Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Costly words

Nearly every American expat I’ve known has commented on how expensive books are in New Zealand. Ironically, Kiwis are known to be great readers: A 1998-99 study found that the average Kiwi spends about three-quarters of an hour a day reading as a primary activity, something that increases with age and education levels. Take out the people who never read, and the amount of time the average reader spends reading is much higher. I know from my personal experience that a huge percentage of people read on public transport, on lunch breaks, etc.

So all that should mean a large number of potential readers, right? Not when the country has only 4.3 million people. Even if our book market was combined with Australia, we’re still only a fraction of the potential market of the US. Books are more expensive to produce for a small market—which also explains why so much of our fiction is foreign.

There are two main bookstore chains in New Zealand: The largest is Whitcoulls, part of the Australian company AR Whitcoulls that also owns Borders in Australia and New Zealand. There’s also Paper Plus, which is partly a stationery store, and most locations are fairly small. The Warehouse also sells books, but many of them are remainders and the rest are mainly mass-market. So, there aren’t a lot of retail options.

Awhile back, I used online retailer fishpond.co.nz to buy a New Zealand book, and was satisfied with their service. They kept me informed of the order’s progress and the order arrived quickly—but the book was almost obscenely expensive. Recently, I also tried Whitcoulls online sales because the book was much cheaper than on Fishpond. However, Whitcoulls had crappy communication and the order, promised for delivery in 7-10 “business days”, actually arrived on the 14th business day. You get what you pay for, I guess.

I know many Kiwis who place orders through Amazon in the US, and have been very happy with the service, even commenting about how quickly the order arrived. But there are costs in converting the order to NZ dollars, plus international shipping, so it makes sense to order more, less often.

Amazon’s Kindle is not available in New Zealand. Last October, New Zealand PC World magazine reported that Vodafone NZ was in “deep discussions” with Amazon about bringing the Kindle here. Nothing’s come of that.

However, there’s a free app for the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch that allows users to read Kindle editions without a Kindle. I’ve downloaded it and a sample to try, and I think I could handle it. The screen may seem a bit small for reading, but it’s only slightly smaller than a mass-market paperback. Also, the resolution is good and it’s colour.

Amazon also offers similar free software for the PC (a Mac version is coming).

If one has the PC and iPhone/iPod Touch versions and/or a Kindle, it’s possible to move the books around and synch notations and so on. If it really works, that sounds useful—and kinda cool. The advantage of the Kindle approach is that the books are much cheaper than the paper versions. The disadvantage is that they’re e-books (a subject in itself).

There are many free public domain e-books/e-texts available, too, from places like Project Gutenberg.

What all of this means is that even though printed books are often expensive in New Zealand, it seems to me that until a really good e-book system is developed, the printed version is still the best option.


Nik said...

I've found too that a bit of hunting on the used book market does wonders -- there are several great used book fairs in Auckland annually and quite a few nice used book stores.

I just can't get into the notion of the Kindle -- I love the tangible nature of books, the distinct smell a used book has... guess I'm a luddite.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

Yep, I'm with you. I know some people love the idea of their whole library on a machine, but I prefer my library overflowing shelves, making me curse it every time we have to move. And the tactile nature of books can't be duplicated by electronics.

Used bookstores are a good option, but we don't have any near us, sadly. But since I have such a huge pile of unread new books, that probably doesn't matter at the moment.

d said...

We feel the same way about books - could never go to an "e" version. Instead, we make good use of the library (and library sales), and Borders email coupons.

I've tried Fishpond, but found that not only are they an expensive option, but often, they purchase from Amazon. They promised to deliver a book within 10 days, but instead sent me email after email advising of delays. After 6 weeks, I gave up and ordered from Amazon instead.

And the shipping/exchange rate can be expensive from Amazon, but some of the books can't be found here.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

I think that newspapers are definitely doomed in their present form, magazines, too, probably, but they, like books, will fade away only when there's a good and CHEAP device for reading them. I can see the use for such devices, and I could even embrace them—but for books? Meh. Maybe one day.

Actually, I've downloaded free e-texts, but I've never read one—apart from the one I formatted into a hand-made book.

Fishpond was good for that one book I ordered, Whitcoulls was not. I haven't yet used Amazon (which is ironic, because I'm an Amazon Associate), but you mentioned another good reason for Kiwis using it. I know I'll eventually try it.

Emily said...

Hi! Sorry about commenting on an old post, but have you heard of mightyape.co.nz? I don't know if they have the cheapest deals, but I've been impressed with their service so far.