may you get paid for it some way.)
jack_ryder
Apr. 20th, 2005 11:03 pm (UTC)
Re: New Paradigm
One more thing:

How hard is an E-Bay shop to set up and link to?
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