Thursday, December 01, 2005

Harry Potter and the Digital Divide

There is one great mystery about books in general (and audio books in particular) that I truly don't understand.

If I want to read any Harry Potter novel, I need walk only a mile to the nearest bookstore and buy a book. But I get the British copy. If I want to buy the Audio CD, I have to buy the one narrated by Stephen Fry, and it costs a fortune. If I ask for the version by Jim Dale, the answer is a simple but frustrating "NO".

If I want the audio download, I can't buy it without flying to the USA or the UK and purchasing a special iPod with it already loaded. Neither the iPod nor the audio download are available in South Africa, where I live. So I have a simple choice: buy the Jim Dale one on Audio CD from Amazon.com in the hope that they will ship it to me, or download it from a file sharing network for free, albeit illegally.

Then there is the mystery about why some books have different titles in the USA: Why is it "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" in the US, but "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" in the UK? Who are they trying to confuse?

It seems to me that the great Atlantic divide created by book publishers was driven by the steam age, and may have made sense when it was simply uneconomic to ship tons of books across the Atlantic. But what really mystifies me is why this divide persists in electronic publishing. The internet knows very few geographic borders, and certainly it costs no more to send a digital download to any specific geographic location around the globe, yet audio books are bound by the same marketing nonsense that was invented a century or more ago.

Why can authors sell their works to only certain parts of the world? Does the current distribution channel for books and CDs think that its bureaucratic bloat is ever going to compete on a cost-effective basis with independent publishers who can be more profitable by reaching a global audience?

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