Sunday, 21 February 2016

ISBNs, PayPal, and How Technology is Failing Artists


You may think there has never been a better time to be an artist: a writer, musician, poet, singer, actor, filmmaker or director.

There are so many ways to get your work out there, to a global market.

If you write, you can self-publish online through Kindle or Smashwords, at no initial cost to yourself. You can Print on Demand with Lulu or Lightning Source. You can put yourself out there for the world to see, and the money from sales comes straight to your bank account. You can market yourself further than ever before, using social media such as Twitter and Facebook to promote links to the sales site of your paperbacks, e-books and Audible audiobooks.

If you're a painter or you make handcrafts, there's Etsy, and you can showcase your music on Jamendo or SoundCloud, and sell your CDs through countless outlets like Tunecore. You can start to build a business for yourself. You can even build a website for free and add a payment button.

You might start to say technology is doing fabulous things for artists.

But only for certain artists.

Imagine you didn't have access to any of those tools, because you had no means of receiving payment for your work.

Pretty much the entire global online arts industry relies on the ability of people in different countries to make instant online payments to one another. Most often through PayPal.

But there are vast swathes of the world where PayPal doesn't exist. I live in one of those areas. Not only does PayPal not exist, but when you ask about it, there are some banks who aren't even sure what it is, even though it's been around for almost twenty years.

I've heard that it is possible to set up a PayPal account for making payments online, but not receiving money. So far it doesn't appear possible to link the PayPal account to your bank account and transfer money between them. So it remains 'virtual money' that isn't contributing to the country's economy.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) and how countries without them were kept from the international book market. In June 2015 I was happy to announce that Rwanda now has an ISBN distributor: Rwanda Library Services.

Hooray, I thought. Now we're on a more even footing.

But, of course, we're not.

Last week, I went to Rwanda Library Services to find out how expensive ISBNs are. I was worried they might be retailing at Western prices. In the US a single ISBN will set you back $125, and a batch of ten $250, whilst in the UK, until recently, you could only buy ISBNs in batches of ten. This has apparently changed, but it's still £75 for one, and £149  (around $215) for ten.

I was thinking: what good is an ISBN number when most publishers in Rwanda can't afford one?

So I was really surprised to learn that in Rwanda, not only can individuals buy ISBNs without having to be a publishing company, but they can buy them singly or in batches, at a cost of around FRW 2,000 (£1.80/$2.60) for one, or 10,000 (£9/$13) for ten.

After I got over being impressed, I started to feel angry.

Even in a world of horrific financial disparity, it seems rather apparent that authors in the West are being right royally ripped off. For little more than a digital image, we're paying almost 42x the price of an author or publisher in Rwanda. Five times, you could understand, perhaps even ten - overheads are high. But forty-two?

I'm in no way suggesting Rwandans should pay more. I'm suggesting we should all be paying less.

Then it started to dawn on me.

You know, it really doesn't matter if Rwanda has an ISBN distributor.

It means very little, when you can't sell anything online.

When you take all online payments out of the equation, both nationally and internationally, you're really only left with stocking the local supermarket. You could sell face-to-face, but without the sales equipment to monitor it, you can't really track purchase information, which is what ISBNs were designed to do.

When there was no ISBN number, I thought it was unfair because books from countries without ISBN agents wouldn't make it onto international book distribution lists. Then I realised, even if they do, it still requires an external go-between with access to online payments to be able to put anything on Amazon, Smashwords, in any bookshop at all (because even once they've collected the money from sales, they still need to get it back to the publisher in Rwanda - and have you seen the cost of banking fees?).

It's a miserable situation.

And it's not just miserable for the artists around the world who have no hope of selling their work to an international audience, it's also miserable for a global arts community that is deprived access to fully international art. Stuck in a vacuum of economically developed output, deprived of further enrichment.

Although, I will admit that online payment systems aren't the only problem.

It's undeniably the problem, and possibly the only obstacle, to sales of online media - anything digital (e-books, music, audiobooks, films), but when it comes to physical products: paperbacks, hardbacks, paintings, handycrafts, you also have to consider the postal restrictions. Things like reliability of postal delivery, access to appropriate packaging, and the cost using a parcel courier such as DHL adds to the costs of a sale. But all of those issues could be overcome if you could just make a sale in the first place.

Even with digital media, you face difficulties with the cost and speed of internet. Here in Rwanda we already have super fast 4G, which is perfectly good for streaming and uploading media. Although it's out of the price range of most people, especially struggling artists. If you live in the capital city there's a free 4G hub you can pop in and use. But although most weekly and monthly internet packages say 'unlimited,' they are, in truth, extremely limited, usually to 1GB per day. So there's only a small amount of online business you could affordable do, and you have no hope if you're uploading videos.

I find the situation deeply disturbing. Especially in economic terms. A large part of Rwanda's income lies in tourism. It is the country's largest foreign exchange earner. Think what a booming arts industry could add to that if you only had access to a means of payment.

This is one example of how I suspect many artists are being disadvantaged globally.

I can't help thinking that it's a cause all artists should take up. Rather than making it an uphill struggle that artists in non-PayPal countries have to fight for themselves, what if artists on the winning side of e-commerce started to kick up a fuss, petitioning PayPal and other providers to allow them to buy from countries not currently on the list?

If you're an artist disadvantaged by this weighted payment system, or an art lover unable to purchase what you want, please drop a comment and talk about it.

[See also: article explaining exactly what an ISBN is.]

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